- May 3, 2018
When Colin Bundschu first started at Rockstar Games in November of 2014, he says his new colleagues offered a warning: Don’t cross Jeronimo Barrera. Barrera, the vice president of product development, would often fly in from New York to visit Rockstar’s offices in Carlsbad, California, where they were all working on the Western game Red Dead Redemption 2. Bundschu was told to be cautious when Barrera came to town. Mind how you talk to him, multiple coworkers and managers said. Barrera, one of Rockstar’s top executives, had a reputation for screaming at people, and there were rumors that he had shouted at staff who’d rubbed him the wrong way, telling them they were fired.
So Bundschu wasn’t sure what to do when, at a work gathering shortly after he started, he says Barrera groped him, asked Bundschu to sit on his lap, and rubbed his inner thigh area. These allegations about events from 2014 are being made public for the first time today, but in the days after the incident allegedly happened, Bundschu filed a report to Rockstar’s human resources department and told at least four other people. After an HR investigation that involved speaking to Barrera and others present, and following a dispute over whether Barrera had denied the accusation or told Rockstar he didn’t remember, the company ultimately found Bundschu’s account to be unsubstantiated. A few months after that, Bundschu left Rockstar, and eventually, he exited the video game industry. (He wrote about the incident in a book he self-published on Amazon in 2017, but he used pseudonyms for Barrera and everyone else involved.)
Over the past two months, Kotaku has conducted several interviews with Bundschu and reviewed e-mails between Bundschu and Rockstar HR as well as a seven-page document that Bundschu says he wrote at the time, on the advice of his lawyer uncle, detailing the events of that night and the days afterward. Bundschu said he is going on the record now, four and a half years after the event, because he hopes that going public will help prevent incidents like this from happening again. He also said one of the reasons he was talking about this story was because we’d reached out. (We had first contacted Bundschu in January, after hearing wind of the allegations.)
Barrera, who departed from Rockstar in 2018 after two decades with the company, denies these allegations. When reached by Kotaku last week, he first called to say that the incident had not happened, then sent over a statement through his attorney, Robert Tracy: “Mr. Barrera categorically denies all of the allegations of misconduct you raised with him.” Tracy and Barrera would not elaborate further or comment on the specifics in this story. “Mr. Barrera stands by his statement,” Tracy said in an email when given more details.
When contacted for comment, Rockstar and parent company Take-Two Interactive provided a statement, attributed to Take-Two spokesperson Alan Lewis: “We take these matters extremely seriously. While we do not comment publicly on the specifics of individual investigations, in any case where an employee raises workplace concerns, we investigate them and take appropriate action.” Rockstar would not comment further.
Late last year, a Kotaku investigation detailed Rockstar’s extensive overtime hours and the “culture of fear” experienced by current and former employees, all of whom were granted anonymity so they could speak freely without fear of repercussion. But crunch wasn’t the only thing that impacted morale at Rockstar. While reporting on that story, I heard anecdotes about a frat house-like environment within Rockstar, particularly at the company’s California office. (Rockstar consists of over two thousand employees working in eight offices around the world.) Current and former employees shared stories of Rockstar work trips to strip clubs. Several people described what they called a “cult”-like mentality, where employees were expected to attend social events regularly, and those who left Rockstar were shunned (a mentality encapsulated by Rockstar’s policy, confirmed by the company to Kotaku last year, that anyone who leaves before a game is shipped will not be in that game’s credits). One name kept emerging as one of the driving forces behind this culture: Jeronimo Barrera, the vice president of product development and one of the most powerful people at Rockstar.
Although Barrera is no longer at Rockstar, he served as one of the top decision-makers (just under co-founders Sam and Dan Houser) at a company that brings in billions of dollars in revenue thanks to mega-franchises like Grand Theft Auto. Barrera helped lead development on some of the most critically acclaimed games out there, like Bully and Red Dead Redemption. He often did interviews with journalists to market Rockstar games, and he was a top manager at the company.
On Friday, November 21, 2014, a large group of Rockstar employees held a work event at a restaurant in Encinitas, California, several miles away from Rockstar San Diego, as the Carlsbad office is called. They were celebrating some of the designers that Rockstar had hired recently, including Colin Bundschu, who had moved from Seattle that month, leaving behind his friends and long-term girlfriend to take what he saw as a dream job.
“This was a huge move for me, and I was really committed,” Bundschu said. “It was my in into becoming a game designer, which had been my dream and my goal. I was very dedicated to making sure I didn’t fuck it up.”
Earlier that day, Bundschu had met Jeronimo Barrera, who lived in New York but often flew out to Rockstar’s California offices, where Bundschu had just started his new job as a multiplayer designer on Red Dead 2. Bundschu says his manager had warned him to watch what he said, that Barrera could be temperamental—a reputation that Bundschu says he witnessed in his very first conversation with Barrera.
“He introduced himself to me by asking, ‘Have you played through the current build of the game?’” Bundschu said. “I said, ‘Yeah, I actually played through the whole thing earlier.’ He said, ‘That’s good, because I’ve had to fire people for not doing that before.’”
When asked about Barrera, 13 other current and former Rockstar employees shared first- or second-hand stories about his behavior, with most using the words “abrasive” or “volatile” to describe him. All requested anonymity because they said they were scared to harm their careers or scared of retaliation from Rockstar. Some said they had seen Barrera reprimand co-workers for staying friends with ex-Rockstar colleagues on Facebook; others shared anecdotes of drunken antics and pranks gone awry. One common story, not verified firsthand by Kotaku but shared secondhand by three people, was that at a party one evening Barrera had drunkenly tackled a designer into a bush. (The designer did not respond to a request for comment.)
One former Rockstar employee who said they were friendly with Barrera still described the executive’s behavior as “outrageous.” Two people shared a story about a group of new QA testers who had been invited out to a dinner by Barrera but did not attend because they were working overtime. When they did go out to the bar, later in the night, Barrera berated them for not coming earlier and told them they were fired, according to the two people, who both said they’d watched it happen. Later, said the two people, someone else from Rockstar called to tell the testers that they were not, in fact, fired, and that they should come back to work.
Barrera, who played a pivotal role in many of Rockstar’s games, from Red Dead Redemption to Bully, was one of the highest-ranking managers at the company. Many of the developers who spoke to Kotaku said he was feared because he had the authority to reprimand or fire anyone, an authority that those developers said he would remind employees of often. One person from Rockstar San Diego’s office said they were “nervous to be around him.” Another said they would warn new employees to be careful what they said near him. A third said they’d seen Barrera screaming at designers under him, and a fourth said the executive treated Rockstar employees “more like frat brothers than co-workers.” A fifth developer, in Rockstar’s New York headquarters, said they made a point to ensure that Barrera never got to know them, on the warning of some of their colleagues. “He had a reputation for firing people and being pretty abrasive,” that person said.
Some people who worked with Barrera said he could be charismatic and gregarious, helping solve production issues at the San Diego office; when people complained that they had to pay for sodas, for example, Barrera declared that they’d now be free. But if you caught him at the wrong time, Rockstar staff said, you never knew what might happen. “He was a loose cannon,” said a sixth person who worked with Barrera. “You didn’t want to get on his bad side. He could make or break you at the company.” A seventh former Rockstar employee, who worked in the San Diego office, said they were scared to be in the same room as Barrera. “The dude was petty and had personal vendettas against people all the time, made work super uncomfortable,” they said. “Say or do one ‘wrong’ thing in front of him and you could get fired on the spot… Super inappropriate around people in general, discussing and encouraging things like sex and drugs a lot.”
Barrera was in California when Rockstar held its meet-and-greet for new developers on that Friday in November of 2014. During dinner, Bundschu says he was sitting next to two other new designers when Barrera came over and started talking to him. According to Bundschu’s account, Barrera was friendly, but after a while, Bundschu started to feel like he was getting most of the top executive’s attention. “He’s only talking to me, and the other two guys cannot get in a word edgewise,” Bundschu said.
Barrera eventually exited the restaurant, and soon afterwards, by Bundschu’s recollection, two Rockstar lead designers told Bundschu and the other two new hires to come with them down the street to a nearby nightclub. As they were walking, Bundschu says, the leads warned the new hires about Barrera’s behavior, telling them to be cautious not to upset him. “They said, ‘Look, we don’t want the three of you to get fired tonight, so whatever you do, don’t do anything to piss him off,’” said Bundschu.
When they got to the nightclub, Bundschu remembers seeing Barrera at a booth with several other Rockstar staffers, complete with full table service: bottles of vodka, mixers, and so on. They all sat down, Bundschu says, and talked for a while. “When I finished my drink, he’d make me another immediately, say, ‘Here, here, keep drinking,’” said Bundschu. “He was actively encouraging me to drink. It was not like I was sitting there helping myself.”
Bundschu estimated he had three drinks, adding that he remembers everything that happened. (“I want to be clear—I remember this so clearly. I wasn’t so drunk that my memory is impaired or anything.”) Barrera moved to the end of the table, Bundschu says, and then asked who wanted to go to the dance floor. Bundschu volunteered, and then, he says, things started getting uncomfortable.
“He stands up and comes up to me, and I don’t know how to say it other than he starts aggressively groping me,” Bundschu said. “Out of the blue. There was no warning, no anything; he just goes for it. I just freaked… It felt like an eternity, but it couldn’t have been more than a couple of minutes.”
Barrera stopped and sat back down at the booth alongside their colleagues. Then, Bundschu says, Barrera spread his legs and gestured for Bundschu to come sit on his lap. Bundschu says he remembers freezing.
“I’m thinking, ‘What are my options?’” Bundschu said. “A) I get fired if I don’t do something, and B) he either wants me to grope him, which I’m not fucking doing, or C) maybe I can do something differently. I’m like, ‘Okay, well, I can probably just give him basically a lap dance without touching him,’ which is what I did… I know it sounds terrible, but what do you do? Fuck, it was like, I’d just started. I’d given up so much for this job.”
A few seconds after Bundschu started the lap dance, he recalls, one of his co-workers told him to stop, which he did, writing later in his notes that he felt “extremely ashamed and embarrassed. I have no interest in men and certainly no interest in Jeronimo, and doing what he told me to do in front of the people I work with was very humiliating.” (That co-worker did not respond to requests for comment.) Then he moved to the other side of the table, as far away from Barrera as he could get. “I picked up a glass of water, sat there staring into it, and said nothing for like 20 minutes,” Bundschu said. “For those 20 minutes, my ears were ringing and I didn’t know what to do. I’m like, ‘Fuck, am I gonna get fired? What the fuck is going on right now?’ I was just stunned.”
Then, Bundschu says, Barrera swung around the table and sat down next to him. Bundschu remembers being in mid-conversation with a colleague when, he says, Barrera started rubbing Bundschu’s inner thigh. “I’m sitting there holding my drink and my hands are shaking,” said Bundschu. “I remember looking down and I could see the water in the glass vibrating.”
Shortly afterwards, according to Bundschu’s account, the colleague on his other side looked at Barrera and told him to stop. (The colleague who Bundschu identified is still employed in a lead position at Rockstar and did not respond to requests for comment.) At that point, Bundschu says Barrera stopped, stood up, and went back to the other side of the table.
Bundschu says he then got up to exit the club with two co-workers. “Jeronimo says, ‘Are you leaving already?’” Bundschu said. “I’m like, ‘Yes,’ staring at the ground. I can’t even make eye contact with him. He said, ‘Why aren’t you staying longer? This is not okay.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry, my ride’s here.’ He’s pissed, but I’m like, ‘Sorry, I need to leave.’”
Kotaku attempted to interview as many of the people who Bundschu said were at the nightclub as possible. Some didn’t respond. One said they hadn’t seen “anything inappropriate happen.” Others said they didn’t remember the events of that night. One person confirmed part of Bundschu’s story, saying that they’d seen the two men dancing near their table. “Jeronimo was grinding up and down on his leg,” the person said. “I do remember Jeronimo looking directly at him… Colin was smiling, but it wasn’t a comfortable smile. It was almost like Colin was being flopped around.”
Four of Colin Bundschu’s former Rockstar colleagues told Kotaku that, in the days afterward, Bundschu shared parts of this story with them. One said Bundschu told them that Barrera had grabbed his penis, another said Bundschu had told them Barrera groped him on a dance floor, and the other two said they’d heard broader details. “I remember him saying, ‘What do you do when the vice president of your company touches you?’” said one. A second described it this way: “He told me he had been groped… He was really upset, so I didn’t want to press him on anything he didn’t want to talk about.”
On Sunday, November 23, 2014, two days after the incident, Bundschu met with Rockstar San Diego’s director of human resources, Kelly Gibson. “She said she had no doubt that what I said was true, as I was extremely detailed and thorough,” Bundschu wrote in his notes at the time. “She apologized for what had happened, and said that I would need to hold on until she talked to some people. She also said that the kind of behavior I experienced ‘is not Rockstar, we are here to make games and that is it.’”
In the coming days, Bundschu had a series of meetings with Gibson and with the company’s head of HR, Rob Spampinato, who called in from New York and later flew out to California for a meeting. Bundschu says they informed him they’d talked to several employees who were at the club that night, including Jeronimo Barrera, and that those people had said they didn’t remember anything. “She told me that since Jeronimo ‘did not remember’ the events of the night, that there was not much they could do,” Bundschu wrote in his notes.
This significant detail—whether Barrera and others did not remember the incident, or denied that it had happened—was later disputed by Rockstar. In an email to Bundschu dated December 30, 2014, provided by Bundschu, Spampinato wrote that Barrera had not in fact said he didn’t remember the night’s events, but that he’d explicitly denied Bundschu’s allegations.
“First, we have never stated to you that Jeronimo or other witnesses that you asked us to speak with were unable to ‘remember’ if the events you alleged took place or not,” Spampinato wrote to Bundschu. “Rather, and importantly, Jeronimo flatly denied your allegations. The other several individuals you identified as present during the evening of November 21 stated that they did not witness the conduct you described, and they generally did not support your allegations. We have no reason to believe that any of the witnesses were fearful of being candid, and we believe that they were each being truthful when they spoke with us.”
Spampinato’s email went on to say that the company had taken “prompt, careful and thorough steps to address the allegations that you have raised” and that his investigation had determined that Bundschu’s claims were unsubstantiated.
“Given that your allegations could not be substantiated, the remedial action against Jeronimo that you appear to seek is not warranted,” Spampinato wrote. “During the course of this matter, however, we have made clear to Jeronimo and others that Rockstar does not tolerate sexually hostile or inappropriate conduct. We have also offered to facilitate a meeting with Jeronimo so that you could discuss this matter with him in a comfortable environment, and Jeronimo offered, in such meeting, to apologize if you were made to feel uncomfortable (please let us know if you would like us to arrange that meeting in which Kelly can be present). We have also informed all those involved that there may be no retaliation or adverse action against you for bringing this matter to our attention.” (Bundschu told me he declined that opportunity to meet with Barrera, calling it an “insane” and “embarrassing” idea.)
In response, Bundschu wrote that until then, he’d been under the impression that Barrera told Rockstar he had no memory of the evening. “This is the first time you have made this statement, and it is inconsistent with what you told me in Kelly’s presence over the phone on multiple occasions—and what Kelly told me—on multiple occasions,” he wrote to Spampinato in the email exchange obtained by Kotaku. “You and Kelly both told me that Jeronimo said he was drunk and he told you he did not remember what happened at the nightclub. Consistent with this statement, during our conversations you said: ‘He doesn’t remember, so what do you want us to do?’ Kelly made similar statements to me.”
It was a pivotal dispute, and ultimately, Rockstar HR concluded that events had not happened as Bundschu described, although Spampinato also said in his email that the company would be going through anti-harassment training shortly thereafter.
“In conclusion, we will follow up with you periodically to review with you how things are progressing and to ensure the work environment is professional and productive for you and your colleagues,” Spampinato wrote. “To that end, I also note that we will soon be delivering anti-harassment training to all Rockstar San Diego employees. You and your colleagues should receive notice of this training shortly.”
Bundschu says he wanted to stay at Rockstar, but that the entire experience made him feel like that was impossible. By the end of 2014, he was looking for other jobs. Meanwhile, word of the incident between him and Barrera had spread elsewhere in the studio.
“It certainly was office gossip,” said one person who worked for Rockstar at the time. “I remember talking to peers about it. Nobody could quite understand it. I guess the assumption was that it was sort of a joke, jock type of thing… There was no way Colin was going to lie about it. It had serious consequences to him. It obviously happened. But it was impossible to understand, verify whether it was a joke.”
Over the last year, for this story and others, I’ve spoken to dozens of people who work or have worked at Rockstar. Many of those people said they loved working there, and that getting to help make games like Grand Theft Auto V and Red Dead Redemption was an experience that they’d remember forever. But there’s a common perception at Rockstar that employees who are perceived as negative, as “rocking the boat,” can’t succeed at the company, which has led many of those people to keep their problems to themselves. One current employee said they felt like Rockstar’s HR “can’t be trusted,” adding that even if they had a serious issue to bring up, they’d be afraid to draw that kind of negative attention to themselves.
“There was no way I’d complain to HR at Rockstar about anything,” said a second person who worked at Rockstar. “Once you’re negative, you’re not really wanted at the company.”
In the first week of March 2015, Bundschu submitted his two-week resignation notice to Rockstar. In response, HR told him to stop coming in right away.
“This is something women in the video game industry have to deal with all the time,” Bundschu told me on the phone recently. “As a white dude, I thought I was kinda immune to it—an attitude I’ve matured out of.”
Barrera remained at Rockstar, continuing to work on Red Dead Redemption 2 into 2018, when he quietly exited the company.
After leaving Rockstar, Bundschu went to Oculus to work as an engineer for a year, then switched careers entirely. He says he left the video game industry as a result of his experiences with Barrera and Rockstar.
“It could’ve been a really cool job, could’ve been a really cool career,” he said. “After that happens to you, it changes everything.”