Crunch has become a hot-button topic, once again, in the video game industry.
Jason Schreier, editor of online gaming news blog Kotaku, published a scathing report late last week, in which he detailed the downright ridiculous working conditions at one of the industry’s most prestigious developers, Naughty Dog. The developer is currently hard at work, putting the finishing touches on “The Last of Us Part II,” and that has created issues with members of its staff. Schreier described multiple instances of employees working 12 hours or more each day without weekends. Many stare down the barrel of 70-80 hour weeks with no end in sight. At least one person was even hospitalized due to the stresses of the job. The worst part about it is that none of it was mandated, at least officially.
“The Last of Us Part II” has been in development for almost this entire console generation. As production finished up on 2016’s “Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End,” and a small team completed “Uncharted: Lost Legacy,” the studio shifted all of its resources to the follow-up to its 2013 hit. A generation-defining game for many, “The Last of Us” set a bar for the studio that was going to be hard — if not impossible — to surpass. The studio would attempt to do so anyway, and it looks like “The Last of Us Part II” could live up to that hype and anticipation, but at what cost?
Of the 20 non-lead designers credited in “Uncharted 4,” 70 percent are no longer with the studio. Many have departed over the course of the development of “The Last of Us Part II,” creating widespread issues as the studio barreled forward with its latest sequel.
Bruce Staley, co-director of “Uncharted 2: Among Thieves” and “The Last of Us,” departed the studio in 2017. He joined the studio in 1999 and served as the director of some of its most critically-acclaimed games. The stress was too much for him.
Amy Hennig, “Uncharted” writer and producer, was forced to leave in the middle of production of “Uncharted 4,” prompting a complete reboot of the game, which led to even more crunch within the studio at the time. She’s gone on record in recent years calling out the heavy work requirements of modern AAA game development. Her time at Naughty Dog almost assuredly contributed to those views.
But according to Schreier, Naughty Dog doesn’t have any specific crunch requirements. No one at the studio forces its employees to stay past 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. each night, cramming away at a keyboard to ensure everything looks exactly right. No one forces developers away from their families for weeks at a time to ensure Joel’s beard looks photorealistic, or that Nathan Drake’s weight is perfectly distributed while running up a flight of stairs. There is no specific crunch mandate, but it’s not deterred, either.
Naughty Dog is one of the most well-respected developers in the industry today. With a blank check and open calendar, courtesy of Sony’s first-party dedication, the studio has carte blanche to do whatever it wants for however long it wants. Ever since 2009’s “Uncharted 2,” the name Naughty Dog has been synonymous with some of the best games in the industry. Who wouldn’t want to work with such a pedigree? Who wouldn’t want to have the name, “Naughty Dog,” on their resume?
So when studio heads seek out new hires and talent, they actively look for perfectionists who are more than willing to donate as much of their time as needed in order to make the best product they can. If that commitment demands spending 70-80 hours in the studio a week, those new hires will be there. Naughty Dog wants the individuals who will throw themselves entirely into their work — at the expense of everything else in their lives — and will be happy to do so. The studio doesn’t require anyone to crunch because they’ve already hired the people who will make that decision for themselves without hesitation.
It’s a founding principle that has carried the developer to multiple game of the year awards for the last decade. It’s also a founding principle that is starting to show cracks. Former Naughty Dog animator Jonathan Cooper took to Twitter following the report last week to validate many of the claims made in Schreier’s article. He confirmed one developer was hospitalized due to crunch, and when he was released from the hospital, still faced another year-and-a-half of crunch before the game would ship. Cooper said the studio’s trademark polish is a product not just of talent, but of money.
“While talented, their success is due in large part to Sony’s deep pockets funding delays, rather than skill alone,” he said. “A more senior team would have shipped [The Last of Us Part II] a year ago.”
Originally, “The Last of Us Part II” was scheduled to ship last month, but a delay forced the studio to push the game back to May 31 — a date which may, ironically, end up being missed to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic. One would think that with an extra three months of work that crunch could lighten up and developers could return to some semblance of normalcy. Instead, developers faced yet another three months of consistent crunch.
Naughty Dog has treaded on its reputation as one of the most respectable game developers in the industry to attract talent that is willing to do whatever it takes to be recognized. But the studio has become more of a meat grinder — bringing in new talent on the regular and using them up until they ultimately leave from burnout. Seventy percent turnaround is not normal. One can only hope that, at some point, more senior members of the studio will step up and put a stop to these practices. Until then, nothing will change.
Josh Rouse lives in Lawton and writes a weekly gaming column for The Lawton Constitution.