Naughty Dog Loses Key Talent Due To Unsustainable Crunch

Companies mentioned: Naughty Dog
Games mentioned: The Last of Us Part II

Over the past two decades Naughty Dog have created some of the most iconic video game series available exclusively on Sony’s PlayStation platforms; from Jack & Daxter to Uncharted and more recently, The Last of Us.

However, as the quality of their work has consistently improved with each title earning more awards, so has the pressure to keep producing generation-defining games and that strain has led to the studio losing key members of staff in their droves in recent years.

Naughty Dog’s infamous prolonged periods of crunch have led to profound consequences in their ability to retain staff. Of the twenty members of the design team who worked on Uncharted 4, fourteen of them have left the studio due to the unsustainable crunch periods, which has understandably had a detrimental impact on the development of The Last of Us II and led to questions about the continued viability of the Naughty Dog approach.

Current senior developers at the studio revealed that many of the exiting long-standing employees were replaced by junior staff members who, while talented, would take four to five times longer than senior members of staff to get their tasks done, leading to a knock-on effect delaying senior members of staff from being able to work on the next phases of the project. In some cases, exiting staff members weren’t replaced at all and it was simply left up to the remaining members of staff to take on yet more responsibilities in order to get the job done.

In Los Angeles, where their studio is based, Naughty Dog’s reputation amongst video game professionals has become so bad that they were no longer able to replace lost talent, so they had to resort to hiring people from the film industry. Another tactic that brought in talented people, but not ones that understood the processes involved in developing a video game and ultimately this led to yet more delays.

The revelations from current Naughty Dog staff members prompted an ex-staff member who worked on titles such as The Last of Us 2 and Uncharted 4, video game animator Jonathan Cooper, to reveal his experiences working for the company.

“For the demo shown last September, the gameplay animators crunched more than I’ve ever seen and required weeks of recovery afterwards. One good friend of mine was hospitalised at that time due to overwork. He still had over half a year to go. There have been others since.”

Ex Naughty Dog Employee, Game Animator, Jonathan Cooper

Cooper went on to reveal that he believes a more senior development team would have completed The Last of Us Part II a year ago, ahead of even its original release date of February 2020, which has since been pushed back to the end of May.

Some current employees have revealed that they too can no longer sustain the work hours expected of them and plan to quit as soon as their bonuses come in around six months after the release of The Last of Us Part II. Losing even more key members of staff means that the next project may suffer even more than The Last of Us Part II already has, such as overwhelming workloads, inexperienced juniors, having your strong institutional talent eroded and even more untenable crunch.

Naughty Dog have never tried to hide their culture of hard work, discipline and perfectionism in every professional that they hire and the results can be seen clearly in the unquestionably high quality of their games. The only question that remains, then, is how long they can sustain these punishing crunch periods before the brain drain attrition in losing key members of staff ruins the quality of their work.

A few current senior developers have admitted part of them wouldn’t mind if The Last of Us Part II failed if it meant that the management at Naughty Dog had to re-evaluate how they run the studio. Although Jonathan Cooper has been openly critical of studio management, he urged gamers not to boycott the game.

If you’re concerned about supporting these work practices towards the people making your favourite games, please continue to call studios out but don’t feel obliged to boycott the games. Sales pay for employee bonuses.

Ex Naughty Dog Employee, Game Animator, Jonathan Cooper

Maybe Naughty Dog will come to realise that this isn’t the best way to make games, that this level of sacrifice isn’t worth the detrimental effects it has on the mental and physical health of their most valued and talented members of staff. A balance can and must be found.

About the Author

Aidan was once a world-class Duck Hunt player before he began a lustrous career as a web developer. To this day his name can be heard spoken in hushed tones in the murky underbelly of the underground competitive Duck Hunt community.

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