As Naughty Dog Crunches On The Last Of Us II, Developers Wonder How Much Longer This Approach Can Last

One Friday night in February, some artists at the video game studio Naughty Dog were working on their latest game when they heard a crash. A large metal pipe had fallen from above them and landed right next to their desks. If it had dropped a few feet closer, the consequences might have been dire. It was late, past 9 p.m., and the construction workers above had perhaps recklessly assumed that nobody was there. But at Naughty Dog, people were always there.

This article was originally published on March 13, 2020.

The owners of the building reacted quickly, firing that construction team, hiring a new one, and installing new safety measures to ensure that an accident like that wouldn’t happen again. To some Naughty Dog employees, however, it was emblematic of an unhealthy culture—the type of environment where a late-night construction accident might take place while people were still at the office.

The Last of Us Part II, the studio’s new PlayStation 4 game about people trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic United States, will be out on May 29. Today, as many of the developers at Naughty Dog put in nights and weekends at the office to finish the game, some continue to ask themselves a question that has haunted the studio for years: Is it worth it?

As one Naughty Dog developer recently told me: “This game is really good, but at a huge cost to the people.”

Even in an industry where overtime is ubiquitous, where it’s near-impossible to find a game that isn’t the result of weeks or months of crunch, Naughty Dog stands out. Its games, including the Uncharted adventure series and 2013’s groundbreaking The Last of Us, are widely considered among the best of the best, with ultra-realistic graphical fidelity and the type of meticulous details you wouldn’t see in other games.

Shooting a sack of grain in Uncharted 4 would cause the sack to deflate as barley poured out of it. Shining a flashlight at Ellie’s face in The Last of Us led her to blink and turn away. Those details exist because Naughty Dog has built a culture of perfectionism, where games have to be great, no matter the human cost.

Many who have worked at Naughty Dog over the years describe it as a duality—as a place that can be simultaneously the best and the worst workplace in the world. Working at Naughty Dog means designing beloved, critically acclaimed games alongside artists and engineers who are considered some of the greatest in their fields.

But for many of those same people, it also means working upwards of 12-hour days and even weekends when the studio is in crunch mode, sacrificing their health, relationships, and personal lives at the altar of the game.

“They do try to take care of you, providing food, encouragement to go take breaks,” said one former developer. “But for the most part, the implication is: ‘Get the job done at all costs.’”

One major consequence of this culture has been attrition. Of the 20 non-lead designers in the credits of 2016’s Uncharted 4, a whopping 14—70 per cent—are no longer at the studio, which has had wide-ranging effects on the development of The Last of Us II and led to questions about the continued viability of the Naughty Dog approach.

Some Naughty Dog veterans tolerate or even enjoy the crunch, while a handful have even found ways to work normal hours, but those speaking to Kotaku say they see it as an untenable atmosphere.

“This can’t be something that’s continuing over and over for each game, because it is unsustainable,” said one developer on The Last of Us II. “At a certain point you realise, ‘I can’t keep doing this. I’m getting older. I can’t stay and work all night.’”

This account of Naughty Dog’s culture is based on interviews with 13 current and former developers, all of whom spoke anonymously because they were not given permission to speak to press, as well as reporting I did for my 2017 book, Blood, Sweat, and Pixels, which detailed the turbulent production of Uncharted 4.

As is often the case, we could not share many of those developers’ personal stories of sacrifice without risking their identities, and as usual, we erred on the side of caution in order to keep sources protected.

A representative for Sony and Naughty Dog turned down interview requests with studio management and declined to provide comment.

Crunch culture at Naughty Dog isn’t a secret. The studio is open about this mentality in interviews with new hires, and its managers deliberately seek out perfectionists in art, design, engineering, and all of the other disciplines that make games happen.

The type of people Naughty Dog wants to hire are the type of people who will willingly stay late at the office in order to make their games better—the type of people who would take the time to make sacks of grain deflate when you shoot them. At Naughty Dog, nobody asks the developers to crunch. Nobody has to ask. They’ll be there anyway.

In October of 2016, five months after the release of Uncharted 4, I visited Naughty Dog’s sleek offices in Santa Monica, California and interviewed around 20 of their top developers about what it had been like to work on Nathan Drake’s latest adventure. They were candid about how difficult the process had been—the compressed schedule, the endless nights and weekends, the stress that by the end of it all, the game might not actually come together.

A dramatic reboot midway through development had led to Naughty Dog veteran Amy Hennig exiting the studio and The Last of Us directors Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley taking over direction on Uncharted 4, much to their chagrin. Druckmann and Straley found themselves rewriting the script and making rapid decisions just to “feed the beast”—to keep all of those people working—and they had less than two years to finish the game.

During our interview, Straley told me he was hoping to mitigate crunch for the next game. “I would never want to do Uncharted 4 again,” he said. “Because now we’ve lived through that… The energy of the team now when you walk around is so great. You see smiles. People are excited about what they’re working on.” Two months later, Straley was gone.

He left Naughty Dog for a sabbatical that morphed into a permanent departure, leaving a void that was difficult to fill. Straley was well-respected at the studio and was recognised as an intense but fair leader who had his hands on almost every aspect of the game.

When I asked him on Kotaku’s Splitscreen podcast in 2018 about his departure, it was clear that he’d felt burnt out. “It was really hard to imagine getting back into the job and feeling as energised as I was back on The Last of Us or Uncharted 2,” he said. “And so I just felt there was a shift in me—something else was building up in me that was like, ‘Alright, let’s see what else is out there.’”

After the fourth Uncharted, Naughty Dog split into two groups. One chunk of the studio worked on the DLC-turned-standalone-game Uncharted: Lost Legacy, a production that, for some people, was even more stressful than Uncharted 4. (“It was the worst crunch I’ve ever experienced,” one developer told me.) Another chunk entered preproduction on The Last of Us II, which would be the studio’s next big project.

This time, in hopes that they wouldn’t repeat the mistakes of Uncharted 4, Neil Druckmann and other leads got together and tried to map out exactly what The Last of Us II would look like as far in advance as possible. “They honestly felt like they had figured out a way to not have to crunch as much,” said one developer. “They’d worked out a lot of the beats of the game and all the features ahead of time.”

But in game development, things rarely go as planned. As Naughty Dog’s developers worked on a demo for E3 2018 and began showing builds of the game to playtesters for feedback, the directors and leads found that some of their decisions weren’t working. Parts of the narrative weren’t resonating with players, who said they weren’t fond of characters that the writers hoped would be likeable.

In response, Druckmann and the other leads started scrapping and revising. “That’s where changes were happening,” said one developer. “We need to add some stuff here so that it tells more of this story or gives you more narrative beats.”

This kind of iteration isn’t uncommon on any video game, and it’s often what leads to the most memorable moments in Naughty Dog’s games, such as the first Last of Us, in which the iconic giraffe scene was not originally part of the script.

One of the most challenging parts of any video game’s development is that even features that sound incredible on paper might turn out to feel awful to play, which can lead to months and months of extra work. And it’s always difficult to resist the urge to add good ideas as they come up throughout production.

On The Last of Us II, these revisions led to all sorts of stress and scope creep. Every day, the game grew bigger, and soon it had dwarfed the company’s previous releases. “What we realised pretty early on is that we were putting together Naughty Dog’s most ambitious and longest game in our 35 year history,” Druckmann would later write. “To tell this kind of story the game needed to be massive.”

By the end of 2018, most departments at the studio were in crunch mode, spending extra hours at the office to keep up with all of their tasks. Some people had to work late because they had more to do than could be fit into a standard workday; others found themselves trapped by pipeline clogs.

There was the designer who couldn’t leave until they received feedback from the directors, who were tied up in meetings all day and couldn’t look at the build until 6 or 7 p.m. There was the animator who got stuck at the office waiting for their work to be implemented in the game by scripters and designers. There were artists giving one another assignments—explosions and gunshots and hey, could you make it so this cut-scene looks just right?

“There’s a lot of pushing your current workload aside to meet these real-time demands that come across your desk,” said one Naughty Dog developer. “Do this thing you weren’t planning for, that other thing you weren’t planning for, plus what you were planning for.”

On The Last of Us II, this became a never-ending cycle. “You feel obligated to be there later, because everyone else is there later,” said one former developer. “If an animation needed to be put in and you weren’t there to help the animator, you’re now blocking the animator, and they may give you grief. It may not even be spoken—it may just be a look. ‘Man, you totally screwed me last night by not being here at 11 p.m.’”

During production, elements of the game kept changing, and there was no real way to be sure whether all of those changes would be for the better. “What they probably underestimate is that when you work for two to three years on a game, you want to change things sometimes because you’ve seen them for a year,” said one Naughty Dog developer. Sometimes, as any creative can attest, it’s hard to tell whether you’re revising that story beat or gameplay mechanic because it actually needs to be changed or because you’ve looked at it so long that you’ve gotten sick of it. “I think it’s hard to get distance,” the developer said.

Worst of all for some of Naughty Dog’s developers were the times when a high-level decision might lead to their work being scrapped without them even knowing it. An artist might be working on a building in The Last of Us II’s post-disaster version of America without realising that their scene was cut or overhauled.

They might not find out for days or even weeks, leading to hours and hours of wasted work—a demoralising feeling compounded by the other stresses of production. Contradicting direction has also been a common occurrence at the studio. During the development on Uncharted 4, Straley and Druckmann had divergent visions over whether a sneaking scene should have guards in it, leading to three weeks of wasted work for three people.

Many development studios try to solve problems like these with a production department—the part of the team dedicated to organisation, logistics, and communication. It’s a producer’s job to keep track of what people are working on, coordinate across disciplines, and ensure that the whole team is staying on schedule. At Naughty Dog, there is no production department. Over time, the company has hired a couple of producers to help with scheduling and other tasks, but the studio’s philosophy has long been that everyone should act as their own producer.

On one hand, this can create an empowering, autonomous atmosphere, where designers and artists are free to add the little graphical flourishes that make Naughty Dog games unique. Nobody needs to deal with extra layers of bureaucracy if they want to, say, make sacks of grain deflate when you shoot them. On the other hand, nobody is there to keep the developers of The Last of Us II communicating or stop them from changing things for the sake of change. And nobody’s going to tell anyone to stop staying at work all night.

“It’s an amazing creative environment,” said one developer on The Last of Us II. “But you can’t go home.”

As a result of these problems, Naughty Dog has seen a steady trickle of departures over the past five years. That kind of attrition can be crushing, not just because people are forced to say goodbye to dear friends, but because those friends leave holes that make all of these problems even worse.

If there’s one department at Naughty Dog most critical to the production of its games, it’s design, which serves as a nexus for all of the company’s decisions. Designers at Naughty Dog act as stewards for different sections of the game, working with scripters, artists, audio, and programmers in order to block out and finalise each level. That’s why it’s been such a blow for the studio to lose so many of them.

These days, veteran Naughty Dog employees describe the design department as a sea of unfamiliar faces. With 70 per cent of the non-lead designers and a significant number of artists who worked on Uncharted 4 now gone, the company has had to fill those roles with less experienced staff, many of whom hadn’t worked on Naughty Dog games before The Last of Us II.

Every newcomer means weeks’ or months’ worth of training and hard lessons about how the rest of the team works. A task that might take a veteran designer two hours could take twice or three times as long for a newer employee, and it can be hard to know what the directors want until you’ve been working there long enough.

On The Last of Us II, new artists working with new designers found themselves baffled as to how to hit the standards that Naughty Dog expected, a problem exacerbated by a management culture in which feedback is usually negative. (One of the studio’s unwritten maxims is that if you don’t hear anything, you’re doing well.) “It’s been a little bit of the blind leading the blind as we go in circles and find our way,” said one developer.

In the past, Naughty Dog has been reluctant to hire junior-level staff for this very reason. The studio’s bar for detail is so high that inexperienced people are unlikely to hit it on their first or second tries, which inevitably leads to hours of rework and hours of crunch for everyone.

Naughty Dog’s lead designers “expect the same level of quality out of a lot of the junior contractors as they do out of people who have been here for a while, which is ridiculous,” said one developer. “It’s certainly led to a lot of stress and feeling like shit to most people who are new, which sucks.”

There were a number of reasons for attrition in the design department, including various individuals’ unhappiness with leads, lack of promotion opportunities, and Bruce Straley’s departure. But the main reason, current and former employees say, is that Naughty Dog’s culture of crunch has burned many of them out. The art department has also lost a number of people since Uncharted 4, including leads and one art director. “The management level was really understaffed,” said one developer of the art department. “There was no attempt made to hire more.”

After the brutal development cycles of Uncharted 4 and Uncharted Lost Legacy, Naughty Dog has found itself with little choice but to hire a disproportionately high number of juniors and contractors for The Last of Us II, even if that perpetuates many of the problems that caused senior staff to leave.

Some at Naughty Dog who spoke to me for this story said they expect more people to quit, or that they plan to leave themselves, once The Last of Us II has shipped and bonuses came in (which is usually six months after release). And so the cycle will continue.

On September 24, 2019, Naughty Dog announced to the public that The Last of Us II would be released in February. A month later, Naughty Dog’s management told the staff that they needed to slip three months, to May 29, 2020. It’s not clear why this delay happened so soon after the public announcement, but it was clear what it would mean: three more months of crunch.

To some who worked there, this was fantastic news. There was concern among the staff that if they had to ship in February, The Last of Us II would be a mess. Those three months would make a huge difference. But to those who had grown tired of long nights and weekends at the office, the delay just meant more time on the treadmill.

When Naughty Dog’s bosses informed the company that the game was slipping, they emphasised that they wanted to maintain their momentum. “People thinking the extension is somehow to relieve stress or the workload on the team are wrong,” said one developer. “The first thing that they wanted to reiterate is that we aren’t slowing down the pace.”

In mid-February, Naughty Dog got another two weeks, convincing Sony to delay their final manufacturing date so they could squeeze in as much bug-fixing as possible. Again, the messaging was clear: Keep up the momentum. Naughty Dog’s managers would never tell people to work overtime—it was always an implication, understood and accepted by everyone. Many were happy to do it, hoping to cram in as many flourishes and features as they could, and eager to put in as many hours as possible to make The Last of Us II great.

“That’s one of the reasons crunch always happens here,” said one developer. “People are given the freedom to keep working longer, to push the envelope of what they are working on, to make things just 10 per cent better. It’s what the studio looks for when hiring people. They are looking for people with that drive to actually put in those extra hours, for better or worse.”

While reporting this story, I heard a number of anecdotes about individual developers’ experiences. Employees would come in wearing sick masks so they could keep working even with bad coughs (before the recent coronavirus outbreak). They’d skip meals—or showers. One developer told me they had seen people so shackled to their desks that they wouldn’t even take the time to go to the kitchen and grab the free crunch dinners.

A few Naughty Dog staff have indeed found ways to avoid overtime, working intensely for eight hours a day and then leaving. But for most of the staff, there’s an unspoken social pressure to stick around. Nobody wants to be the person leaving at 6 or 7 p.m. when everyone else plans to stay until midnight. Nobody wants to be the one developer who’s not there on a Saturday, fighting to make every strand of Ellie’s hair look perfect. And there’s no one in the office telling everyone to go home.

Some of the developers at Naughty Dog are just fine with the studio’s culture, which is why it exists in the first place. They’re paid well, treated fairly, and given extensive time off at the end of production.

Salaried workers aren’t paid for overtime work, but they can get decent bonuses after each game ships. As is typical in California, contractors and those working for hourly pay at Naughty Dog are paid time-and-a-half after eight hours and double time after twelve, but many are on limited contracts, and they aren’t eligible for bonuses or other perks. For contractors, the carrot of full-time employment was an incentive to put in overtime hours.

“There’s this unspoken agreement,” said one Naughty Dog staffer. “A lot of people are very proud that they’re making the Game of the Year, the top-quality game, the most amazing art. While that’s true, I don’t know if they’re calculating the sacrifices.”

Said another Naughty Dog developer: “They’ve never seen success any other way, so they don’t believe there’s another way of achieving it.”

Naughty Dog’s management actively seeks out workaholics, as president Evan Wells told me in October of 2016. “We crunch on all our games for sure,” he said then. “We never [change] our forty-hour expectation or our core hours, which are 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.… People put in a lot more hours, but it’s based on their own fuel, how much they have in their tank.”

“People just naturally do it,” Wells said. “Because we hire a particular type of person who’s motivated and passionate and wants to leave their mark on the industry. That’s why they come to Naughty Dog.”

But how long will they stay? And how long can this last? As more Naughty Dog employees get married, have kids, or simply burn out—either from the crunch or out of frustrations with Naughty Dog’s production style—it’s fair to wonder what per cent of Uncharted 4’s developers will still be there in the next year or two.

With some time and distance, the exhilaration of crunch can easily turn into shame and regret. Several veteran Naughty Dog developers told me they had once bought into the company’s mentality—“Stockholm Syndrome” was a commonly used phrase—but have realised over time that it was unhealthy for their lives in all sorts of ways.

Some who work or worked for Naughty Dog say they believe that if the company doesn’t find a way to solve the crunch problem, it’ll solve itself through attrition. Although some veterans may never leave—the Naughty Dog lifers who thrive on those long hours and an attention to detail that few other studios can command—the past few years have signalled otherwise. After Uncharted 4 and Uncharted Lost Legacy, even some of the designers and artists who had been at Naughty Dog for more than a decade decided to call it quits. One developer told me that toward the end of 2017 and into 2018, it felt like they were getting new farewell emails every week.

On May 29, The Last of Us Part II will come out. Those who have worked on it tell me they believe it will be phenomenal, another shining entry in Naughty Dog’s quest for excellence at all costs. Some say they think it’s the best game Naughty Dog has ever made.

Yet there are also those developers, some of whom still work at Naughty Dog today, who say that there’s a part of them that actually wishes this game would fail. A critical flop might help show Naughty Dog that this isn’t the best way to make games, that this level of sacrifice isn’t necessary, that maybe the project isn’t worth losing all of these people. That perhaps, no matter how many Game of the Year nominations they win or how high their Metacritic scores climb, all the individual hairs on Joel’s eyebrows or the grains of sand in a burlap sack just aren’t worth the cost.

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