Naughty Dog’s Bosses Still Don’t Get It

Naughty Dog’s Bosses Still Don’t Get It
Screenshot: Naughty Dog

Development studio Naughty Dog has a reputation for producing top-flight games. It also has a reputation for working its employees to the bone. Naughty Dog co-presidents Evan Wells and Neil Druckmann recently sat down for a wide-ranging interview with Game Informer in which both addressed concerns of endemic overwork at the studio. Their answers were…well, let’s just say — and surely this will blow your mind — leadership doesn’t seem to get it.

In the video game industry, expected overtime is so pervasive there’s a term for it: “crunch.” A game’s publisher sets a deadline for an upcoming release. The studio has to hit it. So the work gets passed down the chain, largely to rank-and-file employees. Sometimes crunch is mandatory. Other times, it’s the result of contagious peer pressure. You see your boss toiling away til bars close, or you see three other developers clocking in on Saturdays. Obviously, you’re going to feel pressured to put in some extra work. You don’t want to be the weakest link, not in a discipline as competitive as developing games (and certainly not at a studio as prestigious as Naughty Dog).

Naughty Dog is particularly prone to crunch. Time and again, the company’s games may win awards and sell gazillions of copies, but not at a cost. Following the release of 2016’s Uncharted 4, a whopping 70 per cent of non-lead designers departed the studio. As Wired recently noted, the typical industry turnover rate is around 15 per cent.

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

Speaking to Game Informer for an article headlined “Naughty by Nature,” Wells said he “personally worked very hard over the years” and that such dogged determination helped him climb the career ladder as fast as he has, a line of thought that implicitly says long hours and weekend work are baked into Naughty Dog’s company culture. Typically, as anyone who works in a competitive field can attest, this stuff comes from the top.

Wells also said that the studio has hired more directors and team leads, and noted that Naughty Dog conducts post-project assessments to pinpoint ways in which production could’ve been more efficient. Though, if you have to have a postmortem after every major release, maybe those postmortems aren’t working as intended.

Druckmann, meanwhile, said that combating widespread burnout at Naughty Dog requires a multi-pronged approach and that the studio hopes to deploy “working groups” to come up with a system. As Druckmann puts it, there’s no one-size-fits-all fix. For instance, some employees might find it “more convenient” to come in on a Sunday rather than a Friday.

“Everybody has a different definition of what crunch means,” Druckmann said. “We find that there is no one solution that fits everybody. Everybody has a unique situation we might need to address.”

When Game Informer floated unionisation as one such solution, Wells demurred saying he hadn’t much considered it. Just so there’s absolutely nothing lost in translation, here’s his answer in full:

I haven’t put a lot of thought into that. I don’t know if that would be a solution for crunch. To Neil’s point about making sure that everybody is able to work as hard or as little as they want, we’ve got to create an environment that allows that. If we had some sort of restriction where when the clock strikes 40 hours the servers shut down and you can’t work anymore, that would frustrate people to no end. There are people who really want to put in that extra polish on their own volition, and they would feel handcuffed.

Maybe unionisation is the answer. Maybe it’s not. Though plenty of rank-and-file staffers across the industry say it is, that’s not the point. What’s key is that Wells hasn’t “put a lot of thought into” it, which is indicative of, at best, a demoralising tone-deafness or, at worst, a lack of consideration and capacity for listening to his staff. Having the conversation is always better than not.

For Wells to brush off the notion entirely is a disservice to hard-working employees who’ve clamoured for better working conditions — and who’ve pointed to unionisation as a potential solution.

Comments

  • “Though, if you have to have a postmortem after every major release, maybe those postmortems aren’t working as intended.”

    Nah. Every major project should always, always, always do a ‘lessons learned’ activity after launch. Even if all you discover out of the activity is that everything you did was flawless, it remains a useful activity and doing one after every project is industry best practice.

    Whether you then actually do something about the lessons learned is another story, but the fact of doing repeated post-mortems is a good thing, not a sign of failure.

    • Also: “If we had some sort of restriction where when the clock strikes 40 hours the servers shut down and you can’t work anymore, that would frustrate people to no end. There are people who really want to put in that extra polish on their own volition, and they would feel handcuffed.”

      One answer to this is a standard set of hours that makes up a work week and strong leadership who are willing and able to enforce limits on how much someone can go over that when they’re in the flow/trying to please everyone. A culture of being able to say, “Time to take a rest, you’ve been working too hard,” is a leadership-driven thing. It requires managers, team leads, supervisors who are insightful enough to know when someone’s going too hard – not only for themselves but also setting an unhealthy standard that others feel pressured into matching. I bet if you interview people who crunch in dev about their motivations for crunching, ‘not wanting to let the team down’ will be in the top 3, if not number 1, competing with ‘it seems to be what’s expected, if I don’t do it, people will think I’m not a team player.’

      In government, for example, you can work over your standard time and it gets added to a TOIL pool, which you can then use to take leave, but there’s a cap on it. Partly it’s to prevent people from racking up several months leave that they are then entitled to take at will, putting the team in a position of requiring backfill, partly it’s related to healthy working conditions.

    • In my experience, outside of the games industry, every project has a Lessons Learned session post release.

      Very few, however, start by reviewing previous Lessons Learned.

    • I agree with you. A project should always have a postmortem to look at what went right and what went wrong. If after every project, the things that went wrong are always the same, that will indicate a failure to learn and improve … that is when “those postmortems aren’t working as intended”.

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