Journalist Jason Schreier with Kotaku continues to investigate overtime and poor working conditions at major gaming companies. This time, his target was Naughty Dog , and not for the first time – in his book “Blood, Sweat and Pixels” Schreyer talked about the mess going on during the creation of Uncharted 4 . Now 13 former and current employees of the famous studio told about the development of The Last of Us Part II , the long-awaited PS4 exclusive, which is predicted to be the best game of the year.
In the past month, several artists stayed at the studio late Friday night, when suddenly they heard a crash. A huge metal pipe collapsed right next to their tables – if it hung a little closer to them, the consequences would be dire. Apparently, the repairmen assumed that at this time there was no one in the office, but in fact there is always someone there. The building owners fired this team, hired a new one and tried to make sure that this did not happen again. However, the situation is unhealthy anyway, and some Naughty Dog employees have wondered over the years: Is it really worth it in the end?
“The game is very good, but the result is too high a cost for the developers,” one of the creators of The Last of Us Part II told Schreier . It’s almost impossible to find a company in the gaming industry that doesn’t abuse crunches for weeks or months, but at Naughty Dog, crunching has become the norm. For a reason, after shooting a sack of grain in Uncharted 4, the sack starts to empty and deflate. It’s not just that Ellie in The Last of Us blinks and runs away if you shine a flashlight in her face. There is a culture of perfectionism in the studio – games must be great, no matter how they get it.
Many employees describe the company as both the best and worst place to work. You work on games that everyone loves – audiences and critics alike – and you have some of the most professional artists and programmers in the industry next to you. At the same time, you work 12 hours on weekdays and sometimes on weekends, sacrificing your health and personal life for the next game. “They try to take care of people by offering food, encouraging them to take breaks. But in most cases there is only one task – to get the job done at any cost, “recalls a former employee.
One of the main consequences of all this is staff drain. In the credits of Uncharted 4, you can see 20 designers (not counting the leading ones), and since 2016, as many as 14 of them (70%) have left the studio, which influenced the process of creating The Last of Us Part II and raised many questions about how adequate this approach. Among the veterans of Naughty Dog , of course, there are those who do not mind crunches or even enjoy them, but some of the employees are not happy with such an unhealthy atmosphere. “It cannot go on for years and go from one game to another. At some point, you begin to understand that you cannot work at such a pace, that you are getting old and that it is more and more difficult to stay at work all night, ”admits one of the creators of The Last of Us Part II .
Naughty Dog does not hide the management’s love for crunches – when hiring new employees, they are told about it, and they are trying to find, first of all, perfectionists among artists, designers, programmers and other specialists. They are looking for people who voluntarily stay in the office late at night, so that the game becomes better and that same grain poured out of the shot sack. At Naughty Dog, no one asks to “crunch” – there is no need to do this, because people already agree.
Even Straley burned out
In October 2016, Schreyer spoke to two dozen people working on Uncharted 4 and asked what memories they had. They honestly talked about all the difficulties: a tight schedule, sleepless nights and weekends, excitement that nothing will work out in the end. In the middle of development, the creation process was restarted, screenwriter Amy Hennig left the studio, so the disappointed directors of The Last of Us Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley were forced to take over. We had to rewrite the plot, make lightning-fast decisions, if only the employees continued to work, and in less than two years it was necessary to finish everything.
In an interview with Schreier, Straley said that he would like to reduce the amount of crunches on the next project. “I would never want to do Uncharted 4 again,” he said. – We survived this, and now the energy in the team is completely different. You see smiles, people are excited about the next project. “
Two months later, Straley left Naughty Dog – at first he just took a break, and then left the company altogether, and it was difficult to find a replacement for him. All employees respected him and saw him as a stern but fair leader who participated in creating every element of the game. But it burned out. “It was very difficult to imagine going back to work and feeling as energetic as I did when Uncharted 2 and The Last of Us . Something inside switched, something gradually grew, and I thought I had to do something else, ”he admitted in 2018 in the Kotaku Splitscreen podcast.
Attempts to fix everything
After the release of Uncharted 4, the team split into two groups. The first dealt with Uncharted: The Lost Legacy (DLC, which turned into a separate game). It seems that in her case, the production was even more difficult – one of the developers calls the process one of the worst crunches of his life. Another band started The Last of Us Part II . Drackmann also did not want to repeat what happened with Drake’s latest adventures, so he and the other leading developers tried to paint the plan as early and in detail as possible. “They really felt like they had found a way to reduce the volume of crunches. Many scenes and features of the game were thought out in advance, ”the employee recalls.
However, during development, things rarely go according to plan. When the demo for E3 2018 was ready and the testers started testing it, sharing their impressions, it turned out that some elements simply did not work. In particular, the narrative was lame – players did not like the characters that the writers wanted to make attractive to them. Druckmann and the others began to rethink a lot, make changes, add plot details that better reveal the characters. That’s okay for video games, and a lot of memorable episodes in Naughty Dog’s stories came about like this – the giraffe scenes in The Last of Us, for example, was not in the original script. And it so happens that on paper the idea looks amazing, but in the process of implementation it turns out to be terrible – then it takes many months to rework.
It’s hard to resist the urge to add an element to the game that was invented in the middle of development, and with The Last of Us Part II this has happened regularly. Every day she became more and more large and at some point turned out to be larger than all other studio projects. “Early on, we realized that we were creating the most ambitious and longest running game in our 35-year history. To bring that kind of story to life, the game has to be huge, ”Drackmann boasted last September.
Everything is interconnected
By the end of 2018, most of Naughty Dog ‘s departments were in long crunch mode. Someone did this due to the fact that it was impossible to complete everything necessary during a standard working day, someone had other reasons. One of the designers could not leave the building until the directors appreciated his work, and they were in a meeting until seven in the evening. The animator was forced to sit in the office due to the fact that programmers and designers first had to use his labor for their own tasks. For some reason, the explosion artists were asked to improve the cut-scenes.
“They are constantly bombarded with additional tasks in addition to what you are currently doing,” says one employee. “Do this, even though you didn’t plan, do this, which you shouldn’t do either, plus finish your main job.” In the case of The Last of Us Part II , there was no end to it. “You feel like you have to stay late because everyone is staying late. If you need to use animation somewhere, and you were not there and you did not help the animator, then you interfere with the animator’s work and he will be offended by you. Most likely, he will not say anything, it will just be clear from the look. Something like ‘Damn, you let me down a lot yesterday by not coming here at 11pm,’ ”explains the former developer.
During development, the components of the project were constantly changing, and there was no certainty that this would benefit the game. “When you have been working on a game for two or three years, sometimes you want to change some details simply because you are personally tired of them. It’s hard to get rid of this feeling, ”adds another employee. This is true for any creativity, but it is especially true for the gaming industry – it is not always clear whether you are rewriting a plot fragment because it is necessary, or because after so many months and years it is sickening to look at it.
It also happens that the management makes some kind of decision, but does not inform the employees about it. One of the artists worked on the building for one of the scenes in The Last of Us Part II , without even knowing that this scene was cut from the game. For days or even weeks, writers can be left in the dark, wasting a lot of time, which is obviously very demoralizing in an already stressful environment. Sometimes the lead developers don’t know what they want. Straley and Druckmann argued over whether guards were needed in the stealth scene in Uncharted 4 , which left three employees fiddling with code for three weeks that ended up being unnecessary.
Freedom and bondage
Many of these studios have a production department whose task is to solve problems of organization, logistics and communication. The producer must keep track of what people are doing, assign tasks to the appropriate staff, and do everything to keep the team on schedule. In Naughty Dog have such a department is not – over time it has several producers, class schedules and other things, but the company has long believed that it is not necessary, and each must be his own producer.
On the one hand, everyone is roughly equal, and this allows designers and artists to add the little details that make Naughty Dog’s games unique. There is no bureaucracy, no need to fight through dozens of people for an idea. On the other hand, there is no one to stop the developers, tell them that there is no need to change some elements just like that, that it is not worth staying at work all night. “It’s a great creative environment, but you can’t just go home,” says one of the creators of The Last of Us Part II . Therefore, over the past five years, a lot of people have left the company, and when they leave, things only get worse.
The fact that so many designers have left the studio has had a big impact on Naughty Dog . They collaborate with all programmers, artists and sound engineers. Veterans of the company call the current design department a sea of unfamiliar faces – most of those who had a hand in Uncharted 4 have disappeared, replaced by less experienced specialists, many of whom did not work on Naughty Dog games until The Last of Us Part II .
Caught in the trap
Each rookie appearance entails weeks and months of training, challenging explanations of what the rest of the team is doing. What an experienced designer could do in two hours takes two or three times as long for newbies, and it’s impossible to figure out what management wants from you in a short time. In the case of The Last of Us Part II, the newly arrived artists and designers were shocked at how difficult it was to meet the studio’s quality standards – mostly managers reacted negatively to their work. In Naughty Dog has an unwritten rule – if the answer can not hear anything, then everything is done well.
That is why before the studio tried not to take “fresh blood”. The quality bar rises so high every time that inexperienced people are unlikely to be able to reach it the first or second time, and this will lead to alterations and crunches. Leading designers now “expect the same level of quality from newcomers that long-standing professionals can offer, which is absolutely ridiculous,” one staff member said. “Those who get a job here are in constant stress and feel like mediocrity, and this is not good,” he added.
Designers left for various reasons. Someone was dissatisfied with the leadership, someone did not like the lack of career opportunities, and Straley’s resignation influenced this. But one reason, as former and current employees say, is the same for almost everyone – they burned out. The art department also lost a lot of people, including executives and one art director. As one of the members of this department says, there was a sorely lack of managers.
As a result, after the release of Uncharted 4 and Uncharted: The Lost Legacy , Naughty Dog was forced to invite a huge number of newcomers to create The Last of Us Part II , although this would exacerbate the problems that left the “oldies”. Some of the anonymous employees with whom Schreyer spoke plan to leave the studio themselves after the release of The Last of Us Part II and receive bonuses – usually given out after six months.
Not everyone is happy with the transfer
On September 24, 2019, Naughty Dog announced the release date of The Last of Us Part II – February 21, 2020. However, a month later, the date changed to May 29. For the employees, this meant only one thing – there were three more months of crunch ahead. Some employees were happy with this development, since it was impossible to finish everything until February – the delay will make the game much better. But the developers, tired of sleepless nights and weekends spent in the office, were not happy about this. “Those who think the transfer makes the situation less stressful or makes it easier for the team are wrong,” says one developer. “The first thing they asked of us was not to slow down.”
“Crunches are regular, because people can freely work for a long time, polish everything endlessly, do something finished better by at least 10%. This is what the studio wants when hiring new employees, ”says one employee. Someone comes to the office with a mask on their face, if they have a severe cough (this was even before the coronavirus epidemic), someone skips lunch or does not go to the shower. Someone is so “tied” to their table that they cannot be distracted and go to the kitchen for free food.
Several employees managed to find ways to avoid overwork by poring over something non-stop for eight hours and heading home. But most can’t afford it – no one wants to leave at 6 or 7 pm if everyone else is planning to sit until midnight. Nobody wants to be a scoundrel who didn’t show up on Saturday and work to make every hair on Ellie’s head look perfect. There is no one who would walk into the office and say that it is time for everyone to get up and go to rest.
Some of the employees are satisfied with the state of affairs – that is why it remains so. They are paid well and treated normally. They don’t give extra money for overwork, but there is always a chance to get bonuses after the release of the game. Those with a fixed-term contract cannot count on bonuses – for them the opportunity to someday get a job at Naughty Dog on a permanent basis and there is an incentive to participate in crunches. “A lot of people take pride in the fact that they are creating the game of the year, the highest quality project with amazing graphics. This is, of course, so, but they hardly realize that they are sacrificing too much, “says one of the developers. “They have never been successful in other ways, and do not even realize that such ways exist,” added another.
A workaholic is a manager’s dream
Company President Evan Wells spoke to Schreier in 2016 that he’s always happy to see workaholics – employees are expected to work a standard 40-hour work week, but they stay in the office as long as they want. “We hire people who are motivated and want to leave a mark on the industry. Why else would you come to Naughty Dog ? ” He asked. As a result, however, it was difficult to say how many people working on Uncharted 4 would remain with the team in one or two years. Some veterans of the studio confessed to Schreier that they were initially interested in this management approach, but over time they realized how unhealthy he was in every sense of the word.
Employees are confident that if the company does not solve the problem of crunches, staff turnover will force management to take some action. Some veterans will definitely not leave the studio – they cannot live without bringing every detail to perfection. But in recent years it has become clear that a large part of people can no longer tolerate this. Designers and artists who have worked at Naughty Dog for more than a decade can’t stand this atmosphere. At the end of 2017 and throughout 2018, the team received farewell letters from the “oldies” almost every week.
A link to the article was posted on Twitter by Jonathan Cooper, who left Naughty Dog in 2019 . He worked as an animator and had a hand in Uncharted 4 and The Last of Us Part II . Cooper confirmed that crunches are a must in the studio, although he himself has never been in the office for more than 55 hours a week. But other animators had insane overhauls – in the process of creating the demo, shown in September, they were very overworked and recovered within a few weeks. One of his friends even ended up in the hospital.
The reputation of Naughty Dog in Los Angeles is so bad that it was impossible to hire contract animators to complete the project and had to look for film animators. However, their talent was not enough – they do not understand the technical side of the issue and game design. Cooper also mentioned the problem of newcomers – no matter how good they are, due to lack of experience, too much time is spent on everything. In the end, he added that The Last of Us Part II will be a great game, but he does not recommend anyone to get a job at Naughty Dog until they begin to appreciate talented employees. “ ND linear games have a formula and focus groups test every detail. Although this collective is talented, deep pockets play a significant role in its success.Sony funding transfers, not just employee skills. A higher-end team would have released The Last of Us Part II a year ago, ”Cooper said.
The Last of Us Part II will be released on May 29. Some employees call it a phenomenal game, the best in the studio’s history. However, some (including those still at Naughty Dog ) would have liked it to fail. Perhaps low press ratings will show the management that so many people did not have to be sacrificed for this project. Regardless of how many awards for the game of the year are collected and what the score is on the Metacritic, the detailing of every hair in Joel’s eyebrows and deflating bags of grain are not worth it. …
Source: The Verge