Crunch culture and perfectionism make a dangerous cocktail at Naughty Dog

With The Last of Us II around the corner, the human cost of keeping Naughty Dog’s pedigree for highly-detailed and polished games is under the spotlight.

Kotaku’s Jason Schreier has penned another in-depth investigation of game developer crunch, this time focusing on working conditions at Naughty Dog. In it, he describes how developers work in an unhealthy culture, where staying late is never mandated, but instead everyone feels the need to do so, either due to the amount of work required, or their own dedication to making things that little bit better. Now developers are questioning whether a game is worth their health.

A few weeks ago a construction accident late at night resulted in a large metal pipe crashing through the Naughty Dog ceiling. While a pipe coming through your ceiling at 9 pm is a terrible thing for anyone, it is worse when people are there, still working. No one was hurt, but if the pipe had landed a meter or two in a different direction, it could have been a disaster.

Schreier says that even in an industry full of crunch, Naughty Dog stands out. The culture of perfectionism, of making things great has a high human cost, as is evidenced by how many people keep leaving the company. Of the non-lead designers in the credits of Uncharted 4, only 30% still work there.

Naughty Dog looks for people who will work late on perfecting things, making it part of the hiring process to find those perfectionists and those who thrive on working late. This way, nobody has to ask people to work late, they just do, either to deal with what is on their plate, or to improve it. Some handle it for a while, then realise after a big game is done that they can’t do it all over again, that age or life circumstances just won’t allow 12 hour days and seven day weeks.

Delays for The Last of Us II never helped with crunch either. Teams were told to “keep their momentum” after every delay, making the crunch period longer and longer with every announcement.

“You feel obligated to be there later, because everyone else is there later.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,”’ said a former developer.

The rest of the piece details how the studio has to deal with an influx of junior hires, the demands placed on them and how some developers are just hanging in there, waiting for The Last of Us II to release and for their bonus if it does well six months later. Some even wish the game would flop, so the studio stops and takes a good look at what it is doing as it grinds people down. It is well worth a read.

If it has the letters RPG in it, I am there. Still battling with balancing trying to play every single game that grabs my interest, getting 100% in a JRPG, and devoting time to my second home in Azeroth.

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