One ex-Naughty Dog animator exposes just how intense the studio's crunch can get, including hospitalizations from overwork.
The games industry is kind of like a vampire that drains those who work in it. Many studios suffer from hostile work environments with fatigue runs rampant. To get a game shipped, developers have to work months of ruthless crunch time, leading to mental and physical breakdowns, emotional outbursts, and general malaise and depression. Naughty Dog is one such studio.
In an eye-opening expose, sources tell Kotaku's Jason Schreier about Naughty Dog's culture of crunch. It's a brutal one. The general consensus among workers is a simple question: "How long can we keep doing this?" Crunch takes a serious human cost, and making games often requires prolonged periods of overwork. Those amazing AAA interactive experiences that blow us away demand sacrifice from the all-mighty Crunch God. Developers have to give up their time, their soul, and their minds for the billion-dollar games industry.
The Last of Us II is no different. The game's recent delay didn't do anything to stave off crunch--in fact, the studio doubled-down on crunch. It basically gave the developers more time to work harder, not easier, to get the game finished. There's really no breaks in this show.
"This game is really good, but at a huge cost to the people," one source told Kotaku.
"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 realize, 'I can't keep doing this. I'm getting older. I can't stay and work all night,'" said another.
Perhaps the most damning look at Naughty Dog's brutal crunch comes from ex-animator Jonathan Cooper, who shared some illuminating--if not haunting--stories on Twitter.
According to Cooper, last year's The Last of Us II gameplay demo took Herculean dedication. Naughty Dog crunched incredibly hard to get that demo ready, harder than they ever have before.
Some devs were pushed past their breaking point and needed to be hospitalized. And there's been more of what BioWare calls stress casualties since.
"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," Cooper said.
Cooper left Naughty Dog because they're "no longer the best," and the teams are often getting in each other's way and cramming up the pipeline. This leads to a lot of unnecessary and tedious work. Cooper has since left Naughty Dog, and he's not alone. A lot of the company's senior animators left too, according to Cooper.
"The reason I left is because I only want to work with the best. That is no longer Naughty Dog. Their reputation for crunch within LA is so bad it was near impossible to hire seasoned contract game animators to close out the project. As such we loaded up on film animators.
"While super-talented, they lacked the technical/design knowhow to assemble scenes. Similarly, the design team ballooned with juniors to make up for the attrition of key roles. Every aspect of finishing this game took much longer due to the lack of game experience on the team."
Cooper finalizes his words by saying Naughty Dog only really succeeds because of Sony's billions. The platform-holder is able to invest tremendous amounts of cash in its first-party PlayStation games, and without that, Naughty Dog would need to refine its skills.
If Naughty Dog just had a better team and didn't rely on lower-skilled contracted animators, they could've shipped The Last of Us 2 in 2019, Cooper says.
"While talented, their success is due in large part to Sony's deep pockets funding delays rather than skill alone. A more senior team would have shipped TLOU2 a year ago."
That last bit is pretty scathing.
The Last of Us Part II releases May 29, 2020 on PlayStation 4, and when you put it in your console, be mindful that many, many people suffered to make it.
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