What Naughty Dog and Other Studios With Crunch Culture Have in Common

What Naughty Dog and Other Studios With Crunch Culture Have in Common

THIS WEEK IN BUSINESS | Naughty Dog's The Last of Us Part 2 struggles highlight some common patterns in how studios foster crunch.

We've focused on coronavirus here the past couple of weeks, but we're going to skip that because I'm pretty sure you all know what's going on there and I don't want to sound like a broken record. Instead, I want to talk about something you all know is going on, and that everyone has been a broken record about: Crunch.

As you'll see in the quotes, Kotaku published a big feature on crunch at Naughty Dog, and all I can really say is that it all feels like the same old story we've all read before. That's not because the author of the article Jason Schreier covered the subject of crunch at Naughty Dog in his 2017 book Blood, Sweat, and Pixels. It's not because the culture at Naughty Dog has been well-established at this point, with the studio's former creative director Amy Hennig having talked about it openly in 2016, including how she worked an essentially unbroken string of 80-hour work weeks for her entire decade at the studio.

It feels like the same old story about crunch because we've seen a procession of studios called out for their crunch cultures in recent years, and they almost all have a few things in common, from Naughty Dog to Rockstar to NetherRealm Studios and beyond.

Basically, all of these stories point out that crunch was never mandated in these studios. It never really had to be, because everyone knew what the expectations were without spelling them out. Because crunch was seen as dedication to the project, and people who weren't crunching clearly didn't care as much. Because co-workers would police themselves through peer pressure.

The stories also tend to point out that some of the developers actually enjoy the crunch and camaraderie, that they buy into the idea of sacrificing everything to make a Very Important Game. They will also often have a former developer or two who says the studio was a cult, or that there was a Stockholm Syndrome effect in action.

And the other thing they all have in common is that the end results simply aren't worth it. Some of the games might be great, but no matter the quality, they aren't worth the health and well-being of even a single developer. The larger the project, the more individuals involved, and the more their work is going to benefit corporate shareholders rather than themselves, the less defensible it is.

However, there's still some value in telling the same story over and over again. It's how we warn people about this industry and its worst actors when it comes to crunch. It's how we reinforce that this isn't acceptable and that it needs to change, even if it hasn't yet. It's how we put an end to decades of holding crunch up as a badge of courage and turn it into a mark of shame. It's how, little by little and over a period of years, we make the industry a better place.

QUOTE | "Everyone was a workaholic." - 10 Years Ago This Month, ex-Ensemble developer Paul Bettner spoke at GDC about the defunct studio's crunch culture, how it wasn't sustainable, and how it burns out so many of the industry's best people.

QUOTE | "People just naturally do it. 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." - In a 2016 interview revisited for a new Kotaku report on Naughty Dog's crunch culture, studio president Evan Wells explains that the company actively seeks out workaholics in its hiring process.

QUOTE | "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.

"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." - In a Twitter thread, former Naughty Dog animator Jonathan Cooper underscores some of the ways the studio's crunch culture has been coming back to haunt it.

QUOTE | "In terms of marketing done well, I'm a huge Valve nerd. I wanted to work there until word got out that it was terrible." - The Stanley Parable designer William Pugh talks about the inspirations for his low-cost marketing approach during the Yorkshire Games Festival.

E3 2020 was canceled this week in light of COVID-19. | ESA

QUOTE | "We thank everyone who shared their views on reimagining E3 this year. We look forward to bringing you E3 2021 as a reimagined event that brings fans, media and the industry together in a showcase that celebrates the global video game industry." - In announcing the cancellation of E3 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Entertainment Software Association affirms the event will return in 2021.

QUOTE |"I try to go out at least once a day to take some sunlight, to walk around the block. Just to see some other people and be out from the four walls that are your office. The big risk is that if you let yourself keep working and working, your life just becomes your place. You wake up, you work, you go to sleep. So you have to be really responsible about yourself in that sense. Go out, take a break and interact with other people." - Colombian developer Enrique Alejandro "Alejo" Pérez has some advice for people new to the work-from-home lifestyle.

QUOTE | "We hired people away from Blizzard, from Riot, from Disney and so on... and the pitch that we made was simply: 'Hey, we have a good salary, but the nice thing is that you can work from home'." - Ori and the Will of the Wisps game director Thomas Mahler explains how remote working helped pull together a team of 80 people to create the game.

QUOTE | "I think it's important that we stay open to new ideas of how to introduce more people to PlayStation, and show people maybe what they've been missing out on. And to maybe put a few minds at ease, releasing one first-party AAA title to PC doesn't necessarily mean that every game now will come to PC." - In announcing the upcoming PC release of Horizon Zero Dawn, PlayStation's Worldwide Studios President Hermen Hulst looks to mollify PlayStation fans so hung up on console wars and what games can be played on whose platforms that they are actually angry people who do not own a PS4 will be able to play that game this summer.

STAT | Two months - The length of time PC players have already been able to play Horizon Zero Dawn, seeing as how it was added to the PlayStation Now cloud streaming service in January, and PS Now runs on PCs.

QUOTE | "Any [Chinese] consumer that is even slightly well-informed about the situation would not choose to buy an officially released Switch, because it is so constrained, especially on the digital side. The console can run foreign [physical] games, but on the eShop there is only one game available, and that probably won't change for a while." - Shenzhen-based business developer Daniel Camilo says if the initial Switch hardware sales in China aren't that impressive, it's probably because people already purchased foreign systems.

STAT | $10 billion - The amount "people familiar with the matter" say Magic Leap could go for as it explores the possibility of a sale. Call me a skeptic, but that number looks like the wishful thinking of someone with a financial interest in the augmented reality company, which received $2 billion in funding and spent eight years creating a product I have tried and considered as overpriced as it was underwhelming.

QUOTE | "We want players to know what something costs before they buy it." - Bungie's Luke Smith explains the company's reasoning for removing randomized loot boxes from Destiny 2.

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Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined GamesIndustry International in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at CBS-owned GameSpot in the US.

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