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Naughty Dog's real mark on the industry | This Week in Business

Negative impact of studio's conflation of crunch with quality is only amplified by the success of its games

This Week in Business is our weekly recap column, a collection of stats and quotes from recent stories presented with a dash of opinion (sometimes more than a dash) and intended to shed light on various trends. Check back every Friday for a new entry.

Last weekend, Game Informer published an interview with Naughty Dog co-presidents Evan Wells and Neil Druckmann in which they were asked about crunch, because Naughty Dog is notorious for its crunch culture and we'd all like to think you can teach a Naughty Dog new tricks.

It's not the first time they've talked about crunch in public, and what they said hasn't substantially changed. But we'll keep talking about it because it's still emblematic of a mindset the industry has long had toward crunch as some sort of noble sacrifice made by passionate developers to produce great art, rather than a harmful exploitation of hundreds (and, more frequently these days, thousands) of underlings working on a project to benefit the ego and bank accounts of a few people at the top.

QUOTE | "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." - When asked about how Naughty Dog is tackling its notorious crunch culture, studio co-president Evan Wells seems deeply concerned about the negative impacts of not-crunch.

QUOTE | "There's people who never go home and see their families. They have children who are growing up without seeing them. I didn't have my own kids. I chose my career in lots of ways, and I could be single-minded like that. When I was making sacrifices, did it affect my family? Yes, but it was primarily affecting me and I could make that choice. But when I look at other people... I mean, my health really declined, and I had to take care of myself, because it was, like, bad. And there were people who, y'know, collapsed, or had to go and check themselves in somewhere when one of these games were done. Or they got divorced. That's not okay, any of that. None of this is worth that." - Former Naughty Dog creative director Amy Hennig, in 2016, provides a clear-eyed view of what Wells would apparently accept rather than having people feel handcuffed by a reasonable work-life balance.

STAT | Ten and a half years - The length of time Hennig worked at Naughty Dog, during which she routinely worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

As with many studios that crunch, Naughty Dog apparently doesn't have to order its employees to burn the candle at both ends. But one way you can avoid forcing people to overwork (exploitative, cruel) is to bias the studio's hiring process in favor of people you know will crunch anyway (clever, synergizing interests).

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." - Wells, in a 2016 interview, as recounted in last year's Kotaku article about the studio's crunch on The Last of Us Part 2.

The thing is, Wells and Druckmann know the studio can't keep going like it has been, and they've even acknowledged as much, even if their phrasing and word choice suggests they're doing it reluctantly.

QUOTE | "We don't try to babysit people. We draw people who want to tell these stories and who want to leave a mark on the industry. And they're gonna work very hard to do it. We need to put some guardrails [in] so they don't injure themselves, but I don't think we could prevent them from working hard and still make the kind of games we make." - Neil Druckmann in an interview with GQ last year.

Druckmann's quote is dripping with derision toward the idea of taking the foot off the gas pedal, but it also acknowledges a key problem that the studio would have even if it were committed to making a healthier work environment now. Naughty Dog has specifically hired for people who crunch, so now the studio culture is defined by people who welcome it. It also ignores the fact that from a leadership perspective, voluntary and coerced crunch can look an awful lot alike, especially when you have your "passionate" employees putting the pressure on one another to keep working.

QUOTE | "If you do stay late and other people leave at a normal hour, you'll hear people who did stay late talking badly about the ones who left. 'Oh, he's not here so he must not care about the game,' that sort of stuff." - A NetherRealm Studios developer telling us in 2019 about how the Mortal Kombat studio's culture uses peer pressure to keep people working unreasonable hours.

I don't know how change happens in these kinds of environments without a course correction that feels drastic to people who have already internalized and accepted the status quo, something that would make them "feel handcuffed," as Wells said. That's especially true considering how common it is for leaders to promise improvement on the crunch with half-measures, only to fall back into the same patterns.

QUOTE | "After every big game there was a period of reflection where there'd be attempts to plan for the future, it was often mentioned that we'd 'never crunch that hard again' so more people would be hired. If anything, it got worse every time." - A former Rockstar Lincoln developer speaking to us in 2018 about the company's penchant for paying lip service to fixing crunch but never following through.

It's one thing for leaders to make good faith efforts to improve crunch but slide back into old patterns. But when those same leaders lionize a mindset that drives crunch, it's not always clear they see a problem to fix in the first place.

QUOTE | "I got the impression that many in the upper management actually enjoyed it. Crunch indicated teamwork, dedication to the project, love for and loyalty to the company, and hard work; people sacrificing their lives for the company/the game... They want to believe that these people truly want to be there and that's why they stay; rather than acknowledging the reality of the situation." - Another former Rockstar developer in the same article.

Too often, the people who don't mind crunch only change their opinion on it after they burn out themselves. If it happens to rank-and-file developers, they are likely to leave, or to be forced out by a culture that still insists on overwork.

And when it happens to leaders, they too are likely to leave even though they're the ones in the best position to affect change. Maybe the lightbulb went off for them, but the rest of the leadership group is unconvinced. Maybe reversing the cultural inertia of a crunch-driven studio is a fight they no longer have the energy for, what with being profoundly burned out themselves.

QUOTE | "While I had massive pride for what the studio had achieved and the titles we had worked on, I also felt incredibly guilty for how we just kept doing the excessive hours, how I failed to change that pain for the team. Yes, we had many laughs, built tremendous camaraderie, and 'over-delivered' in many ways. The learning, capability, and growth were vast. But I think there was more human cost than we and I ever acknowledged. Our families, our lives, our time. It's hard to see that cost when you are in amongst it. You do what needs to be done. But afterwards, you have time to think, to reflect." - Mark Lloyd, former studio head of Rockstar Lincoln, explaining that he deeply regrets overseeing a decade of crunch culture at the studio.

Wells and Druckmann talk a lot about wanting to "leave their mark on the industry" with the quality of their games, and they have. They're well known and widely respected developers who have produced a series of major hits for Naughty Dog.

But what about the other mark they're leaving on the industry by perpetuating the idea that the only way to show "passion" is to be willing to neglect your health, your family, and your friends because of a job? Or that those sacrifices could somehow be justified if the game is good enough or the sales are high enough? Or that the people who create and sustain a culture where crunch is the norm are not responsible for the harm that causes, that to believe such a thing would be "babysitting" the people in their care?

It's clear from interviews with Wells and Druckmann how proud they are that Naughty Dog is so influential, a model of success for the industry. It's less clear if they've considered who gets hurt when the model everyone wants to imitate treats overwork as a virtue, and what sort of expectations that sets for every other publisher, studio, and developer with a goal to make great games.

The rest of the week in review

STAT | 0 - The number of hours children in China are allowed to play video games from Monday through Thursday under newly implemented rules. Children are permitted one hour of gaming a day on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and public holidays.

STAT | 0 - My best guess at the number of hours the industry will collectively spend reflecting on how a decade-plus of emphasis on exploitative mechanics in free-to-play games and a ruthless emphasis on permanent engagement have created a situation where parents and politicians look at games as a pernicious influence on their children that must be curbed by legislation, and how other countries may be tempted to follow China's example.

STAT | 0 - The number of people who were surprised when some Fortnite players behaved disrespectfully in the March Through Time experience commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.

STAT | 0 - The amount of slack people should cut Epic for taking the experience live without considerations to prevent that behavior.

QUOTE | "We don't have any future IP plans to announce at this point. But absolutely when you look at building places that delight gamers and delight them for generations ideally, that's absolutely a place where you'd expect a lot of game developers to be thinking and creating." - ProbablyMonsters' Harold Ryan, when asked if the company that raised $200 million in Series A funding is building a metaverse, sidesteps the question in a way that makes me think it's absolutely building a metaverse.

QUOTE | "We want these games to stand on their own with or without new films or TV shows being greenlit. Our unique value proposition at MGM is that we're providing nostalgia, but modernised nostalgia." - MGM VP for global consumer products and experiences Robert Marick described the film company's strategy when bringing properties like James Bond and Legally Blonde to video games.

QUOTE | "I personally believe that it is because Disgaea is niche that we have been able to create the gameplay systems and stories that we have. I think it is because it was niche that we were able to take on bold new challenges, rather than wasting time defending our decisions. If we were to lose touch with that spirit, then Disgaea would no longer be Disgaea." - NIS president Sohei Niikawa dismisses the idea of bringing the strategy RPG franchise to a wider audience.

QUOTE | "We've probably been one of the laziest developers out there when it comes to PR and marketing. Hopefully in a good way." - Tomorrow Corporation's Kyle Gray explains what the company will be doing differently as it branches out into publishing other developers' games with the sci-fi adventure game The Captain.

STAT | 94% - The percentage of growth CD Projekt's year-over-year revenues saw in North America over the first half of 2021. However, its European sales dropped by more than half in the same time frame.

QUOTE | "Productivity isn't everything, and you shouldn't set your self worth based on how much you get done." - Some parts of CreatorCrate developer Jori Ryan's advice for hobbyist game developers are applicable to everyone.

QUOTE | "We applaud South Korean lawmakers and President Moon Jae-In for setting an example to the rest of the world to hold app store gatekeepers accountable for their harmful and anti-competitive practices." - The Coalition for App Fairness (co-founded by Epic Games) celebrates the news that South Korea has banned Apple and Google from requiring developers to use the App Store and Google Play's built-in billing and payment systems, which take up to 30% of all revenue.

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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