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Things keep getting worse for Naughty Dog

Naughty Dog is the studio behind classic video franchises like Crash BandicootUncharted, and The Last of Us. A recent report from Kotaku's Jason Schreier has uncovered an alarming trend in Naughty Dog's production cycles. Specifically, the legendary developer has a culture of crunch that is wearing down its employees and anyone it brings in to help finish one of its titles. Worse, it seems this crunch factor has intensified during the development of the highly-anticipated The Last of Us Part 2.

As Schreier notes, Naughty Dog's games are known for being insanely intricate and wonderfully designed, but that comes at a price. Naughty Dog's titles feature "the type of meticulous details you wouldn't see in other games," writes Schreier. "Shooting a sack of grain in Uncharted 4 would cause the sack to deflate as barley poured out of it. Shining a flashlight at Ellie's face in The Last of Us led her to blink and turn away. Those details exist because Naughty Dog has built a culture of perfectionism, where games have to be great, no matter the human cost."

Though a number of Naughty Dog developers spoke to Schreier for this article, many of them chose to remain anonymous. Despite their unhappiness with the crunch culture, it seems most of them still fear for job security when speaking out against it.

According to former Naughty Dog animator Jonathan Cooper, the company's culture of crunch is pretty much an open secret in the industry. In a series of tweets following Kotaku's report, Cooper explained Naughty Dog's business practices have led to people being wary of working with the company. "The reason I left is because I only want to work with the best," tweeted Cooper. "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."

Crunch culture has long been a concern in video game production, but it has become much more prominent (or at least noticeable) in recent years. Rockstar Games came under fire for the way it treats its temporary contractors. Rockstar eventually attempted to make amends by offering full-time positions at the company. Meanwhile, CD Projekt Red has more or less told fans that the entire development team for Cyberpunk 2077 will be under considerable crunch until that game finally makes its way to stores in September. It's basically become a public problem that the industry at large just kind of goes along with.

In a similar fashion, one Naughty Dog employee communicated to Schreier that The Last of Us Part 2's three-month delay did nothing to alleviate that pressure on the staff. This is despite the fact Naughty Dog VP Neil Druckmann said "this new release date allows us to finish everything to our level of satisfaction while also reducing stress on the team." If anything, the delayed release just prolonged the difficult working conditions. 

As one Naughty Dog developer said, "People thinking the extension is somehow to relieve stress or the workload on the team are wrong. The first thing that they wanted to reiterate is that we aren't slowing down the pace." In other words, employees were expected to continue the intense amount of crunch for an even greater length of time. You can't help but wonder how sustainable that is in the long run.

This sentiment has been echoed by multiple members of Naughty Dog's staff. In fact, one developer on The Last of Us Part 2 said, "This can't be something that's continuing over and over for each game ... At a certain point you realize, 'I can't keep doing this. I'm getting older. I can't stay and work all night.'"

And yet, many people working on Naughty Dog's latest title have found themselves doing just that. When the person who sits next to you is working an overnight for the second or third time in a row, it likely feels difficult to justify punching out for the day. Despite the strenuous working conditions, there appears to be a strong sense of camaraderie between the members of the Naughty Dog team. However, even that is fraying as people grow more and more exhausted by the grueling hours.

Crunch culture is a widespread issue in the video game industry, one that doesn't seem like it's going away anytime soon. Hopefully, Naughty Dog can find some kind of middle ground between the quality of games and quality of life for staff.