Earlier this week, Kotaku’s Jason Schreier published a scathing report on the intense crunch developers at Naughty Dog are undergoing to ship the highly anticipated The Last of Us Part II. It’s a long article that is well worth your time to read, but the general gist is this: The Last of Us Part II is shaping up to meet people’s expectations at the cost of the well-being of the human beings making it.
70% of the non-lead designers on Uncharted 4, the studio’s last big release, are no longer at the studio — likely due to burnout. No one should be surprised when a similar statistic comes out of The Last of Us Part II‘s team in a few years. It’s very likely not a matter of if, but when. This is because 13 current and former developers contributed to the report, revealing that the production of the upcoming title has been plagued by delays, high turnover rates, disorganization due to a lack of a production department, and developers having to work upwards of 12-hour days — including weekends — to get the game shipped by May 29, 2020.
While crunch culture is a systemic issue in the tech industry, especially the video game industry, Naughty Dog is a studio notorious for the crunch it puts its developers through. It almost feels incorrect to call it an open secret, for its particular culture of crunching is fairly well-documented.
Jonathan Cooper, a former animator at Naughty Dog, tweeted his thoughts soon after the report was published. “For the demo shown last September, the gameplay animators crunched more than I’ve ever seen and required weeks of recovery afterwards,” he wrote. “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.”
He shares he left the studio to work with the best — which is no longer Naughty Dog, considering, “their reputation for crunch within LA is so bad it was near impossible to hire seasoned contract game animators” to work on a project during his time there. He ends his thread by saying that, “a more senior team would have shipped TLOU2 a year ago.”
Despite the stories included in this damning report and several other similar articles, the issue of crunch isn’t one everyone empathizes with. Replies to Schreier’s tweet of his report are filled with defenses of crunch and a lack of empathy because of the money the developers may or may not be making. I was going to link a few responses, but there is such a staggering amount of them that it felt pointless. It only takes a moment before you inevitably see one among the many.
And that’s a huge problem because the physical, mental, and emotional effects of crunch cannot be understated — nor should they be dismissed. Crunch is harmful to the people who make your beloved games and to the products themselves; it is what leads to so many people leaving the industry and taking their talent to healthier, better-paying industries. It is a sign of mismanagement, a problem that only worsens as our expectations of games become grander and unions are rare.
As someone with extensive experience in leading development teams, Mike Laidlaw — the ex-Creative Director of BioWare’s Dragon Age series — tweeted his thoughts on the report and crunch culture.
“I’ve noticed a trend of people reading the recent ‘crunch’ article and going ‘Who cares everyone works super hard overtime all the time and video game people have it easy by comparison,'” he writes. “It just seems strange to say ‘you should have to suffer because everyone does’ instead of, say, ‘hold on, what if none of us suffered?’ I also say this as a person who has crunched his face off, and asked people to crunch. I’m not proud of either and while I see some value in tightly controlled pushes to specific milestones, I find extended crunch to be … a failure in planning.”
These conversations of crunch will keep happening — and should keep happening — until the video game industry unionizes. Because we know how this story will go: The Last of Us Part II will launch in a few months, sell millions, and achieve critical acclaim. Meanwhile, its developers may walk home with monetary bonuses and a modicum of recognition for their efforts, but they’ll also be dealing with the effects of this crunch for years to come. It’s happened before, and it will happen again.
The least we can do is not praise crunch; to work to dismantle it as part of the industry’s work system. To recognize it isn’t a requirement for making great art. Just like no billionaire works hard enough to deserve billions of dollars, no art is good enough to justify the terrible harm crunch can have on human beings.