Former Naughty Dog Devs: Crunch Isn’t Mandatory But Covertly Expected As Part of the Studio’s Culture

Aernout van de Velde
Naughty Dog

Several former Naughty Dog employees have opened up on the working conditions at the studio behind the Uncharted series and The Last of Us.

Much has been said and written about working conditions at game development studios lately. Working 100-hour weeks during final stages of development are no exception, and now several former Naughty Dog employees have opened up about working at the Santa-Monica based studio.

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Speaking to COGconnected under the condition of anonymity, these former employees and contractors all speak of working for very long hours on a regular basis, although this ‘crunch’ isn’t being openly mandated by the studio. However, the amount of work, peer pressure and potential professional growth at the studio requires both employees and contractors to make long hours.

“So my take on crunch at Naughty Dog: The truth is more gray than black-and-white,” someone who worked at the studio for several years on multiple recent games told COGconnected. “There is no official mandate for crunch. There can be a significant amount of peer pressure, though. And that can include peer pressure from the people who are effectively your managers. Peer pressure comes from having a team of brilliant, talented, dedicated people working hard on a project together.”

Too much work for a single person

Another former employee pointed out that, while Naught Dog doesn’t mandate ‘crunch', there’s just too much work to be done by a single person.

“The truth [is] they don’t tell you that you have to work X amount of hours,” the developer said. “But you have to get your work done. And the amount of work is just impossible for any person. It is just way too much. And if you don’t hit the goals you will be fired. So I guess you don’t have much of a choice.”

Various former people at quality assurance apparently also felt the pressure to make long hours on Naughty Dog’s games.

“Every department’s crunch depended on necessity”, a source who was involved in quality assurance for several recent Naughty Dog games said.

“A developer (programmer, artist, etc.) had more flexibility; as long as they got their work done on time they weren’t as bound as some other departments,” the person added.

“QA, on the other hand, followed a strict schedule and not committing to [overtime] could negatively impact one’s future standing,” they continued. “So if you didn’t do as much [overtime] as someone else, chances were you weren’t going to be asked to return for the next [project].”

Regular hours are frowned upon

Other people involved with quality assurance similarly pointed out that crunch wasn’t mandatory, but frowned upon if you didn’t.

“Crunching felt mandatory to your job security,” they said. “Also, we were paid barely above minimum wage, so again, management used the notion of making overtime pay to keep us longer,” they said.

“During crunch time, which lasted many months, we could be working anywhere from 60 to 80 hour weeks on average,” they added. “I remember hitting 100 plus hours the final week of development on The Last of Us.”

Another source said that crunch at the studio was covertly expected of you.

“Crunch was at the very least, covertly expected. Your performance would be dinged if you didn’t crunch,” the source said. “By the time we were within several months of shipping a game, crunch was more openly encouraged by leadership.”

Another team that was making very long hours was the animation team.

“Seventy-hour weeks on average for me for months,” they continued. “I say all this to point out that while we weren’t told to work specific overtime, it felt implied. It also felt like I needed to be a team player with the staff animators staying until 1 AM every night.”

Again, while Naughty Dog apparently doesn’t mandate crunch, the studio’s management doesn’t discourage it any way either.

“I think this is one of the biggest issues there,” sources told COGconnected. “People keep working until 1 AM on these projects and no one from upper management seemed to make even the slightest effort to say that we shouldn’t do this.”

“I once remember towards the end of crunch,” they recalled, “when everyone was struggling, the animation team got an email from one of the animation leads that basically said, and I’m paraphrasing, ‘Yeah, obviously the rumors are true. We work hard here at Naughty Dog. But just keep pushing guys! It’ll be worth it.’”

Staying late by choice in strive for perfection

While this all sounds rather negative, not all sources seem to share these views.

“People as a whole usually stayed [late] by choice,” said a developer who worked on Uncharted 4 for several months. “With Naughty Dog, there is a culture to strive for perfection, but I think this is more due to their history of making amazing games. I never at any point felt internal pressure, I was compelled to do so by nature of being a part of something truly amazing.”

“On top of this, Naughty Dog as a studio took great care of its staff, with frequent catering, food trucks, and paid meals,” the developer continued. “Overall, I really enjoyed my stay there. I feel that the media overall has somewhat a false sense of what ‘crunch’ periods entail, and why they exist. Studios like Naughty Dog are full of very talented individuals that simply want to make a great game.”

These sources pointed out that Naughty Dog just isn’t a studio for everyone.

“You can certainly join ND and work eight hour days,” they concluded, “but since people around you are putting in so much effort, you can’t help feel compelled to do what you can so their efforts aren’t limited by you.”

“You are surrounded by talented, passionate, people who focus on making the best possible product and you become inspired by that to devote all of your time and energy into your work,” a source who worked at Q&A said. “This is not to say that this is a healthy process, but I think how much someone is ‘forced’ to work is up to the individual.” The source mentioned that working more than 60 hours was optional and said that “developers in other departments were empowered to set their own schedules [while] QA schedules were set by the department leads.”

We highly suggest reading the full article for more quotes and comments on working at Naughty Dog.

What are your thoughts on these working conditions? Hit the comments.

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