(Note: The opinions expressed in this article should not be taken as facts. They are educated guesses as to what is happening, which are not yet confirmed by any ex-employees of Naughty Dog)
When I think of Naughty Dog, I think of a high-quality, team-driven studio. Four series spring to mind:
- Crash Bandicoot
- Jak and Daxter
- The Last of Us
What I (and many other gamers) thought would never happen is happening right now, as this article is being written and likely while you’re reading it. Naughty Dog is hemorrhaging staff. Every few weeks, we get another report that high-level employees are leaving for other companies. It started in March of this year, when lead writer Amy Hennig (Uncharted) left to join Visceral Games. Soon after, director Justin Richmond (Uncharted 3) and lead artist Nate Wells (The Last of Us) also departed for Riot Games and Giant Sparrow, respectively. At this point, gamers were beginning to ask questions. As of the time of writing, we still don’t know exactly why this is happening. If it weren’t as many people leaving, one could attribute it to general industry practice. People will leave studios for others. It is human nature to want change.
However, when lead designer Jacob Minkoff (Uncharted 3, The Last of Us) left for Infinity Ward, I became convinced that there is more to this than everyone thinks. For those of you who don’t know, Naughty Dog works without producers or managers, in an attempt to make everyone feel closer when working on a project. With this Kaizen attitude, with everyone working together to improve quality and boost confidence, games of such high-quality are able to be made and released. However, there are a few disadvantages.
Firstly, it takes a lot longer to create the game.
Secondly, everyone must work at the exact same level to ensure quality.
Thirdly, disputes in the business affect everyone, as even those who dislike each other must work together.
It is due to this that I have thought of a possible reason as to why the company is losing staff:
What if the work is just too stressing to handle?
Imagine yourself in the shoes of the employees, working long hours, day-in-day-out to create a game that will not only be commercially successful, as per Sony’s requirements, but a game that fans will love and enjoy, as per their ethos. It must be physically and mentally draining for even the best staff to constantly do this for months and years to create a game. On top of this, imagine if your co-workers, good friends were also to leave. I’m sure many staff were good friends with Hennig, Richmond, Wells and Minkoff, so losing them could impact the mind to such a point that the creative drive dies down, and quality is lost in vital areas. This domino effect will probably mean that more workers will continue to leave, and even if replacements are found, integrating into the tight-knit family of Naughty Dog will take time, and the high quality is something that won’t come instantly, either.
It’s a dangerous situation for Naughty Dog, and I wouldn’t be wholly surprised if we saw another bunch of departures after Uncharted 4 is released. Could this be the downfall of a great studio? Only time will tell, and hopefully some of the ex-employees will shed some light on the subject, and soon. It would be a shame to see such a rare gem of a studio suffer because of basic human limits.