People should be more upset about an abusive crunch culture than they are about a mistreated worker taking direct action.
Few video game developers enjoy the same level of clout as Naughty Dog.
While the studio came to prominence with beloved PS1 and PS2-era action platformers like Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Daxter, Naughty Dog shifted its focus towards cinematic, story-driven, action-adventure games in the PS3 generation. The shift paid off, with their Uncharted franchise taking the gaming industry by storm, held up as a shining example of how video games can serve as powerful story vehicles.
Naughty Dog has always prided themselves on insane attention to detail (i.e. grain realistically pouring out of bags) and a standard of nothing less than perfection. That guiding tenet of quality above all else came to define them as the single best studio in the modern AAA industry. So when Naughty Dog branched out into a new series in 2013—zombie-oriented The Last of Us—gamers expected nothing less than greatness. They weren't disappointed. The Last of Us was heralded as one of the greatest video games ever made, lauded for its epic story, emotionally resonant characters, and cutting-edge visuals.
But behind the luster of Naughty Dog's award-winning products, a deeply troubling work culture festered. Characterized by insane crunch time—the all-too-common practice in the video game industry whereby employees constantly work overtime, oftentimes without extra pay, in order to get games released on-schedule—Naughty Dog's team seemed to be in constant flux, with many high-level employees abandoning ship and new employees at constant risk of burning out. Their demand for in-game perfection had a real-life cost on the developers and artists working behind the scenes. One former Naughty Dog animator even recounted a story about his friend and co-worker being hospitalized due to overwork.
For the demo shown last September, the gameplay animators crunched more than I've ever seen and required weeks of r… https://t.co/VaOLGveJZ7— Jonathan Cooper (@Jonathan Cooper)1584044716.0
Now with The Last of Us II's release date on the horizon (set for June 19th after a series of continuous delays), Naughty Dog's dichotomy between having some of the best games and one of the worst work cultures has come to a head.
Back in March, Jason Schreier reported on Naughty Dog's toxic work culture for Kotaku. The piece ends on a bitter note, with Schreier recounting some employees' secret hope that The Last of Us II will flop:
"Those who have worked on it tell me they believe it will be phenomenal, another shining entry in Naughty Dog's quest for excellence at all costs. Some say they think it's the best game Naughty Dog has ever made.
"Yet there are also those developers, some of whom still work at Naughty Dog today, who say that there's a part of them that actually wishes this game would fail. A critical flop might help show Naughty Dog that this isn't the best way to make games, that this level of sacrifice isn't necessary, that maybe the project isn't worth losing all of these people. That perhaps, no matter how many Game of the Year nominations they win or how high their Metacritic scores climb, all the individual hairs on Joel's eyebrows or the grains of sand in a burlap sack just aren't worth the cost."
Alas, a recent series of major leaks from the game seem intended to make that failure a reality. In a concerted effort to undermine The Last of Us II's release, an unknown leaker dropped multiple videos on YouTube containing in-game footage of nearly all of the game's most integral plot twists. Moreover, these leaks back up a previous text post on 4chan that outlined the entire plot of the upcoming game. The text post had previously been written off as the work of a troll due to wild plot deviations. The post outlined a story path so beyond the pale that many fans considered it to be very bad storytelling, and therefore surely not the work of Naughty Dog. The video drop, and the confirmation that the leaked plot is real, is nothing short of a disaster for the renowned studio.
To be clear, video game-related leaks are relatively common, but there's a huge difference between leaking the newest DLC fighter in Super Smash and leaking major plot-spoiling videos for a story-based AAA game. Unlike a game whose biggest draw is actual gameplay, Naughty Dog's breed of action-adventures rely on cinematic, experiential story-telling. Spoiling the twists quite literally ruins the main incentive for people to shell out $60 on a brand new game, and that's triply true when people dislike the twists so much that it makes them not even want to play the game in the first place.
Frankly, the act of leaking content from a game like this, undermining the work of hundreds of people and ruining the experience for many fans who spent years excitedly waiting for the release, seems cruel and unusual, regardless of the circumstances.
And yet, the circumstances cannot be disregarded.
Although unconfirmed, the leaker is suspected by many to be a Naughty Dog employee (largely due to the inclusion of a level list, which most likely would have only been available to someone actually working on the game). Further rumors have spread across social media that the leaker was a contractor retaliating against Naughty Dog for terrible treatment and lack of pay during the coronavirus crisis. Even though these accounts are nebulous, the story lines up with Naughty Dog's well-documented practice of hiring contractors for low pay and incentivizing absurd crunch hours largely by dangling secure salary positions like a carrot.
All of which is to say, Naughty Dog, as a company, deserves repercussions for the way they treat their employees.
Crunch culture is a sickness that pervades the gaming industry, and the sad truth is that as long as gamers continue buying games from companies that abuse their employees, the practice will continue. Of course, Naughty Dog is hardly the only company engaging in this practice, but the buck needs to stop somewhere. By this point, crunch culture has been reported on ad nauseam. Everyone knows it exists, and very few companies have done anything to stop it.
When companies have no incentive to stop predatory practices against their employees, when consumers don't care as long as they get their product, when employees don't have proper legal means to take action and unionize...sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures. After all, contractors know that their options usually boil down to either sucking it up and taking abuse, or quitting and letting someone young, eager, and naive take their place to repeat the cycle of burnout.
In which case, perhaps overworked, underpaid, mistreated contractors coordinating game-ruining leaks is the reckoning that the video game industry needs in order for it to finally change its ways.
That's not to say that all of the people who work on video games deserve these leaks, and it's not to say that the fans deserve to have games spoiled for them, either. Many people who worked incredibly hard on The Last of Us II and are not at fault for Naughty Dog's horrible conditions are likely reeling from their art being damaged in the public eye. But at the same time, if people were nearly as upset about abusive crunch culture as they are about an underpaid contractor who finally took direct action in response, crunch culture might actually cease to exist.
Nobody enters the video game industry because they want to get rich. People who pursue careers in the industry do so because they're passionate about making video games. For someone on the Naughty Dog team to leak content of this nature suggests an unprecedented level of internal abuse—the kind that would lead a person pursuing a passion-driven career, working on a project that they almost certainly cared about, to put it all on the line in order to make a statement. Chances are that if one person felt that way, they aren't alone.
Certainly, Naughty Dog will be seeking to punish the leaker to the full extent of the law. But if these leaks hurt their sales numbers in a major way, Evan Wells, Neil Druckmann and the rest of the company's top executives would be smart to turn their ire inwards. What sort of corporate culture would lead someone to behave in such a way, and how can they change it? What did they do to deserve this?
- The Last of Us 2 story spoilers are "disappointing," Naughty Dog ... ›
- The Last Of Us 2 Leaked By Angry Dev? - Inside Gaming Daily ... ›
- Warning: Massive 'The Last Of Us Part 2' Leak Reveals Plot Details ... ›
- The Last of Us Part 2 leaked online | GamesIndustry.biz ›
- 'Last of Us 2' leaks: Major spoilers ruin the entire devastating plot ›
- Disgruntled Naughty Dog Dev Reportedly Leaks Major Spoilers For ... ›
- Disgruntled Naughty Dog dev leaks The Last of Us Part 2's entire story ›
- Last of Us 2 Leak: Spoilers Reveal Major Plot Points in Naughty Dog ... ›
- The Last Of Us 2 Story Leak: Is This What Naughty Dog's Sequel Is ... ›
- The Last Of Us 2 Plot Details Leak, Naughty Dog Responds ... ›