“Crunch Felt Mandatory to Your Job Security”
Several people who did quality assurance for Naughty Dog also said they felt pressured to crunch on games. Many of them had worked on recent Naughty Dog titles such as Uncharted 4.
Someone who was involved in quality assurance for several recent Naughty Dog games said that “every department’s crunch depended on necessity.”
“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 explained.
“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].”
“Some projects we were working for up to six months of crunch from 50-80 hours a week, it increased as the project got closer to submission,” they also said. “Crunch wasn’t ‘mandatory’ in the general sense, but frowned upon if you didn’t.”
How did this crunch affect the QA team? According to the person, it would affect the team in “different ways” like causing strain “for people in relationships or family.”
“Some people were motivated by crunch pay, some people valued quality of life more, nonetheless everyone was incredibly exhausted by the end,” the person also said. “That’s not to say they wouldn’t provide dinners and other perks to keep up morale…usually in [the] form of nicer crunch dinners.”
Another person who previously did QA for Naughty Dog said that claims about crunch not being mandated were “disingenuous” since developers had to work extra hours in order to meet their deadlines and not be reprimanded for not working those hours. They also said that management never “actively discouraged crunch, tried to help people get a better work/life balance, or made the workload fit the schedule.”
“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.”
They went on to say that since all the other employees were crunching then it would be “a bad look for your performance” if you decided to leave “at regular hours several times a week”.
“The developer team was on what felt like a death march – Naughty Dog prides itself on not using producers or production managers,” they continued, “so there were constantly things being added or changed but no one was watching how this will affect the schedule or the developers’ workloads.”
“It was an attitude of ‘Do what you have to do to get this change in,’” they added. “Naughty Dog has moved the launch date of games before, but that usually just means that crunch lasts several more months. Moving the launch date never alleviated the crunch.”
“Crunching felt mandatory to your job security,” they also said.
Similarly, another source said that crunch at Naughty Dog “was never mandated, but highly encouraged” and this type of work was part of the studio’s culture. According to this source, the higher up in the company one was “the easier it was to not have to crunch.” The source, who was a QA contractor for Naughty Dog, said if someone wanted to advance in the company they “were expected to put in the time.”
“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 QA contractor who worked at Naughty Dog said that Maximov’s comments were mostly true and that developers at the studio have to work a standard 40 hours a week. It also wasn’t an “absolute requirement” for those developers to work overtime during crunch but the developers still worked long hours because they had to finish their work before “ship date”.
“It was common during Uncharted 4 for people to work really long hours, depending on the department,” they said.
But, according to them, for the QA team “overtime was more of a requirement than it was for the other developers.”
“A normal work week for us was 10 AM-10 PM six days a week and we didn’t really have any choice about it,” they explained. “Sometimes we’d stay until midnight or 1 am. At the end of [Uncharted 4], we started doing seven day work weeks for a little while and even did some 24 hours shifts where we’d come in at 10 AM and leave 10 AM the next day. I didn’t really have a life outside of work for eight to nine months during the big crunch.”
That said, if a member of the QA team felt “burnt out” then management would let them leave the studio early or “take some time off” but the source didn’t think this regularly happened. “A few people would leave at seven every day instead of staying late, but it was usually because of medical reasons,” they added. “We also had to consider that it was less likely for us to be kept on at the end of the project if we didn’t work as hard as the rest of the team.”
Similarly, a QA contractor who worked on Uncharted 4 told COGconnected that after speaking with their supervisor during crunch time, the contractor was “offered reduced work hours” and “it was pointed out that several other employees had done the same”.
That said, this former employee couldn’t confirm that this was something that usually happened. They also said that while they didn’t feel pressured to crunch during development, crunch was the “status quo” at Naughty Dog.
Finally, there was a person who did QA for The Last of Us Remastered who recalled how separated the QA contractors were from the main developer team.
“There was a yoga session that was held around once a week that the developers could attend. I remember a co-worker asking if QA could do the yoga too but our managers told us, ‘No,’” they told COGconnected. “They rarely provided us dinner for OT/crunch. I believe we only got dinner if the developers stayed. Even then I think we only got to grab food after the developers got theirs.”
“There was an email that got sent out to the company that invited everyone out to go have fun, but stated outright that contractors weren’t allowed to join,” they continued.
“Many of us felt like we weren’t really part of the company,” they also said. “We worked our asses off only to be treated as if we didn’t belong. It sucked. That coupled with the amount of OT/crunch we worked really wore us down. I lived at home during my time at [Naughty Dog] and I could go a week without seeing my parents.”
The animation team for Uncharted 4 also worked very long hours, according to an animator who was contracted to work at Naughty Dog. According to the source, the contractors were told in late 2015 that they were “approved for 60 hours a week of overtime.”
“So I and others immediately began working 60 hours a week,” they went on. “We were later approved for unlimited overtime and that’s when things started to get crazy.”
“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.”
The source also said that since the full-time animators were also working 60-plus hours a week, the contracted animators felt like they also had to work similar hours in order to eventually get hired full-time at Naughty Dog.
Did management intervene in order to stop the animation team from working so much? Well, according to the source, no, not at all.
“I think this is one of the biggest issues there,” they said. “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.’”