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DOES Something Have to Give?

Amy Hennig, former creative director for Naughty Dog, says something has to give when it comes to industry work practices. She's right, and it starts with studio leaders.

Keith Fuller, Blogger

November 8, 2016

10 Min Read

In early October, Soren Johnson posted an interview with Amy Hennig, former creative director at Naughty Dog, talking about her experience developing the Uncharted franchise. In part two of the interview she started commenting on the nature of overwork in the AAA space, ending with the quote, “We’re definitely at the point where something’s got to give.”

My contention? That point might not even exist. If it does, I certainly don’t think we’re there. I believe we can reach it, though -- and I’ll conclude this article talking about how -- but first let me explain why we haven’t yet reached a tipping point.

I spent 11 years as a AAA studio developer. My own experience fuels my stance. As long as there's a billion dollars to be made every Christmas, the people at the top of the biggest franchises will continue to place unrealistic demands on studios. Absent a sea change at the level of studio leadership, the cost of hitting unrelenting milestone schedules will be paid for with the currency of developers' lives.

But maybe that's just me.

In the interest of obtaining extra data points I reached out to a couple of devs on big budget projects -- the kind of projects representative of what Ms. Hennig called “the arms race of the photoreal.”



First I spoke with Chet*, whom I can only describe as a highly placed decision maker in a shooty franchise. The fact that he can’t even risk having his identity revealed as a participant in this discussion? Let’s call that Exhibit A.

When I mentioned the subject of overwork, Chet made sure to clarify that sometimes the pressure to push one’s self is internal. Many are willing to put in extra effort because “we don’t want to leave anything on the table.” As Tanya Short points out in her excellent article, developers are often internally driven to overwork.

Pride of purpose is a great thing, but at times it needs to be tempered for the good of the employee. More on that in a moment.

My first question to Chet was this: what would it take for you to not work overtime on a recurring, lengthy basis?

In Chet’s projects there are two distinct phases of production in which overtime becomes unavoidable.  The first of which is leading up to an Alpha build, due to the need to cram everything into the game. Content and features, breadth and depth. To reduce overtime here Chet claims you’d have to be exceedingly confident in your design decisions and make a larger-than-usual number of cuts. Get it out of production now rather than spend the next several months getting it to a Beta level and then cutting it to hit the ship date.

This doesn’t happen. Because of the drive from shareholders and market forces to which Ms. Hennig alluded, the game has to be released in this quarter, has to be this long, and has to garner this metacritic score. Therefore, no cuts at Alpha. Instead, we’ll march through months of overtime then cut it anyway.

The second phase Chet describes as being accomplished only through massive overtime is in the push to certification. You’re readying the product for examination by Sony and Microsoft and everything has to be ready for the consumer. You’re now doing the final polishing of everything that wasn’t cut. And you’re responding to internal QA bugs. And publisher bugs. And eventually first party bugs. It’s a mad dash where every delay could literally wind up costing millions.

What would mitigate the need for overtime here? More people? No, although that hasn’t stopped us from trying. More time? Well, you can’t move the certification dates because you can’t move the ship date because you can’t move Christmas. That means you’d have to start earlier in the year, which won’t happen for the same reason we didn’t make those cuts back at Alpha.

And in AAA production it doesn’t even matter if your team or your entire studio schedules everything brilliantly and hits their dates, because there are always external factors asking more of you. This other contributing studio is swamped. Can’t you take over some of their work?

Even if you master your own schedule and pick up some other team’s slack, you will still be pressured from above if your people go home at a reasonable hour or they don’t come in on the weekend. This game isn’t perfect. There’s *something* your team could be doing to give it a higher metacritic, even if it’s just going from a 91 to a 92. Why aren’t you working weekends to make that happen?

The expectations are ridiculous and you can never do enough.

After hearing all of this from Chet, I asked him a final question. Do you feel that something does, in fact, have to change? His response was predictable and saddening:

I know that if I decided it was too much for me, and I quit, they’d just get someone else to take my place and the machine would keep rolling the way it is. Nothing would change.



So that’s one viewpoint. I wanted another perspective, though, so I contacted someone who works at a AAA action studio infamous for overwork. He is -- understandably -- as concerned about workplace blowback as Chet was. I’ll respect this developer’s anonymity and refer to him as Biff*.

In her interview Ms. Hennig stated that Naughty Dog is “pretty notorious for the amount of crunch”, and Biff agreed it’s a similar problem where he works. “If it’s so bad, do you have to stay?” I asked. No, Biff replied. Some people do leave. Some leave the industry entirely, especially those with families. Those are usually engineers, however -- people who have transferable skills. But someone like a technical artist or environment artist may have already committed their career to a highly specific skillset. What are their options for working elsewhere? Not as many.

In fact, Biff is fairly cynical about the possibility of a solution. It’s his opinion that overtime may be baked into the industry at this point. Maybe, he mused, it came from the very first software developers, probably younger folks willing to put in extra time to do something extraordinary.

Adding more time to Naughty Dog’s three year production cycle probably won’t help, Biff claims. Work will just expand to fill a four year deadline, even if you could somehow convince The Powers That Be to extend that production time.

Thinking this all sounded pretty dire, I asked Biff what he thought might yield a meaningful solution. What could anyone do to turn around a culture that -- to quote Ms. Hennig -- makes “games that are soaked in the blood of the people who made it”? Here was Biff’s reply:

Ideally, studio leaders would go around and tell people, “We want you to take care of yourself. Go home at a reasonable hour.” But that’s the ideal. I’ve never seen a studio like that.

Given the input from Biff and Chet, you can see why I’m reluctant to claim we’ve reached any sort of inflection point on industry practices.


Do Leaders Have to Totally Collapse Before Taking Change Seriously?

The following quotes are in chronological order from Ms. Hennig’s interview, but condensed for brevity. I have no intention of misrepresenting her position by cherry picking certain comments. But these are her words, and I use them here not to single her out but because they very precisely exemplify the source of the problem at the studio level. (Having disclaimed thusly, I’ll again recommend the reader listens to the entirety of the conversation here.)

[Ms. Hennig] “I worked there 10.5 years. I probably on average...I don’t know if I ever worked less than 80 hours a week...I pretty much worked 7 days a week, at least 12 hours a day.”
[Ms. Hennig] “Obviously in a leadership role you try to do even more.”
[Soren Johnson] “Is that lifestyle worth it for these games?”
[Ms. Hennig] “That’s the question isn’t it?”
[Ms. Hennig] “I don’t think so. But would I change anything, meaning I hadn’t made those games now?...No.”

A moment later in the conversation, she goes on to say, “My health really declined. I had to take care of myself. Because it was...I mean...bad.” So even after going through her own serious health issues, and openly stating this lifestyle isn’t worth it, she wouldn’t do anything differently if it meant having never made the Uncharted games.

In her defense, she stated that making those sacrifices for the sake of the franchise was “...primarily affecting me and I could make that choice” but that the most harm was being done to the families of employees: There were kids growing up without seeing their mom or dad due to overwork. Commenting on those who were divorced as a result of development or who had to get “checked in somewhere” after shipping an Uncharted game, Ms. Hennig went on to say, “None of this is worth that.”

That’s why this portion of the interview encapsulates with such painful clarity the problem with which we’re faced. Studio leaders themselves -- not all, but some -- realize this isn’t sustainable. And not just unsustainable, but these working conditions are so unconscionable they shouldn’t have come into existence even once. The end product isn’t worth the price it exacts from the developers. Or their loved ones.

Yet the leaders themselves willingly engage in these practices, and in so doing both sanctify the behavior and demonstrate that it is expected of their employees. Leaders vilify a practice they actively perpetuate and then wonder aloud how the cycle can possibly be broken. The cognitive gap here is hideous. In an attempt to fill it, I’ll rephrase what we learned earlier from Biff:

You’re the studio leader. You set the example.

What Ms. Hennig didn’t seem to grasp during her own grueling tenure at Naughty Dog is that -- as a studio leader -- you’re never just making a sacrifice of your own time. You’re setting an example for your employees. If you don’t want to see overwork take its awful toll on your developers, don’t condone it with your own behavior.

This is how culture works in an organization. It is the set of actions that employees will automatically take because they see their leaders do it regularly. If you want that culture to change, the leaders need to change their behavior. Carefully crafted value statements on the website aren’t enough. (Heaven help us if we haven’t learned the lesson that Kaos gave its life to teach us) What matters is what the leaders actually do, what they openly support or reject with consistency.

Historically, what leaders in our industry have done is to pretend overwork isn’t a problem and actively perpetuate it. More recently we’ve seen a slight change in behavior: acknowledge that overwork is a problem (after shipping a game whose production hinged on it), then perpetuate it anyway. Perhaps moving forward we’ll see industry leaders going so far as to acknowledge it’s a problem and do something about it.

Ms. Hennig may well be one of the first to do so. Having left Naughty Dog over two years ago, in her new role at EA she says, “One of my challenges -- how can we still make games like this in a way that is sane, responsible, ethical. We shouldn’t be lauding games that are soaked in the blood of the people who made it.”

I hope she sets a good example.

*Not his real name.

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