Former Naughty Dog Employees Tell Crunch Horror Stories About 24-Hour Shifts

One of the many issues with crunch culture at video game studios has to do with the way contractors are treated. Several ex-Naughty Dog employees, who did not wish to be identified, told COG Connected stories about workplace practices at the company and revealed that contractors had it worse than full-time employees. But, apparently even full-time staff was not immune from working long hours.

It’s common to hear that crunch is not “mandatory,” but due to peer pressure, it’s often in an employee’s best interest to put in the extra time. One source said:

So my take on crunch at Naughty Dog: The truth is more gray than black-and-white. Here 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.

Another source said there wasn’t a specific expectation when it came to crunch time, but that it was almost impossible to get your work finished without putting in extra hours:

The truth [is] they don’t tell you that you have to work X amount of hours. 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.

But when it comes to contractors at the company, they had it even worse. One common and egregious practice is to only pay contractors minimum wage, to make overtime seem more appealing. And when you consider that many development studios are located in cities in which a person can’t realistically live on minimum wage, overtime can seem pretty attractive. Because of this, along with the notion of advancing in the company, contractors felt obligated to crunch.

One source said:

Also, we were paid barely above minimum wage, so again, management used the notion of making overtime pay to keep us longer. During crunch time, which lasted many months, we could be working anywhere from 60 to 80 hour weeks on average. I remember hitting 100 plus hours the final week of development on The Last of Us.

Another contractor noted that overtime was particularly brutal during the development of Uncharted 4. “Overtime was more of a requirement than it was for the other developers,” the source said, in regards to QA testers. The source continued:

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. 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.

A few people would leave at seven every day instead of staying late, but it was usually because of medical reasons. 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.

There were also some examples of how contractors were blatantly treated differently than full-time staff. One source recalled:

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 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.

Many of us felt like we weren’t really part of the company. 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.

While many employees at Naughty Dog and other studios suffer from unhealthy workplace practices, the general theme is that contractors have it worse than full-time staff. Many times, contractors are new to the industry and are trying to break in, often leading to management taking advantage of them and letting them go if they don’t meet unrealistic expectations. No benefits are given and they’re looked at as expendable. This same issue was happening with the Mortal Kombat 11 team, NetherRealm Studios.

It’s unclear what the perfect solution to this is, but management at game development studios have to keep their employees’ health in mind, regardless of their tenure at the company. Perhaps looking at it like Warframe developer, Digital Extremes, could help, wherein it refers to development as “a marathon, not a sprint,” to avoid crunch.

[Source: COG Connected]