Naughty Dog is one of the most beloved game developers in the industry. Since 1984, the studio has delivered a steady stream of hits, including iconic franchises like Crash Bandicoot, Jak and Daxter, Uncharted, and The Last of Us. But making games isn’t getting any easier, so we sat down with Naughty Dog co-presidents Evan Wells and Neil Druckmann to talk about how they’re shepherding the legacy of the studio, working to combat work crunch, and dealing with harsh criticism.
At first hearing, Naughty Dog can come across as kind of a silly name for a company. It definitely has a legacy now, but do you ever wish you could change the name?
Evan Wells: I love it. I think it’s got a great history at this point. When Jason [Rubin] and Andy [Gavin] founded the company, they were called JAM Software, which was maybe cool back in the ’80s but probably not so cool today. They were about to publish their first game with EA and they went, “There’s already a JAM Software, so you’ve got 24 hours to come up with a new name.” That’s where Naughty Dog came from. I think it works. I like the name, and I wouldn’t want to change it now.
Speaking about that legacy, Naughty Dog has had such an interesting history. It started making kid-friendly platformers and almost every project has gotten more mature. Can you talk about that progression?
Evan Wells: A lot of it comes through our staff maturing but also the industry and the medium maturing. Back when we were making Crash Bandicoot, we couldn’t conceive of making a game like the The Last of Us, it just wasn’t technically achievable. As creators we’ve grown through the years and we’ve progressed with the hardware and actually tried to stay ahead of that curve. With Crash Bandicoot, we had to have a big head with big features just so you could read the character expressions. Then when we move to PS2, we could get more detail we could go more humanoid. With the PS3, we could finally get that subtlety where you have emotion between the lines and really get the subtle facial features. Each hardware production has allowed us to delve into more interesting content.
Neil Druckmann: We have more flexibility now. Now we have the luxury of picking and choosing what style, and what kind of story, and what kind of game we want to create.
Do you have any desire to go towards lighter fare or return to your roots, to those kid-friendly games?
Evan Wells: If we had endless resources and time it would be super fun to do that. You look at what Insomniac is doing with Ratchet and Clank and it’s exciting. It’s great to see that stuff. We’re just limited with time, you know, I’m 48 years-old and how many more games do you get to make, so you got to pick and choose.
Neil Druckmann: Once we finish a project, we spend quite a bit of time entertaining all sorts of different directions, whether it’s going to be something new or if we’re going back to some old franchise. We really take our time with it, and if you were to see our folders of concept art you’d see unused concepts that are all over the gamut. Then we look at everything and we ask ourselves what are we excited by? What’s something that’s going to challenge us and push us, and push the medium as far as games that can be? Because that inspiration is so important to carry through years of production.
A lot of fans have this perception of Naughty Dog as this crown jewel in Sony’s cap, like the best of the best in the development world. Do you see yourselves that way?
Evan Wells: That’s a big question. We just try to make games that excite us. We try to make games that are going to be fun to play and received well by our fans, and rewarding for the team to create. We’re not really driven by any pressure from Sony to do anything in particular.
Neil Druckmann: To steal a term from someone, our brand is excellence and people come to Naughty Dog to achieve excellence and we give ourselves the pressure of living up to the kinds of games people expect from us.
You’ve said that you look up to studios like Insomniac, Guerrilla Games, and Sony Santa Monica. What specifically do you see them doing that inspires you?
Neil Druckmann: It might be some particular tech like what Guerrilla was able to achieve with how dense their foliage is. We looked at that, and we talked to them about that.
Evan Wells: You always come out with something that you could do better, even if it’s not something you adopt directly. So many times you’re brainstorming something in the office with your colleagues, and you look at something like, “Yeah, that’s just gonna be too hard to implement. We can’t go down that road.” And then you go talk to another studio, and you see that they’ve done that very thing or something very similar and you’re like, “Oh my God!” And then they talk about how it’s paid off, and you’re instantly inspired.
Do you have any specific examples of that?
Evan Wells: Very early on in The Last of Us Part II development, we knew that it was taking places in Seattle, and we knew that Sucker Punch had completely modeled Seattle for Infamous Second Son. We said, “We’re not going to use the assets in the game, but we want to quickly feel out the space, so can we get access to those assets?” And they said, “Sure,” and sent it over. We were able to quickly rough out the environment. That was a huge help.
Neil Druckmann: Another thing that comes to mind when we were talking to Sucker Punch is that we were talking about mo-capping a horse for The Last of Us Part II, and we were looking for ways to do it, and they were like, “Oh, we’re about to do the same thing [for Ghost of Tsushima]. Let’s double up our efforts.” Motion capture for a big animal is a big deal, and we were able to just approach the problem together and use similar data, sometimes the same data for both games.
I wouldn’t have even thought about mo-capping a horse. That’s crazy that you did that.
Neil Druckmann: We also mo-capped dogs, and then there’s a sheep sequence in The Last of Us Part II, and that’s actually dogs acting like sheep.
Naughty Dog has such a proven track record, but that hasn’t come without cost. Over the years, you’ve come under fire for studio crunch. Could you speak to your personal experience with crunch and how that’s affected the studio?
Evan Wells: I have definitely personally worked very hard over the years. I think some of that has helped me get to where I am in my career. As a studio, we’ve all worked hard together, and we are working very hard on every project to find the right balance, just like we do in all of our technical aspects of creating a game. We have post mortems and we look at how the animation went and we look at how the design went and we dig really deep into all the things that could have been better and the things we got right. We do the same thing with production. We look at how the whole game was created, and where we can make improvements and how we can strike the right balance between giving people the opportunity to – as I mentioned earlier – leave their mark on the industry and advance their craft in ways that have never been achieved, but also find space along that spectrum.
Neil Druckmann: We have so many talented people that are good at solving problems, whether they’re creative or technical. Let me go back to The Last of Us Part II; some pillars that were important to us were diversity, diversity in the people we hire and the characters that we have in our game as well as accessibility and how do we make our games more accessible. Likewise, we’re looking at quality of life for preventing burnout, to employ the brain power we have in our studio, and we started coming up with working groups to talk about the areas in the studio where we can improve. We worked a particular way when we’re 40 people, now we have to evolve as we keep growing.
Evan Wells: Something else that we’re really focused on is increasing the level of management at the studio. We have more directors and more leads, all with the end goal of giving the entire team more opportunities to provide feedback and check in on their well-being.
Neil Druckmann: Everybody has a different definition of what crunch means. And I guess for us, we think of it as, how do we look out for the well-being of our colleagues and everyone that works at Naughty Dog, which is some combination of how many hours you work and how much stress you’re feeling, whether that’s something that’s going on in the office or at home. We find that there is no one solution that fits everybody. Everybody has a unique situation we might need to address.
One of the things that the industry has talked about as a possible solution is unionization. Do you have thoughts on unionization?
Evan Wells: I haven’t put a lot of thought into that. I don’t know if that would be a solution for crunch. To Neil’s point about making sure that everybody is able to work as hard or as little as they want, we’ve got to create an environment that allows that. If we had some sort of restriction where when the clock strikes 40 hours the servers shut down and you can’t work anymore, that would frustrate people to no end. There are people who really want to put in that extra polish on their own volition, and they would feel handcuffed.
Neil Druckmann: We’ve tried stuff, like Evan is describing, in the past where we’ve said, “Okay, no working past this hour,” or, “It’s mandatory that no one can work on Sunday,” and they’re always a lot of corner cases of someone saying, “Well, I couldn’t work on Friday because I had to be with my kids. It’s actually more convenient for me to come in on Sunday.” When you try to have a silver bullet, like one solution, you’re always leaving someone behind. That’s why we feel like we need multiple solutions. We have to approach this from multiple angles.
You talked about ensuring that the workplace is a fun environment. What does that look like?
Neil Druckmann: We make video games, right? So many of us have dreamed about doing this when we were kids and sometimes you’re in it so long you forget to appreciate it. For me it’s just a constant reminder that the creative process, the putting the thing together, should be fun in itself. That’s about how do you get feedback? How do you realign someone that was working on [an] idea that might not work out, but still inspire them to come back to the vision? There’s an art to that.
Some companies seem to be moving away from the big, story-driven single-player games. For example, Ubisoft recently announced that it would be developing more long-tail, free-to-play games. Do you feel that story-driven, single-player games are still Naughty Dog’s future?
Evan Wells: Absolutely. Yeah, and it’s sort of in our DNA to tell these stories. I think that’s going to continue. Single-player experiences are near and dear to us. It’s what has attracted a lot of people to Naughty Dog, and that’s what inspires them, so I think we’re going to keep at it as long as we can.
Neil Druckmann: And again, going back to who Sony is, there has never been a mandate like, “Oh, this is where we see the winds shifting. Can you start making these kind of games instead?” We know just as they know that when you work on something you’re excited by, something you’re passionate by, you’re going to do great work.
You basically put a bow on the Uncharted series, but you still have that The Last of Us multiplayer project in the works. Do you want to continue to work on the IP you’ve established or do you have a desire to create new properties at this point?
Evan Wells: I think the easy answer is: both. I think there’s excitement to develop new IP, but there is still a ton of love for Uncharted and The Last of Us, and I think you’ll see both kinds of projects from us in the future.
The Last of Us Part II was a big, sprawling project and it was largely well-received, but a certain segment was very critical of various aspects of the game. How did you, as a studio, deal with that?
Neil Druckmann: When we started making The Last of Us Part II, specifically, we knew we were making something that would be controversial for part of the fanbase. That’s not the reason to make it, we made it despite that. Our intention is not to upset people or alienate people, our intention is to tell a story that’s meaningful to us that we think has some value behind it, and is worth spending years of our time making. When we had the leaks, before anybody had a chance to play it, that’s when we got a ton of negativity, and we started questioning, “Is this game going to be successful at all?” We didn’t even know how much the leak really hurt us. That was really the low point for me. And it helped that some people in the studio – like [character art director] Ashley Swidowski reached out to me and said, “I just want you to know that no matter what happens, I am proud of this game. It’s my favorite game I’ve worked on, and you don’t understand how much this means to me.” More than anything, that’s the thing that makes me proud. Sometimes I get asked, “Do you get nervous for interviews or for doing a presentation at E3?” And, I’m an introvert and there is some level of nervousness, but I never get more nervous than when I have to speak in front of all of Naughty Dog, because there’s nobody that Evan and I want to make more proud than everybody else who works on the game, because they put so much of themselves into the game. They’re so excited and they’re so passionate about what they’re making. Those are the people I want to make proud more than anything else. If some percentage of the studio didn’t like the game that would just bum me out beyond repair. As far as people on the outside, I’m like, “That’s unfortunate [you didn’t like The Last of Us Part II], but I stand by the game we made.”
Sounds like you’re saying that some of the biggest fans of Naughty Dog are at Naughty Dog?
Neil Druckmann: I would say that the biggest fans and the biggest critics are within Naughty Dog, and that’s what keeps us as good as we are.
This article originally appeared in Issue 337 of Game Informer.