I have an idea of what you’re thinking – another opinion piece about the inner turmoil at Naughty Dog. The company is falling apart. It’s the end of a once proud studio. Abandon ship! Hardly.
Such hyperbole would be merely conjecture, as I believe much of the hoopla around Naughty Dog’s recent employee departures to be grossly exaggerated.
In order to understand what is likely going on inside of Naughty Dog, it’s best to recap just who has left and under what circumstances.
As first reported by IGN, Amy Hennig – pioneer for women’s involvement in video games and Creative Director for the Uncharted trilogy – was reportedly “forced out” by Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley, Creative Director and Game Director of The Last of Us, respectively. Those reports were swiftly denied by company presidents Christoph Balestra and Evan Wells in an official statement on Naughty Dog’s website. But I don’t think those reports are without cause for concern.
Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann were NOT involved in what transpired.
Amy had been at the company for over a decade. Most people in a similarly long-spelled professional role can attest that that spark of spontaneous creativity becomes harder to come by. Uncharted 4 probably wasn’t heading in a direction that Christoph Balestra and Evan Wells wanted, so a change was made. Rather than being “forced out,” Amy was likely given her marching orders in a more euphemistic tone and manner, opening the way for (speculation) Neil Druckmann to step in and right the ship. (It’s also worth noting that Druckmann was a designer on Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune and Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, so he’s very familiar with the franchise.)
I’m not accusing anyone within Naughty Dog of unethical behavior. Video games are big business, and if your studios biggest franchise is not shaping up as expected, then tough decisions are made.
Next to leave the studio was Justin Richmond. He was the Game Director (a high-level role that is vital to the end products quality) on Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception and was reprising that role for Uncharted 4. His leadership was critical to the direction of Uncharted 4′s ideation and subsequent execution of those ideas. The proximity of which his and Amy’s departures occurred is where fan and media speculation became rampant.
Justin Richmond and Amy Hennig likely were of one mind, and when Amy left, Justin was left with two options: follow a new direction being laid down by whoever the new Creative Director is (again, my guess is Neil Druckmann), or move. He opted for a new career opportunity at Riot Games; the company is soaking up cash after earning revenues north of $620 million in 2013.
In a statement to IGN, Richmond said, “I have in fact made the decision to leave Naughty Dog. I love the company and the people and know that they will continue to create awesome games going forward. On a happier note, after careful consideration and exploration I have joined Riot Games. There is some really innovative stuff going on here that I can’t wait to be a part of.”
If Amy was pushed out, then this move makes sense. He lost his partner in crime and understandably accepted, in all likelihood, a much higher salary from a studio that would allow him to have more creative freedom. This is where I think speculation should end.
Less than a month later, The Last of Us’ Art Director, Nate Wells, joined Unfinished Swan maker Giant Sparrow; and the Lead Character Artist, Michael Knowland, left for – as of yet – unknown future plans.
Hmmm….seem to be some threads here. Yes, I joined the wild, wacky, and ultimately brilliant folks at #GiantSparrow on April 3rd.
— Nate Wells (@PrettyLarceny) April 21, 2014
Both Nate Wells and Michael Knowland were very involved in The Last of Us, and they are talented by any measuring stick. But they were also only onboard with Naughty Dog for The Last of Us. They weren’t senior leaders at the company.
Artists move around in the industry all the time. The only reason their departures made headlines was because of Irrational Games’ closure; because of Sony Santa Monica’s liquidation of half its staff; because of Amy Hennig and Justin Richmond leaving.
There is an extreme sensitivity right now among the gaming media. A whisper of internal change at any studio must mean something sinister is brewing. That’s just not the case.
Amy Henning probably left under mutual terms, and Justin Richmond was affected enough to leave for another career opportunity. The departures of Nate Wells and Michael Knowland is coincidence. Of that I am nearly certain.
Naughty Dog is going to continue to make amazing games. Was Uncharted 4′s production schedule effected by these changes? Absolutely. But it’s not in danger of any long-term scarring.