Naughty Dog and the pitfalls of flat hierarchies

Watching Grounded II, a documentary on the making of The Last of Us: Part II, revealed unexpected parallels with my career. Making video games differs from shipping web apps, but the doc highlighted common challenges in navigating developers through hard deadlines, decision making, and resource management. I walked away from the experience with a newfound appreciation for how engineering managers can help ship great products.

Naughty Dog, the studio behind TLOU2, didn’t share my optimistic view on EMs. For most of its history, the studio went against industry trends by rarely hiring producers (dedicated roles to manage the project’s timeline and resource needs) or people managers. Department leads served as both individual contributors and quasi-managers. Naughty Dog leadership argued the producers and managers were a “crutch”, bureaucratic red tape that slowed down productivity and stifled creativity. Boasts around flat studio hierarchy appear as an aside in the documentary’s opening act.

The studio stood out for its flat hierarchy, critically acclaimed releases, and punishing work culture. Crunch – compulsory overtime – is commonplace within the industry, and Naughty Dog had a reputation for crunching more than most with its perfectionist standards. Naughty Dog’s Uncharted 4 went through a particularly rough patch, with twelve-hour and up work days commonplace.

In what feels like a direct response to Uncharted 4’s rocky production, across early interviews in Grounded II, TLOU2 lead Neil Druckmann and Naughty Dog president Evan Wells talk through changes to make TLOU2’s development more sustainable. Druckmann writes the game’s core narrative before formal production to minimize last-minute changes and scope creep. For a 2018 E3 demo, a game director locks the demo’s content six months ahead to give the team space to focus on other efforts. To minimize overworking resources stretched across two games in parallel – TLOU2 and Uncharted: The Lost Legacy – Naughty Dog leadership pushes out deadlines for the former to open up more engineering resources on the latter.

However, any idealism around pre-planning and creative flexibility eventually slams into the harsh reality of TLOU2’s massive ambition. By 2018, roughly at the documentary’s halfway point, major hurdles shift to the forefront. In what feels like a hint of more extensive communication breakdowns, we see an exhausted video leader lament the high volume of motion capture scenes that need Druckmann’s review. Moments later, we watch the team vent as a review appointment gets cancelled last minute; the leads are too busy signing off on other content. Leadership then decides to rework the E3 demo that was initially locked, adding a last minute dev push on the dev team.

For much of the documentary’s final third, covering the last year or so of development, it’s apparent Naughty Dog has shifted to crunch mode. We see exhausted developers working late into the night and catered dinners in the office. One Naughty Dog veteran nearly breaks down when they confess they can’t work the hours they used to. Even in the confines of an authorized documentary that at times blurs the lines with official PlayStation marketing, leads use “crunch” to describe the grueling final multi-month (or even multi-year?) push, which underlines how challenging the reality on the ground must have been.

While I’ve never worked as intensely as it appears Naughty Dog did on TLOU2, I’ve been on development projects with crunch-like conditions – long hours, poor work life balance, and burned out engineers. I’ve also experienced the kind of communication blunders, duplicative work, and sign off gridlock that pops up in the middle of Grounded II.

Good engineering management helps combat these problems. I’d argue for most EMs, building an efficient, sustainable engineering velocity is one of the most critical aspects of the job. We work to minimize scope creep, lock down resourcing, and make tradeoffs for maximal speed against aggressive timelines. We monitor pacing and provide ways to remediate efforts off track. In Naughty Dog’s case, instead of mindlessly plowing ahead to ramp up on an E3 demo last minute while still moving full steam ahead on long term development, good EMs can weigh the case for “either or,” and not “both” at the cost of burning out the engineers.

Also, like producers in the gaming industry, we remove blockers by connecting individuals to unblock technical efforts. Ideally, the Grounded II instance of the frustrated video manager waiting on multiple approvals wouldn’t happen. Nor do we need a bottleneck of effectively one or two people having to approve everything, minimizing the chance of wasted efforts over time.

Yet, as made apparent throughout the documentary, none of these efforts could happen for Naughty Dog because the management and producer roles didn’t exist. Combine that with a passionate and opinionated workforce and limitless ambition in scope (TLOU2 ended up at almost double the size of the original), and you have a recipe for disaster.

Of course, adding a few good managers won’t magically eliminate crunch and solve communication bottlenecks overnight. As Jason Schreier reported in his 2017 book Blood, Sweat, and Pixels, crunch is a systemic problem in the gaming industry. Other gaming companies like EA use middle managers and producers, yet still can’t escape overwork. Even in the web and app development space, I know many otherwise good managers who leave their companies because of company policies and actions that leave them powerless.

Still, championing a managerial role – where your success is evaluated on team velocity and health and not purely on how much you ship – would improve the situation. Managers also bring additional benefits, like a partner to work on IC’s long term career growth and get individuals promoted. Growing ICs tend to be happier and stay with companies longer.

Thankfully, it looks like my worldview caught on within Naughty Dog. The company began hiring producers in 2021. As studio heads note at the end of Grounded II, there are no more crunch dinners and a hybrid work schedule to provide flexibility in working from home. A revised career ladder has senior employees specializing in people management or principal-level IC work. It’s a promotion philosophy that the tech world adopted a while ago, but it’s a good start, recognizing people management as an important discipline.