Something's going down behind closed doors at Naughty Dog, and it doesn't bode well. It all started with the departure of Amy Hennig in March, who had been the writer and director of the Uncharted series; she's now working on an unannounced Star Wars project at Visceral Games. Later that month, Justin Richmond, the game director on the upcoming Uncharted game for PS4, left Naughty Dog for Riot Games.
Today, we're hit with a one-two punch of troubling Naughty Dog news: Nate Wells, the lead artist on The Last of Us, is moving to indie developer Giant Sparrow, and the only known character confirmed for Uncharted PS4 has been recast, following the departure of writer and actor Todd Stashwick, who will be joining Hennig at Visceral. It all begs the question: Just what in the hell is going on over there?
Without an inside source, I can't say for sure--but my guess is that Uncharted on PS4 is the cause of the turmoil within the development staff. In a blog post from November of last year, Naughty Dog's community strategist Arne Meyer wrote that "Amy [Hennig], Justin [Richmond], and the team are hard at work on an amazing new installment of the Uncharted series to be released exclusively on the PlayStation 4 system," adding "We can confirm that the voiceover is performed by Todd Stashwick and he will play a character in the game." Six months later, every team member mentioned in that statement--all of them playing an integral role in Uncharted on PS4--is now gone.
People typically don't depart a company in short succession when they're satisfied with their job. For that many creative leads to all jump ship within the same two-month span can't be a good sign, and may indicate internal conflict over the direction of Uncharted for Sony's newest console. Perhaps demands were made of the project that Hennig and Richmond couldn't agree with; Hennig has been with the series since its inception, so for her to leave so abruptly could be an indication that something is going very wrong.
Or maybe achieving Uncharted's signature setpieces on PS4 is proving to be a nigh-insurmountable challenge. After Uncharted 2 hit it big, co-lead designer Richard Lemarchand revealed that "The set pieces [took] much longer to create and polish than we'd anticipated." Between the scale of the project and framerate issues that needed to be ironed out, Uncharted 2 resulted in a soul-crushing crunch period at Naughty Dog. "We realized just how big of a game we had bitten off and… we were either going to have to chew extra hard or make some cuts or choke," said Lemarchand. Perhaps that same excruciating amount of demand is being made of the current Uncharted staff, enough to make some team members reach their breaking point. Regardless, if you were hoping for Uncharted on PS4 within the year, you should probably temper your expectations.
This all feels like déjà vu--a company going through team-wide exodus right after coming off a wildly popular triple-A game. It was only this past February that Irrational Games disintegrated following the success of BioShock Infinite, a move that stunned many gamers into appreciating the creative tolls that come with developing big-name games for years at a time. With Naughty Dog's current state of affairs, it seems to me like half-a-year's work (at the least) for the fourth Uncharted installment may be all but abandoned.
If the people still working at Naughty Dog want to shake off any doom-and-gloom rumors, they need to hit E3 2014 hard with some Uncharted info that's more substantial than a teaser trailer. When game development veterans like Amy Hennig exit a project on unclear terms, it's bound to create a crisis of confidence for the game currently in development. And the thought of Naughty Dog losing its footing after putting out GamesRadar's best game of 2013 is troubling indeed.