A string of senior departures at Naughty Dog puts the Uncharted maker in a taxing situation no studio wants to be in: replacing top talent in the midst of development

Can top game industry talent really be replaced?

Naughty Dog’s recent loss of top talent has been widely reported. Whatever the circumstances surrounding the departure of Amy Hennig (pictured) and other senior team leaders at the Uncharted maker, the need to replace key staff in the midst of new projects is a situation no development team wants to be in.

Barry Meade, a former level designer on the Burnout series and now commercial director of Fireproof Studios, says its important to remember a games team is made of individuals, but functions like an ecosystem.

“If the overall team is solid, top talent leaving can mean very little disruption, especially if the team is making something they are already familiar with,” he told Develop. “That’s not quite so applicable where you get multiple top people leaving – obviously that can be a sign of deeper rot.”

Martin Hollis, a former Rare developer and co-creator of the N64 classic GoldenEye, says: “Top talent leaving a studio can be devastating or inconsequential depending on many factors. If the people leaving put their whole selves into a team and a company culture, that will have a large effect. Every manager hopes that individuals are replaceable, but every leader knows this is not the whole truth.”

Kevin Corti, founder of microstudio Evil27, had two senior staff leave and said it was “exceptionally hard” to replace talent of that calibre quickly.

“Hiring a top developer can easily take three months and can be significant drain on management time as well as unplanned recruitment costs. Even more significant is the impact it has on the junior team members in terms of their morale and capability,” Corti explained.

On the other hand, Jennifer Schneidereit, game creator and co-founder of Nyamyam, said that in the best cases the remaining staff will be promoted to take over the roles, and that the change itself can be an opportunity to switch things up and experiment with new ways of doing things.

“It can be creatively exhausting having to work on a single game IP for the course of several games. One or two top talents leaving a studio on good terms is nothing too worrying in my opinion. A great game is, after all, made by a team and many of them are invisible, yet their work tremendously impacts the resulting game,” she said.

Taking a pragmatic view on the issue, Meade added: “It’s rare that studios keep top talent permanently. The industry is too big with too many options for people at the top of their game. Sometimes they manage to keep them by using ‘golden handcuffs’ but that’s rare. Where top people do manage to be retained, it’s usually for their own reasons and not the company’s – they want to live local, have kids in school and so on.”

Hollis added: “The best people need to be given challenge, fair reward and autonomy. Without challenges which feel like challenges, people become unsatisfied and realise that excitement and new frontiers are elsewhere.”

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