In early March this year, the news broke that Amy Hennig, head writer and creative director of the Uncharted series, had left Naughty Dog.
It was a deflating development for fans, made worse by allegations from "numerous sources close to Naughty Dog" speaking to IGN that Hennig had been "forced out" by The Last Of Us' Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley.
Allegations that Naughty Dog vehemently denied.
Nevertheless, the image of disharmony at Sony's premier first-party studio continued as other key members of the Uncharted 4 team departed.
First Uncharted 3 game director Justin Richmond left to join Riot Games, then The Last of Us' lead artist Nate Wells made an exit too. Todd Stashwick, the voice actor we heard in Uncharted 4's only trailer to date, is also out of the picture after his role was recast following Hennig's exit.
To cap it all off, The Last of Us' lead character artist Michael Knowland just announced his departure from Naughty Dog via LinkedIn.
Paws for thought
Before we get ahead of ourselves and start pulling words like 'exodus' out of the Scrabble bag of tabloid headlines, let's remember that not all the recently departed Naughty Dog staff were officially working on Uncharted – Knowland, for example.
It's also possible that the games press' scrutiny on Naughty Dog following Hennig's departure has turned routine staff churn into sensation. With all respect to Todd Stashwick, would his recasting have been considered news if it hadn't happened within that particular context?
Right, now we've got our feet somewhere near the ground again, let's consider Sony's only official statement on the matter. "The development timeline of Uncharted will not be impacted", a SCEA representative told Game Informer after Richmond left.
I find that stance problematic. I'm not saying I don't believe it: Naughty Dog's a large operation with a fine pedigree, and almost certainly has the resources to soak up a handful of personnel losses and ship a game on time.
It's what that statement doesn't say that bothers me.
Arguably I make too many movie industry comparisons in this column, but permit me this one more: if a major distributor announced a film, then weeks later confirmed that its director, screenplay writer, director of photography and one of its supporting cast were no longer associated with the project, would you assume the final movie would be exactly as it was intended at its inception?
Would it sound a bit odd for the distributor to simply say: "It'll still be in movies this summer"? You bet your early draft of The Fountain written for Brad Pitt it would.
It takes more than a handful of people with 'lead' in their job titles to make a videogame, and the contribution of all the anonymous developers further down the hierarchy is often unsung and overlooked (see: the Irrational Games dissolution).
Nevertheless, the handful of individuals at the top of the tree are there to preserve a creative vision, and steer the efforts of hundreds of talented people towards a common goal. Replace them, and the creative vision will change. The hundreds of people below them will be steered in a different direction.
Uncharted 4 won't necessarily be worse off for the departures listed above – but given the considerable contributions to previous games and obvious industry-leading talent of those individuals, it's hard to see how it'll now be a better game.
Off the 'Chart
We'll probably get a good indication of where Uncharted 4's heading at the summer conferences this year. My gut feeling is that visually it'll look incredible, and my knee-jerk reaction will be to feel very silly for having written this column.
But I suppose the game's eventual Metacritic rating isn't what I'm talking about. I just found it odd that no-one at Naughty Dog or Sony was prepared to explicitly acknowledge the value of the talent Hennig, Richmond et al brought to the game and thus acknowledge the loss signified by their departure.
It's not enough to say the game will still ship on time – to do so demonstrates a lack of respect for the people who made the series worth hyping in the first place.
Phil Iwaniuk is games editor at Official PlayStation Magazine. Dusk cocktail bar in York does still serve drinks after his departure some years ago, but are those drinks as good as they used to be? (Yes.)
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