Uncharted Director Amy Hennig Ponders Her Next Big Move: 'I Was Pretty Burnt Out'

Coming off of EA's Star Wars cancellation, the veteran designer sits down with GameDaily to outline all the possibilities ahead, including VR, linear media, and games for people who aren't typical gamers.

Amy Hennig has become one of the most recognizable names in gaming. Even before she spearheaded Naughty Dog's flagship Uncharted series, she was crafting engaging, innovative narrative with the Legacy of Kain series and working as an artist for a number of titles at Electronic Arts. Today, the organizers of the Game Developers Conference announced that Hennig would be the 2019 recipient of the coveted Lifetime Achievement Award -- she is the first woman to receive such honors -- and will join a pantheon of industry titans, including Will Wright, Sid Meier, Warren Spector, Tim Sweeney, and Tim Schafer.

It’s fitting that I met with Hennig recently at a special Women in Games event held at The Strong National Museum of Play to talk about her incredible 30-year career, what’s next for her, and the industry’s monumental problems with crunch and sustainability. Somewhat coincidentally, both the industry and Hennig’s career have reached an inflection point. Whether their paths perfectly align in the years ahead remains to be seen, but Hennig sure has a lot of ideas.

Star Wars and EA: No Regrets 

Working on the narrative-driven Star Wars game for EA’s Visceral Games until the publisher canceled the project was a dream come true for Hennig. She stressed in her microtalk during the Women in Games event that the George Lucas film was one of her biggest inspirations. And while it has to be incredibly frustrating to pour your heart and soul into something you love, only to see the rug pulled out from underneath you, Hennig is not holding any grudges.

“I didn't walk away with any enemies at EA. I have a lot of friends there ... It's a very complicated situation,” she noted. “I wish them well. And I just think that what we're seeing in general is an inflection point in the industry, where our business models are changing, paradigms are changing, what players want is changing. I mean, nobody saw things like PUBG coming out of the blue. Nobody saw Twitch streaming being the thing that's it going to be. So, everybody's in a really reactive wait-and-see mode right now. If you're sensing that, it's real.

“I think people are realizing that there are different ways of doing things, and obviously they can fight for that different way internally, or they can go set up their own thing and do it externally. And I think whenever you see uncertainty, then that can create conflict, right? People disagree about the right direction to go, and people get more and more concerned and risk averse. So you're probably seeing some of that.”

That uncertainty and upheaval does seem to have affected EA. Hennig over the last few years is one of a number of high-profile departures, including Jade Raymond, Patrick Soderlund, Patrick Bach, Mike Laidlaw and Lucy Bradshaw. Hennig knew that getting involved with the biggest IP in the world carried a fair amount of risk, however.

“We got very, very far into that project, and there was a lot there, so I wouldn't trade the experience I had,” she told me. “And as hard as it is to not get to finish it and share with people, I wouldn't ... go back to when I said yes and say no.

“You talk to anybody who works on Star Wars and you know that you're just putting your heart out there. Because it's like, you could get crushed you know? And you're working on a big license with a lot of stakeholders and it might not have a happy ending, right? But I'm so grateful for what I got to do and who I got to meet and who I got to work with. It was a fantastic experience, and Lucasfilm was fantastic. People assume that the IP holder's hard to deal with. No, they were a dream. I loved working with those guys [and I’m] still very close with all of them.

“The hard part is the sort of inflection point in the industry where some of the kind of games I've made, I think it's a harder sell [now],” she commented, adding that the first Uncharted would be incredibly hard to make in today’s marketplace.

The AAA Dilemma

A company like Sony has been able to succeed in the single-player market because they’re selling hardware too. “There's a benefit to those investments,” Hennig said. “But if you look at a company that isn't in the hardware business, it's a much harder equation.”

That doesn’t mean Hennig is about to apply for a job with Sony Santa Monica on a new God of War working alongside Cory Barlog -- fans would drool over that development dream team -- and she’s not even sure if the triple-A market is something she can commit to anymore. The break from the grind of triple-A has been much needed, she said.

“Over the last year, I've been doing a lot of ... trying to kind of fill the tank, because I worked so hard for so long that I was pretty burnt out,” she acknowledged. “I didn't do a lot of letting the fields lie fallow, or kind of refilling the inspiration tank. And so, I've been trying to use this year for that as well as doing a lot of consulting work, taking different contract gigs based on whether I feel like there's something I could learn from it, or someone I could learn from in taking the job, new technologies, things like that.”

The Promise and Peril of VR

One of those new technologies is actually virtual reality. Hennig is fully aware of the challenges the AR/VR market can bring, but she’s a creative soul, and this is one possibility that is intriguing.

“I mean, talk about a tough business model, right?” she said. “[It's] tough because it's a fascinating technology. And it seems like it has the same attraction to me that games had back in 1989, because it felt like a frontier that needed to be defined. The idea of going, 'Well, I get to be the Lumiere brothers, or the George Melies of a medium' [is very appealing].

“There's not really been good stories told in VR, so the idea of conquering that is incredibly attractive. But I don't know what the business model is. It's like you have to partner with somebody who obviously has an interest in selling the hardware, so it gets back to that.”

She also acknowledged that building a game for a VR audience in some ways would feel weird because of its limited audience.

“You get a little spoiled when you get multi-million people playing your games,” she remarked. “And it's not that you want the fame. It's just that it's very cool to feel like the thing that you worked on and sort of nurtured into being sort of becomes part of the popular culture.”

Hennig's Legacy In Games

Uncharted and Legacy of Kain have been an important part of games culture, and while Hennig commented that Soul Reaver was one of her proudest moments in her storied career, she likely wouldn’t revisit Raziel’s adventure, unless it could be done in a very different way.

“If I had to like lay it on the table and give you an answer right now, I guess I would probably say no, only because I feel like I want to keep moving forward,” she said. “If I could do something different with it... [maybe?]

“I just don't want to feel like I'm turning a crank anymore, a very expensive hard to justify crank, right? But if you said, 'Well, what if you could approach it a different way? What if you could bring it into a different medium?' I mean, I'm open to anything. Mostly, I just want to make sure that I'm not sort of chewing my cud though. I don't want to feel like I'm just repeating myself. It feels like a lack of a imagination.”

Soul Reaver was filled with some incredible dialogue and great voice acting for the early 3D era of gaming
Soul Reaver was filled with some incredible dialogue and great voice acting for the early 3D era of gaming

That’s perfectly understandable. As a decorated games designer, who’s by societal standards about a dozen years away from retirement, choosing projects carefully is paramount. And considering that one triple-A project could take up three to five of those years, that’s a significant investment of time.

“I'm not 24 anymore,” Hennig commented. “You look at, 'How many years do you have left?' And that sounds morbid, but… when you get to a point in your life and your career where you go, ‘There's more road behind me than ahead,’ [that’s sobering]... I don't want to quit working until I literally can't work anymore. But the point is that when you look at the games, it used to take a year to make, or two years to make, and now they take three, four, five, or more.  

“And if something happens, and you don't get to complete it, and you go, ‘Well, holy crap. I could burn a lot of years of my life and career on disappointments, or something that doesn't ever come to fruition that I don't get to share.’ And so, there's a temptation to do something that's got a shorter timeline, just so that you get more at bats. The thing that's fascinating to me right now, and I'm not exactly sure what to do with it. I'm talking to lots of different people. But, one, the way that we've learned to tell stories and sort of make these cinematic games using virtual production and real-time engines is something that's incredibly attractive to the linear media.”

Narrative In Linear Format

Linear media is certainly an avenue Hennig could pursue. She sees a real opportunity to leverage real-time rendering for some captivating narrative.

“The problem is that generally CG stuff has spent way more money than they needed,” she observed. “You can do the same stuff in real-time [with Unreal or Unity] if you know how, and it will actually work ... Making something that way, using performance capture and virtual production is so much more liberating and allows you to be more nimble.”

“The point is that we will be making linear content with these engines, but we know how to do it better than Hollywood does, so it's very tempting to get into that business,” she said. “The beauty of doing things that way is that you have a virtual backlot of every character, every location, every costume, every object, every prop. So you can amortize ... such a cynical business word.

“But I mean, you can spread the cost of that development across a show, a game, a VR experience, a mobile game... As opposed to going, ‘Well, this TV show's fantastic, but it's shot on video, shot on film, and that image is locked. If you want to make something interactive out of it, you got to go back to square one.’ Or vice versa, that you're going to take a game and go, 'We're going to make a live action movie, or TV show.' Well, it's like, well, you're starting all over again where those assets exist.”

Creating Collaborative Experiences

If Hennig skips VR and linear media, there is another intriguing possibility that she described to GameDaily: games for players that don’t consider themselves “gamers.”

“I also feel like there is actually a very big market for -- this is just anecdotally --  for the kind of games I've made, but maybe for a market that is intimidated by the console game,” she said, reminding me in some ways of what Tommy Tallarico is aiming to achieve with the Intellivision Amico.

“Anecdotally, we had a massive audience and a massive split fan base in terms of just diversity in general, but also between men and women. It's just that a lot of those ‘players’ wanted to play collaboratively with the person on the couch who had the controller in their hand. We heard over and over again that people said, ‘Don't play that without me. I don't want to miss anything.’ And it wasn't just because they wanted to watch the cinematics. It was because they wanted to collaborate on the gameplay and say, 'Look over there. I think I saw a treasure’ or solve a puzzle together. And they lose interest when the big gunfights would start, right? So the question is why aren't we making games for those people?”

Some of my fondest childhood memories during gaming came from collaborative experiences, whether co-op or just collaborating on a single-player game with friends or a sibling. This is certainly something that’s less common today.

“People talk about wanting couch co-op for that reason, but I think there's a version of couch co-op that doesn't require two controllers, right?” Hennig continued. “And so, how could we manifest that as a game, or an interactive experience, or something that hues a little bit more close to linear media...that actually attracts those people who may not think they're gamers, but were riveted. And they weren't just riveted because they like the story and the characters. That was a big part of it. I don't think they would've sat on the couch if that part didn't grab them, but they were actually riveted by the game part of it. They just didn't necessarily want to have the controller in their hands.

“And so that tells me that people, they are interested in interactive content. They're just intimidated maybe by the controller. They don't consider themselves gamers. They're not likely to pick that up. But if it comes through some other means and there's a lot of people entering the fray that aren't the traditional console developers, then maybe suddenly there's a big audience for that stuff.”

The Spectre Of Crunch

Any one of these ideas is infinitely more appealing to Hennig than pursuing another nine-figure game project.

“It's more interesting than just going, 'Let me scout around for another $100 million project that's going to take four years and a 300-person team.' I don't know that's sustainable. And people point to, well, look at the games that are getting listed for the game awards and nominated. And it's like, yeah, absolutely, and I applaud those games, but there's very few publishers that can actually pull that off.”

Expectations for AAA games keep rising, but at what cost to developers' lives?
Expectations for AAA games keep rising, but at what cost to developers' lives?

Hennig has spoken in the past about the brutal crunch she endured while at Naughty Dog, and how the industry is at a breaking point with the way developers are treated. With the Rockstar Games controversy prior to the launch of Red Dead Redemption 2, it’s hard to imagine what must have going through her head.

“I think for those of us that have lived through it, there's definitely a sympathetic pang that you get when you hear, because you know what people are sacrificing,” she reflected. “When a game comes out, and it's so critically well received, you almost ... it's like giving birth to a baby and you forget the pain, right? And you're ready to sign up again, because it feels so great to have the baby, right? And you get this game that is a masterpiece.

“But when you're seeing that people are physically making themselves ill, their relationships are falling part, they're missing their children's childhood... I think that you look back and go, 'I don't know that it was worth it.' And there's a certain aspect too, of just to get out of a situation where that is sort of the culture, and that is your normal everyday experience. And you get a little bit of sense of sunlight and oxygen and go, 'Oh, that doesn't have to be that way.'

“Or maybe you just get to a point in your life as you get older where you're very aware of the sacrifices you've made and that you don't get that time back. Or the physical toll that it takes on you in terms of just actual illness. And then when you see it happening to other people, it feels unethical to allow it.”

It’s true that more and more studios are coming to grips with the problems of crunch, and you might assume that young talent coming into the industry could fight for proper work-life balance, but Hennig isn’t so sure.

“I think the truth is a lot of people fear or realize that [fighting it] might get them put on the bottom of the pile, because [many studios] want people that are willing to come in and give it their all,” Hennig described. “And so I think what's happened now in our industry, is there's a lot of young people if they join one of these bigger projects, they understand that it's almost like boot camp. You are paying your dues, and then you got that thing on your resume, and now, that's your ticket. That doesn't mean that they want to do that forever, but they want to do it the once, or maybe a couple times, and then they can write their ticket anywhere.

“But then that ends up kind of perpetuating, I think, the idea that you've got a whole bunch of people that are willing to work cheap and kill themselves, and there's a line out the door of people that would do that, right? So there's no reason for people to change. And the people that don't feel that way, that are kind of young in the game industry, I think that they go the indie route, so they can establish their studio's culture and their day-to-day reality and their teammates' reality. And have some control over that, even if it means making some sacrifices in terms of content, quality, or visual quality.”

The Great Need For Smaller Games 

So what’s the answer to this dilemma? Ultimately, shorter games, subscriptions, or a combination of the two could play a role.

“The fallout from a [triple-A] game that doesn't hit is catastrophic, right? Because it will end the studio. It will end the publisher maybe. They're all in,” she said. “And so that puts so much pressure to maybe kill projects, but also it puts a lot of pressure onto just keep going. We got to pile more people on. We've got to ask for more hours. And so, I just feel like, I wish everyone could just kind of like put the brakes on and stop, and go, 'Wait, wait, wait. What do we really need to do here? What are we really trying to do?' But the problem is that there's this expectation that the games still are at a $60 price point. And you can see what's happening is now there are special editions, and even special-er editions. And so, now, the games are $79.99, and $99.99, because the publisher is trying to figure out how on earth to make some of their money back on this.

“I just wish we could calm everything down and go, ‘Are there saner ways to do this, that everyone would still be happy with? Do games have to cost that much? Can we make shorter games that cost less and that everyone's happy with? Does it have to have every feature under the sun executed to perfection, or can we pick our battles?’

“That's why I think you see this big shift among certain developers to go, 'We're not going to fight that fight ... That's the red ocean. We're going to go to blue ocean, right? We're going to make a little indie game. We're going to do something with 10 people.' And that's kind of where my head's been at.”

After 30 years in the industry, the games world is Hennig’s oyster. Whatever she chooses to create next is sure to captivate millions of her fans, and importantly, it will be done in a sustainable way. 

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Editor-in-Chief

James has been covering the games industry since the early 2000s and was most recently the editor of GamesIndustry.biz. He loves Zelda, Metroidvania-style games, action adventure and single-player narratives. He's also the proud father of twin boys and is obsessed with good coffee and Yankees baseball. You can reach him @bright_pixels on Twitter or you can email him at james.brightman@gamedaily.biz.