Interview: Naughty Dog
With less than a week to go until launch, Naughty Dog’s Uncharted 2: Among Thieves currently ranks as Metacritic’s highest-rated PS3 exclusive game to date. You’ll find our review in E208, out October 27, but until then, here’s an interview with multiplayer designer Justin Richmond and community manager Arne Meyer in which we discuss how the studio’s “open family” approach helped build upon the outstandingly solid foundations of 2007’s Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune.
They also tell us about the challenges facing a studio traditionally focused on singleplayer creating a polished multiplayer mode, how they’ve extracted the most out of PS3 hardware, and share their sales expectations for the fruit from two years’ work that’s not only managed to meet its release date but is also “lucky” enough to neatly position itself in between the releases of Halo 3: ODST and Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and shortly after PS3’s price cut.
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At what point after Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was completed did you begin working on the sequel?
Justin Richmond We pretty much started working on it right away.
Arne Meyer Basically, as soon as we finished the first game, everyone got a vacation, but it really started off with our programmers. Christophe [Balestra], our co-president who leads up the technology side, brought everybody together and said that they could work on their own personal projects and everybody just went back to work on the engine straight up. So from our technology side everybody just dived right back into the game.
How many units has the first Uncharted sold?
AM We’ve sold 2.5 million worldwide, but that figure is pretty old now. We’ve had the Greatest Hits [version] here in Europe for a while but we only released the Greatest Hits version in the US a month ago and we haven’t seen those numbers yet, so at least 2.5 million.
JR And then there’s the bundle which we haven’t got all the numbers back from. And then for this game hopefully it’ll be higher.
How much larger was the team for Uncharted 2?
AM It’s about 40 or 50 people more; it’s a little under double. We had a really small studio at the beginning of Uncharted and there was so much we wanted to do. We’re about 110 people in the studio now and I think we were probably about 60-80 for Drake’s Fortune.
Could you explain a little about the studio structure and working philosophy at Naughty Dog?
AM It’s really flat. There’s no real hierarchy. You have leads and the teams underneath the leads, plus the two co-presidents, the creative director Amy [Hennig] and the game director Bruce [Straley], but there isn’t a lot of hierarchy because we want everyone to provide input in every aspect of the game. So much of Naughty Dog’s tradition is collaboration and iteration and that’s what we try to foster in terms of how we’re structured, so everyone we bring in needs to fit into that.
JR It’s basically a big pit and we don’t have offices. Christophe, Evan and Amy have offices, but the game director sits with all the designers and all our animators sit right next to us so there’s a big open floor plan. People feel like they can talk to anybody; they don’t have to schedule a meeting or anything like that. People just talk to the person they need to talk to and make sure it happens. There’s a lot of independence I guess. [The bosses] trust that you’re going to do the best that you can do for the game, and because they put a lot of trust into the people that work for them it is very flat. They just expect you to do your job and do it well, and it works. I’ve sent less email at Naughty Dog than at any other company I’ve worked for because I’ll just get up and go and talk to whoever I need to speak to. Naughty Dog is pretty much just a big open family.
AM All feedback and ideas are encouraged no matter what. There’s no such thing as bad feedback or ideas, everything gets taken seriously. If it sounds like it might be a good idea or the feedback sounds valid then we’ll try it, and what happens is that the good ideas start to rise to the top.
Drake’s Fortune successfully blended a number of tried-and-tested ideas. Did you go about creating Among Thieves differently? And did you really strive to put a unique stamp on the game?
JR After the first game we knew what worked and what didn’t, and what we really wanted to push. The big things we added were action stealth and traversal gunplay, but we wanted to push player choice too. In the first game most of the setups see you drop into a pit and kill some guys and move on but in this game we wanted to give the player more options than that. So first of all we let you hang from everything and shoot which is awesome and you use that a lot. In the first game that was a choice but there weren’t a lot of scenarios where it was useful, but in this game you’re doing it constantly. During the train sequence you’re hanging on the train, using all of the climbing mechanics, shooting guys and dropping down. That level really exemplifies everything that we wanted to do in this game.
In the action stealth bits you’ll enter a scenario and see all these guys who are hunting for you but don’t know where you are yet. You can slowly kill them all one by one, or you can go in guns blazing, or you can try to traverse around them and get around the whole setup entirely. So the core mechanic of taking cover branches into this bigger melee, action stealth, traversal gunplay thing, which I think is totally unique. I don’t think that there are any other games where you can interact with the environment and the gunplay and the cover all at the same time. This game really puts the stamp on the Uncharted gameplay. This is what Uncharted really is and I think going forward you’ll see more of that kind of stuff.