The last of it: Naughty Dog on bringing The Last Of Us to PS4
The Last Of Us for PS4 isn’t the first 1080p remake for the new generation of consoles, but it might be the most difficult. Other developers have had something of a head start, thanks to the combination of having already created high-quality PC versions and the PC-like architecture of PS4 and Xbox One. The Last Of Us, however, was made exclusively for one of the most tricky pieces of hardware developers have ever had to support. Worse, it’s the pinnacle of technical achievements on the console, using an engine custom built for PS3 and code optimised to take advantage of every quirk of the hardware Naughty Dog discovered making PS3 games for seven years. Porting a game from PS3 to PS4, it seems, is harder than it looks.
“I wish we had a button that was like ‘Turn On PS4 Mode’, but no,” creative director Neil Druckmann says. “We expected it to be Hell, and it was Hell. Just getting an image onscreen, even an inferior one with the shadows broken, lighting broken and with it crashing every 30 seconds… that took a long time. These engineers are some of the best in the industry and they optimised the game so much for the PS3’s SPUs specifically. It was optimised on a binary level, but after shifting those things over [to PS4] you have to go back to the high level, make sure the [game] systems are intact, and optimise it again.
“I can’t describe how difficult a task that is. And once it’s running well, you’re running the [versions] side by side to make sure you didn’t screw something up in the process, like physics being slightly off, which throws the game off, or lighting being shifted and all of a sudden it’s a drastically different look. That’s not ‘improved’ any more; that’s different. We want to stay faithful while being better.”
Naughty Dog had only a handful of advantages when development began, shortly after completion of the game’s Left Behind DLC. An audio commentary for the cutscenes had already been recorded, but was never used, and many models and textures already existed at a higher quality than could be put onscreen by a PS3. Character models built for cutscenes use more triangles than those in-game, and multiple versions of objects were built with higher-quality models swapped in and out depending on its prominence in the frame. On PS4, those models could be used everywhere.
The PS3 game’s art changed from this early concept work.
Rumour says Gran Turismo 6’s new car models were built to a level of detail far beyond PS3’s GPU, future-proofing them for the inevitable GT7. The Last Of Us was never built to be ported or even with recycling in mind, but its assets were built in a similar fashion. “We always build the best possible assets and then we can make the call when things aren’t fitting onscreen or in the frame buffer or in memory,” Druckmann says. “That way we can pick and choose what we need to emphasise in a moment, and where there’s a compromise on what can [be more detailed] or reduced to a lower quality. We don’t build it with high assets in mind to then port it, but it did give us a leg up. If we hadn’t done that, we might not have made the call to bring it over to PS4.
“It still means rebuilding the assets, throwing them in, seeing how the new streaming works, working with the new hard drive and the new OS that you have to write whole new systems for. We knew the areas that were problematic on the PS3, where we were hitting a technical bottleneck, so they were the easiest areas to improve. We brought in all the hi-res models, and then it’s on par with what you saw in the cutscenes. There’s an improved lighting model. After that, we started looking across the board; enemies look a little blurry up close, so that was pretty easy. We ramped those up and saw a pretty significant difference. Our cinematics are now running at 1080p and 60fps, and that involved rendering them all from scratch. It’s interesting that now [instead of a technical bottleneck], the bottleneck is ‘Can we fit all this on the disc?’“
The Last Of Us Remastered is an important piece of fan service – every time the developers conversed with Reddit, the request came up, even before the PS3 game’s release – but it was also an important test of the studio’s tools. “Going from PS2 to PS3, we actually had to throw out most of our work for the engine,” Druckmann says. “We were using a proprietary programming language that was developed by Andy Gavin and some of the other programmers, so we knew when we started the engine that would support the first Uncharted game that we were engineering it with [the future] in mind. Going forward, we wanted to use that same engine on whatever platform we would eventually be working on. Even on in the early days of PS3, we were thinking of the transition to PS4, because of how hard transitions have been in the past. One way to [test the tools] is to take an existing game and port it, and The Last Of Us Remastered gave us an excuse to bring those systems over, refine them and optimise them for the hardware.
Models used in cutscenes now run natively in-game. The subtler details will be wasted when the camera sits so far from players, but every detail counts at 1080p.
“At first, there was a pretty small team of two or three programmers, experimenting and trying to answer the questions of what it would take to port it over, so we could decide whether it was worth it or not. We put in a pretty significant programming staff to port all the graphics systems over, the physics, the AI, the scripting language. It’s not an insignificant team, but it’s not as large as a full-scale production.”
Missing from the permanent team were the designers. Visuals aside, The Last Of Us Remastered is an untouched port, even going to far as to leave in common points of complaint, such as the difficulty spike when Joel, Tess and Ellie first arrive downtown. “[Game director] Bruce [Straley] and I always laugh about this,” Druckmann says. “We have a really hard time playing the game, because we constantly see things and think, ‘Oh, man, I could’ve done that better, I could’ve written that better, that animation pop over there, that transition…’ but once you start going down that road, where do you stop? At what point are you making the experience just different or worse?
“Star Wars comes to mind. I’m more of a fan of the original cut and Han Solo shooting first. The Metal Gear Solid remake on GameCube [is good, but] I loved the original. I have so much attachment to that one that any shifts in the dialogue, or even in the moment-to-moment gameplay, [mean] something about it feels so different that it becomes inferior in my mind. It’s only subjective, but there’s something nice about saying, ‘We’ve finished it’. That’s what we put out there, that’s the final experience – now it’s just about a locked frame rate and all the hi-res textures and assets our amazing artists created. I would like to say the game is the game, so I’d like to just bring it over to the PS4 and get a more solid version of the same experience.”
The remaster marks Naughty Dog’s last chance to make edits, but the urge was resisted.
Designers would work on the game to check systems, and work is ongoing regarding just how the reworked The Last Of Us will use PS4’s DualShock 4, with its new triggers, sticks and touchpad. “Right now, it’s still a straightforward port,” Druckmann says, “but there are things I’d like to do. I love the feel of the triggers on the PS4, so I want to give the option to switch which triggers you use to shoot and which ones you’re using to listen and crouch. Then there are some ideas of how to use the touchpad that we’ll play with and see if it’s worth it. Mostly, we don’t want to mess with the experience too much, and we don’t want to deviate from what made The Last Of Us so great.”
The few additions are optional extras that were always intended to be enjoyed with the original game. The Left Behind DLC, set before the main story, will become available at the game’s conclusion, and an audio commentary for the cutscenes will be available from the start. “That was something we did at the end of production for PS3,” Druckmann says. “I don’t remember if we could have fit it on the disc, but [it didn’t matter because] we didn’t have time to edit it. It’s Troy Baker [Joel], Ashley Johnson [Ellie] and me sitting down and watching all the cinematics, talking about our experience of crafting those characters and bringing them to life. It will play through the cinematics and there will be an audio option to change from the regular audio to the behind-the-scenes commentary.”
With the addition of the DLC and commentary atop the visual overhaul, this will be the definitive version of The Last Of Us, Druckmann says. But illustrating the sheer amount of work that’s gone into remastering the game is a challenge nobody ever anticipated. A half-decade or more of publishers’ bullshots created in Photoshop or produced by monster PCs outputting a 4K image has made selling the visual quality of new generation games a difficult task, and the online spaces games are marketed in aren’t up to the task of showing off The Last Of Us Remastered.
Druckmann says that one of the key lessons learned throughout the making of The Last Of Us was “to trust the process, trust the team and keep the faith.”
“How do you show it on the Internet? Any next-gen game?” Druckmann asks. “We have the game running in 1080p at 60fps, and YouTube brings it down to 30fps and does a compression on it, and it’s hard to tell the difference. When you see it running on your big TV and you see all the hi-res assets running smoothly, it’s hard to go back to the previous version after that, but it’s hard to show all the work, the optimisation and the artistry that went into it. We’re still trying to figure out what the best way to do that is. We tried to put a non-compressed version of the trailer running at 60Hz for people to download, but it’s several hundred MBs. It’s a huge file. Maybe there’s something on PSN where we can make this stuff available, but it’s something we have to address.”
The end result is “akin to looking at a DVD versus Blu-ray,” Druckmann says. “It’s not a totally brand-new experience, but when you’re seeing the film, the clarity of the image is much closer to how the director and the team initially saw it. There’s something nice about that. I think if there was nothing but remakes, that would be pretty sad for the console. Just like any system out there, any medium, it’s going to be a mixture. We’re working on this re-release, but at the same time we’re working on two other brand-new experiences. When Blu-ray came out, the first thing is you buy all these rereleases of movies that you’ve loved, and then you see Gravity and you can’t wait to see it on your Blu-ray. There’s always room for a mixture of old and new. “
It is, says Druckmann, the very beginning of what Naughty Dog can achieve on PlayStation 4. “If you look at Uncharted 1 and then look at Uncharted 3 or The Last Of Us, you’ll see a pretty big difference as we have a better understanding of the hardware and how to build assets for it. So while I believe you’ll see a big improvement between The Last Of Us on PS3 and PS4, we’re just getting started with the new generation.”