The lights are on
Naughty Dog - the legendary studio
behind The Last of Us, Uncharted, Jak and Daxter, and Crash Bandicoot - has
been in the headlines the last few months, but for all the wrong reasons. A reported exodus of key team members has people wondering about Naughty Dog and the
future of Uncharted. Game Informer analyzes the sequence of events leading up
to the present day, then sits down with company co-presidents Evan Wells and
Christophe Balestra in a candid interview about the validity of the reports,
the stability of the company, the future of Uncharted for the PlayStation 4,
and what those changes mean for The Last of Us.
The Time Line
To the surprise of many, Uncharted
for PlayStation 4 was teased on November 14, 2013 - the eve of the PlayStation
4 launch in North America. The trailer features a tense monologue over an
animated treasure map that conjures the image of a man wronged by Nathan Drake and
looking for an opportunity for revenge. This mysterious character's identity
and the role he plays in the upcoming sequel are unknown, but the trailer gave
us proof that a new Uncharted was coming. This fact was happily tweeted by the
creative director (at the time), Amy Hennig, who even suggested the world follow
Todd Stashwick, the actor who delivered the meaty dialogue.
forward to March 4, 2014, when entertainment news site IGN reported that Amy Hennig,
a longtime veteran of Naughty Dog, had been "forced out" by The Last of Us
leads Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann.
the news was shocking would be an understatement. Naughty Dog is an elite
developer celebrating its 30-year anniversary, and Hennig is a beloved game
writer who had been the creative director of the Uncharted series from the
start (and with the company for over 10 years). Uncharted is the jewel in the
PlayStation 4's crown, and Straley and Druckmann were nearing the end of a
three-month celebration tour as The Last of Us had garnered Game of the Year
awards from around the globe.
Computer Entertainment quickly issued a statement thanking Amy for her service
and informing the public "the development timeline for Uncharted will not be
Dog issued a statement of its own straight from the top dogs, Wells and
Balestra, expressing their definitive opinion of the situation: "We feel it
necessary to clear up a very important point that was unprofessionally
misreported when the story broke. Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann were not involved in what transpired. It was
very upsetting to us that dozens of stories were run, linking back to the same
hurtful accusations in the original report. As co-presidents of Naughty Dog, we
are responsible for all studio affairs."
Balestra carefully cleared the name of Straley and Druckmann without pointing
to a real cause for the separation, and leveled their ire squarely at the way
the story had been reported. In its 30 years, Naughty Dog was not often the
subject of this type of scrutiny.
next month and a half, more news came out. Justin Richmond, the game director
on Uncharted, moved on to Riot Games before the end of March. Michael Knowland,
lead character artist of The Last of Us, left in April - as did actor Todd
Stashwick (whose role from the reveal trailer has since been recast). Artist
Nate Wells got rolled up in the Naughty Dog staff frenzy when he announced he
had joined Giant Sparrow, even though he had left Naughty Dog in September of
Hennig, she joined Electronic Arts and Visceral Games to work on an upcoming
Star Wars title, a series she says has had a formative influence on her life.
never know what happened behind closed doors at Naughty Dog, but one thing is
clear: The staff changes have not slowed down the team's desire or passion. In
person, you can see the news has had an effect on the key players. Wells and
Balestra appeared tired of the subject when we sat down for our interview, but
they knew the story needed to be addressed head-on so the team could get back
to the business of making games. We also have many first-hand accounts stating
that Druckmann and Straley were saddened to be painted as foils in the drama
Keighley was present at the duo's first public appearance that took place just
eight days after the Hennig story broke, and his thoughts sum up the experience
well. "Here you have two guys who had just won Game of the Year at the BAFTAs
but weren't able to enjoy the moment," Keighley says. "Instead, they nervously
walked around the after party wondering what everyone was saying under their
breath about their supposed villainous ways. It was kind of heartbreaking to
see that moment taken from them."
Dog is not unfamiliar with adversity, and what doesn't kill you makes you
stronger. With the stage set, we sat down to discuss the future and lay the past
to rest with Wells and Balestra.
Co-presidents Christophe Balestra (left) and Evan Wells have a knack for finishing each other's sentences.
As far as the perceived exodus,
or real exodus, from Naughty Dog, what's your take on what's been going on?
Evan Wells: To us, it's kind of strange because the perception and
what's being "reported" is in stark contrast to the feeling here at the
studio, Everyone here is energized and excited to show off what we've been
working on. There are no doom and gloom feelings, unlike what's being portrayed by the "journalists"
that are writing these stories. It would be comical if it hadn't persisted as
long as it has - it's just not going away. Every single departure, or now even
hires, are being reported as if it's big news.
Christophe Balestra: If you look back at the last 10 years, it's been happening
to us. You have to deal with these things.
So you would say it's normal
CB: Statistically, it's not unusual.
EW: It's not significant at all. In the course of the last
generation, we've had art directors, creative directors, co-presidents, and
co-founders, leave the company and we just keep going. We've replaced that
talent and we've filled the gaps. Some bumps are harder to smooth out than
others. We work it out.
Last time I was here, we were
talking about The Last of Us. Naughty Dog had implemented a two-team structure
and the studio was expanding. Is that still the case?
EW: I don't think we ever declared ourselves as having reached
the final end goal of two teams. We certainly have not, and we might have even
changed that goal. We have multiple projects going. We never were able to fully
staff two completely independent teams. At this point, I don't think we'll
probably get there. We've got the Uncharted project, which we've talked about,
we've got DLC for The Last of Us, and we've got the remastered version [of The
Last of Us]. We've got other projects in the works that are in the very early
stages. We have at least four different pretty significant things going on
CB: We're trying to be as flexible as possible in terms of how
we move people around. I think we've always had two main things going on, so
that's where the "two teams" [concept] came from. It's like
everything else we do here; you've got to learn as you go and adjust. [We're]
sharing some resources more than what we thought we would because it's more
practical and makes sense. That's where we're at now - learning.
EW: Sometimes, that sharing looks like somebody working on a
project for six or twelve months and then switching to another project.
Sometimes a department is actively working on two projects at once and is
bouncing back and forth on a weekly or task-by-task basis. We figure it out as
we go. That's how our production philosophies work at Naughty Dog. We try not
to be dogmatic. If it's not working out the way we thought it would, we shift
and try something else.
Naughty Dog has 200 full time employees and another 30 contractors.
Traditionally, Naughty Dog has
debuted a new franchise with each console generation. Uncharted is now jumping
over to the PlayStation 4. Is that a change in philosophy for the studio?
EW: We looked back at some of the struggles we had going from
PS2 to PS3 - there's a couple things in play here. One, there was still a
passion to do more Uncharted. That's the number one thing that drives of all
our decisions. If there's some gameplay or story to tell that the team is still
interested in working on, then we'll do it. If there's excitement to try
something new, then that's when we'll try something new. So that was the main
reason. The secondary benefit is that, for the very first game we
ship on new hardware, we don't also have to go through all the growing pains of
developing a new IP and all those challenges. So that was the added benefit.
Would you say game development
now continues to grow and become more difficult?
CB: It's more difficult. Even with the PS3, making The Last of Us
was more complex than making Uncharted 1. You keep growing your techniques. The
quality becomes a driving force. You become more and more ambitious. We have to
solve different problems, but that's interesting and we like solving those
EW: While people say that game development is getting harder,
actually it's getting easier – if you're going to keep doing the same thing that
you did in the past. It would be pretty trivial to make Crash Bandicoot right
now. We can do that, but the challenges of doing it on the original PlayStation
were huge. Now that we're trying to make The Last of Us and Uncharted, they're completely different products that bear very little resemblance to what we used
to make in the past.
CB: And the number of people who are working on them [makes it]
EW: The tools and the hardware make things easier, but it just
means that your dreams get bigger.
When you begin a project, I
assume you have a you have a small, core team or eight to ten people before you
set the stage going forward -
CB: It's more than that.
EW: It's probably at least 30 to 40 people just to get a decent
That's a lot of people! When
you've lost Amy Hennig, the head writer of the Uncharted series, this seems to
be a change in direction and philosophy for Uncharted from what we've seen in
the past. How does that affect the direction? Did you not like the direction
the game was going?
EW: That's not what happened. That's not the reason the
departures and the recasting occurred. We are going through a pretty typical
development [cycle] on a new hardware. There were definitely stumbling blocks getting
the technology going and we still have many years ahead of us with the same
problems. But we are happy with the recent developments.
CB: I guess a lot of things happened at the same time. The
departures that you were mentioning - a bunch of people moved on [in the
transition] from PS3 to PS4. The momentum had changed very recently because the
tech is getting better and artists can finally just work and see results on the
screen. We can see that we can do more, and we get more comfortable with the platform.
We can see and envision what we will be able to do with it. That's what's
getting us excited. Even if we had some changes, the entire team is extremely
excited with what they're doing right now. [There's] so much happening that
we'll probably be showing soon. That's really exciting, just to see the new
things that we can do now. [It's what] we wanted to do in the last three or
four years of the PlayStation 3, but we couldn't because we never had the power
to do it. It's really cool to see people getting excited about what they're
doing together. That's where we're at now and that's what we're driven by.
Does that throw you off when
you have a turn in the middle of a project, or is that typical of most of your
CB: We have huge problems with every game. If you were to look
at one of our games two months before we ship it you'd say, "There's no way.
It's just not going to happen." That's a big problem, but every single time we
manage to fix it. So, we end up in some situations that are more difficult than
others, and we just learn to deal with it. It's one of those situations. You've
got to keep moving.
EW: None of the problems we've ever faced on any of the
developments have ever had an ill effect on the team's motivation or positivity
on the potential for success. Everybody realizes that this is part of game
development. It's not easy; there's never a clear path. As long as you keep
moving forward - even if it's 89 degrees off - at least you're inching it
along. And as long as you aren't going backwards, it's still forward progress. You
take a winding route. If you have to abandon something that you thought was the
direction that would work, even after putting months of work into it, [you say], "You
know what guys? It's time to cut our losses. This isn't working out, we've got
to try something else." That kind of thing happens a lot, and people here have
come to understand that that's part of the process. Even if someone invests
months of their time [into something] that ends up getting thrown away, it's
not a failure on their part or a failure on the director's part - that's what
we needed to explore to find the right path. You often have to find many wrong
paths before you find the right one, and that's all helping the ultimate
quality of the product.
Bruce Straley (left) and Neil Druckmann during our visit for The Last of Us in 2012
So [The Last of Us co-leads]
Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann have stepped in to facilitate Uncharted
through this transition period. How is that going and what is the future for
EW: It's not so much a transition period, actually. We've asked
them to lead the project. They are excited as veterans of the Uncharted
franchise to take the responsibility and they're doing great.
Did those guy work on the
PlayStation 3 Uncharted games?
EW: Uncharted 1 and Uncharted 2, yeah.
Was Neil there as well?
EW: Yeah - lead designer. He -
CB: He worked on Jak X!
Did he? He looks so young.
EW: Yeah it's crazy. He wrote on both Uncharted 1 and 2 he was
lead designer on Uncharted 2. Bruce was game director on Uncharted 2 and he was
art director on Uncharted 1.
Do they bring a new spirit to
the game in terms of direction, or does it feel familiar because they had been
such a big part of the franchise?
EW: It was not a difficult transition at all. Everybody just
sort of accepted that as the new order of things and soldiered on. I mean we've
been making enormous progress. If anything, things are accelerating instead of
But does that bring a new
spirit to the direction of the game? I know you guys have said that it wouldn't
impact where you're going, but would you say that with new leadership in place
that there are different priorities?
CB: A little bit. They have to fall in love with the game
they're making, right? They'll make the changes that they think are right.
They're going to have to adjust what they've got and make it what they think is
right for this game. There are some changes, obviously, that they will be
EW: They also had a lot of really good experience with the
development of The Last of Us and some production philosophies that they're
able to incorporate into the production of Uncharted. That's benefitted the
team a lot as well.
As you said, even though
Naughty Dog does have multiple projects, it is one giant team. So for the last
two or three years Neil and Bruce were basically guiding most of the team?
EW: Exactly, and a lot of those people have shifted over to
work on Uncharted now. Every game we sort of stand on the shoulders of the last
product we shipped. We reap the benefits of not only the technology that's been
developed, but also the best production practices of the art, design, or programming teams. Everybody learns from the mistakes and offers
up their experience to the people that were in pre-production on the other
project and didn't get to see exactly how it worked. In that sense, we just
So there are going to be a lot
of people that, when they learn that Neil and Bruce are now full time on
Uncharted, feel that you are abandoning their dream of another The Last of Us
or even a new project from that duo. Does this change the options for other
EW: Well I mentioned earlier the number of products we have
going. We definitely have another project on the scale of Uncharted in very
early pre-production stages. We have the sizable team that it takes to get
something like that off of the ground, but it's got a long runway in front of
it. We have a lot of great ideas and some stuff that is already getting
everybody jazzed and excited. So, it's a long way off before we can really
start talking about it in detail. But no, [Bruce and Neil working on Uncharted]
is not going to impact our ability to keep that stirring that pot.
So is that the vision you two
have for the studio - to continue to alternate between projects going forward
so that you can explore the different IPs?
EW: Yeah. Two teams is probably not the best description, but two
franchises is a good way to put it.
What would you tell the fans
who think that this hurts Uncharted in the long term and love the work that Amy
and the rest of the group did in the past?
EW: I think it's important for everybody to understand something
that we've said all along: Everything here at Naughty Dog is done as a team
effort across the board. Everybody has a huge creative input into
everything that's done. We never have operated on the "auteur philosophy" in
any of our games in our 30-year history, where it's just led by one person
and if you remove that head it'll come to a grinding halt. That's not how
we operate. So this is, again, business as usual.
CB: You know us. You know every time we talk about this to you,
we talk about the team. There's a reason for that. It's not because we
want to sound nice; that's really how we work here. We don't feel like we have
changed. We feel we're still the same. We have a crazy amount of talent on this
floor and they're really great at what they do. I think the best way to prove
it is just to show people. Don't worry - we're doing great. Making a game,
before anything else, is a team effort. And the team is -
EW: Still here.
Have you guys brought on
anybody new to the team?
CB: We always hire people! We were joking the other day,
[saying] "Yeah, maybe before we hire someone we should just put it on the Internet
so people can tell us if it's the right hire." Of course, we hired how many
people in the last six months, twelve months?
EW: We have two full-time recruiters working here just to
maintain status quo. We are really trying to grow rapidly at this point just to
keep the seats filled that we need. It takes two full-time recruiters doing
nothing but recruiting for us.
EW: It's been like that for a while. Again, nothing has changed
recently. Some are going to go, and some are going to join us...and that's it.
Are you guys excited about the
direction that you guys have for Uncharted? Is this Nathan Drake as we know him?
Do you feel that we're going to be surprised when you finally show what you've
EW: We sure hope you're surprised by how amazing it looks! It's
going to be an exciting story, and I think people are going to really buy into
this one in a way that I think is consistent with the rest of the stories.
It's a stand-alone adventure like all of them are; we don't expect people to
have played the past games to enjoy the current one. But you're going to get to
experience Drake and his crew in a new way.
As a company, you guys have
matured as storytellers and gameplay designers over the years. It's interesting
to watch game designers learn new tricks as they move forward and get better at
what they do. I think it's interesting that you don't have to change the IP and
it saves you all that work. At the same time, you guys are not the same company
you were when you made Uncharted 3.
EW: Well, even Uncharted 1. If you go from Uncharted 1 to 2 to
3, you can see there's definitely an evolution in the storytelling techniques
and the gravity of the situations and the relationships that Drake's put in. The next Uncharted will continue that
evolution. I don't know if you're digging at the theory that's out there that
it's somehow going to be this departure or that The Last of Us is indicative of
the future of Naughty Dog projects. It's not going to be that sharp of a turn. I think
it's an evolution that people will be comfortable with if they've played the
previous Uncharted games.
You guys have been leading this
charge for a long time here at Naughty Dog. How are you guys doing?
EW: It's challenging every day. Like we said, it's hard work
making games, but that's why we do it. If you weren't being challenged, if you
weren't learning something every single day you came to the office, it would
just get boring. That would be when it's time to call it quits.
CB: [As] tech guys, it's cool we just got a new toy. It's
really fun to explore all the new things we can do. Even just porting the
remastered version of The Last of Us to PS4 was actually a very exciting
challenge. You learn new tricks that you can do with that platform and it's
exciting. I'm really happy with seeing how people are re-energized by
everything that's happening in these two productions - that's awesome. It's a
lot of hard work, and their ambition level is really high and I love seeing
EW: It's amazing to see how people just get so excited and just
geek out over all these details -
CB: The pixels.
EW: We were like, "Oh my God, you can literally talk about
pores in the skin and the way the light interacts with the most minute detail."
CB: All the frustration you accumulate over 10 years on one
platform - you can do this, you can't do that - now it's like, "Finally, we can
do all of this." It creates new problems, but it's all technical problems that
are really interesting to solve. It's cool. I really love the engineering.
People made a lot of
assumptions about what you guys were doing or what was going on. You say it is
just business as usual. There are going to be people who are going to say, "I
don't believe that this is it." They're only going to believe what they want to
CB: The only thing we can do is do what we do best and make
great games. And the day we ship the game, then they'll get to review it, and
...and then you get to go on
Twitter and go, 'Eat that!'
CB: No! There's no point! We are not like that; we are never
upset. Does it help to use our energy towards that? No. I'd rather use my
energy towards focusing on what's going on in the office. It's way more
important than whatever those people say.
EW: The only time we felt obligated to come out and respond to
it was when our employees' names were being tarnished completely unnecessarily
with really shoddy "reporting" - and, again, I'm using air quotes. That was
hurtful. But otherwise...making games, what happens here in the studio is our
business. We're not concerned. The team is excited as ever, so we just tune it
out and keep moving forward.
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