Last summer, we talked to Naughty Dog's co-presidents, Evan Wells and Christophe Balestra, about the changes to Uncharted 4's development team and the future of the company. In the months that followed, the team has been hard at work on Uncharted 4. The fruits of those labors were shown through a lengthy gameplay demo at Sony's first PlayStation Experience expo last December. We caught up with Evan and Christophe a day after the demo debuted, and talked to them about the challenges of working on a project of Uncharted 4's scale. For a company with products that are often in Game of the Year discussions each year, it's shocking to hear Evan and Christophe talk about failure and and uncertainty. Even for a studio like Naughty Dog, which has created games like Uncharted and The Last of Us, each new project is challenging and unpredictable, and its success comes from the passion that each member of the development team pours into it.

How do you get a project like Uncharted 4: A Thief's End off of the ground?

Evan Wells: Our answer is probably going to be pretty unique to Naughty Dog. We’re in a unique situation, where we have a lot of faith in us from our publisher and partners at Sony to make mistakes. We make lots of them. It’s a very messy process. We’re fortunate to be in a position where they trust we will get through it, whereas other teams that don’t have that experience and history with their partners, they might get the ax dropped on them at an earlier stage than we would. If we were held to the same standard, we might fail. We definitely have that luxury. It’s messy and sloppy and you throw out a lot of stuff. It’s different every time. Developing The Last of Us, which was a new IP, was very different than getting Uncharted 4 off of the ground.

Christophe Balestra: [Last of Us] was different also because we had the tools and the tech and the engine. It was more difficult to create the new IP because we were trying to do something very, very different. Uncharted 1 had all of the problems because it was a new IP and a new platform. It was insane. Hats off to the people that do launch titles like Guerrilla Games. I don’t think we could do that. It’s hard to predict the problems we’re going to have with every project, every game, and every IP.

When you finish up a project like The Last of Us, and it’s time to move on to the next endeavor, what is the first step in that process? Does it start with an idea from Naughty Dog?

EW: We first take the pulse of the company to make sure that the team is excited to do another project like Uncharted 4. If they don’t have it in them, they’re not going to have their heart in it, and it’s going to show. If we aren’t enjoying developing it, and we aren’t excited to play the game we are making, then players are not going to be excited to play it.

CB: There’s that phase after you ship a game where people were just fixing bugs, and finishing it up, and they probably have a bunch of ideas they want to try and experiment with, but they can’t for like six months. They are pretty eager to try new things. Inspiration comes from there. Some people may make a video of a sequence that they think would cool. We likely won’t keep all of it, but it’s something we look at.

EW: Like what if the A.I. could behave in this manner, or wouldn’t it be cool if Drake wound up in this situation?

Is this with the understanding that they know they are working on another Uncharted game?

CB: Not necessarily.

EW: Maybe if we haven’t had a lot of time to decide what game we are going to do next, or had the time to put our heads together to figure that out, and we’ve been underwater for six months trying to ship a game. We may spend the next month saying, "Okay, what should we do next?" In that time, people are contributing ideas. People are saying things like, "I have a great idea for Drake," or someone else says, "Maybe we should split the team into two smaller groups and do an online-only title or something." We get lots of ideas coming in.

CB: That’s true for a lot of our games, and it could be  for our pipeline or tools too. We have a lot of stuff happening at any time.

EW: Most people will buckle down and try to refine the production tools we have. Animators will start writing tools for the animators, and programmers will work on their tools. Other people contribute ideas, whether they are visual through animations, or building environments and models like, "This would be a cool place to explore. We’ve never tried to build an underwater base before." We also have people experimenting with different looks. During that time, we are trying to find the next idea. If you are looking for a concrete example, The Last of Us, with Bruce [Straley] and Neil [Druckmann], we knew we were going to put them in charge of another project after Uncharted 2. The rest of the team went off and made Uncharted 3. It was really just the two of them with one concept artist. They spent three months on it…or was it longer?

CB: It was longer than that. We had to give them the time. We never said like, "Okay, guys, three weeks from now, we need the idea." We didn’t give them deadlines, per se. That’s why I think we’re different than developers that work with other publishers. Usually you have a lot of deadlines and milestones. We don’t have that. We just give people the opportunities to try things, fail, iterate, and figure out something they are happy with. They have to be happy with what they are working on. If you have too many regrets when the project starts, you realize you’re not making the game you wanted to.

Is that just for new IP? Do you have a smaller group also work on a sequel like Uncharted?

EW: I think Uncharted 4 started with around 20 people. But again, we want to give them the chance to be nimble. When you have a big team, you can’t try things quickly. You gotta keep everyone busy and you have to pick a direction and go with it. You want people to be able to rapidly iterate and prototype and experiment to find what is going interest to them and fuel the production. It’s definitely critical to start small.