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The Past, Present, And Future Of Naughty Dog

by Annette Gonzalez on Jul 01, 2011 at 02:15 PM

With the Uncharted 3 beta kicking into high gear, we caught up with Naughty Dog co-president Evan Wells who explained the company’s evolution through the Crash Bandicoot era, the creation of Jak & Daxter, the development of some of gaming’s most memorable characters in Uncharted, and what’s next for the blockbuster studio.

Quick Naughty Dog History Lesson

Naughty Dog was founded by Andy Gavin and Jason Rubin in 1986 as independent studio “Jam Software” (Jam short for “Jason and Andy Magic”). The high schoolers went on to develop titles for Apple II under Jam Software in the late ‘80s and made their debut as Naughty Dog upon release of Rings of Power in 1991, a console RPG released for Sega’s Mega Drive system. The studio’s new name was inspired by Rubin’s dog, Morgan, a mischievous pup that spent every day at the team’s office. Naughty Dog’s next big project was Mortal Kombat-inspired Way of the Warrior on 3DO where Gavin and Rubin hired friends to dress up in costumes and shot photos for the game. The multiplayer title caught the attention of Mark Cerny of Universal Interactive Studios leading to an agreement with Naughty Dog for three additional games leading to the creation of the iconic Crash Bandicoot.

PS One Crash Course

Wells: Crash Bandicoot was made with Jason Andy and five other employees – three of which are still working here today. It was interesting (and challenging) because it was in the early days of 3D, and the machine could barely do proper 3D. In fact, there were a lot of shortcuts taken and we were doing our best through software to compensate for some of the hardware limitations. Back then everything was so new Naughty Dog was able to stand out by creating a game that didn’t exhibit a lot of the same problems of other early PlayStation games. The larger the polygons got, the more distorted the textures became, so we came up with this way where we’d render smaller polygons so you didn’t get graphical distortion. The way we got around that was by streaming data off the CD. Most games would just load off the CD and be done with it, then you could play your five or 10-minute level and then it would go back to a load screen. Because the camera would follow a fixed path through Crash Bandicoot we were streaming in more data. We were only rendering the polygons that were needed and we only had loaded the polygons that were needed to display the composition in the world.

PS2 Introduces Two New Characters

Wells: When the PlayStation 2 became realized we saw it was a very big leap forward. The Dreamcast was out there and we thought that we would be able to really blow the doors off of it and make some really great games. What we’d done on PlayStation one with Crash Bandicoot was design a game that took advantage and tried to hide the limitations of the hardware so we made a game with a big-headed mascot with big eyes that expressed the emotion of the character. On PlayStation 2 we were like, “Ok, we could take a step closer to reality, still fantastic, but we can try a game that has a more humanoid character. He’s still an elf so we were still rooted in stylization, but we can give him a voice and we can start to consider doing a more story-based gaming experience.” That’s sort of what drew us to create Jak & Daxter. We were obviously inspired by Mario 64 as the first real free roaming 3D platformer and we wanted to do something like that, but on a much more detailed scale. The N64 didn’t allow them to put a lot of detail in environments so we wanted to have giant vistas where you could stand on a mountain and see across the world. Our first tech challenge was taking what we had done with Crash Bandicoot and creating high detail on a fixed path in an open world environment.

Cutting Room Floor: Jak Had Three Ponytails

Wells: Jak went through several iterations. Initially he had three ponytails. We definitely modeled Jak a number of times. We also went through a lot of iterations with our engine as far as how we were going to render those big vistas. The very first three or four environments that we modeled and put a lot of work into ended up on the cutting room floor because it was just going through the early stages of grappling through PlayStation 2 hardware. It’s part of the process of getting your feet wet with new hardware. We had a level we called “Yosemite” – this giant half-dome mountain in Yosemite that we modeled with a forest at the base – and we really tried to get it into the final game. We came back to it as one of the last levels to see if we could apply some of the knowledge that we had accumulated on previous ones to see if we could shoehorn it in the last second, but it was too late.

Will Jak make a comeback?

Wells: What I hear a lot recently [from fans] is to make another Jak & Daxter game. My answer always is we’d love to do it, there’s a lot of love for the franchise and it has a special place in our hearts for sure, but we’re sort of heads down, working on one game at a time now and are focusing on Uncharted, but we’d love to go back to it at some point.

Naughty Dog was sold to Sony back in 2000 and as of January 2001 became a wholly owned subsidiary. Gavin and Rubin’s contract ended with the release of Jak 3 in 2004 and they have since left the company.

Going From Bandicoot To Elf To Human Treasure Hunter

Wells: We looked at the [PS3’s] hardware specs and what we thought we could do with it, and thought that we could design a game around taking advantage of everything it had to offer. We went from an animal with a big head to a stylized slightly human elf character so we thought now we finally have the horsepower to tackle a real world environment with real human characters and actually tell a story that was more cinematic and treasure driven. That was the first thing we decided. We were definitely going to do something modern day, realistic, with humans.

Uncharted [Underwater] Territory

Wells: We went through a lot of iterations with different ideas. Our very first tech demo we built with our water technology was called the “moon pool”. In one of the early concepts we had, the game was going to take place in some underwater facility. Actually, it had a resemblance to BioShock. It was funny because we read an interview with Ken Levine and he was saying that one of their initial concepts was this tropical island and I was like, “Wow, we’re both crossing paths there with those ideas.” We started off building this underwater facility. It was in our first green light video we put together when we were pitching the idea to Sony to show off our water tech and how we evolved into getting all the different types of water in Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune.

The Birth Of Nathan Drake

Wells: We bounced around a lot of ideas and thought, “What are some of the core things people want out of video games?” We sort of got to that aspirational quality. They want to be a spy. They want to be a bounty hunter. They want to be a military covert operations guy. We saw that a lot of games were doing those things that were much more militaristic or on the sort of space marine bada** side of things, and we thought, “What can we do to distinguish ourselves from that, but still have that aspirational quality?” We looked to a lot of stories of the first part of the 20th century and landed on treasure hunting and how that was part of a lot of people and how it shaped their views as they grew up. We wanted to make a game that had blockbuster cinematic action, but still had a character that is very personable and grounded and relatable.

We looked at Harrison Ford and Bruce Willis, the Indiana Jones movies, The Fugitive, Patriot Games – basically any movie that Harrison Ford was in. We also looked at the Die Hard movies with Bruce Willis for the character that can hold his own, but as he does it you can see the struggle and it’s not so easy for him.

Uncharted 3D

Wells: When we were first approached with the idea of putting 3D in the game [Uncharted 3] it was still very early. We hadn’t seen any implementation from other developers with the 3D. We weren’t sure if it was worth the effort because we were already pushing the PlayStation 3 to its limits to render a single frame 30 times per second and in order to do 3D we’d need to render two of those frames at 30 frames per second. It just seemed insurmountable.

When we shipped Uncharted 2 we looked at what we wanted to do with the third game and one of the things that was at the top of our list, and one of the things fans were asking for in Uncharted 3 was split-screen multiplayer. That was a feature we wanted to include in Uncharted 2, but since it was our first game with multiplayer at such a scale it was a feature we didn’t have time to support, but it was our first order of business when the programmers were getting back on Uncharted 3. To do split screen you have to render two points of view at 30 fps so as we started looking at the optimizations we could do to achieve that for split screen we realized all of those same things would allow us to do 3D. When we did it we thought it was actually pretty cool. It immerses you in the world quite a bit. We went for it and realized we didn’t know exactly what we were getting into when we embarked on it because it permeates every aspect of game development. The game designers have to be conscious of it when they’re scripting their cameras to show where Drake has to go next when he’s climbing up a pole or we’re showing off a vista. The designers have to go in there to set the 3D convergence points. You have to make sure you’re transitioning smoothly between convergence points because if you do it too suddenly or rapidly it can cause eye strain. We have to render our cutscenes in 3D and 2D so it doubles the amount of space we’ve got on the disc for video so it’s mandated that we go to a dual-layer disc this time. It really did have a ripple effect across every aspect of development, but in the end, I still fully think it’s been a great addition to the game and will be the best way to play the game.

What Does The Future Hold For Naughty Dog?

Wells: That’s a really good question and one we ask ourselves as we’re approaching the end of Uncharted 3. I can honestly say we don’t know. Throughout the course of all these games we’re always heads down, everybody – especially the people that would be responsible in planning what we’re doing next – are the very ones that are super critical for completing the current game. We end up rushing all the way to the finish line, take a break, and when the people are recharged enough to get back to the office we decide what to do at that point. So I can say with 100 percent we do not know what’s coming next – with the exception that we fully intend to support Uncharted 3 with a lot of DLC and community support. We’ve got some really cool ideas with how we’re going to continue to foster a really good multiplayer community for sometime after we ship.