A Candid Interview With Evan Wells And Christophe Balestra
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.
Flash 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.
To say 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.
Sony Computer Entertainment quickly issued a statement thanking Amy for her service and informing the public "the development timeline for Uncharted will not be impacted."
Naughty 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."
Wells and 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.
Over the 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 2013.
As for 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.
We may 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 that unfolded.
Spike's Geoff 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."
Naughty 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 attrition?
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 right now.
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 problems.
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] more complicated.
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 pre-production going.
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 games?
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 Uncharted?
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 slowing down.
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 making.
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 keep leapfrogging.
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 titles?
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 got coming?
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 that.
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 believe.
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 that's it.
...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.