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Naughty Dog Presidents Discuss The 'Messy Process' Of Success

by Andrew Reiner on Jan 28, 2015 at 10:00 AM

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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.

As the writers start putting the narrative together, does that affect the preproduction process? Are there sometimes big revelations that completely upend the direction the team is going in?

CB: Yeah. We’re not super optimal. After we ship a game, there are some people that probably don’t do that much because they don’t have to try things out. But that’s fine. We accept it.

EW: Some people also take longer to recharge than others, so they might not have the fire in them to start contributing.

At what point do you kick into full production?

CB: It’s usually right after the first big demo or trailer that we put together. Something like that.

Like the PlayStation Experience demo?

CB: Yeah, after we show the game publicly for the first time we say, "Okay, it’s real now." We have to make sure we make the right decisions with [the demo] because it’s going to be out there forever. That’s really when it begins.

EW: With both Uncharted 2 and 3 we kind of had false starts with that. We had picked the levels we were going to show publicly first and started work on a demo for them for two to three months aggressively. As we were getting closer to the date, we were like, "You know what, that wasn’t the right call to go out with." We shifted gears and switched over to another level and environment experience to lead with.

CB: Quite often it’s because the tech isn’t quite ready to really show a specific look. If it’s not looking good, we’re not going to show it.

How do you determine what level to start with? Do you have the entire game written out and thumbnailed at that point?

EW: We never start at the beginning.

CB: We usually go with environments that we technically have to prove just to make sure they are possible. We started with the train on Uncharted 2 because we knew it was a big change for us and for the engine to handle a moving train. It was the first level we started and the last one that we finished. It took that long to put it together.

You’ve shipped many games at Naughty Dog. How do you know a specific release date is within reach and you can ship it? We see delays all of the time in the video game industry. The Last of Us was one of them. Do you go to Sony and say, "We think we can hit this date?"

EW: We always try to put something out there with Sony where we think we can hit it. Everyone knows that the process of making a game is very fluid and really unpredictable. Even if there is a date out there, it’s with the huge caveat of, "Well, if it’s not ready, we’d rather ship a game that’s late than a game that’s not done." If you ship a game that’s late, people will forget the delay. But if you ship a crappy game, that’s going to be there forever.

CB: At the same time, you don’t want a delay that’s too far out because you can work on a game forever, if you want. People are such perfectionists here that they could polish for a very long time. It’s not worth it.

EW: To answer your question of "When do you know?" we really don’t until close to the end. Most days you are coming to work and you’re making a s----y game. It’s s----y right up until the end. You aren’t sure you have something great until really the last month or two.

CB: We see that with every single game we make. If you look at it two months before we finish it and the day we finish it, it’s way different.

EW: You can easily panic and look at it and say, "There’s no way we are going to get it done." But we have the team that puts in the effort to pull it off. Even putting together demos, it’s the same sort of thing, but on a much smaller scale. When we’re a week out or two weeks out, we’re like, "Really?" Someone is going to walk by and see this demo and we’re going to be really embarrassed and say, "It’s going to be really cool, trust me."

CB: It’s good to have that partnership with Sony and trust. It’s worked out pretty well. It’s always difficult, but when we focus on it, and just go, go, go, it makes progress every day, which is really rewarding.

EW: Having faith in the team is the biggest ingredient. If at any point you didn’t have it, I think you’ll just collapse under the pressure. It takes everybody firing on all cylinders to pull it off.

One thing I’ve always noticed about your games is they all have fluid, smooth story arcs. You see games like Assassin’s Creed that seem to have crucial scenes missing, and the narrative jumps around chaotically. You say you fail often and sometimes stuff doesn’t work. How do you keep the narrative intact through all of the iteration and trials?

CB: Usually we are like, "Okay, let’s go in and cut something," and we’re all like, "Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope." We can’t cut those things for that very reason: The story won’t be the same. So we just go, "Okay, I guess we’re going to have to make it."

EW: Well, every game goes through the process where you are six months out and you’re looking at it and saying, "Where can we reduce the scope?" Yeah, you can’t just remove a whole section because it will break the story. So then you start looking for things you can compress. "Can we cut out this combat section? Can we cut out this traversal section? Or at least abbreviate them in some way?" We find we cut a little here and a little there. It all helps.

CB: We can never cut an entire level. That never happens.

EW: Even where we are squeezing down and abbreviating, it’s a delicate balance because pacing can suffer. If you remove a combat setup, you might have two cutscenes that are too close together. There’s not enough time for the characters to breathe or to be set up for the next emotional beat. Or you miss out on the player getting a chance to relax for the next tense moment because you removed the section where the character walks through the environment and soaks in the beauty of it. We often all get together and talk about the pros and cons. Neil will be saying, "Well, if we lose that, it’s really going to affect the story." Other people will say, "If we cut that out, we lose the time to train the player."

How often do you have those meetings?

CB: It’s every time we’re like, "Holy s---, we’re making a big game again." 

EW: There will be two or three major meetings where we get together and discuss what is absolutely critical to the experience and what we should shave. It always feels really good when you come out of those meetings and send emails to the team and everyone can breathe a little better.

On top of the single-player component, you have multiplayer in your game. When do you get that up and running? The mechanics are obviously paramount to that experience.

EW: We work on it from the beginning. The mechanics are usually identical to the single player. The nice thing is a lot of times as we are refining them for multiplayer, we are making them better for the single player. We make the aiming tighter, or we make the responsiveness a little bit quicker. It really helps the single player out as you are playing the multiplayer. The thing that is the most challenging to really fleshing out the multiplayer is you are leveraging all of the single-player assets for the environments. Until the single player-environments are built, it’s just block mesh form for multiplayer. We know this one is going to be a jungle, even if it is just a bunch of boxes the designers made. Once we get art, they start layering that in.

This is the same case for Uncharted 4?

EW: We’re saying it’s in there, but we’ve been experimenting with stuff and are still in that phase. We don’t have it nailed down yet. We have lots of ideas. Good ones. A lot of really strong ideas. We’re trying to figure out what makes the cut.

How do you keep all of this straight and the team moving in the right direction? We have a small group of writers in Minneapolis, and scheduling is incredibly difficult, often bordering on chaos.

EW: It goes back to the faith in the team.

CB: You have to accept that it isn’t going to be perfect. You have to accept people will be slower than others, and people will spend more time on something. It’s a balance. They all have different strengths. You have to have faith in them working together and coming up with good ideas. It goes back to one of the important things about this studio: hiring. You have to hire the people you want for the studio.

And then you throw outsourcing on top of it. I can’t even comprehend how you keep up on that part of the production.

EW: We’re really fortunate that our art director [Erick Pangilinan] is passionate about it, and started the process with Uncharted 2. Every game and every year even has been refining that process. He makes annual trips out to visit the studios, and to look for new talent, and train them up on our tools and pipeline. We fly them here to get involved with our tools and with the team. And Christophe’s written a tool now that not only helps track the tasks but also to transfer the files very rapidly. That just developed a great pipeline for it.

CB: When Erick came to us and said, "We should try outsourcing," we said, "Sure, go ahead." We didn’t get in the way. We knew it would take at least one game to set up the pipeline and give it a shot. At the beginning it was tough. It wasn’t perfect. He worked on it and established a really, really strong pipeline.

EW: There’s an attitude that has to come with it as well. You have to support it, embrace it, and understand that mistakes are going to be made. Again, the inefficiencies are going to be there. If you’re obsessing over efficiencies in video game development, you’re going to lose your mind. You can never ever be efficient. You’ll probably lose efficiency by trying to set up protocols to maximize efficiency. When we get assets back, we have to look at them and assess what to do next and not lose your mind if it isn’t exactly to spec or doesn’t look exactly right. If you create that art internally, you have every bit of the same chance that it could have the same mistakes in it. You gotta give them a second chance, and give them feedback because everything gets iterated on a countless number of times. I think a lot of people treat external studios with a different set of values than they do the internal team, but you really gotta appreciate they are every bit as important part of the team as the people sitting here.

You talked a little bit about the game maybe not looking great until the final push. Can you walk me through that final sprint or month or two?

CB: It is very long days. You feel tired but when you see everything coming together you become more and more proud of the game you are making. Some people won’t even have the time to play the game because they are working on it. When you are really close to the end, they finally start playing through the game and are like, "Oh my god. I can’t believe we made that game!" It’s great. It’s hard work. It’s really hard.

EW: You start to wonder if you are obsessing over the details. You are capturing videos and are frame-by-framing them and say, "Look! The camera popped to the side! Why did the camera pop? Let animation know. Let the programmers know. Figure out where that camera pop occurred!" You go in and fix it and make it nice and smooth.

CB: If that happens in the last day or two, we’re like, "Yeah. Yeah. Ship it." [Laughs] If it’s a thing that 99 percent of the people are not going to notice it, and it’s that late, we have to make a call on it.

EW: It’s rewarding to see everybody in the company has become that obsessed with the quality. People are coming to you and saying, "Please. This texture doesn’t look right. Let me replace it!"

CB: No, no, no. It’s even worse than that. It’s like they know they have to convince us to let them change it so they set it up in a way that, "This is the worst thing ever. We can’t ship this." And it’s a texture. You’re like, "Seriously?" When you have to ship, you have to ship.

Well, we’re in a day and age where you can fix things post-launch with patches. I hate to pick on Assassin’s Creed, but, well, Assassin’s Creed. Is that conversation different today with the ability to patch?

CB: No. It is really hard because people are giving so much and they know when we are going to be done. If you tell them to keep going after that, they’ll be like, "Really? I told my wife we were done. I haven’t been home for a while." I think emotionally it is tough. They finished their work. It would be really hard to keep going after that. We’d rather ship a polished game that is just done and doesn’t require a patch.

EW: Patches are only for major issues. We’re not going to start patching the little things like that.

CB: Is it a good experience when people get their disc and have to wait for a patch to download? Like 20 gigs or something like that? That would suck. That’s not the best experience.


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