Old Dog, New Tricks
Uncharted's Richard Lemarchand discusses Naughty Dog's approach to development and its enviable results
With a month to go until the release of Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, all eyes are on developer Naughty Dog to see it if can still deliver the kind of experience that has pushed this relatively new series to the front of adventure gaming on the PlayStation 3.
At the recent Eurogamer Expo in London, GamesIndustry.biz sat down with Naughty Dog designer Richard Lemarchand to discuss how to follow up a critical and commercial success, the team's unorthodox methods of working, and why there's so much more good developers can squeeze out of the PlayStation 3.
Q: Uncharted 2 was critically praised, commercially successful and widely admired in the development community. How exactly do you break that down in terms of a post-mortem? How do you figure out where to go next?
Richard Lemarchand: It is difficult filling out the "What Went Wrong?" section. That project really came together beautifully. It was one of those where you could just feel it from around halfway through. Everything was just gelling. Always when you work on a project like that - especially when you work like Naughty Dog, which is very organically - there are parts of the process that you'd like to finesse or smooth out.
But we think that the organised chaos of the process is part of what gives an edge in pushing towards quality all the time. Even though we don't formally use "agile development" we very much embrace one of its mottoes, which is that you should always treat change as an opportunity rather than a crisis. And that's what we do.
Q: And Naughty Dog operates without traditional producers, doesn't it?
Richard Lemarchand: There's nobody with that formal title, but I don't think that means there are no producers - I consider myself part producer day-to-day, and there are a lot of other people in the same boat. But the good thing about it is that, unlike some studios where the production effort can bog down the development effort with over organisation and bureaucracy, at Naughty Dog anyone who wants to take the production responsibility can do so. It doesn't matter if you're the president of the company or the most recently hired, relatively junior artist, if you want to make something happen you can do it.
Q: So there's nobody whose only job is organisation - they're all programmers, artists or designers as well?
We start with a short description, but then we do make up a lot of it as we go along. I think that's very important.
Richard Lemarchand: That's exactly it, yeah. So I guess the ultimate producers are our co-presidents, Evan Wells and Christophe Balestra. Evan's background is game design as well as computer science, and Christophe has a programming background, so they are the best kind of skilled managers in that way. They're very involved in the development of the games; they're certainly not laissez-faire company presidents.
Q: That's odd, because the abiding impression of Uncharted 2 is of something so well crafted and well produced, that it almost doesn't match with "organised chaos"...
Richard Lemarchand: Well I don't want to misrepresent it. Everyone is in everybody else's business all the time. Nobody leaves anyone alone at Naughty Dog, and that's part of what makes it work.
Q: How rigorously do you plan your games before you begin?
Richard Lemarchand: We start with a short description, but then we do make up a lot of it as we go along. I think that's very important. I attended a story seminar by one of the story artists at Pixar last year, and he told us that Pixar make their films in the same way: they don't have a script when they start; they do lots of brainstorming, and they work up ideas, and they do lots of drawing, and they start to make animatics, which are like little rough-cut movies.
So they discover the key moments of their movies that way, and over time the detailed structure of what they're making emerges. It kind of appears by them working at it and working at it. That's good, because it means you don't over commit to something that might be wrong, or not entertaining or interesting enough.
Q: What do you mean by "everybody being in everyone else's business"?
Richard Lemarchand: Well, it's very important that the team themselves be every good communicators, so when we're hiring at Naughty Dog we're not just looking for skill in art or programming, we're looking for people who are good collaborators, who have the communication skills to work right across the team on whatever.
So the idea of being in other people's business is sort of pivotal to the way we work at Naughty Dog. We've even structured the physical layout of the office to take that into account.
There are very few people who have offices with doors that they can close; they're mainly in pods - like cubicles with very low walls - and we do this deliberately so that, wherever you stand in the office you can see what's on the screens of nearly everyone around you.
And if there's something happening on that screen that you're interested in you should walk over; if, say, an animator is talking to a programmer and you've got something useful to contribute to the conversation then you're encouraged to do so. Again, what it means is you get lots of bright minds looking at the game from lots of different angles all the time, and that's definitely a part of what raises the quality bar.
Q: And there's probably a psychological effect on a low level. I think Mark Zuckerberg, at Facebook, won't have an office with walls, so he can be approached by anyone at any time.
Richard Lemarchand: Yeah. It also gives a feeling of meritocracy about the place - meritocracy in terms of the ideas that are going to thrive. If everyone is freely sharing ideas all the time then the good ideas are going to naturally rise to the surface.
Q: How much bigger has Naughty Dog become since the start of Uncharted: Drake's Fortune?
Richard Lemarchand: We're more than double in size when you compare Drake's Fortune to Uncharted 3. I'm not actually sure of the precise numbers.
From the very first day of the project we wanted to make a multiplayer game that would be world class. We really wanted to take on the big boys of the multiplayer world.
Q: Did that growth present a challenge to the way Naughty Dog approaches development?
Richard Lemarchand: I think that because we've looked for people who are team players, and because the interviewing process at Naughty Dog is pretty exhaustive, we generally feel like we've found out about folks before they start work. That hasn't been an issue for us, and also because we've been able to hire people and put them straight onto a project that was in full production. That's really helpful - when you can just dive into the work environment as a new hire you very quickly learn how to swim.
Q: Multiplayer seems to be the key focus in terms of improvement for Uncharted 3, and looking around at the other big releases this year it's difficult to spot any that don't offer substantially more than a standard 10 to 12 hour campaign - whether that's a broad package like Gears Of War 3, or an epic RPG like Skyrim. How important is it for a big-budget, AAA game like Uncharted to really compete in an area that can deliver prolonged value for the consumer?
Richard Lemarchand: Multiplayer is a hugely important part of Uncharted 3, yes. From the very first day of the project we wanted to make a multiplayer game that would be world class. We really wanted to take on the big boys of the multiplayer world.
Q: But the big boys have suffocated quite a few inventive and satisfying multiplayer modes over the last few years. Did you establish a solid enough base in Uncharted 2 to stand alongside them this time?
Richard Lemarchand: I hope so. I hope that the visibility of Uncharted 2 means that people are going to come for the terrific, cinematic single player experience but then stay for the multiplayer experience, and because of the depth of content we've put in there's a lot of reasons to stay. And as you say, it's now an important part of everybody's business model going forwards.
Q: Uncharted 2 was seen as a showcase for what the PlayStation 3 could do on a technical level, and at this stage in the generation I think gamers might wonder what more we can possibly see from these consoles. But is that a misnomer? Is power necessary for innovation when it comes to a game like Uncharted 3, or is it more about technique?
Richard Lemarchand: That's an excellent question. There are really two questions there.
Q: Yes. That happens quite a lot with me.
Richard Lemarchand: (laughs) I think there absolutely are more places we can go with the PlayStation 3, even though Naughty Dog famously said we were starting to take full advantage of the capabilities of the machine with Uncharted 2. Certainly, what we're doing with Uncharted 3 shows that there's plenty yet to coax out of the machine. In terms of the volumetric lighting, the way that light now spatially fills an area so a moving body - say, a character - passes in front of it the God rays that are cast around the character look like something we haven't seen before, even on current gen systems.
There's lots of technology that we've innovated with just for this game, like our dynamic water simulation for the sea - just as a for instance, one of the dozens of things that we've done. I think that because of the way that the cell processor works and the unique architecture of the PlayStation 3 - just as with the PS2, and the very late generation games on that console.
Q: Yes, some fantastic work: Okami, God of War 2.
Richard Lemarchand: Shadow Of The Colossus. The way that Sony puts these machines together means that inventive and innovative engineers can keep on finding ways to divide up the system resources and get a new culmination of effects on screen - post-processing effects and that kind of thing.
But, to the second part of your question, as a game designer that's the bit that really interests me, because I would say that innovation is really more to do with design technique. The real success of Uncharted 2 comes from the way the components come together. The visual components, the quality of the game engine, the fidelity of the graphics, and the brilliance sound design; where the rubber really hits the road is where that comes together with the quality of the storytelling, and the way that the performances are delivered, the way that we embody the performances in the game, and the way the storytelling is integrated into the gameplay.
Certainly, what we're doing with Uncharted 3 shows that there's plenty yet to coax out of the PlayStation 3.
Q: If you take a moment like the hotel collapsing with Drake trapped inside, it's the confluence of execution and a great concept that makes it feel like something you've never seen or experienced before.
Richard Lemarchand: Yeah, it's not so much the dynamic physics, but the precise implementation of that, even down to the second, the schedule by which the events unfold. Speaking as an implementing game designer, as someone who works in the tools alongside the brilliant game designers at Naughty Dog, who put this stuff together with their bare hands, that's really what it comes down to.
If anything, that's the hardest part: the moment-to-moment implementation, finessing the script so that Drake jumps at just the right second to make it from one preposterous situation to the next. Making it so that even a simple event like a wall collapsing, making it so that it sells. Movie people talk about whether something "sells," whether the action on-screen is readable to an audience, especially when it's fast moving - we have all of the same considerations in interactive.
Q: So does it benefit creative people to be given new hardware every half dozen years or so? Would we get better work if you were all just left to finesse existing technologies rather than feel obliged to move on before you properly understand them?
Richard Lemarchand: I think there's a leapfrogging effect that happens. Like most people, I like the tools at Naughty Dog to be barebones: we work from the prompt a lot; we work with simple little tools that we put together on the fly to do something we came up with that week. Those are good because you can change them, and you can make new discoveries about the kinds of things you want to do with them.
So there's very much this back and forth: let's say we want Nathan Drake to have a fistfight on the cargo deck of a huge cargo plane as it zooms across the desert; until you start trying to build that thing you don't really know what tools you need, so it's good to have that leapfrogging of ideas and technology, that leads to new ideas, that leads to new technology. I think that's how we make progress.