Naughty Dog's lead programmer Jason Gregory talks tech and development strategy
Jason Gregory is lead programmer at Naughty Dog, the studio behind the epic Uncharted series. He's started in the industry in 1999, working with Midway and Electronic Arts.
GamesIndustry.biz caught up with him at Game Connection Europe where he spoke about development strategies and working with PlayStation 3, and was especially careful not to mention Naughty Dog's just announced new project, The Last Of Us, which was revealed just a few days after.
Q: You're here at Game Connection giving a talk, do you feel a responsibility as a developer from a company that's doing so well to support events like these?
Jason Gregory: I think so, and I think Naughty Dog in general has a very open policy about sharing information. Our attitude on this, and it really comes from our co-president Christophe Balestra, is that it helps the industry, it helps the PS3, it helps everything to share information. A lot of studios are a lot more protective of their technology and we feel let's just raise the bar for everyone and help to push things forward.
Q: Uncharted is known for increasing its visual quality with every iteration. How much of that is down to the way you use tech?
Jason Gregory: To be honest I think it's a combination of continually improving our technology, continuing to find new ways to push the hardware to squeeze more out of it and then also tight collaboration with our artists. We've got an extremely good art team and these are in many cases very technical people themselves. They understand a lot of the technology limitations and they understand the techniques. One of our art directors, Bruce Straley, he understands all this stuff and he knows exactly what he wants. He'll say "let's try and improve this aspect or that aspect" so it's really a collaboration between the art and the technology at all times.
Q: Does that close relationship between artists and programmers mean the Naughty Dog company structure is very different to that of other studios?
Jason Gregory: We definitely have a unique structure. We have a very flat sort of organisation in the company, we have two co-presidents, some art directors, leads and everyone else. There's not a lot of hierarchy or formal process. So if you want something done you just go and talk to whoever it is, whether it's a co-president or a lead or just anyone. So it's very open communication and very collaborative.
Just as an example actually the programmers sit right next to the animators, and we like to have that because there's a lot of tight interaction between animation and programming in a lot of cases and it's really too bad actually that we couldn't just have everyone all intermingled, but there are limitations with space.
Q: How much of what you're able to do with the games is because you have the luxury of concentrating on just one platform?
Jason Gregory: That's definitely a benefit. I think it's safe to say that someone who is focusing on a single platform has a lot better chance of really pushing the hardware and really exploring every avenue, and so it's definitely a benefit. And I think that's why a lot of exclusive titles end up being the top of their class because you can really focus.
Q: Does that come with a pressure to show significant progress with each game, even though you're working on the same hardware?
Jason Gregory: The saving grace there is that first of all our technology people are excellent and we're always looking for new ways to improve and to shrink and so on. As an example Uncharted 1, I think we only used about 33 per cent of the SPU capability, by Uncharted 2 we had maxed out the SPUs, so you might think OK, that's it, there's nowhere left to go from there, but we were able to continue to optimise and squeeze to the point where we made room for even more on the SPUs, and so for Uncharted 3, again, we were maxing out the capabilities of the GPU and the SPUs. And in theory that continues and just keeps getting tighter and tighter and we just keep pushing more and more.
Q: So could someone achieve what you've achieved on the Xbox? Or is Uncharted something that could only be done on PlayStation 3?
Jason Gregory: Fundamentally the PS3 is a more powerful platform and so there's a little more potential for longevity on the PS3. But that said every platform has its own unique ins and outs and I think a good team on a good platform will always produce a good game.
If you want something done you just go and talk to whoever it is, whether it's a co-president or a lead or just anyone.
Q: How close has the collaboration been between you and Sony Bend on the PlayStation Vita version of Uncharted?
Jason Gregory: I don't have a lot of experience with that particular relationship, I didn't work directly with it, but my understanding is that there was some collaboration for sure and there was definitely cooperation to make sure the quality bar was where it needed to be.
Q: Uncharted has made the move to Vita, and a lot of big publishers like Ubisoft are adopting an multi-platform approach with games on Facebook, mobile, tablet, all releasing at the same time. Is that a business model you can see sticking?
Jason Gregory: It seems to me it depends a lot on the particular IP. So if you've got a game that is really nicely geared to mobile and iPad and handhelds and so on, then it might make a lot of sense just from a business point of view to tackle all of those platforms and to take the hit of having to deal with all the different technologies. A game like Uncharted has a different goal, our goal is to be cream of the crop in one particular area. So it depends on your business goals and the needs of the IP.
Q: How was working with 3D? Was it an expensive or time consuming process?
Jason Gregory: I didn't work directly on the 3D support but from what I heard there were certainly challenges and with any new technological endeavour there's always things you don't predict or underestimate when you start, but that said it seemed like it went reasonably smoothly and I think the end result was pretty stunning. I think it was definitely worth it.
But we learned a number of things, one example was that we actually learned some basic rules about how to deal with depth of field so that you don't have your viewer feeling ill, or when you do camera cuts or changes in camera angle and close ups and so on. We learned a lot about how to manage that stuff so you get a good seamless experience.
Q: Was it something the team was excited about or something that came from Sony?
Jason Gregory: It kind of came from both sides. We heard about the technology and thought it would be very cool. As engineers and technophiles we love any cool and new technology, so it was fun the team to develop.
Q: So what are your predictions and Naughty Dog's plans for 2012?
Jason Gregory: Just having finished Uncharted 3 right now a lot of us are just off on vacation and just trying to relax our minds and get into the creative mode again to get the ideas flowing. I think 2012 is going to be a fun year, we're going to continue to develop new ideas for whatever our next thing is going to be, so that should be exciting.
And of course we're going to continue to support Uncharted 3 in terms of multiplayer and DLC and all of that, that's turning out to be a really interesting avenue, and that's really cool.