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A New Dawn

Dan Arey on his decision to leave Naughty Dog and what's next for Ready at Dawn.

Dan Arey spent nearly a decade at Naughty Dog, where he helped to make both the Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Daxter series a huge success. The studio is currently working on its first PS3 project, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune.

But with the game still some way from release, Arey has taken the decision to leave Naughty Dog and join Ready at Dawn. Founded by former ND employees, RAD is so far best known for producing PSP hit Daxter - but is now working on a new original IP. talked to Arey about why he decided to make the move, and why he believes the future is bright for Ready at Dawn.

Why have you decided to leave Naughty Dog?

Naughty Dog and Sony were a wonderful ride, and it was an experience I'll never forget. I was there for almost ten years, the last four as creative director. Really it was just a matter of being the right time for something new. You sometimes just feel it deep down.

So much more was happening this hardware console generation that I wanted to be a part of, and I couldn't do it all under the Naughty Dog umbrella. But ND is a great team and Sony is a great publisher to work with. I'll miss them all, and I'm sure we'll be working together again in a different capacity sometime in the future.

Isn't this an important time for Naughty Dog with a brand new IP, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, at a critical stage of development? Why didn't you want to stay and finish work on it?

I had completed my work on the project, including the original concept, setting up the basic gameplay and experience framework - the game ride, helping design the characters and working through the story / character arc development, and much of the game design blueprint.

I saw the team on their way and in good shape, then decided to pursue new horizons.

How is Drake's Fortune shaping up?

It's going to be a great game. The story is unique, the player animation linked to tight control and gameplay is visually stunning, and the adventure genre is in need of a good boot to the fedora, wouldn't you say? People will be happy they have a PS3 once they've played Drake's Fortune.

Did the Jak and Daxter series perform as well as you expected?

The first two games were a smashing success. Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy was both a critical and commercial success. Daxter was awarded 'Best New Character of the Year' in 2001.

Jak II was our love letter to the character action experience. But then the character action platform genre seemed to dip into the shadow of more edgy, realistic games, and by the end of the PS2 hardware cycle, while Jak 3 and Jak X were good sellers, we always wanted more.

You have to remember, we were used to 5 million plus unit sales at Naughty Dog, as we had had for years on the Crash Bandicoot games and early Jak games. Still, all in all, Naughty Dog crossed over 34 million units sold of PS1 and PS2 games over the last decade. That's pretty amazing.

Has Naughty Dog ruled out ever producing another Jak and Daxter game, especially now that you're gone?

That's something I can't comment on, but rest assured Sony knows what a great universe the Jak and Daxter franchise is. To me, those characters, that world, and the gameplay are still alive and kicking in my mind, and there are so many adventures that could yet be experienced. We'll see.

What are the attractions of working for Ready at Dawn?

Ready at Dawn reminds me of where we were at Naughty Dog about eight years ago. RAD is an amazing collection of talent. They are hungry. They are intense. They have lively discussions about gameplay and they play games with passion.

They have some of the best coders and artists I've ever worked with, and they have a design department that understands what it takes to spec and work a game design into a play experience that is at the top of the category. When I got to know these guys, I knew they were destined for something great, and I wanted to help make that happen.

Why go from an established, successful company to a relatively small start-up?

For all the reasons I listed above. By definition, smaller, younger companies are extra hungry. They have that fire in their belly to be at the top. I've been involved with a number of start-ups, and while RAD is no longer that, they still retain all the energy and drive to hit it big and make the best games on the market.

I really respect these guys and their commitment. Look at Daxter - that game rocked and shocked people with how much RAD squeezed out of that little PSP device. Wait to you see what they've cooked up next; it's hard to believe it's PSP.

What lessons did you learn whilst at Naughty Dog that you'll be bringing with you to RAD?

So many lessons. Naughty Dog was all about passion for the game; 'The play's the thing.' A drive to make something that wasn't just good, but great. It was more about great execution than anything else. Naughty Dog executed well, and Ready At Dawn has that same well oiled team machine.

At ND, especially in the early days, it was about never taking the easy road and always pushing - and killing yourself - to break the mold, hit the technology no one else thought possible on the box, have an edge on graphics, and find a way to push out more polys or more gameplay in the same dev cycle, then test the crap out of it and tune it just right. Polish mattered and still does.

I also think RAD and my philosophy about character and IP development match very well. Designing visually interesting, compelling, emotionally rich characters, tied inextricably to great gameplay, is something we both love to do. And we're going to be doing more of that soon... Just wait and see what we're up to.

What can you tell us about the project you'll be working on?

I can tell you that I'm working on it, and that it's very cool! The new project was the primary reason I decided to come work for RAD. The IP we're developing is amazing, and it is much bigger than just a game, but still retains amazing game potential. More on all of this later, I promise.

Do you think Ready at Dawn made the right choice when they started out by betting on PSP?

The principals at RAD had a well thought out plan, and they executed it to perfection. By not only developing and releasing Daxter on the PSP but making it one of the superstar titles on the console, they stood out quickly. It was part strategy, part hard work.

Then to follow it up with another well know franchise in God of War, but make their own unique game and story in the universe, and then rock the press with its technology... Well, that's something not every developer can do.

But RAD planned the work and worked the plan and all of this has been in preparation for their next big step. With a data driven engine that's platform agnostic, these guys are now in the amazing position to work on any platform they choose.

Is RAD sticking with PSP or expanding onto other platforms in the future?

The great thing about the RAD development pipeline is that it has been cross-platform - PSP / Windows - from the beginning, which means the technology can migrate to any platform. For example, I've seen God of War running on Windows; it's only for development purposes but it's still a kick to see!

Is there any chance of RAD developing a Drake's Fortune spin-off for the PSP like they did with Daxter?

The truth is, RAD has already made the bold transition to being a developer of their own IP. I wouldn't be here if they weren't moving that direction. We are about to bring unique RAD properties into the mainstream with some innovative ideas, great gameplay, solid execution and smart cross-media IP development.

Did your decision to leave a Sony-owned studio have anything to do with the fact the PS3 seems to be lagging behind in sales at the moment?

I truly hope the PS3 does well. Why? Well besides my friends at Sony, I own one, darn it! And I want some great games!

Seriously, though, the PS3 has an amazing amount of untapped hardware under the hood. You'll see some of this shining through in Drake's Fortune and the next generation of games coming out. It was a slow start, but part of that was the amazing strength and Sony market position of the PS2. That console refuses to die...

But soon the PS3 will have more games that everyone will want to play, and with a price point reduction - who knows? I must say that I love the Wii and Xbox 360 as well. This is a great hardware cycle; lots of innovation, and three horses in the race which are very different from each other.

How optimistic are you for the future of PS3?

Very optimistic. Sony has some great franchises and great teams. Any publisher with first party dev teams like Naughty Dog, Sony Santa Monica and Polyphony, and amazing third party support, is a company that must be respected - and even feared. They'll get their share of the market, you'll see.

But I'm a big fan of the strong benefits of a competitive landscape. Competition makes everyone work harder and that will make the games better. With Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo all working and hanging tough, the consumer will ultimately benefit.

How confident are you that a studio like RAD can survive in this climate of bigger dev teams and huge game budgets?

I am much more confident in RAD's ability to manage their burn rate and dev costs than many other teams. Huge budgets are a problem across the board right now as smaller installed bases make the risk profile for all project P&Ls more challenging.

But as console penetration increases, we will see these red flags start to settle down. Costs will slowly drop with team core skill bases improving, middleware, outsourcing, and simple economies of scale.

I've been around a long time (don't ask) and I've been through at least four major hardware transitions, and it is always the same fears - worry about rising costs, worry about team sizes, worry about price points, worry about whether the consumer base will be there this time. It always works out fine.

Games are here to stay as the primary source of entertainment and artistic expression for the 21st Century. When asked about the future, I say we just need to concentrate on making great games with passion and expertise, games people want and can't wait to play, and experiences that move the mind emotionally and all the rest will follow.

That's what Ready at Dawn is all about, and that's why I'm here.

Dan Arey is creative director at Ready at Dawn. Interview by Ellie Gibson.

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Ellie Gibson avatar
Ellie Gibson: Ellie spent nearly a decade working at Eurogamer, specialising in hard-hitting executive interviews and nob jokes. These days she does a comedy show and podcast. She pops back now and again to write the odd article and steal our biscuits.
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