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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.

GamesIndustry.bizUncharted 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.

GamesIndustry.bizAnd 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.

GamesIndustry.bizSo 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.

GamesIndustry.bizThat'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.

GamesIndustry.bizHow 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.

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Matthew Handrahan

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Matthew Handrahan joined GamesIndustry in 2011, bringing long-form feature-writing experience to the team as well as a deep understanding of the video game development business. He previously spent more than five years at award-winning magazine gamesTM.

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