After I got the chance to get the inside scoop with Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, it was time to delve a little further with two of the main forces behind the game. Two Naughty Dogs (as they playfully refer to themselves) -- co-President Evan Wells and Creative Director Amy Hennig -- gave me some insight on what needed some fixing from the first title, how development has changed and what a few years afforded the team. Why is Elena not a focus anymore, and does having a heroine who’s as tough as Nathan Drake offer the ability for cooperative play? Get answers to these questions and more in my extensive interview, plus check out photos of Naughty Dog's Santa Monica, California studio. ?
G4: Were you guys happy with how the first game turned out and how it was received?
Amy Hennig: Yes, very happy.
Evan Wells: Yeah. It was definitely a labor of love and a huge group effort. The team really pulled together and pulled off what could be considered a miracle.
Hennig: I’d say so. It’s funny -- sometimes when you hit the end of a project like that, you actually feel unsure whether you’ve really accomplished what you’ve set out for, and sometimes it’s not till the very 11th hour that you realize that you might just have done it, you know? And then when you see it come out, see the reviews, you see the player response -- it’s so gratifying to finally see that you provided the experience that you’d hoped to provide
Wells: That’s the biggest thing. Of course you’re happy to get good critical reception but almost more important for us is to get on the forums and see how many viral grassroots supporters you’ve got out there really evangelizing your game. And you know when you get a lot of people excited that way, you know you feel you’ve really done your job well.
G4: Was there anything that you would’ve changed with the launch of the game?
Hennig: Well of course, always, right?
Wells: We wouldn’t be making a sequel if we thought it was done (laughs). Obviously a lot of things we went over in the presentation today, we were convinced that we knew we had to make from the original formula. Although it’s not even really a change of formula -- it’s more of an expansion and a refinement of a lot of the things that we set out to do with the first game. But the overall experience we were trying to convey, we did hit what we wanted to hit in terms of trying to get that cinematic feel, and a really compelling story wrapped around an awesome and fun action game.
Hennig: Our focus was to get this seamless experience, to really suck the player into this immersive, cinematic experience. We had to make it as seamless as possible. And so anything that interrupted that seamlessness obviously was our number-one thing that we needed to fix. I think one of the constructive comments that we’ve gotten is that we could’ve integrated some of the traversal, exploring, platforming sections better with some of the gunplay. We had chunks of gunplay and chunks of platforming, and so one of the first things we attacked was, “Well, how do we fold those two aspects of the gameplay together even better?” so you never had the sense that, “Ok, I’m in this mode of gameplay, then this mode of gameplay.” And that’s why we added what we’re calling our “traversal gunplay mechanics”, where you can be hanging from the rafters and firing your gun. And so the experience just flows naturally.
G4: When you added trophy support for the game, did you see a large resurgence of people playing the game again, or a lot of new people come to the plate?
Hennig: It’s anecdotal. From just reading message boards, which we do, we read everything that people write about the game, painful or not sometimes, it seemed like there was a lot of people that went back more happy to play it all over again from the beginning.
Wells: Actually, we have a little more than anecdotal evidence to support the idea that even though it was patch support for the trophies, that a large number of people have gone back and -- you know we’re in sort of the top-tier of games out there -- having gotten people trophies, even though our game came out a year later than these other games and had to be patched. So people were really interested in going back there and getting those trophies.
Hennig: Yeah that’s actually been one of the gratifying things about the feedback that we’ve gotten, is to hear that people who’ve played the game, not only sat down and played it through and won it in one sitting, which is incredibly flattering, but that they’ve played it over and over and over again. Some people say they’ve played it 10 - 20 times, and that’s just amazing. That’s just amazing to us that people love it that much.
G4: So this is a sequel, are you going to tie the two stories together? Or is this going to be something like Indiana Jones where it’s kind of a different chapter of Nathan’s life?
Hennig: It really needs to be a different chapter. One of the greatest mistakes we can make is making people feel that if they haven’t played the first one, they’re not equipped to play the second one. Or if it’s a television show or a movie, same thing, you can’t watch the next one. These are all standalone stories and adventures. On the other hand if you have played the first one, it’s going to be a much more enriching experience because you’ll understand all of the nuances and the references back to the first game. However that’s not at all a barrier to entry for the people who haven’t played it.
G4: So why a new heroine? I kind of dug….
Hennig: [laughing] Three interviews, three times.
G4: Everybody’s gonna ask! If you played the first game, there was the chemistry between the two characters. I loved it. I loved Romancing the Stone, and that chemistry that they had on screen totally reminded me of how Nathan and Elena were. That’s what kept me going with Uncharted. I was just blown away. So do you explain why she’s not there? Are you going to? Or do you think you have to at all?
Wells: Yeah I think we will have to, and I think we will. Drake and Elena, obviously the last time we saw them were together heading out on a boat, and I don’t think we can just jump in to this game without giving it some sort of explanation. In the coming months we will be talking about that. But in order to provide this new experience that we wanted to do for Uncharted: Among Thieves, we had to show this other side of Drake. We had to start giving you different facets to his character that you know. Sort of the dynamic between Drake and Elena in the first game. We’d explored that. But we want to give you this other dimension to Drake’s character, and so the way to do that was to introduce the new sidekick, or not sidekick, partner I should say.
Hennig: Sidekick with benefits is that what you’re thinking of?
[laughter all around]
Hennig: Well here’s the thing. Frankly, I just want to lead people to draw their own conclusions right now. We’re not saying anything explicitly, all we’re doing is introducing Chloe Frazer as the new character, and the new partner and love interest, and we want to sort of focus on her right now. I know we’re being vague, but all we’re saying is that it’s a larger cast of characters, and a more varied cast of characters that are all going to reflect different aspects of his personality. And the thing you have to think about when you’re telling a story like this -- and I’m sure you’ve seen movies that make this mistake is -- it’s not interesting when everything’s happy, right? Stories are about conflict and obstacles and overcoming them, and you know we may have left on a very happy snapshot of our three characters Sullivan, Elena, and Drake leaving on the island, but you think that was really something that could be maintained back in the real world? You know that‘s just coming off the romantic high of surviving their ordeal. And what’s more interesting is to say, “Well, what happens when people go back to their real lives?”
Wells: What’s really encouraging though is the fact that we do keep getting asked that question. We definitely struck a chord with Drake and Elena and their characters, so that really gave us a lot of confidence that we were doing something right.
Hennig: And hopefully it’s a credit to our casting process and our storytelling process, and our process of working with the actors, because I hope that wouldn’t be considered a fluke that that chemistry was there, because we’ve strived for that chemistry between every character in the game.
G4: So speaking of storytelling, Dan Hauser from Rockstar basically said that this medium is such in its infancy that they’re kind of making up things as they go along….
G4: However, during your presentation, you said that you guys pretty much nailed cinematic gameplay.
Hennig: No I don’t think we’ve nailed it by any means….
G4: Or that you’ve done it better than….
Hennig: I think we’re on the bleeding edge of it honestly, and I’m sure people would take exception and want to debate that. But by my definition, which is very convenient since it’s my definition, what I’m not seeing in other games is people not moving beyond spectacle. They may have a story, but usually the story’s sort of thin, you know? And often I see -- I don’t get to play as many games as I’d like to play -- but I read all the reviews and I hear people disappointed often in the stories. There’s a lot of buildup before these games come out -- that it’s going to have the most amazing narrative -- and then it just doesn’t. I think it’s because we in the industry tend to focus more on spectacle than substance. And I think that’s the difference between a really well told cinematic story -- whether that cinematic story is occurring in a game or in a movie. So I’m using that term loosely, and a sort of two-dimensional story is whether you have attachment to the characters, whether it’s character-driven, and whether you’re emotionally invested in what’s going on. And you can’t retrofit that in. It’s got to come from the story, it’s got to come from the writing, it’s got to come from the casting, and the actors. And it’s gotta be your focus from day one.
I was using an example because I think it’s illustrative, and again don’t take me literally on this -- it’s just an example -- but it’s the difference between the visceral response you feel if you’re say, you have to run into a burning building that’s collapsing around you. Now that’s viscerally exciting, but the difference between that and saying I have to run into that burning building that’s collapsing around me to save someone that I care deeply about, and not only that but I suspect that person may have betrayed Evan -- that’s a whole different emotional experience than the visceral experience of just having the building collapse around you. That’s the difference between a shallow movie, and a great movie. That’s the difference between a shallow game, and a great game. And that’s what we’re striving for.
G4: So why Marco Polo?
Hennig: Why not Marco Polo? He’s due for some attention isn’t he? All of our stories start from the premise of a historical mystery, a real-world historical mystery associated with a character in history that we’re all familiar with. That gives us the foundation then to springboard off of. So we do a bunch of research to find a real, true-life historical mystery. In this case Marco Polo has a great event in his story that most people aren’t even aware of, which is his journey home from China in 1292, and that he set off with 14 ships and 600 passengers and all these ships laden with treasure from the port of Kubla Khan, and a year and a half later he shows up in Persia with one ship and eighteen people. And the idea that those ships could be out there somewhere is an intriguing one.
What if we then layer on a “What If?” on top of that and say “What if there was a mystery behind this and a secret, and that’s why he never talked about it?” Even though he talked about everything else in his life constantly, he never talked about this. You know he was just a great catalyst for our story, and we always want to have a catalyst that is based in history and based on a mystery, and based on something that people are familiar with, and then ideally based off like an explorer for history. You know that’s not a hard and fast rule for us, but when we can do that I think it gives us sort of a through-line, which we like.
G4: One thing Evan that you talked about was the power of the PlayStation 3. And you talking to other first- or second-party developers that are developing on the platform, some have said, “Oh we’re pushing this thing as fast as we can,” but you were kind of explaining that that’s kind of that time? How are you finding developing now on the platform, versus back when you guys started developing Uncharted 1?
Wells: Yeah well the whole equation has kind of changed with these next generation systems, as soon as we’re talking about multi-thread processors, and you’ve got more than one processor. In the past when you just had a single processor, you know, maxing it out just meant keeping that one processor busy. And you could max it out with really unoptimized code, and you could be using 100 percent of the power of the chip, but just have really sloppy unoptimized code. Well now you’ve got the added problem of trying to keep multiple processors busy at once. So while one processor is working on a particular job, it might be waiting to do its next job based on some job that’s on another processor. So it becomes this pipeline. You gotta make sure that things are ending just in time for the availability of the other processor to become open again. With the cell processor, it’s very complicated because there are so many processors in there. I’ll use my analogy from the presentation, it’s like spinning plates. And it’s a feat of in itself just to have all the plates spinning at once, let alone get them spinning fast.
So on the first Uncharted, we could get about a third of them going before they’d become idle again. So there’d be some sitting around just not processing anything. So now we’ve got all the plates spinning, we’ve got all the SPUs working, and that’s just through months and months and months of our rendering and our engine team optimizing their SPU code, and moving more of our systems that were being run on the CPU onto the SPU. So we can push more polygons, we can push more animation. We have more rendering effects. Things are compressed better so we can stream more data. So we really we’ve just got the thing operating at full capacity now. Now that doesn’t mean you’ve seen the end of improvements from Naughty Dog’s games. Now we can get those plates spinning faster if we just go in and optimize all those routines. We got sort of the biggest hurdle out of the way, which is managing to pipeline all those jobs so that we can keep the processor busy. Now we just have to make sure they’re as efficient as possible.
G4: So you think you’ll be able to hit 1080p?
Wells: 1080p is to me, in this generation, something that isn’t worth the tradeoff. It requires a far greater amount of texture memory, and it requires a far greater amount of processing power. So I think for our kind of game -- now I should back this up -- for our kind of game I don’t think the bang for the buck is there. I think there’re plenty of games that do really take advantage of 1080p quite well. I mean the Pixel Junk games, for one, are some of my favorite games on the PSN. I think they take advantage of 1080p quite well. But for our kind of game, where we’re really trying to get maximum amount of 3D fidelity and we really want to create these rich and vast environments, we really need to make sure we leave enough horsepower there to draw the volume of space that we have to draw. So for us 720p is where it’s at.
G4: So will there be any saved game data between the two for the people that have beaten the game. Are there any hooks in there that might unlock something kind of neat, if you’ve gone through, and played through the first game?
Wells: We’re kicking around ideas, and obviously we want to reward those people who went in and got their platinum trophies and stuff. We want to reward the people who got all the medals in Uncharted 1, so there’re some really dedicated fans out there who’ve unlocked every last bonus of Uncharted 1. It would definitely be nice to give them a nod in Uncharted 2, so we don’t have all the details sorted out right now, but yeah you can definitely expect us to do something along those lines.
G4: One of the knocks the first game got was shooting repeatedly at targets to kill them. Someone during the presentation made a joke about the fact that the enemies won’t take 30 shots and then drop. And I noticed, at least in the demo that you showed, that locking on seemed to be tighter, and if you got a head shot or two, the enemy went down. What are some of the other things that changed with the firearm combat?
Wells: We definitely took a look at all of our gameplay systems and went through and tried to smooth them out, and polish the experience even more. Taking cover was another big one for us that we focused on, making sure that it felt really natural and intuitive when you pressed the circle button to take cover, that it was latching onto the surface that you expected it to. So we also wanted to make sure that once you were in cover, that you could maneuver around more freely, so if you’re standing away from cover and you’re aiming at somebody, you can walk up to cover or you can enter cover from a mode. While you’re in cover and you’re aiming at somebody, you can walk away from cover. When you’re in cover you can go around inside corners and around outside corners much more smoothly now. So we really just tried to make things feel much more natural with the controller in the player’s hands.
Hennig: This is in addition to all the traversal gunplay stuff that we’ve added too.
Wells: Yeah, we’re using more things as covers. Using signs and pillars and buildings, and you’ve got this 3D space that you’re working with because Drake can run and jump and climb, and so we really wanted to take advantage of that. Also with our enemy design we have a much more wide variety of classes of enemies now. Before we pretty much had the pirates, and then we changed it off to the mercenaries. So we sort of just used two levels in Drake’s Fortune. Now we’ve got many sub-classes of enemies that you can really see visually right away whether they’re going to take more bullets, whether they’re going have more protection in terms of body armor. Some of the enemies are actually going to have body armor that you’re going to have to shoot off piece by piece before you can take them down. You saw an enemy in there that had a shield, which obviously changes the way the gunplay works. Also when you get a shield it changes it again. We’ve got enemies that will retaliate against melee combat moves now, so the lightest class will just go down with some button mashing, but the more-advanced enemies are going to require you to perform combos, and to basically retaliate against their arm bars or head locks they put you in. And then we’ve got all the way to the top class of enemies carrying these enormous weapons that, you know, if you get your hands on them, it even affects your ability to traverse the environment.
G4: So one thing I noticed when I played through the first game, I tended to stay away from the hand-to-hand combat. You guys had a very deep hand-to-hand combat system, but I ended up just popping back away from enemies and just shooting at them. Is there anything that you guys are doing with the second game that you’re trying to push people to diversify how they attack a situation?
Wells: Yes, and I touched on that a little bit when I was talking about the classes of enemies. We now have enemies that actually require you to perform a combo in order to defeat them. Actually your story is a story we heard quite frequently in people talking about their experience with the first game, so we’re going through more in-depth steps to train the mechanics of the player early in the game, and making sure that people are really getting the window of opportunity to perform the combo moves. We’re also making sure that the animations that the enemies perform give you a real clear visual indication of where you’ve got to perform the combo. And then of course there’s the lightest sort of enemy that doesn’t require any combo at all, and there’s the most badass form of the guys who you can’t melee at all, because there so armed up. So we really just try to mix up your experience with the melee from that standpoint.
Hennig: Yeah and also you have to consider that by adding the whole action stealth component, that was one of the greatest things that we wanted to change from the first game, is that it felt like you were often always put on the defensive, because every time you entered an area everyone was aware of you. There was only a couple of rare occasions where it really seemed like you could survey the situation, and then maybe approach things in a stealthy way.
Wells: But as soon as you killed one enemy, they all became aware
Hennig: Yes, so we knew that was a flaw there or a lost opportunity in the sense that you really want that feeling of sneaking up, overhearing conversation, and seeing what was going on with the enemies. So obviously one of the best ways to engage in stealth and take the enemies out one by one is through hand-to-hand combat. Now, obviously those tend to be sort of one-shot takedowns, but it is much more about closing with the enemy and engaging them in that way than always just at a distance with your gunfire.
And on another hand, too, one of the things that I kind of like about our game, is that there are options for the player. Some people didn’t use cover at all. (laughs) Some people just stayed in cover and stayed pinned. Some people moved around in cover a lot, and some people used hand to hand combat a lot. While you want everyone to understand how useful each of those modes are, and doesn’t limit their enjoyment of the game, it’s also okay that people have their own style of play. You shouldn’t necessarily have to engage in hand-to-hand combat, but if that’s your style, then great!
Wells: And similarly people found there favorite weapons to use. Some people loved using the pistols because they were really accurate and they could get those headshots, and others preferred to hose people with the AK. People found their own style in how they approached combat.
G4: As far as gameplay dynamics, what’s it like having such a strong love interest, but kind of a sidekick, who is just as bad ass as he is? How does that affect not only the story but the gameplay?
Wells: It’s complicated to implement in this genre because you always want your hero to have partners around at all times because it’s not this one-man army going in to face these huge odds. It’s always about how he works with his colleagues. It took an enormous amount of technology to create a system that allowed us to have these partners go through the game with you. But the payoff is there, because now all of a sudden not only do you have great narrative opportunities because you can tell the story through the conversations these two characters, or multiple characters, are having together, but it also changes up the dynamic of gameplay, because you’ve got somebody else out there in the combat setup fighting alongside with you.
And in the case of Chloe Frazer, she’s every bit as capable as you. So, you know, you’ll see her recommending strategy as you enter a combat setup and a way to take the guys out strategically. You’ll see her with a higher level of accuracy being able to fight the enemy. So it really is a nice twist on that allied gameplay, from the first game to now have a real capable partner along the way.
G4: Doesn’t that open up opportunities potentially for a co-op?
Wells: It certainly makes you wonder right? It’s something that I think is becoming more and more popular these days in the industry, and I think across the company here at Naughty Dog. Everyone’s really excited about all these games that are coming out that support co-op. Right now we’re really focusing on delivering the highest quality single-player experience possible, but multiplayer and co-op definitely fit the franchise quite well.
G4: What’d you think of the latest Tomb Raider game?
Wells: I played the demo.
Hennig: Yeah I played it. I played it all the way through. It’s a totally different experience. I think… here’s a disclaimer, I previously worked at Crystal Dynamics. That’s my old team and my friends are on that team.
I think Crystal has done an amazing job of really resurrecting that franchise and really returning to the roots of what made it such a beloved experience. To be honest, I hate the comparisons between the two games, I mean I guess they’re natural, but I kind of don’t get it in the sense that really our game is much more of a fast-paced sort of shooter…
Wells: …Action shooter.
Hennig: …Action shooter experience that’s based in the adventure genre. And their strength is about the puzzling and kind of the mystery of it, and having these big puzzles to solve.
Wells: …and much more fanciful…
Hennig: …and much more fanciful. Obviously they have monsters, crackens and things, and we just don’t do that. Some of those distinctions are actually very deliberate on our part, and it’s all about pace, and there’s a charm to the pace of their games that I think people love, which is moving through this mysterious space and sort of unraveling the mysteries inside. There’s something about our pace that people love, which is the fact that you’re just on this ride, and you’re just barreling along like you’re in a summer blockbuster. And they’re totally different experiences and don’t have to really compete with each other.
G4: So what’d you think of Gears?
Wells: I thought… well Gears 1 and 2 are both fantastic games; we’ve played them extensively. You know I only get to finish a few games a year, and definitely both of those were ones that I did -- I chose to. They were really great games, pushing us to achieve more with our graphics. They are definitely on top of their game as far as their platform as well, I think pushing the technology there. So it’s really great to have other games out there that you can sort of use as friendly competition to push your team further.
G4: So with Jack & Daxter, it was Jack 1, 2, 3, then…
G4: …X. So, Uncharted, would you like to pull off 3 or 4 Uncharteds in this console’s lifespan? Is your team size large enough that you could at the same time pull off another Jack?
Wells: That’s a lot of questions all wrapped up in one there.
G4: It’s a last, big question.
Wells: Well as far as how many games we’ll make on the platform, it really depends on how many years it’s Sony’s primary home console. We like to stay on the cutting edge of technology, and we like to get out there and get on the hardware and show what it’s capable of. PlayStation 3 has been a great opportunity for us to shift gears and go into something like Uncharted, shifting away from Jack and Daxter into something more realistic -- real human characters with real human emotion -- and tell a story like that. I’ll be happy to keep making games on the Playstation 3 as long as they’ll let me, you know? I mean it’s a great piece of hardware. It’s the most powerful piece of hardware on the market right now and can really offer us just a wealth of opportunity to be creative.
So at this point really, we’re more limited by how much man power the company can produce and less about the limitations of the hardware. So I could easily see three, four, five games on the PlayStation 3 if the generation allows us. I don’t know what is in the future for how long the platform is going to be primary focus of Sony, but to me, I’d like it to be as long as possible.
As far as Jack and Daxter, it’s got a fond spot in our heart. All of us here really love the franchise. A lot of people would be very excited at the opportunity to do a Jack and Daxter, a next-gen Jack and Daxter, but it does come down to the head count here and how many game teams we can really focus on at once, and right now that’s one. So we’ll have to see if a window of opportunity opens up where we can get back to that franchise, but we’d love to.