In anticipation for Nathan Drake’s third and presumably most epic treasure hunting adventure in Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception on Playstation 3 this November, TGL caught up with Naughty Dog and U3’s co-lead designer Richard Lemarchand to talk about all things Uncharted. Richard tells us why Uncharted 3 is the pinnacle of Naughty Dog’s creative capabilities, debriefs us on the thinking and the technology behind the game’s ambitious set-pieces and how, if you look close enough, there’s a little bit of Nathan Drake in Crash Bandicoot.
Here we go…..
Richard Lemarchand: I think we’re very lucky at Naughty Dog to have our terrific studio co-presidents Evan Wells and Christophe Balestra because they have really brought us all along with them with their amazing game making philosophy. They’re both game makers even though they are the heads of an important international studio. Evan has a background initially in computer science but also in game design, and Christophe is a technologist. He’s actually a veteran of the French demo scene. So they’ve made lots of games themselves with their own hands and they really know the right and wrong ways to do it. For them, good ideas sink or swim on their own merits. Naughty Dog is very much not a hierarchical place. We have our co-presidents, we have a game director and a creative director and we have the discipline leads. Apart from that, the studio is very informally structured. Anyone who feels passionate about working on one part of the game is encouraged to do so, even if it really stands outside of their formally appointed discipline. And because cross disciplinary collaboration is such an important part of any technological art form or perhaps videogames in particular, that means that we end up with this very rich mix of ideas and talents and abilities at Naughty Dog. I think that’s really a big part of the key to our success. We drive each other onwards, we evaluate our ideas and the best ideas always win out. That’s really how we make a game like Uncharted 3: Drake’ Deception.
TGL: Is Uncharted 3 Naughty Dog’s best collective creation to date?
RL: It’s the pinnacle of what we’ve reached. You can trace the building blocks of Uncharted all the way back to the Crash Bandicoot series on the PSX. In a way, they were cinematic story action games too. Do you remember the sequence of gameplay where Crash would run towards the camera with the boulder chasing him? Well, that camera angle was chosen so that we could deliberately show the expression of panic on Crash’s face as he ran away from that big boulder, and that, in a simpler way, is a same kind of story telling devise that we are using today in Uncharted.
TGL: Obviously Naughty Dog were an established studio before Uncharted, but the Uncharted games have catapulted the studio to new levels of acclaim and success. If ND had any lessons to be carried over from the previous generations to this generation, what would they be and why?
RL: I think not resting on your laurels is an important one. We try not to repeat ourselves with each game we make. We try to inspire each other to come up with bigger ideas and more outrageous technological feats. My co-lead game designer Jacob Minkoff tells a good story about the conception of the cruise ship level you’ve seen from Uncharted 3 at E3. He came up with this idea for a whole level set on a cruise ship floating through the sea and half way through the level, a huge hole would be torn in the ship’s hull by an explosion and the ship would take on water and begin to sink. That obviously implied a lot of different technical challenges, dynamic sea simulations and the ability for us to sink a boat in real time. Jacob says that he drew together a group of programmers and other people from around the studio to pitch this idea and they initially looked at him like he was crazy. He says that he probably was crazy. I think lots of people would dream about a sequence like that but not many people would have the confidence to just go for it. So Jacob says that those programmers went away and spoke among themselves for 20 minutes and came back and said ‘alright, let’s go for it!’. I think it’s that sort of willingness to reach for a higher goal that has really helped to make each of the successively more impressive and exciting games in the Uncharted franchise.
TGL: How important are those huge set pieces when you’re sitting down and trying to envisage what you what to do with a game like Uncharted 3. Take the train sequence in Among Thieves. Do you have these sequences in mind first and then try and build a game/story/plot around them? Are they subtle building blocks for game creation as a whole?
RL: They are and they absolutely do. Those ideas for the big set pieces are often some of the first ideas that we come up with in the course of development. They do act like building blocks and stepping stones to help us find out the shape of the final game. Then we start to do some more research and do some more brainstorming and figure out what the connective tissue of the game is. Finally we have the over arching story coming out of that. Making a game like Uncharted is a very organic process. It’s like a big stew. However I don’t what to understate how much complex planning work there is on the part of our game director Justin Richmond and creative director Amy Hennig in finessing the structure of a game like Uncharted 3.
TGL: So what’s new about Drake’s Deception by comparison to Among Thieves?
RL: Drake has some new abilities like backwards climbing. If the pipes that he’s hand over handing start to come loose from a wall, he can come unbraced and he can kind of climb up and around. There’s some new traversal options for the balance beams too. He can jump on them and off them in some new ways. This lets us do some new things in the level layout. We have a hugely expanded role for brawling and bare knuckle fighting for this game. It’s an important part for any great rip roaring adventure game. There’s nothing like a bit of fisticuffs! That’s a very important part for this game. There’s also all kinds of technological innovations for example with the sand systems and the dynamic ocean I mentioned. There’s also some cool new stuff to do with lighting and volumetric lighting like you can see in the demos.
TGL: From a technological standpoint, what were the significant hurdles to overcome on this project?
RL: We’ve found that the best way of doing something new and different at Naughty Dog is to just start building it. You have to do some planning to give yourself a solid base to stand on but it’s only when you just start building something that you start to see what’s possible and what needs more work. That’s really the basis of our philosophy. We just like to get stuck in.
TGL: Given the huge success of Uncharted 2, is there an innate pressure at Naughty Dog that underscores development of Uncharted 3? How important is it to deliver with Uncharted 3?
RL: I think we did feel a little bit trepidus with Uncharted 3 at the start. Uncharted 2 was such a huge success and we knew that all eyes were on us. We really had to follow up with something interesting and new. I can’t speak for all the Naughty Dogs but my personal philosophy has always been that we made a game as great as Uncharted 2 just by polishing our craft and applying ourselves really well and trying to think originally. We always tried to make the very best choices and decisions over the course of development that we could for Uncharted 2. I’ve always felt confident that my amazing colleagues at Naughty Dog, who are the most talented people that I’ve ever come across in my life, that if we just did what we did on Uncharted 2 for this game, that we would come up with something pretty darn special.
TGL: There’s a real sense of family and community at Naughty Dog. Take us through a typical day behind the scenes working on a game like Uncharted 3….
RL: Well, a typical day it depends on where we are on the production cycle. When we’re closer to the beginning of production or in pre-production it’s all about coming up with ideas and brainstorming, writing ideas up on white boards and gathering reference materials from books or from the internet and making long lists that you are later going to cherry pick from to find the very best ideas that are going to go into the game. But we do try and make a really solid plan in the pre-production phase, we call it our macro plan. It’s written up in a spreadsheet. It’s actually quite a short plan, maybe only 70 lines. It lists all the major locations that were going to visit, all of the core gameplay elements and special gameplay sequences that we are going to feature. It will also include all the important story bits and how we are going to mash them into the game. So when we have that macro document, we’re able to enter full production. That’s when gears change a little bit. Then it’s a question of building out the levels, starting with simple blocky versions of the levels and really play testing them, initially on each other, then later on with members of the public that we bring into the studio. We try the levels out on each other and get each other’s feedback and watch each other play. We try and learn as many lessons as we can to try and refine the level layouts. Very quickly, the shape of the game begins to see the light and emerge. Then after that, you refine it and add the animations, the lighting, the technology and the set pieces. It’s a layered process but one that really pays off.
TGL: Can we ask you about another fantastic franchise that you are synonymous with? You were involved with the Legacy of Kain franchise for many years and worked on both Soul Reaver games and Defiance. Has you work on LOK influenced what you do at Naughty Dog and do you think there’s anything to be said for a return to the LOK franchise?
RL: Well, as you might know, Amy Hennig, the creative director at Naughty Dog and I worked together on the Soul Reaver series. She invited me onto the team when I was a younger game designer. We had an amazing time working on those games. I think we both learned a tremendous amount about working with making action games and storytelling games from those games. I dare say we both cut our teeth on Soul Reaver. It was an amazing series and I really love the Soul Reaver games to this day. I would love to see them come back at some point.
TGL: Last question Richard. Uncharted 3 aside, what else are you playing at the moment?
RL: I’ve only really had the chance to play pieces of stuff. I haven’t really had the chance to play full videogames of late. But I did dip my toes into a couple of new titles that I have been excited about, one of them being From Dust, an Eric Chahi game. It’s what you might call a god simulation. I’ve always really enjoyed that style of videogame. I think Eric’s work is absolutely amazing. He was probably the first videogame creator that I took a conscious decision to follow over his career. I’m very excited to see him back in action. I think he really, in a way, invented cinematic action gaming with his game Another World. It was big inspiration to a lot of people at Naughty Dog. I’ve also played an hour or two of Bastion. It’s fantastic. That again, is a great exercise in storytelling and action gaming. Those guys are so talented and their game and their world is so beautiful and imaginative.
Naughty Dog’s Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception launches exclusively for Playstation 3 worldwide from November 1st