Uncharted territory

Uncharted territory
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

February 25th 2011 at 8:00AM

Naughty Dog has invested six years of its life into the Uncharted series, we ask the studio how it remains motivated and creative

As the development process of Uncharted 3 gathers pace, we catch up with Naughty Dog co-president Evan Wells to find out what the studio is doing to take narrative deeper into the realm of gameplay...

Naughty Dog has always championed the intertwining narrative and gameplay. How do you approach this evergreen design challenge, and how have you innovated the concept in Uncharted 3?

It’s probably one of the hardest things that we do. It means that we have to maintain a lot of flexibility in both the game design and the story and keep revising each as the game is coming together to make sure that we’re getting it right.

We start with a loose plan and as things start to take shape we see where we need to adjust to make sure that the pace of the game is matching the emotional beats of the narrative.

And it’s a two way street. They both can influence each other. One change on Uncharted 3 that is going to allow us to do an even better job is the fact that we now have our own motion capture studio on a sound stage not too far from our office, and we even set up a mini stage right inside of Naughty Dog. This means that we’ll get to work even more with our actors and put more motion capture into the game.

And what was the biggest challenge faced in intertwining narrative and form in Uncharted 3?
The biggest challenge is managing all of the dependencies. We have to work in a loose fashion, making as much concrete progress as we can in our level design and our art production as the back and forth happens with the gameplay and the narrative. As the interweaving solidifies, we try to minimise the amount of rework that our designers and artists have to do in order for everything to feel integrated. It’s impossible to eliminate it entirely, so the whole team has to be invested in the importance of getting it right since it means that many people have to revisit assets that may have been close to complete.

Consumers have long been wowed by graphical flair. Can narrative experience today be used to woo the public in much the same way?

We sure hope so since we’re putting so many resources behind our narrative. But I think that we’ve shown that consumers are absolutely looking for a richer narrative experience. It certainly is one of the selling points of the last two Uncharted games, which have been met with both a solid consumer and critical response.

Too many games are focusing solely on graphics, or visceral spectacle, which are important, but can be given so much more meaning if infused with emotional context.

On the subject of visual spectacle, was there any way in which you managed to harness the stereoscopic 3D compatibility to better or adapt the narrative experience?

We’re still early in development and relatively early on in specifically working with 3D technology.

During our next year of development, we will be exploring various ways we can leverage 3D to add to the Uncharted 3 experience. On the flip side, the quality of the narrative in our games is paramount – ensuring the story meets the high standard of quality we come to expect from ourselves is of the highest priority.

You’ve already mentioned motion capture. How important is choosing the right performers for Uncharted 3? There seems to be a real comparison with the work of a film maker or television director.
It’s been said time and again that casting is everything, and we couldn’t agree more.

If you have the right actors working together that have a strong chemistry, they will elevate the project beyond your expectations. No amount of brilliant writing or directing is going to overcome poor acting, or a cast that aren’t getting along on the set.

We take our casting very seriously and treat the process exactly as they do in film and television.

We see dozens of actors for each part and have them read through multiple scenes over the course of several call backs. We have them read with Nolan North (Nathan Drake) to make sure that there’s a connection and we hold our auditions on our mocap stage so they can get a feel for what it will be like on a shoot day.

And once we have our cast and we’re ready to start production, the day before every shoot we bring the actors in for a table read and a rehearsal. This is a chance for the actors to bring their ideas to the table and we adjust the dialogue with them to make it sound more natural. On the actual shoot day, we rehearse a few more times before shooting, and take our time and don’t try to capture too many scenes so the actors don’t feel rushed.

The desert setting presents an interesting challenge from a gameplay design context. Why did you choose a premise that will surely test the Naughty Dog team?

It was actually the very first thing that we decided on for the project. Everybody immediately latched onto the wealth of opportunities that it provided in just about every department. We knew that it would visually stand out from what we had focused on in our previous games – such as jungle and snow.

It would give the programming staff some great challenges in rendering shifting, pouring, pilling, and blowing sand, and the game designers could dig into the rich history and architecture of the Middle East as well as all of the tropes of the action adventure genre that take place in this setting.

How important is multiplayer to Uncharted 3, and how have you managed to tie multiplayer in with the feeling of a narrative experience?
Multiplayer is a huge emphasis for us on Uncharted 3. We want to expand on everything that we did on Uncharted 2 and add to it all the features that the best online experiences out there have and then some.

Another thing we really want to leverage is the uniqueness of our move set that allows players to climb and traverse their environment like no other game out there.

Finally we are going to bring the cinematic set piece moments you get from the single player experience and bring them into our online modes.

By the time Uncharted 3 is released, many of your staff will have presumably worked solidly on the franchise for six years. How do you inspire your team under such circumstances, and stop people becoming uninspired or desensitised?
That’s obviously a very important issue that we tackle in a number of ways. The biggest thing we do is continue to challenge ourselves. We constantly push the technology so that everyone can attempt new things with our engine that nobody has ever seen before.

The whole team at Naughty Dog loves wrestling with technical problems and then coming up with creative solutions. Which is why the Uncharted franchise is such a rich universe to play in. We can let Nate travel to the far corners of the world to tackle just about any kind of environment imaginable and delve into historic architecture that keeps the team inspired.

On a similar note, how have you approached the creative challenge of keeping the series feeling fresh without straying too far from the character that defines it as an Uncharted game?
Like I was just saying, it’s pretty easy to do in the Uncharted universe since there are so many ancient civilizations to tap into which span the entire globe. But the thing that we can rely on to keep things the most fresh is the story.

Since the characters and their relationships are such a huge part of what defines Uncharted, the action that’s taking place is really just an excuse or a setting for the story that’s being told.

Drake is more complicated than your typical one dimensional game hero, and by introducing new characters, or diving deeper into the relationships of past characters, you get to see new facets of what makes him tick.

If we get that side of things right, the multiplayer, and technology we should be in good shape.