Interview: Naughty Dog

TheSixthAxis recently got the chance to talk with Evan Wells, co-president of Naughty Dog, on their recent PS3 game Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. We talk Achievements, sequels, animation and technical challenges.

TSA: Hi Evan. Uncharted uses an ‘achievement-style rewards points’ scheme, which enables the player to unlock extra features – is this something you see happening on future titles, and would you have liked Sony to have done something similar to the 360’s Gamerscore?

Wells: Since our game is about treasure hunting and heroic exploits, it’s a perfect fit for the personalization, content-sharing and “trophies” features of the PS3 Home community. We’ve spent the whole course of development quietly creating a ton of cool bonus materials that players can win. We’ve actually filled the Blu-ray disc with Making Of featurettes, production art galleries, unlockable costumes, screen-filter effects, selectable weapons, and a bunch of other fun stuff to keep you happy for hours and hours after your first play-through. Rather than each individual treasure, the Medals in Uncharted are more likely going to turn into Home trophies. We modelled the detail into the treasures just to increase the satisfaction in finding them.

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TSA: Speaking of treasures, where’s Nathan off to next?

Wells: We developed Uncharted as a franchise, so this game is just the first in an ongoing series of adventures. We’ve already started having meetings to see what worked best in production and finding the areas that need improvement. We’ve also only just started brainstorming on ideas for our next project. Nothing has been solidified yet.

TSA: What were the technical challenges your team faced with Uncharted, with particular reference to the PS3’s architecture? Is there anything you had to leave out of the game for launch?

Wells: The PlayStation 3 is a complex yet powerful system. We could not pull off the rich, seamless world of Uncharted on any other console. Because the system is so powerful, it means that tapping into that power requires great engineering efforts. We’re lucky that Naughty Dog has some of the best programmers in the industry. I can also tell you that as we’re finishing Uncharted, we’ve found new ways of optimizing our engine to take advantage of the hardware. All of which means that, as beautiful as our game is, there is a lot more in store for the PlayStation 3.

We can still do a lot more with the hardware. We are only using about 1/3 of the processing power of the SPU’s. This means that we can move a lot more of our systems over to the cell which will free up precious cycles on the PPU. Over the course of Uncharted’s development we were continually finding ways to optimize and get even more out of the machine. I honestly believe that we will see a bigger gap between the quality of the first round of games on the PS3 and the last round of games than we did on the PS2.

Video game projects are so huge and complex you could literally work on them forever and still find ways to optimize or add more polish. But at Naughty Dog, we take our schedule very seriously and have always shipped on time (knock on wood). So we make sure that we are checking ourselves all along the way so that we don’t end up making a “turkey”, slipping the schedule, or going over budget.

TSA: So in the meantime, do you have any plans for future downloads for Uncharted, or will you be saving any new features for the sequels?

Wells: Absolutely – we created Uncharted with the old cliffhanger serials in mind, so this game is just the first in an ongoing series of adventures.

TSA: The lighting and animation is amazing in Uncharted, can you tell us a little bit about how it was done, and what makes it so special?

Wells: We tried to make the all the environments in Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune as realistic & plausible as possible, but we also needed to push the art in a more stylized & creative direction than simply recreating a photo would’ve allowed.

For example the Amazon jungle Drake & Sully visit at the beginning of the game has a rounded “friendly” shape to the rocks & plants, and the colors are warm & inviting because it’s Nathan’s (and the player’s) first adventure. This required us to take certain liberties with the style of art in the environments, but they also had to pass through the “plausibility filter.” The layout and style of plant life used isn’t like any Amazon jungle photo I’ve seen, but it has enough attention to the details of reality to sell it as “some reality.” We hope this has created a style that’s distinctively.

A major focus in bringing “Uncharted’s” characters to life was trying to determine what it is that really allows the subtleties in human behavior to be conveyed as actual emotion and not just a series of moving muscles. Our main focus was on creating a system that gave us complete control over creating the exact facial expressions we wanted. We spent a lot of time looking at video footage of human beings and really studying what the face did when conveying certain emotions. A large amount of emotion is described in the eye area, so we focused on really establishing a solid relationship between the brows, eyelids and eyeballs and essentially trying to keep that area as “alive” as possible.

After creating these expressions there was still something missing, the lack of wrinkles and strain lines in the face made it seem very stiff and “dead”. Adding wrinkles through the use of a second group of normal map textures that are driven by the different muscle groups in the face really helped solve this problem. As much as it seems sort of arbitrary, the effect of light also played a significant role. In certain cases if the skin does not react properly to the light you lose a lot of the detail and it makes it harder to register that skin is actually moving. The animators also really worked hard at taking their traditional background in animation and applying these principles to a more realistic paradigm that allowed for a really solid balance between something that is anatomically correct and aesthetically pleasing.

TSA: Thanks for your time, Evan, and good luck with the game.

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