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Reflecting On Uncharted 2: How They Did It

November 13, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[As Uncharted 2 tops U.S. console retail charts, Gamasutra sits down with Naughty Dog's lead designer on the project, Neil Druckmann, looking back over the sequel's creation, polishing, character honing, plotting, and more.]

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves has become the PlayStation 3's standout exclusive -- vastly outpacing the original in terms of hype, review scores, and positive buzz. The game has, in its first month of release, sold over a million copies.

The team at Naughty Dog has spent a great deal of effort making sure that the game is better than the first in the series, which debuted in 2007 to very positive reviews -- and that the lead character, Nathan Drake, is better-developed.

Here, lead designer and writer Neil Druckmann discusses the process of creating the game, and how the narrative is shaped and mood is created by using different techniques: what makes the game, work, then, as a linear story.

People like Uncharted 2 quite a bit. In general, how does that feel, after two years of working on a game, to have the kind of reception it's garnering right now?

Neil Druckmann: It's fucking great. It's pretty amazing. We were hoping that we would get some good reviews and do better than Uncharted 1, but this has been off the charts for us, no pun intended.

The original one had a good reception also. Can you talk a little bit about the lessons you learned from the development and design of Uncharted that you applied to Uncharted 2? Were there some things that you wanted to remedy from the first one?

ND: Absolutely. When we finished the first one, the first thing we did was have a meeting and say, "We have one game out now and we have a history going. What is Uncharted? What are the things that really define our world and our characters?"

We put a list together, and one of the things was, "Okay, it's got to have these really interesting characters and the pulp action feel. It's got to have this unique combination of traversal gunplay, which is really using our platform mechanics that we have experience on from previous games and combining it with the hardcore shooting mechanics of a third-person shooter."

Also we were keeping a light-hearted tone for the story. It was really important for us. You could say it's a darker story than the first game, but we still wanted to be light-hearted in tone. There's more at stake for Nathan Drake, but he's still quirky. He's still funny. He's still getting into intense situations the way he does. Those are all things that we wanted to keep from Uncharted.

For things we wanted to improve, we didn't have too many moments. We had a lot of good narrative moments set up, so we didn't have these big cinematic set pieces in the first game. We really wanted to push the technology forward that would allow us to do that, so one of the first things we did was create a tech that would allow us to have moving objects that let us keep Drake and all the allies and other NPCs on those moving objects with all of their mechanics and all of their move sets. We really didn't have that in the first game.

That let us do the train level in this game, which is amazing. It's not just a level where the train is moving on a straight line. What a lot of games do is that the train is stationary, and the environment is moving around you, which is why the train can only move straight. We have twists and turns. It will careen around corners.

It will have a collapsing building where, as the building is collapsing, you're still in control of Drake and are still shooting. What other companies have in cutscenes, we wanted to have in the game, to let you play those big cinematic blockbuster moments.

There's an incredible amount of polish that was done to this game. How did you guys approach that -- the idea of polishing this until it's so slick? How much time did you spend on doing that, and what was your philosophy?

ND: The way we work, we like to keep the game stable and playable. As soon as a level goes into the game, even if there's stuff not working, it has to be playable from beginning to end, so that the whole company can play it and give feedback. Because of that, we're constantly iterating on everything. The warzone is one of the first things that went into the game, and until the game shipped, we were still iterating on those sections. That's one thing.

We also gave ourselves a few more weeks for beta this time for polish, because we knew we were going to have more set pieces. We had more stuff in the game, but a little bit more time to polish it, so that was not too much of a gain in comparison to Uncharted 1.

The game director constantly pushed us that nothing could be mediocre. If it's not amazing, it's getting cut. We took a lot of stuff out so that we could focus on stuff that was working better and iterate more on the set pieces that you see in the game.

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Paul Greene
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Wonderful interview! I just want to congratulate Naughty Dog on such an absolutely fantastic game. One of the interesting parts of the interview was when Neil talked about how much focus ND gives to pacing. This is super apparent after going from Uncharted 2 to Modern Warfare 2. MW2's pacing is absolutely horrible. The single player is still a fun ride, but it would be so much better if IW only paid more attention to pacing.

Stephen Northcott
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This is a superbly polished game. In fact it's so polished that the few small problems become glaring annoyances because you just expect the whole thing to be as smooth as the rest of it. The most notable niggle being : Knowing where you can and can't climb on the environment.

Having said that it also holds the accolade in our house of being the *only* online gaming experience my wife has ever enjoyed. For what it's worth that is an amazing achievement for a game.

Great interview too. :)

Leonardo Ferreira
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The most interesting aspect of Uncharted 2 is how it absolutely trounces certain design concepts that are starting to pass absolute in the game design community, such as having no cutcenes, forcing the player to be incontrol of the caracter at all times, minimizing the importance of written narrative in order to make room for the one that will emerge from the players experiences...

I mean, I don't think that those concepts are bad or anything, but I think that not every single game must use them; games can be linear, scripted and authoral, as well as more open to choice and experimentation.The problem is when some arrogant game developer decides to say what is "right" or "wrong" in game design with this duality of concepts.Games are all about the overall experience, not how you get there.

Eric Adams
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Uncharted is one of the few PS3 games on my must play list. Loved the game. The art was breathtaking. I remember cringing at some of the jumps Nathan made a landed (albeit with some forgiveness on the game's part) with just his fingers. I thought here is a guy that could crush your skull with his bare hands!

Dan the gaming Guy
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I'm curious how they managed their schedule, communication, priorities and publisher relations with no producers? Under typical circumstances I would have thought the following statement would have resulted in total disarray:

"Another thing that changed is that there are no producers. Everybody is working on the game, and the people making the decisions about what needs to be cut and what goes in and out of the game are the people implementing the stuff."

I wonder what their development pipeline and checks and balances were? Maybe they just have a very organized experienced team?

jo jobber
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Best game ever made. Implementing narrative intelligently with the gameplay in the way that the medium should be involved, not poorly and uninformatively like Heavy Rain