[In the second part of his series on the combat design of Uncharted 2, Naughty Dog combat designer Benson Russell walks us through the combat design process at the acclaimed studio, sharing the breakdown of the steps of iteration, team members involved, and how the company's tools pipeline hooks into workflow. Part I discusses how the team evolved the combat design from the original Uncharted.]
In Part I, we focused on where we came from -- that is, starting with Uncharted: Drake's Fortune -- and where we wanted to go with Uncharted 2. For this part, we'll be taking a looking into our design process from the ground up.
Just to set the stage a bit, this article is purely about our encounter design process, and how we put an encounter together. By this point in the process we'll have a lot of our core mechanics defined and we will be prototyping the new gameplay mechanics and styles alongside this process. Well, that's the theory, anyway...
For Naughty Dog, it all starts with the story. Instead of creating spaces solely around gameplay and then worrying how the story will fit in, we instead want to take the story into account as early as possible.
We want the gameplay to support the story and help draw the player deeper into the experience. This isn't to say that we don't think of cool set pieces, moments, or locations for encounters first, but we still find a way to incorporate them into the story arc where they make the most sense.
At this point we want to take into consideration where our characters are in the story arc, so some key questions we ask are:
This helps to give us guidelines to focus the encounter for both gameplay and art. What style of combat best supports the desired tone and mood we are going for? How do lighting, weather, and time of day play into things? Do we need to foreshadow a big event coming up soon? All of this will factor into how we want the encounter to play out.
Once we've sorted out the story side of the equation, we check on the gameplay side of things. We like to maintain a spreadsheet that tracks a lot of the gameplay information for all levels across the game.
With this we're able to see what mechanics we've used and where, what weapons we've given the player up to this point, what classes of AI we've introduced, and what mechanics we've trained the player on. Of course this is always a work in progress, and we adjust it to what best fits the game's needs over the course of development.
Using this spreadsheet we see how the story elements of the encounter match up with the gameplay ramp and pacing. The goal is to make sure we're achieving a balance amongst the different gameplay mechanics, picking ones that best support the story while evolving things for the player. If there's a conflict between the story and gameplay elements, we do our best to try and support both, but we'll usually lean towards favoring gameplay in the end.
One designer will usually be the point person for the level. Since we don't have anyone at our studio that is hired for the sole purpose of filling a producer's role, the point designer becomes the acting producer. They will head up overseeing the level through to completion, helping coordinate all of the different disciplines in what is needed, and coordinating with the rest of the designers and leads.
Once we've picked a point designer for the level, we have a pow-wow to go over all of the story and gameplay needs, as well as brainstorm what the level should be.
Anybody that wishes to be a part of the process can come to the meeting, but the key people are the point designer, the game director, and the lead designer. They will have gone over the story elements with the creative director and co-president (who is essentially the head designer of the studio). Sometimes the combat designer (that would be yours truly) will sit in, but at this stage it's not always necessary.
For this meeting we're just interested in getting a starting direction and flow for the level -- working out the initial high-level details. We figure out the beats for the level such as the location and setting, key story and gameplay moments, the objectives of the player, combat pacing, special "wow" moments, etc.
At this point, we start to create a generic high-level layout. We don't want to go into too much detail; it's more of a representational space then an actual specific layout, and is made for showcasing the flow of the level. This is iterated on until it's agreed upon that we have a good starting point for the design.