Leaving AAA: Why Naughty Dog's star designer became a teacher
When Richard Lemarchand left Naughty Dog in 2012
, he did so while at the top of his field. A lead designer on the studio's flagship Uncharted
franchise, Lemarchand departed triple-A game development to join the faculty at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts, within the Interactive Media and Games Division. At the time it seemed a puzzling career move - at least for those who didn't know him.
"I’ve always had an indie kid’s soul, I think," he says. "I grew up in the 80s. So whether it was the New Wave with its connections to punk music and the whole DIY scene... I always had a sense that what a big studio did was often amazing, but the cultural products of regular folks were often equally amazing and were very relevant to me and my life - the kind of place that I’ve come from and the things I was interested in."
Now coming to the end of his first academic year at USC, the school which produced the likes of Journey
developers Jenova Chen and Kellee Santiago, Lemarchand has a few moments to reflect back on his transition from developer to educator. Gamasutra caught up with the newly minted professor at the conclusion of a semi-private exhibition of some of his students' term projects.
"I expected there to be a big, even jarring shifting of gears to have to deal with," Lemarchand tells Gamasutra, in reference to his professional transition. "I actually find that working with young game designers here at the USC games program is a lot like working with other game designers and developers at Naughty Dog, really."
Lemarchand cites the work philosophy of his former studio for the easy adjustment. "Naughty Dog works in a very smart, pragmatic way," he says. "They’re always focused on solving the current problems in the implementation of the design of the game in the right ways, by really talking honestly about the game that we’re working on. And that’s the kind of approach that I think is useful in the classroom, especially for a young, artistic form like ours."
"We don’t think about how we’re going to monetize this game"
For his Experimental Game Design course, Lemarchand asked his students to think of their projects not so much as something to "finish" but to "competently abandon." After all, under Lemarchand's philosophy, "no artwork is finished, only abandoned."
The students' final projects are all varying degrees of rough-around-the-edges, with many projects being broad strokes of an idea rather than a finished concept. One project leads its players through a series of puzzle doors before confronting them with a wall of philosophical truisms from conceptual artist Jenny Holzer. Another explores both the rhythm and culture of violence of a popular rap song.
"We’re very lucky in academia that we have complete freedom of thought and practice in the games that we make," Lemarchand enthuses. "We don’t think about how we’re going to monetize this game. And that means that we can really focus on the artistic aspects of game development. For example, the games that have come out of [this class] have been incredibly varied in terms of the approaches to the player, to controls, the representation, the integration of sound and music, even the question of what a game is. It’s just a big creative free-for-all and I find that tremendously exciting."
The class may be exploratory in nature but it remains critically rigorous. "[In game design] you should give each other a longer rope to say constructively critical things that might even sound harsh, knowing that we’re working together on making the game better," says Lemarchand. "As a professor you need to honor the hard work that your students do, but at the same time you’re doing them a disservice if you’re just telling them what they might want to hear. You have to find ways to allow a student to hear your constructive criticism by framing it in the right way. And those are skills I really feel I learned at Naughty Dog."
"Run towards your nearest academic institution and start getting involved"
What would Lemarchand say to other developers thinking of testing the academic waters?
"My advice would be that, definitely, game developers should not walk but run
towards their nearest academic institution and start getting involved," he says. "It's incredibly enriching to students... I also think that doing that benefits the industry, because those refreshed perspectives you can take back to the work you do on the game that you're building."
But, Lemarchand says, it's not a matter of simply dropping one's work and looking for a new position.
"If you want to make a change in your life like changing careers... you should just start doing things in the sphere that you want to move towards whenever you can. Evenings and weekends."
Lemarchand first became directly involved in the independent game scene in 2009, organizing GDC's first-ever microtalks panel, and later that year attending IndieCade in Culver City.
"The next year saw me co-chairing [IndieCade] with John Sharp
and I haven't looked back," says Lemarchand. In 2011 he found himself with an opportunity to pursue a career in academia, and when USC department chair Tracy Fullerton offered him the chance to work on experimental games in addition to teaching, he leaped at the opportunity.
For Lemarchand, participating in IndieCade and the Game Developers Conference Microtalks was the real turning point. "That just further cemented my interest in this world," he explains. "It helped me to realize that this emerging scene - indie games and art games - was something that I'd been longing for very intensely for a very long time, even before I joined the console game industry."
Watch this space
Despite protestations that he's getting on in his years - too much to put in the 100 hour work weeks asked of him in triple-A - Lemarchand seems to radiate youthful exuberance in whatever he does, be it running a class or DJ-ing alongside Fez
developer Phil Fish at GDC ("It's loads of fun, DJ-ing with Phil. It's a bit like playing Exquisite Corpse"). In addition to his teaching responsibilities, he's working on a new game in collaboration with one of his department's graduate students.
"I'm bursting to talk about it," says Lemarchand. "I've been working on it now for the whole academic year with my friend Julian Kantor, who is currently a first year in the MFA program... We're hoping we'll have something to show by the beginning of next academic semester."
There is a light in his eyes whenever the topic veers close to the professor's side project, but he contains himself. The game, like the works of his students in the Experimental Design class, is most likely well off the beaten path from what Lemarchand worked on in console game development.
"He's been doing amazing work," Lemarchand says of his co-developer Kantor. "So watch this space!"