“We don’t have anyone at all at the studio who has the job title of producer,” says Naughty Dog’s Richard Lemarchand, co-lead designer of Uncharted 2, speaking at the DICE 2010 Summit in Las Vegas.
Indeed, he says, nobody in the company -- not even its co-presidents -- solely manages people. In fact, one of the co-presidents wrote the network code for the multiplayer aspect of the studio's latest game.
This is because, he claims, "the only way to make a good game is to empower [developers] to organize themselves, empower them to make decisions," and then let them actually do it. "We’ve always worked in what could generously be referred to as a loosely structured way," he explains, and the main tenets of Naughty Dog's production methodology come from that principle.
The team begins with preproduction, but there are no conventional deadlines or deliverables expected from it. It's a freeform brainstorming period, during which team members discuss ideas and do previsualization, concept art, and gameplay prototyping.
By the end of preproduction, the the team creates a short spreadsheet, the "macro design" -– a list of the game's levels, locations, play mechanics, allies and enemies per stage, and story.
"Macro is something like a master game design document," says Lemarchand, "but it’s a lot more concrete than any 100 page design document ever written." The macro design document for Uncharted 2 was simply a 70-row-long spreadsheet.
"Don't waste time on details that are going to get changed anyway," urges Lemarchand.
Next, the game rolls into full production and runs more like traditional game development, with levels service as milestones and a certain number of weeks assigned to each area. The microdesign -- that is to say, the nitty gritty design work like level layout and mechanics design -- is usually completed barely ahead of the level schedule, using a "just in time" method.
"This is what I think would scare a lot of producers, but in the reality it’s how a lot of games get made anyway," Lemarchand points out.
Lemarchand says the studio culture had to be built around this idea, and leads therefore became de facto managers. "Anyone who wants to step up and take responsibility for some aspect of the game is encouraged to do so," he says. Leads might redirect people if their energy is being misspent, but they never slap down the will to get busy.
"It helps us stay very focused on the realities of what we’re making, in terms of whether the game is fun yet, or whether the assets are up to snuff in terms of quality," says Lemarchand.
At Naughty Dog, the people who control quality are the same people who make the assets, so they're very personally invested in the process. Lemarchand refers to this as a "do-ocracy," in which "individuals choose roles and tasks for themselves, and then execute against them."
The more you take on and feel like doing, the more responsibility you take on, Lemarchand argues.
"People only get formally promoted to a role if they've already been performing in that role for quite some time," he says. This only works if you trust the people you’ve hired to do what you've hired them to do, because the studio feels that "micromanagement is the enemy of quality."
The final piece of the production puzzle is fosternig a culture of communication. "We encourage everyone in the studio to contribute ideas and constructive criticism to what happens at Naughty Dog," Lemarchand says. Of course, this means people have to be good listeners who are able to keep things professional. If people on the team see something that's broken, the person responsible will get asked about it daily until it's fixed. Those with thin skin will likely not survive under those conditions.
These aspects of company culture don't come from a list of rules, Lemarchand notse. "We get it from the fact that the people at the top of the organization model this idea," he says, and that trickles down all the way to new hires.
The company employs a cross-disciplinary model by which artists and coders sit together to work things out, and that often results in level or mechanics design -- meaning designers have to accept a few missteps or over-written ideas. That brings its own risks.
Throughout the process, team members generate only enough documentation to keep tabs on the state of the game. "We don't have a formalized sign-off process, and we don’t always take time to say, 'Let's make sure everyone that needs to be here is in here,'" Lemarchand says. This means people can get left out or have their toes stepped on, so Naughty Dog employees must be able to cope with that.
As a final word of advice, Lemarchand cautioned that production this loose may not work for every studio. But if your games seem clunky or wooden, he says, consider giving more responsibility to the studio's creative staff, particularly the game designers.
"I would encourage you to devolve enough responsibility as possible onto those artisans," he advises. "That is to say, the people actually making the game."