At the Gamasutra-attended Montreal International Game Summit Tuesday, Richard Lemarchand, co-lead designer on Naughty Dog's Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, gave attendees a behind-the-scenes look at the best-selling PlayStation 3 adventure franchise, studio culture and bringing an emotional connection to video games.
Lemarchand explained how the Uncharted series, which debuted on PS3 in 2007, was built around just "a couple simple ideas."
The team at Naughty Dog wanted to give gamers a "playable game version of the summer blockbuster movies of the 1970s and 1980s," he said, while combining that with the "the spirit of pulp adventure and reinvent[ing] it for a contemporary audience."
But the Sony-owned studio, previously known best for Crash Bandicoot and Jak & Daxter, had a big challenge when making the first Uncharted title – the PS3 didn't exist yet.
So the team initially developed the game on PC, making the closest hardware guess possible. "Long story short," Lemarchand laughed, "we messed things up pretty badly. … Once we got our hands on the PS3 hardware, we were able to save it," as the studio did a full reboot of the game.
Don't Make A Fuss About Big Changes
Scrapping a large amount of previous work, and trying to fix what's broken, takes courage, Lemarchand said. "When something just isn't working, even if it's something you've been working on for a year, if it needs changing, you need not to make a fuss. You need to rip it apart and put it back together."
That kind of mindset has helped the Uncharted series gain a large audience – the first two games in the series have sold 4 million copies each, and both were hits with game reviewers.
Lemarchand cited a high-level game consultant who said some game developers create games like a software or manufacturing company, when in fact they are in the entertainment business. He said the waterfall model, used by software companies, is not particularly conducive to finding fun, or fine-tuning the gaming experience.
Instead, he said Naughty Dog doesn't have a concrete method of making games, although the studio does follow some basic rules that foster creativity and open communication amongst the 100-person team.
"At the very beginning of a project, we do lots of brainstorming," said Lemarchand. "…Then we get to work as quickly as we could implementing these ideas, and they give us fixed reference points… this is one way that making a video game is fundamentally different than making a movie."
"We don't use any kind of formal methodology," and that, Lemarchand said, gives Naughty Dog's games their unique personality.
Everyone on the team is encouraged to give ideas and criticisms on a game, Lemarchand said. "We force ourselves to be brutally honest with each other… if something isn't up to scratch, we say so, and sometimes very bluntly."
The flat studio structure at Naughty Dog helps foster this open line of communication. "Sometimes it's very messy and chaotic, but it's very messy in a good way, because people in charge are also the ones making the game," he said.
"The bad parts of the game always, always get called by someone in the mix," Lemarchand added. "…The things that suck about the game design… either get taken out of the game, or get fixed, because all the people on the team will be beating down the door of the person responsible, every single day."
While Naughty Dog does encourage bluntness, there are some informal guidelines to internal feedback. "We must never, ever get personal, and not be too blunt – not use too many swear words," he joked. "We have this informal contract that we won't get too bent out of shape with each other, and [remember that] we're all working towards greatness."
"This culture of open communication also strengthens our team as a whole. … We become more accountable to one another, and we trust each other even more," he said. Teams that lack that trust are "prone to paralysis" – a detrimental situation, as "responding to change is the key to successful game development."
"We get [our studio culture] from the fact that the people at the top of this organization model these behaviors. … It's natural to adopt those habits. … They operate very much on the basis of 'Do as I do, not as I say.'"
Emotion In Games
Naughty Dog's Uncharted games aim to refine the art of storytelling in interactive entertainment. Lemarchand addressed a common problem with storytelling in games.
"The problem is often simply a lack of emotional connection between characters and players," he said. "…When video games are at their best, they can create deep and emotional resonances in our players."
Often video games can connect with players' intellect, " …But [games] do not connect to their hearts in quite the way that we like. I think this is an enormous wasted opportunity that robs our form of its potential power."
Lemarchand stressed that Naughty Dog's "wide linear" approach to game design and storytelling in games is not the only way to tell a story. But there is a common theme he has noticed that is hindering games' emotional potential.
"I think I understand the source of at least a part of that problem, just like for the [voice actors] who didn't get the part of Nathan Drake, we as game developers are often acting too tough and too snarky when we are making our games."
He called for a Steven Spielberg-like disruption of expectations of gender, sexual orientation, and a shattering of stereotypes in general.
"It's important that we have something to say," said Lemarchand. "… We must be in touch with our emotions and become adept at telling them in detail, with restraint, and clarity, and above all, vulnerability."