Uncharted, Jak & Daxter And Crash Bandicoot: A History Of Naughty Dog
As Uncharted developer Naughty Dog moves from strength to strength, we look at the history major PlayStation developer.
Published on Dec 1, 2011
Naughty Dog has become predictable. The studio’s inaugural PSone platformer Crash Bandicoot followed its sensational success with two equally revered sequels, before a karting spin-off rolled onto shelves; sci-fi adventure Jak and Daxter once again proved the studio’s action-adventure prowess across three instalments on the PlayStation 2, followed yet again by another racer; and finally, debuting on the PlayStation 3 in 2007, the Uncharted series has reached its third chapter, leading to the obvious conclusion of…
“Unkarted!” Game director Justin Richmond interjects before we can finish showcasing our earnest detective work. “Amy [Hennig, creative director at Naughty Dog], would kick me out of her office if I pitched that to her. We’re definitely not making Unkarted.”
While Richmond rolls back into his seat, laughing at the concept of Nathan Drake, Sully and Elena rattling across the desert in pokey buggies, firing witty retorts at one another like red turtle shells (a flight of fancy that will have to remain in fans’ imaginations), there’s a relaxed vibe in the air.
Uncharted 3 is complete, Richmond and Arne Meyer, Naughty Dog community strategist, are at the end of their own little globetrotting adventure promoting the game.
In the same room, towering above the director is a cardboard standee of Drake, hovering portentously over the conversation, a mascot of unequal stature among Naughty Dog’s creations.
Whether it’s the lack of next generation hardware, or the increasing popularity of its latest icon, preconceptions about Naughty Dog’s rule of three are cast in doubt.
Working out of their garage, Jason Rubin and Andy Gavin launched their first few Amiga and Atari titles under JAM Software, before renaming the company Naughty Dog in 1989, producing one more Amiga title – Keef The Thief – before developing Rings Of Power, published by Electronic Arts for the Mega Drive.
It might be hard to believe, but one of Naughty Dog's first games was Rings Of Power above.
Rubin and Gavin were still in college, but the lack of a solid hit resulted in Naughty Dog declaring bankruptcy. As a final punt with 3DO interactive multiplayer title Way Of The Warrior and presenting it to Mark Cerny of Universal Interactive Studios (now the defunct Vivendi Games), a successful partnership was struck that would reshape the studio and change their fortunes.
“Jason and Andy were found by Mark, roughly the same time he discovered Insomniac Games, and shepherded their relationship along with publishers.” Richmond explains.
It’s an inauspicious foundation to the eventual success but, as Richmond considers, hasn’t changed the way the studio approaches its projects. “We’re a relatively large studio now. We have over a hundred people, but we still run like that same small studio.
"We have no producers; each member of the team has 100 per cent ownership over their work. We expect people we hire to work at a very high level and we expect them to have ownership over everything they do.
"We also expect them to talk to everybody else in the studio – if something stinks someone is going to tell you about it. It feels like a very small shop, it doesn’t feel like all these people running around doing crazy stuff.
"The people you talk to across the hall are bouncing ideas back and forth. That attitude comes from Jason and Andy from way back when, its always been a part of Naughty Dog culture and I think that comes 100 per cent from those guys and has been maintained by Evan [Wells, Co-president] and Christophe [Balestra, Co-president].”
After Rubin and Gavin left to launch a new social media platform, Wells and Balestra took the reins at the studio. Wells himself is one of several key members of Naughty Dog to have emigrated from Crystal Dynamics, and just one of many high-profile industry figures to join the studio from across the industry.
Other notable luminaries include Hirokazu Yasuhara (one of the creative forces behind the original flock of Sonic The Hedgehog titles), Richard Lemarchand (who worked across the Legacy Of Kain series) and even Richmond himself, having worked on portable interpretations of major franchises, such as Grand Theft Auto.
It took quite some time to get the sand of Uncharted 3.
As Richmond explains, it’s all to do with the inimitable magnetism of the studio, which continues attract the best of the industry. “I think it is unique. We have quite a few people from Crystal Dynamics: Evan Wells, Bruce Straley, and Amy Hennig, all working together before.
"That’s something you see in the games industry people circling back around after years to work with each other again and I think we’re really lucky to be attractive to those people who want to come work for us.
"We have a unique appeal to get who we want, which is awesome. I think it is a really special group of people; they’re almost like family. We come into work, we have fights and then we make up. It’s not a perfect peaceful place, its crazy to work there sometimes but at the end of the day its all a bunch of very special people.”
Regardless of who has been steering the ship, Naughty Dog has maintained a consistency across its body of work, with a clear parity between each of its signature franchises beyond the fundamental similarity of the third-person viewpoint.
A foot firmly within the cinematic, each of their titles relishes in spectacle. Dynamic camera angles, expressive animations and heart-thumping set pieces have become paramount to the studio’s success.
Watch the boulder chase in Crash Bandicoot and there is an undeniable similarity between that and the truck pursuit in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.
It’s the constant evolution and iterative design that has created a series of franchises that have progressed the genre. Even now, the past is just as important as it ever was, as Richmond recalls pouring over the Naughty Dog back-catalogue and finding previous development tools that the team repurposed, integrating them in innovative ways.
Uncharted 3 is exemplary proof of the talented team at Naughty Dog.
“The interesting thing about that is that the studio invented technologies for the PlayStation 2 that we just started using again now. We have this progressive mesh, which basically means that the further you get away from a model it changes to a higher resolution, and you won’t even see it happening.
"That was invented with Jak and we just picked it up again in Uncharted 3. It’s sounds pretty crazy that we’re going back to the past for the future, but we have a long history of doing that stuff.”
“That’s all because the evolution is directly related to what we can do with the hardware at the time,” community strategist Arne Meyer interjects. “Obviously with the PSone we couldn’t do something really realistic – you’d be asking a lot from a player to suspend disbelief. A few years later you could get closer as we explored different technologies.”
Uncharted marked a significant departure for the developer. Both Jak And Daxter and Crash Bandicoot were lauded for their approach, typified by subtle narratives, acute character design and an enlivening grasp on action gaming, yet the treasure-hunting adventurer became the greatest challenge for the developer.
Striving to tell more multifaceted stories that Sony’s new PlayStation 3 afforded them, the bold, grounded approach was brimming with influences born from a love for classic cinematic capers and pulp fiction.
Meyer’s enthusiasm for the brand continues to be unfazed. “People at the studio had done a lot of fantasy, so taking advantage of that power and going towards a stylised realism was very appealing.
"By going in that direction it opened up development to encompass more complex stories, deep characters and interpersonal relationships. Amy Hennig had already written really great stories with really great characters in the Legacy Of Kain series…”
It's amazing to think that, for some time, the original Uncharted remained underappreciated.
“Everything starts and ends with our characters,” interrupts Richmond earnestly. “The pulp genre was something that Amy and the team were really interested in, not just the movies but like Doc Savage and the western-led books.
"They were very interested in making a real-world game, a blockbuster you can play. That is still the touchstone of these games. That means a lot of characters, a better blend of cut-scenes and solid gameplay. We didn’t get lucky; it was a very conscious decision that took a lot of effort happen.”
When pressed, Richmond and Arne struggle to pinpoint the exact formula to their characters’ success. Each of the three primary protagonists has become icons of the PlayStation brand, each one an ambassador for their gaming generation.
Naughty Dog had a preternatural understanding of the gaming zeitgeist: with Crash, creating the antithesis to the cutesy, clean-cut charm of Sonic and Mario; Jak and Daxter providing light relief against the increasingly po-faced marketplace; and finally Drake, a vulnerable, charming antidote to the throbbing, fat-necked marines blasting their way through pop culture.
Richmond dismisses such hypotheses. “The thing I remember most about Crash was how great the television adverts were,” Richmond excitedly recalls. “I still remember him standing outside Nintendo with a megaphone screaming at Mario – that was awesome.
"For me, Jak was a really cool, different character and Daxter was a total foil for him – people really stuck behind that. And with Uncharted, all I see is Nolan North; he has stamped himself onto that character and made this character his own.”
Perhaps it’s this modest viewpoint of their success and games that has resonated with audiences across the globe, and which has afforded Naughty Dog to be slightly cocky today.
The original Uncharted was impressive for its refreshing approach to the cover shooter that was becoming so common.
Sharing development woes, the struggle of effectively replicating sand (“a two-year nightmare,” Richmond admits) and joking about the recently announced Japanese Uncharted television show, Justin Richmond eventually surmises how he views the studio today.
“I think we’re at the top of our game. Every single game we learn lessons and try to adjust and not make the same mistakes twice. Personally, I feel really lucky to go to work each day with the people I work with who are recognised and renowned – you don’t get that everywhere.
"Our ambition is to have our cake and eat it too. Sony doesn’t give us a hard time; they let us do what we want to do, and fans and critics really respond to our game. We couldn’t ask for more. A lot of studios would kill to be where we are today.”
As our time comes to an end with Justin and Arne, talk turns to Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception. The culmination of Naughty Dog’s fifteen years developing for PlayStation, it’s a progressive journey through action-adventure, showcasing the developers evolution through each rock-gripping, AK-47-firing, cinematic beat.
There’s a permeating sense of closure throughout the latest chapter, an emotional gravitas that haunts Drake. It’s a notion we put forward to Richmond.
“Amy always said that when she writes these things she wants to feel like that if she had to stop tomorrow it would work. If for whatever reasons Sony said we were not making any more Uncharted games, the story would still tie together.
"The ending always needs to feel like that was the last one. I think, especially with this one, Amy really wanted to make sure that people got a satisfying ending, especially in the stuff with Elena that got resolved in a way that was satisfying to the fans, it cleared some stuff up. I think, ultimately, that’s why it feels like the end of a trilogy, because you have that moment where you have them flying off in the sunset.”
At each era of PlayStation, Naughty Dog has found a way to get the most out of the tech.
We had to ask: can we expect a fourth entry? “It doesn’t stop us doing any more of them, for sure.” Well, that’s hardly surprising. The vocal fanbase has assured a lack of respite for the team, demanding the return of the rugged adventurer.
“Already they’re like ‘Where is Uncharted 4?’ Dude, you haven’t even played Uncharted 3 yet, come on! The fact is, the studio is on a break and we’ll come back together and see. I have some ideas about what we can do with the Uncharted universe and where we can take Drake, but as far as where we go next it remains up in the air.”
To satisfy the insatiable appetite in the interim, Naughty Dog has handed their beloved franchise to Resistance: Retribution developer, SCE Bend Studio.
It’s not the first of the properties to be passed onto other developers; both Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Daxter continued their series’ to some success in the hands of other developers.
However, with Naughty Dog apparently far from finished with Drake and friends, is there some reticence for allowing the brand to extend without the developer’s guidance? Richmond admits his reluctance.
“It’s a little nerve-wracking for sure. It’s always hard to see your babies go out the door, right? But you know the Uncharted universe has become bigger than Naughty Dog; it has become an icon for the PlayStation 3.
"And at the end of the day that’s really cool, letting other people latch onto it and do their own thing with the universe. We don’t want to be stuck in this thing where we were like ‘No one can make another Uncharted’… it’s cool to have it grow and do interesting things that we never expected.”
Even on the Vita Uncharted remains a high-quality adventure.
Arne agrees with the sentiment. “We recognise that our fans really love our content and we also realise our limitations to put out a new game every couple of years. So, we can balance the fact that we need to let go a little bit to have more content out there because our fans are hungry for it.”
Maintaining relationships with other developers has always been an integral to the Naughty Dog ethos. From their early years, they established a close connection with Insomniac Games, with Sony acquisitioning both studios within a short space of time.
It’s a congenial affiliation that has allowed some of Sony’s top studios to support one another and share technology. As Arne and Justin talk at length about how Guerrilla integrated some of Uncharted’s lighting physics into Killzone 3, and their regular communications with neighbours Insomniac Games, perhaps the most surprising revelation is how open the developer is with external competitors.
“We’re under enough fire from the outside; why wouldn’t we help each other?” chuckles Richmond. “For instance, we’ve been talking to Respawn and Bungie. The reason why is because we want to play awesome games and none of us want to reinvent anything that other people have done, so it’s way better to be open about it.
"Tell people how we did this, how it was done and to let them develop on our ideas. We hope that other studios are the same way because the industry is very small, so we’re hopefully bringing the level of all games up.”
The future for Naughty Dog is, in its own words, up in the air. After Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, the developer has nothing announced but continued support of Uncharted with DLC. If the latest chapter proves to be the bittersweet final offering from the studio and the cycle repeating itself once again (sans Unkarted), Richmond intends to take their next step as another learning curve.
“We’re going to continue to make games that, first and foremost, interest us. We learn every time we develop a new title and I think if we’re not pushing ourselves to the point where it becomes painful then we’re not doing it right. We want to create games that transcend the sum of its parts.”
He sits back in his chair and looks up at the fallible antihero that has consumed the last five years of his life. “There are things in this game that I can’t stand to look at. Those are things that we’ll go back and change on our next game. And then fuck up something else completely.”
Whatever that next journey will be, there’s little doubt that for Naughty Dog, they’re be once again sailing into uncharted waters.