Uncharted 3: Naughty Dog Interview

Dave Cook

Uncharted 3

We chat with Justin Richmond and Robert Cogburn.

Published on Jul 12, 2011

Naughty Dog's Justin Richmond is overseeing what will be a stunning game.

With Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception enjoing a busy, and productive beta period, we caught up with Naughty Dog's game director Justin Richmond and game designer Robert Cogburn.

The duo and their team are currently hard at work collating player feedback and making vital tweaks to Uncharted 3's multiplayer element as you read this.

So to get some perspective on just how big the task of polishing Uncharted 3's multiplyer will be, read on and try the beta for yourself if you haven't already, it's bloody good fun.

Watch us lay the smackdown in the Uncharted 3 beta.

You launched the Uncharted 3 beta recently, how has it been received and how has the development side been going so far?

Justin Richmond: Good, I mean we always treated this as a real beta. Lots of people take the view that betas are just a glorified demo, and we didn’t want to do that. We wanted to really stress our technology and make sure everything was up to scratch before the game came out.

But we actually ended up using all the server technology that is brand new to this game, in order to make it faster and better. You know, we can test the game internally as much as we want, but you only start to see the real problems when you get 900,000 people online

In terms of launching the beta, the first day was rocky, but from then we’ve just sort of patched, and make sure things work the way they’re supposed to, and basically just had a good time with it.

We’ve also seen tons of feedback on the Naughty Dog forums, and on third-party forums across the internet. The overall response seems to be positive so yeah, we’re really happy with it.

That’s great. We did an interview with Epic a while ago, and we touched on the Gears of War 3 beta, and the preconception of many gamers that betas are simply a cynical marketing tool. What is your take on that viewpoint?

JR: I think it’s true in some cases, and that more and more people are using betas as a demo, and getting the game into people’s hands for free. I mean, there’s definitely a benefit to that, but I think we’re treating it as a real test of the multiplayer and to ensure it’s all up to scratch.

Plus we really are treating this as a beta. So if someone really hates something, and there is an overwhelming consensus, then we would change it. Publicly, we’re very sensitive to that, and this leads to fixes like the 1.02 patch.

The Uncharted 3 beta throws many new development challenges Naughty Dog's way.

To give you a good example, one of the things we heard over and over again from almost every single person, was that if players didn’t use a kickback, they would stack. What that means is that you could earn infinite ammo and keep on using your kickback over and over.

This is supposed to be something you use maybe one or two times a round, but instead, people were using it like every two minutes. We then changed it in the beta, so right now you can’t do that any more, and people came back and were like, “Thanks, you guys just made the game better”.

So we treat this very, very seriously. It’s not something we look at like, “Oh, our design is fine, we’re not going to change the game.” We certainly don’t have the oversight that 900,000 people have, so we just want to make a game that people love playing. Things that we thought were fun, perhaps haven’t translate on that large a scale.

Seeing how people actually play the game, compared to how we thought they would play the game makes all the difference in the world. We’ll then take all that feedback and break it down to a level of stuff that will go into the final product.

Kickbacks are an interesting addition to the formula, and obviously one of the issues that come with them is balancing. How do you even begin to nail the balancing of a multiplayer game as epic as Uncharted 3?

JR: It’s pretty hard (laughs). We have to playtest every day, and we can see pretty quickly where the holes are, what weapons are overpowered or broken because everyone starts using them, and more.

The QA guys will very quickly see where something is broken, because suddenly the whole company starts using a gun that is way overpowered.

In every multiplayer experience, balance is king.

Where it gets tricky though is the subtle differences between three different guns with similar properties and targeting. Then we have to make them feel and play differently, while maintaining a balance.

We also have to think about one type of load out being no better than another, as well as building weapons sets that cater for one kind of gameplay.

We even need to consider load outs that counter each other while remaining balanced, in order to let people play the game the way they want to play it. So yeah it’s incredibly difficult.

Robert Cogburn, game designer: The art to balancing a competitive multiplayer game is a challenge every day. One of the biggest problems is, this game is so important to us and we introduced a lot of new systems to Uncharted 3 multiplayer.

The key is to look out for cracks in these systems, and spotting when people exploit those systems. All of this is crucial information for us, and we’re still balancing it right now.

There’s no way you can build a game with this many systems, running with such a high volume of players, and with a wide range of number crunching items in it, and not enter into a continual balancing act.

Character customisation throws custom load outs into the mix, and gas masks obviously.

Given this is your second crack at Uncharted multiplayer, what key lessons did you learn from the Uncharted 2 online component, and how has it informed your development this time around? 

JR: I think the number one thing was that tweaks and balancing are always going to happen. You have to be so careful about how many things you actually change.

One of the biggest things we’ve learned from was the 1.04 patch from Uncharted 2. That patch was a decision that was made across the whole company.

I think I agree with it, I thought it was a good move. Even now we see people talking about how the health is high in Uncharted 3 – which we’re not touching (laughs) – but I think there is a whole class of players that feel like the health is too high in the beta.

The reason for this isn’t just because of the Call of Duty and Battlefield effect. It’s because ironically, the more health a player has, the more it actually favours a high calibre player, which is totally counter-intuitive if you think about it.

Basically it means that a good player that can hold the reticule over another player for longer is always going to beat someone who is less skilled.

If people really like something, then you better have a damn good reason for wanting to change that, or of course upping the damage.

How many multiplayer games let you do this?

Can you give us an example of what elements you’ve changed so far?

JR: Well, in the beta we found that the Micro Uzi was overpowered when used in certain circumstances. We changed it so that the gun is less accurate when used in blindfire. So in a way this removes some of the overpower, but that’s a minor tweak when compared to the health issue.

We also learned that people really want to stuff to level up with. They want to earn stuff and feel like they’re constantly progressing. The progression in our game is really cool, especially near the end.

We just wanted to give people more and more stuff to unlock. One of the first things we talked about and we’re really proud of is the treasure system.

There’s a chance that any players can drop a piece of loot when killed, and collecting sets actually unlocks new items. I think people have really responded well to that.

RC: One of the big problems from Uncharted 2 was that players hit a wall when levelling up pretty quick. They felt they just weren’t making any progress after a certain point. I think we’ve tackled that pretty well, but beyond that we’ve also introduced plenty of other systems.

We’ve really opened things up, I mean, we’ve got interesting Medal Kickbacks, team boosters, expanded custom load outs. Another thing we learned from Uncharted 2 is that people like establishing their own type of play style.

JR: Yeah, and we also wanted to use the cash system in our game, and one of the things was that when you finish your game, you get a bunch of cash. So we now let you spend your money on paid boosters.

Well, there goes the twins.

These are all based on market value, so that if people started buying one booster more often, we will increase the cost of it so it becomes less frequent.

We had to be careful in that these boosters are only available for one or two games, instead of letting you buy it indefinitely and then hitting that same brick wall as before.

It sounds as if the content volume is just incredible. Is there any way you could quantify just how long the multiplayer extends the multiplayer experience by?

RC: Oh man, wow (laughs).

JR: Well, we’re going to continue adding new content after launch with DLC, like treasures, new character parts as we go on. We can’t talk about that right now, but I’d say the content easily amounts to hundreds and hundreds of hours.

I mean you can play competitive, co-op, multiple modes and, I just can’t quantify it enough. There is, of course, a wealth of customisation in Uncharted 3. It feels like this freedom is becoming the standard in any good multiplayer game worth its salt.

How liberating is the freedom to carve out an identity online? 

JR: One of the nice things we have with Uncharted 3 is that you can actually see the character’s faces.

They’re not wearing helmets, armour or anything like that. Like, we saw in Halo: Reach that you could unlock new character parts and designs, but in the end you could only put so much crap on that same suit of armour.

Character customisation makes total sense. Everyone loves to express themselves.

Uncharted 3 goes further in that you can wear sandals, or army boots or whatever, and we wanted to add as many elements as we possibly could. I think any game that gives players a character they can latch on to, and give them the choice to look how they want to look, is fantastic.

People are also attached to characters from the franchise, so we made these custom parts to add on to these characters in multiplayer. For example, with Drake you can unlock a pair of aviator sunglasses for completing a treasure set.

The fact that we have these cool little unlocks for multiplayer only will put a smile on some people’s faces. In addition, we’ll also be bringing back all the characters from previous games like Eddy Raja, and a host of other people too.

How many ideas did you have to leave out of Uncharted 2 multiplayer, that you implemented into the third game, and how many elements have you had to cut from Uncharted 3 multiplayer?

RC: We’re not cutting corners, but it’s more about things that you thought would work, but actually didn’t. At the end of the day, I think the biggest thing we had in mind for Uncharted 2, but that actually moved across to Uncharted 3 is objective mode.

In this mode you have like, a random objective that can become active. So sometimes it’s King of the Hill, sometimes it’s deathmatch, sometimes it’s Marked Man and so on. So, that’s something we had to cut before which has finally made it to this game.

The Chateau stage appears in multiplayer, sans fire of course.

There’s some stuff we wanted to do in Uncharted 3 that, in the future, we will probably put into the next game we make. But there’s always that kind of stuff in this kind of project where, in the first year, you think really big, then in the second you think, actually, we’re not going to make it (laughs).

We also touched briefly on co-op earlier. I’ve seen some quotes from you guys earlier in the year, in which you describe co-op as an ‘adventure’ rather than a ‘mode. Why is it important to make this distinction? 

RC: Because these missions really do have a nice little story line to it that connects all the pieces together. You’re going to be embarking on scenarios that are significantly different to what you’d expect from the Uncharted series.

You’ll be in scenarios that you just won’t anticipate, because the luxury we have in these scenarios is, unlike the last game, they take place in this alternate reality. So we’ve given ourselves room to go in this different direction.

JR: I think on top of that, the other distinction we have in cooperative mode is that we have this new Hunter mode where you play as the bad guys.

We also have a revamped version of our Uncharted 2 Survival modes, which is similar to our objective mode, except there are global objectives inside of that.

The adventure side of co-op is different, but the same in that is uses the same co-op boosters. It really does offer you a different kind of experience.

It's been revealed for a while now, but the fire effects never fail to impress.

Uncharted 3 is launching pretty close to Battlefield 3 and Modern Warfare 3. How confident are you in terms of competing with these games in a multiplayer sense?

RC: Just like any developer who makes multiplayer we play and enjoy Battlefield and Call of Duty, just like anyone else. We’ve clocked hundred of hours on Battlefield: Bad Company 2, Modern Warfare 2 and others. Those are both amazing games.

When you want to shoot big, you can’t take half measures. We want to build a game that we feel like someone could pick up, and then get something from it that they can’t get anywhere else.

In terms of numbers of players, I have no doubt that Modern Warfare 3 is going to kill us. It is a ridiculously powerful franchise, you know, their sales are through the roof, they’re multiplatform, and to be honest, the industry needs games like that.

But in terms of what we’re doing, I think Naughty Dog is bringing the kind of experience that you will not get anywhere else on the market right now. In our multiplayer experiences, it’s super quick, you can do all sorts of crazy stuff you can’t do in other games.

You can play multiple play styles, and we have these massive set pieces that you can’t get anywhere else. No other multiplayer title lets you jump from truck to truck while attacking a flying airplane.

Whether people flock to it or not, I think that we have proven that we are a force to be reckoned with, and that the game is very impressive. It’s just a question of, will people give us a chance or not (laughs), but I’m very proud of where we are right now.

The Uncharted series as a whole is renowned for its superb visuals. How challenging is it to deliver the same graphical fidelity in your multiplayer element?

JR: The multiplayer isn’t necessarily the problem. It’s the strain that comes with 3D, because one of our huge features in this game is split screen 3D support.

In single player, Marlowe will prove to be a formidable enemy, just look at her!

On the couch gaming is something that we’ve always loved you know, the idea of getting together and playing a game together.

When you play in different rooms or different TVs, it loses that social experience, and so we waned to do split screen from the very beginning of the project. Technically, it’s tricky to render two windows at the same time, although our technology does allow us to do that.

It’s more of a question of our teams; going in and saying, ‘In split screen, what can we get away with NOT showing, but still making the level over the top and ridiculous?’

It’s hugely important that we maintained as high a level of fidelity as we possibly could, but I’m not going to lie; it’s tough, but the bottom line is we’re not sacrificing anything in terms of quality.

Because when you play full screen, on a single HD screen with great visuals, that is a completely different set up. So it’s not that we’re taking things out of the game to make split screen, it’s just a different way of development.

We caught up with Naughty Dog’s Christophe Balestra at E3, and he spoke theoretically about what features he would like to see in PlayStation 4. He took an interest in greater social aspects. What social aspects can we expect in Uncharted 3?

RC: That interests us without a doubt. An example of that is what we’ve done with Uncharted TV, and we’ve also done a lot of heavy Facebook integration. You’re going to be able to do some very interesting things with Facebook that we can’t tell you about just yet.

Just kicked the asses of two guys? Facebook about it!

I think this social experience within an online experience is definitely the way multiplayer gaming is going. I feel that what we’re doing with Facebook and with Naughty Dog TV is really going to shine through.

JR: Yeah. One of the things for Facebook we’re allowing you to do is playing with your friends on Facebook without being friends with them on PSN, because on average, PSN users have about one online friend, but they have around 150 Facebook friends.

On top of that, you can upload your videos to YouTube, you can take a screenshot, post that to your wall and say, ‘Hey, I just won a match on this brilliant game.’ I think that’s much more interesting than generic social aspects in a game.

As Uncharted 3 is a first party Sony exclusive and will be expected to shift PlayStation 3 consoles, do you ever feel pressured, or as if there is a certain expectation on Naughty Dog to perform well?

RC: No one places more pressure on us than we do ourselves. I mean, at the studio we’re very high pressured in that we always want to do something better then the last thing we did. Uncharted 2 launched and it was a huge graphical leap forward and we had multiplayer.

It went on to be a huge success and it won multiple awards, and I think we really proved to the industry that we are a true triple-a developer. We want to do that again.

Will Uncharted 3 win any awards? I don’t know, but I know that we’re more geared towards delivering an experience that live up to both the Naughty Dog and the Uncharted 3 name. Our own determination is the only place internal pressure comes from.

Although sand has only been seen in concept art, the prospect of collapsable environments is tantalising.

There was another great Naughty Dog quote from last year’s ‘Chateau’ reveal, about how you wanted to push your limits in creating convincing fire effects. We’ve also seen you tackle water at E3. The only thing left is your new sand effect. When can we expect a glimpse of those?

JR: Yeah sand is next, but I’m not sure how much of that we’re going to show before launch. We’ve got a bunch of really cool desert stuff going on that is awesome, and I’m sure will just blow people away. It appears in both single and multiplayer.

We hear a lot of people crying out for Sony to announce PlayStation 4, and to that I usually say, ‘calm down’, as the power of PlayStation 3 still hasn’t been fully tapped yet. Have we only still just scratched the surface?

RC:  Well, we’re coming into the sixth or seventh generation now I think, and with PS3; where we’re at now is that we’ve figured out how the machine works. We’re really, really pushing the hardware in an attempt to run as close to 100 per cent as we can.

But to realise any sort of jump forward, you need to find new ways to squeeze more and more power out of the machine first. That goes hand in hand with compression and trying to get more things on screen at once.

I don’t know what to expect from the next generation, but PS3 is a great machine that lets us make games we want to make, so it really is a great console.

Sony has a long history in talking with its first-party and exclusive developers about tech and future console cycle. Seeing as you guys are squeezing so much out of the hardware, do other studios under the Sony banner ever come to you for advice?

JR: Yeah, I mean Sony’s first-party developers are all pretty good friends. Like, we know the guys at Media Molecule, Guerrilla and all these other people.

But honestly, we’ll talk to anybody, not just Sony first-party studios. We want everybody to be making games that we want to play, so if people want to talk shop, we’re happy to do it.

On top of that though, when we released the first Uncharted we also released all of what we used to all of the first-party developers. We did that with Uncharted 2 as well, and we’re always open to helping other studios out if they say, ‘Hey, how did you guys do this? How did you do that?’ We’re always happy to tell them what we did, as there’s no secret.

Marlowe's goons belong to a shadowy order hell bent on stealing Drake's ring (no, not that ring you cheeky sod)

Guerrilla actually came up with a few cool particle effects and they were like, ‘Oh, you should do it like this’, and we were like, ‘Oh, of course!’ (laughs) you know? And yeah we trade tech secrets and such, and we’ve spoken to Bungie and the guys at Infinity Ward.

It’s this kind of small community in that you keep on running into these people over and over again, and as an industry we’re always collectively trying to raise the bar.

With each new game, we’re not trying to reinvent the wheel, but we all strive to do something that someone else hasn’t done already. It’s just really cool to get together with other studios and thrash that stuff out.

Obviously you won’t develop for Wii U, but I want to get your thoughts on the hardware. Does the console spark your imagination in any way?

JR: To be honest with you, the idea of it is very, very cool. But there’s nothing that the Wii U has that the Vita and PS3 doesn’t. You know, it’s an interesting piece of technology, and I’m interested to see how people use it.

I’m not completely sold yet. That the screen isn’t multi-touch, that’s a little weird. It seems there are some very strange holes in it, but to be fair, last time I was sceptical of the original Wii, and look at how that did. I’m sure that he games they make for Wii U will be amazing.

Naughty Dog has always said it’s open to the idea of sequels as long as there is a demand for Drake’s return. Without prying too much into what you have planned next, what key identifiers do you look for when deciding to do a sequel?

JR: We’re very, very lucky with our fans. Our fans are awesome, and they support us to the ends of the earth. We’re also very receptive to fan requests and stuff like that.

Could Uncharted: Golden Abyss mark the start of a new trilogy?

But really, the main thing for us as a studio is the question, “What do we want to do?” and, “Where are we as a studio?” Obviously, when you get as lucky as we have with a big franchise like Uncharted, it becomes something that is very hard to walk away from.

Drake is very close to our hearts, and there are some people here who have worked with the character now for about eight years. But as a studio, we’ve never really shied away from requests to do something else.

Again, it boils down to what are we interested in doing, and what inspires our studio, and just taking things from there. We’ll get this one out the door next, and if we go on to sell tons of copies, we’ll probably take a vacation, evaluate where we are, and then go from there.

What are the benefits of establishing a big franchise over say, creating a singular experience? It seems to be happening more often, and I think the biggest recent example I can think of is BioShock. That could have happily existed as a one-off, but a sequel eventually came along.

JR: There are several factors in this, but the bottom line is that these games are hugely expensive to make. New IP is notoriously difficult to sell, and so you basically need to have a plan in place to go longer than just one game.

With the first Uncharted, it was a critical darling and it put us in a good position going into Uncharted 2. We also have to be mindful of making a return on investment, and the better that is, the more interesting things we get to do.

It’s hard making a game, so doing a game like Uncharted, releasing it, chucking it all out and starting over again is difficult. But now, with the second and third games we do, we don’t have to throw everything out and start over again.

Uncharted 2 is still beautiful to look at, but it has raised the bar for Naughty Dog significantly.

I also think that in general, you’re now seeing two tiers of gaming. There are triple-A studios and social games, which often tend to be a smaller experience.

There’s pretty much nothing in between now. You basically can’t afford to make a game now if you’re indie as it’s hard to sell it and make your money back.

Big studios and big publishers want something that they can bet on year after year, so I think there’s a lot of pressure on that. Multi fee projects are certainly a good idea, and I think most studios with a series like Uncharted where they get to make more than one game are very lucky.

What, in your opinion is the single greatest challenge facing the games industry today, and if you had total power, how would you fix it?

Oh wow! Total power (laughs). I think the biggest problem today is that we’re in a little bit of a rut. I think it’s hard to innovate and make money, which is the same in most industries. Right now the public is rewarding building franchises like we just talked about.

There’s nothing wrong with that, as we’ve certainly benefited from that idea. But you know that idea where you can just sit at a computer and make a game? That’s not really true anymore; it’s almost impossible now for a small team to make a triple-a game.

Obviously there are exceptions, but I think you’re seeing people being slotted into two camps. You’re seeing big developers, and smaller social developers, like the guys who are shooting for the moon.

Richmond believes games as detailed as Uncharted 3 simply could not be made on an indie budget.

There’s almost no in-between, and that kind of sucks. But I don’t know what you could do about it. if people are going to buy the games they feel is fun, then there is always going to be a tipping point, where people are playing a game just because everyone else is playing it.

I think that we’re very media in that we’re like other medium. We’re going through the same cycles and we’re now at the studio cycle where the big publishers control access to most of the stuff.

What’s amazing is the indie scene where people make games in their garages, or where one guy makes a million dollars, and gets huge.But you know It’s a tricky question because there are more and more kids coming into the industry straight from college, and all they’ve ever done is game design.

I think that’s a mistake. I think the most interesting game designers I know never went to school and studied game design. I think the best advice I’d ever give to somebody is to just be a student of what interests you. I mean obviously play games and study them, but there is a lot more to life.

RC: My challenge would be more specific. I’d say a big challenge is the standardisation of tools for development. More often than not, when you have artists or designers coming into a new studio, there is a long learning curve to how the studio operates.

It’s be nice to see better standardisation of production tools, as there would be much less of a learning curve in the long term, and not only teaching those people how to use the tools, but cutting development time in creating those tools.

Cogburn feels that standardisation of tools could help developers of all sizes create rich worlds.

JR: I mean in the movie industry, a camera is a camera right?

Yeah, exactly.

So just like the movie industry, it would be nice to see that same standard.

That’s the first time I’ve heard someone suggest standardisation of tools as the biggest industry challenge. It’s certainly interesting.

GC: Well yeah, coming from another studio to Naughty Dog there is a very steep learning curve (laughs).



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