PAX 07: Joystiq interviews Sony's Sam Thompson about Uncharted

At last weekend's PAX 07, one of the biggest titles Sony was showing was the latest build of Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. We were eager to get our hands on the action platformer to see if any of those problems from E3 had been fixed, but before that we were able to talk to the Line Producer for Uncharted, Sam Thompson about his game. He talks about tweaks and fixes to the game, technical details surrounding development and whether or not they'll be supporting Home. Check out the interview below and come back in a bit for hands-on report as well.

Can you go into the tweaks that have gone into this Uncharted demo since it's showing at E3 last month?

Absolutely, one of the things we did and we looked at very closely at E3 and after the show was the targeting system. And believe it or not the targeting system is still an evolutionary process and probably going to continue until we release the game. And one of the things we are doing to focus on this is bringing in test groups and getting a lot of peoples hands on the game and listening to what they have to say about it. The development team has taken an active roll as well, into kind of tuning the system. A lot of the time, artists won't have time to play the game until they're done with their contribution to the product. But we've really been trying to get everybody's feedback as often as possible because when you're dealing with a game like this it is an evolutionary process and it takes a lot of tuning to get the targeting system to where it needs to be.

The second thing we've done is that we noticed during E3 that there was actually problems with the way the enemies were animating and people were getting a little kind of frustrated. So we decided to change the way the enemies were reacting so there is no invulnerability state when they grab at their knees or flinch after taking damage. At E3, there was a two second window where they wouldn't take any damage, so it gave people the impression that you had to pump 60 bullets into the guy to kill him.

We've also looked at the damage model of each weapon, we've tuned a number of the different aspects of the gun play model – in terms of bullet velocity, trajectory, distance and looked at how they incorporate themselves into the gameplay model with the enemies. We've got some really talented people at Naughty Dog working on tuning this on a daily basis to get it just right. I think one of the big things you'll notice is the weapons balance on the handguns and the small machine guns. In the E3 build, you'll notice that they were kind firing all all over the place, so we've tightened the firing radius and bullet spread and made it much more directed. You'll can also see that the blind fire system has been improved. We've made it much more of a quick fire than a blind fire now. In the E3 demo we noticed that the blind fire system was totally inaccurate so we figured it would be better to give the player a better sense of control. So now it's a little more directed and productive in the blind fire mode

We've also added a camera switch on the L3 button to change the camera from the left shoulder to the right shoulder. Say you're standing behind a pillar: Drake is right-handed, he's not ambidextrous like the guys from Gears of War or Resident Evil. He has a weak side and a strong side for aiming and while we were worried about the gameplay implications of that, we wanted to stay true to our character. So we added the camera switch to give the player better visibility around other side. That feature in particular has gotten a lot of great feedback so far.
We've done additional enhancements on the graphics of course. We're continually working to improve the water, added more foliage and Drake has more animations pouring in everyday. The water in particular is going along great, we're really proud of that. We've implemented a particle system that calculated the weight of the person splashing into the water and creates the proportional amount of particles from the impact. It's kind of a geeky thing that the dev team is really proud of. We have High Dynamic Range (HDR) lighting still in effect, we've done additional work on the texture quality throughout the environment. You know Naughty Dog is never satisfied with doing the bare minimum, they've got to go above and beyond every time.

Right now we're looking at a solid eight weeks of tuning and tweaking all those little things, and you're kind of seeing it in the PAX demo. One of the additions I wish had made it into this demo was destructible cover. You can no longer hide behind a wooden crate while the enemy dumps a thousand rounds into it. Now the cover will wear down and eventually be destroyed, which forces you to really mix up your strategy. We also have destructible objects as well, but its not over the top. We didn't want to have Drake destroying a lot of the architecture with the character being an antiquity aficionado and treasure hunter. He's not going to want to go in and blow up a 14th century Spanish villa, but he would say 'If that stucco wall or this one got destroyed, it's not a huge deal.' So it's kind of a give and take between gameplay and staying true to our character.

That's about all I can think of off the top of my head, like I said it's a continuing evolution with pretty much every aspect of the game continuing to get polished and tweaked leading up to release date this holiday season.
About how long is the Uncharted going to be?

It's going to be about 8-12 hours, but we're also adding a collection model. We're going to have a ton of collectibles in the game; they're going to be the type of antiquities that you'd find in that era and the sort of treasure Francis Drake would find.

Sheila Bryson (Sony PR):And that's without any load times!

Oh yeah exactly, zero load times throughout the entire game. It's a full length streaming experience. Our cinematics are all rendered via the in-game engine so the transition between the game itself and our movies is very smooth. So what you're getting is a consistent visual; what players see during the cutscenes is what they see when they're playing the game. We're also doing something we call 'in-game cinematics' where it's kind of like Gears of War or Half-life where the gameplay slows down during dialog sections of the game and you have control of your character while the person is talking.

We're really keying into is the rich and dynamic storyline, it is very Hollywood-esque and we're really proud of it now. We're trying to tell this sweeping story that is very reminiscent of National Treasure, Indiana Jones or The Mummy. And we want to make sure players get immersed in that that story as well.
You were speaking of having unlockables and things like that, are you going to have Trophies or any other kind of Home integration? Or is it still too early to tell?

It is too early to tell, but I can tell you that we are definitely considering all those options. Obviously they're all really cool things that we'd like to support, but we haven't really gone on record with any of that stuff yet.
With Sony rolling out the 0.1 version of the Home SDK to third-party developers only a month or two ago, we've heard getting Home integration up is kind of a problem right now. Initially when Home was announced you had a lot of companies saying 'Sure we'll support that this holiday!' but the holiday season is getting closer and they don't have the tools to do anything more than bare bones Home integration. And then we heard that Sony probably won't get the Trophy tools out to third-party developers for another couple months which makes holiday season Trophies sound tricky. Being a first-party company, are you more in touch with Sony's plans for Home?

It's interesting but we're really not. The one thing that Sony does for their third-party partners is make sure that first-parties don't necessarily get an unfair leg-up on them. When a new tool or SDK comes live, it comes live for everybody at the same time. Sony wants to support third-party companies as much as possible and make sure it's an even playing field.

So obviously we're facing the same challenges with Home that everybody else is. We'll devote what man hours we can to it and see what we can do. What I can say, is that from my exposure to the tool set, it's actually quite easy to work with and solutions are very easy and rapid in iterations. So it's not something you need months and months to work on, and I think that even with the window of time that they've given us we can still generate a pretty substantial amount of content in that time frame.

Another kind of random technical question; recently a developer revealed that with the PS3's 1.80 SDK release, they've included an MP3 streaming tool for custom soundtracks with 12MB footprint. It's not a huge memory demand, so I was curious if you've looked at integrating that into Uncharted or if you were more interested in keeping the thematic music to enhance the immersion.

Not really familiar with it, so I can't comment on that.

With each successive SDK release, Sony has done a fantastic job at dropping the memory demands of the OS. Is this additional memory something you can instantly make use of, or does the game need to be developed with that extra memory in mind to really benefit from it.

Oh, we instantly gain access to the additional memory whenever Sony releases a new SDK and we've been able to harness every upgrade they've given us. The more memory they give us, the happier we are. The benefit is immediately reflected in the next build, it really is easy to harness that. Memory is the biggest challenge we face as a game development community, so anytime they give us back anything it's like Christmas morning.
Uncharted is on a single-layer Blu-ray right now, correct?

At this point we haven't determined if it's going to be a single or dual-layer Blu-ray yet. We're still speculating how much space we'll need, we're not 100% sure how big it will be. But right now we're running it on a single-layer Blu-ray.

So it wouldn't fit on a DVD-9?

Right now we're at 22GB so it wouldn't really work.

Sheila Bryson (Sony PR): Not even our Gamer's Day demo would fit on a DVD-9 actually.

Yeah, the demo came in at 13GB, though it was several levels obviously. But when it comes to the finished product, we want to put in as much content as we possibly can and really take advantage of all that space we have. So we'll going to have additional stuff like documentaries, making-off videos – stuff like that. Naughty Dog has really embraced the additional storage and have gone off the deep end with the stuff they're going to include. You're going to see a lot of the character making this game with all the behind the scenes stuff.

I'm sure you're focused 100% right now on just finishing up the title, but have you thought about any future downloadable content? New missions? A new outfit for Drake?

That's all stuff we think of on a daily basis, but we have to balance it with the amount of time we have and if it makes sense with the business model. It's always something we think about, whether we do it or not is another story. I think there is potential for a lot of stuff to happen, we just have to sit down and take a look at each different option. If it's doable then certainly, I know our guys would love to do it. We are planning on some surprises I think you'll see.
Have you thought of having a pre-launch demo for Uncharted?

We have, that is one of those things we think about a lot. Right now that's something we haven't decided on what the timing of that will be or if it will come into fruition. We're focused purely on finishing the retail product right now, so if we get the resources to make a demo – we'll do it. But we right now we're more concentrated on the final product more.
Well that's the end of my questions, was there anything you wanted to add? How great it is, how much you love it?

Haha, I could certainly say all those things but it would be a little corny. I think it's a great title though and I still enjoy playing it. You don't see too many people who play the same game for two years and still enjoy playing it, but it really is a great title and I hope people enjoy it.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.