There is one drawback to seeing Uncharted 2's co-lead designer, Richard Lemarchand, unfurl the development process behind the most successful and most ambitious game in the studio's history. A post-mortem panel, held on Thursday afternoon at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, delved into developer Naughty Dog's pre-production process, its production pipeline and the climactic rush to a spectacular end. It also highlighted some of the studio's misjudgments, which resulted in a difficult crunch time toward the end of development.
And now, every time I play that incredible train level -- "an evil monster of a level," Lemarchand said -- for my personal enjoyment, I'll pull back the curtain and see programmers hunching over keyboards and nodding off into icy cups of coffee. Thankfully, Lemarchand painted a warmer picture, firm in his belief that the development team's intrinsic motivation to produce a character-driven blockbuster helped it overcome the final hurdles.
An important pre-production phase dominated the first six months of Uncharted 2's 22-month creation. "Messing it up often means messing up the whole project," Lemarchand noted. There were no deadlines or deliverables during this period, and the team was free to seek inspiration and consider the individual moments they wanted to explore in Drake's second outing. A single image would portend much of the game's direction: A photograph of the Tiger's Nest Monastery in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.
The Himalayan setting also gave birth to the image of protagonist Nathan Drake collapsing in the snow and then being rescued by a mysterious stranger. "The Rescuer" eventually became Tenzin, a key character that would welcome Drake into a serene and undisturbed village. When this same area became an arena and home to the world's toughest tank, an "emotional experience" would be born. The rest of the game would later be formed around these concepts and proposed sequences, or ideas that Lemarchand described as "too good to not include in the game."
After these ideas had been fleshed out with rough pre-visualization animations, positioned, shuffled and finally pinned down, a macro view of the whole game's structure was established. The extravagant set pieces triggered alarm bells early on -- Naughty Dog accurately predicted that they would be "enormously time-consuming" -- but confidence was high enough to push on into full production mode. "We did our best to hit the ground running with Uncharted 2."
However, the quick leap into the next phase blurred the lines between the end of pre-production and the start of proper production, and this would eventually escalate into a "seat-of-the-pants" design process. Naughty Dog constructed most of its levels out of simple geometry and subjected them to playtesting from "anyone that came within arm's reach." Once a level began to take shape -- literally -- artists filled in the blanks while outsourced companies created numerous 3D objects to match the level's context.
Lemarchand warned of the dangers of this approach, highlighting the game's monastery level as a point where several problems were narrowly averted (or lessened) in the nick of time. The story hadn't quite taken shape at the tail end of the adventure, but by the time a sluggish pace had made itself known, too much final art had been committed the environment. From the sound of it, Naughty Dog was not entirely satisfied with its effort to pull the plot and characters together at that point.
Depressing fact: This shirt does NOT exist in real life. Yet.
The game's iconic train level, which would later highlight nearly all of Uncharted 2's most exciting features, started out as a "headache for everyone involved." Nate's grenades become deadly boomerangs and exploded right in his finely modeled face. Enemy weapons flew off into the distance, aiming went awry and navigation systems became confused every time the train teleported. Yes, teleported. "We had to do a lot of weird stuff," Lemarchand said, only vaguely capturing how difficult it must have been to keep a man and his pursuers on top of a moving train. And that's before you bring in the helicopter.
Unsurprisingly, beating the train level turned out to be much harder for the developers than the players. But victory brought with it rewards for every aspect of the game, including visual effects, physics and animations. As the team grew fond of saying, "If it works in train, it must work everywhere."
Other problems threatened to derail Uncharted 2's intended level of quality. Nine months before launch, the framerate was deemed to be ... "pretty crap." Lemarchand thought of it as a "very serious problem," and initiated a concerted effort to bring the game up to speed (30 frames per second, to be exact). The toll on framerate wasn't unexpected -- the tech teams had nixed screen tearing, polished up lighting techniques and introduced true depth-of-field effects -- but hard to live with. "It was a ton of hard work," he said, "but it was worth it."
Also worth it: extensive playtesting. Since several complex sequences only came together very late in the game, the Naughty Dogs had to be certain that they weren't introducing any difficulty spikes.They did -- just ask the playtester who repeated the train yard shootout 27 times. Lemarchand was relieved to catch that one in a "sanity check" and have it adjusted to a less intimidating challenge.
Unfortunately, there was no controlling the difficulty of one of Uncharted 2's final struggles. The multiplayer was working (thanks to internally developed net code), the E3 demo had the press and fans leaping out of their seats, and an explosive trailer neatly encapsulated everything that was good about the game. Problem: It also encapsulated everything that was completed to satisfaction in the game at the time. Despite extensive theorizing in the pre-production phase, all those spectacular set pieces were pushing the game to the very edge of its release date.
"We didn't cut to the point where we could coast to the finish line," Lemarchand said. Long hours and a "summer of stresses" marked the final stretch of development, which did not hold time for "any kind of post-production." But there's time now to learn from the rough experience, and the company hopes to address the end-game scramble in the future by encouraging more disciplined milestones, carving out time for proper post-production and even imposing mandatory limits on the hours people can spend at the office. A responsible, dedicated developer is no good if he can't keep his eyes open.
Uncharted 2 was finally completed on August 20th, less than two months ahead of its October 13th street date. Despite the hardships, the monstrous train level and time-consuming set piece construction, the final game has been met with industry-wide acclaim. Having just moved to new offices, Naughty Dog might have to adapt their development pipeline to factor in shelf construction for all of those Game of the Year trophies.