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Interview: Naughty Dog co-president Evan Wells

Kevin Kelly

Evan Wells doesn't look like he's old enough to be co-president of Naughty Dog, does he? Even after shepherding Uncharted 2 through development, which has picked up just about every award on the planet, he still maintains his youthful vim and vigor. While we don't know what his eternal youth secret is, he did give us the inside scoop on the workings at Naughty Dog when we spoke with him at GDC.

Besides letting us know about their new studio and the hectic days just before shipping Uncharted 2, he also talks PlayStation Move development, Jak and Daxter plans (he wants to see one on the PS3), and expanding Uncharted to the PSP. Pause your game and head on through the break for the full interview.

Gallery: Naughty Dog Studios | 23 Photos

So this whole Activision and Infinity Ward thing. What was the team's reaction to that?

Well, I mean, it's not a good situation. I feel terrible for everybody involved. Jason and Vince are good friends of ours and all the guys at Infinity Ward, too. We'd done studio exchanges where we'd go and check out their stuff and they'd come and see our pipeline or our tools and tech, and talk shop, and it's been really inspirational so it's ... it was very disheartening to hear that the heads got severed off, so to speak.

It seems like the video game industry is a small industry, so when things like that happen and they're really public it kind of dragged out and everyone kind of gets disappointed.

Yeah, well I mean especially coming off of and having shipped the greatest game of all time. I mean, it's a very weird turn of events, but it seems like ... I was talking to some of the guys from Infinity Ward last night and it seems like they are landing on their feet. It's all kinda working out.

We'll see what happens at the GDCA awards tonight when there's nobody who comes from Infinity Ward to accept Best Multiplayer game, right?

Well, I mean a bunch of the guys are so I'm sure somebody. It won't be Jason, like usual.

So speaking of award shows, I'm assuming that there's a chance maybe that Uncharted might win something tonight. [Note: they did pretty well] Do you have any idea how many awards you've won at this point? That's why you had to move to a new studio, right? It was all the awards.

Wow. Uh, no I don't know how many we have won actually. It's a lot and it's very flattering. I mean, at this point we're already just looking forward. Like, "OK. Stop looking backwards. That's done. That's the past and we've got to get to work."

So, speaking of the past, Uncharted 2 is still out there. You guys have released some multiplayer DLC.


Are there any plans for either other more multiplayer DLC, or any campaign DLC here? Any way to extend that existing product? Or are you guys kind of focused on what's next?

Yeah, there's more DLC to come, and we've been busy working on that as well. And we just released the Drake's Fortune one. I guess was it about two weeks ago? We had that Heroes Skins pack and those are selling pretty well for us. And hopefully the new stuff's also going to be received just as well. And the campaign stuff ... I mean, we told our story, right? We're not going to extend the single player story any more. It came to an end, it is what it is and there's nothing to add to it. So definitely nothing on the single player side of things.

A lot of people have been asking about whether we'd have more of the cooperative objective modes that we have, the three of them, that shipped with the game. And the chances are slim on that, definitely. I mean, it's not an impossibility, but the amount of resources it takes to put that stuff together ... because it requires getting the actors in to do a light narrative, right, so we have to get mocap and stuff. So it's a much bigger ordeal to pull that off which is why we focus more on the...

Maybe that process is deceptively complicated?

Yeah. I think people discount how much effort went into the sequences. I mean, it's not like a normal co-op experience where there is no narrative. It's not just sort of throw some people in, get some AI and all that. We actually ... I'm not trying to oversell it, but there's a narrative there that actually takes a lot of work to put together.

So you've moved to a new studio?

Yeah. We just moved. We've been there for about two weeks now.

So what does a new studio do for you? What opportunities does that open up that weren't available for you guys?

Well, we were running out of space. We were bursting at the seams. When we were closing out Uncharted 2 we had people on folding tables at the ends of our pods and it was pretty ghetto. We were bringing new people in and we were like, "Okay. Here, welcome to Naughty Dog! And you get to sit on a card table." It was not the best introduction to life at Naughty Dog. So we need a place that would allow us to have the space to grow and contract with the contractors we bring in to finish out a game.

At the end of the game we had anywhere between 15 and 20 people who were just working for the last two or three months on the game. They weren't actually full time employees. We would gather in our studio because it's a much faster iteration process when we have everybody working with us. So now we have more space. We don't have to worry about that. We have a smallish mocap stage in the studio. So 10 by 10 volume. So we'll be able to do more mocap and have a faster turn out time with that stuff.

Can you have multiple teams working on different titles?

We're just focusing on one thing at a time right now. I guess that could happen. I mean, we have ... I don't know, maybe we have space for that, but we'll see. We have a theater. We built a theater in there so we can present to you guys when we've got something to show you guys or to present new games and milestones to the team.

How about other plans? Have you guys, after coming off of a game like Uncharted 2, right, massive production, hundreds of people. A lot of the developers, especially when you get to GDC, one of the things I've noticed for the last, maybe three years, developers love talking about going from big titles to small titles and getting their bearings again or having teams break off. Have you guys thought about doing PSN games? You know, smaller bite-sized games in between major projects like Uncharted 2 or whatever?

Yeah. We have talked about it. Leveraging the technology and the engine that we have, we think there's definitely some creative ideas that people have thrown out. But it's a hard thing to manage because you've got the opportunity cost, of course. Even if you have a smaller game you need to have the right leadership positions filled and those same people are the people that you want in your next big game to get it off the ground too. And then it's also more complicated now that we're doing online stuff where we've got still Uncharted 2 stuff leading forward with DLC and just patching and updating the game and refining it. So it is a lot to accomplish with our resources.

So speaking of managing, updating Uncharted 2 for multiplayer, what have you guys learned in terms of publishing and putting out multiplayer games in terms of updates, patches? So are there any lessons that you guys have learned maybe outside, talking about the post-mortem, in terms of putting out a competitive multiplayer product?

What we are going through right now is we have been trying to tweak the game and refine it to address concerns that the community had with aspects of the gameplay. And what we have come to realize is that is a very delicate thing to handle, because any change you make may make one person happy and one person upset. We are trying to balance addressing the concerns of most of the people all at once rather than just trying to address maybe the vocal minority,

And to try to figure out whether it is an actual legitimate concern or whether it is just somebody who is opposed to change is a tricky process. But the nice thing is we have got a lot of data that we can look at. And we can actually look at the players' behaviors and track changes based on that. So we don't necessarily just have to listen to the subjective things that are out there on the forums, on the blogs and stuff like that, but we can actually look at the cold hard facts.

"I guess from my standpoint, sequels are good, because it does give developers a chance to really dig in and do what they wanted to do the first time."

Any specific bits of data that you found really interesting? Something that came back that maybe you guys didn't expect but you had the numbers to back it up?

Well, I mean, I guess it is really the playing times. You know, how long the average playing time is and how certain things can affect that. If we have just released DLC or if we have just announced DLC, or if we make a change. One of the things we recently changed was the damage that you received on the hit boxes of your legs. And we could just see, sort of, as we changed that, like, the reaction online. You know, people say, "Oh my gosh. I am quitting your game. I am selling it tomorrow." And then, you know, you can go and look at the numbers, and you can say, "Well, actually, overall, there are more people playing now and for longer."

What are your thoughts on the term sequelitis and the way it has been applied to the industry?

It is interesting. I think video games...I mean obviously, just now video games, because movies obviously do sequels as well. But I feel that, at least in the game industry, it seems the sequels fare much better than movie sequels. So I feel that because of the investment in the technology that it takes to make a video game, and especially when you are talking about consoles that change every five, six, seven years, developments are really kind of hitting their stride with their second iteration. So I see sequels as a good thing, because a lot of times sequels are actually the realization of the vision of the original game, but they just didn't quite have time to put together.

I guess from a mechanical perspective, yeah. How about from a creative perspective? What do you think sequels provide there?

Personally, I feel like we have managed to, at least for Uncharted 2, I will talk about that since it is the most recent, we were able to, I think, tap into a bunch of new creative ideas and evolve the storyline, evolve the characters in a way that kept it fresh. You know, some games are less capable at doing that. I mean I can't think of a bad sequel I've played ... I've recently played Bioshock 2, Assassin's Creed 2, of course Modern Warfare 2. That's been great. So, I don't know. I guess from my standpoint, sequels are good, because it does give developers a chance to really dig in and do what they wanted to do the first time.

So, Nolan North's meteoric rise to fame is kind of on the back of Uncharted. But at this point now, you have got Nolan North involved in about 90% of all video games ever made. But even in games like Dark Void, in our review we noted it, we saw other reviews where a lot of people felt like he is playing the role of Nathan Drake. I mean they just wrote Nathan Drake into another game. They gave him a mask and a different name, but it's the same actor. I think Giant Bomb even did an award last year called The Northies where they picked the best Nolan North performance of the year. How do you guys see that? Is that something that you kind of did and it has been emulated in a lot of ways. Do you feel like it is critically stifling?

Well, first of all, for Nolan it is fantastic. I couldn't be happier. I love to see him get work and I love to see him bring home some awesome, big paychecks. That is great for his career. And then from, I guess, the imitation standpoint, it is the sincerest form of flattery, right? I mean it is great to see that people reacted so well to the character of Nathan Drake that they would want to try to capture a little piece of that for their game as well. And Dark Void, since you brought that one up, to me, I only played the demo, so I am not sure how it evolved over the course of the game, or how he did as a character. But, do you know who the development team is on that?

Airtight Games.

Airtight Games. They did Crimson Skies, so they were kind of always in that, sort of, same pulpy genre. So, I mean, I'm not sure that they necessarily even picked that up from Uncharted.

Some of it comes from Nolan himself, right? His personality kind of comes through in the characters. But, then again, it seems like the kind of thing where... I feel the more and more you see it, the more and more, maybe, it dilutes the character of Nathan Drake.

Well, he's talked to us about this before and he's an amazing character actor. He can do the most amazing voices, you wouldn't believe. And you don't even realize it's Nolan. But now, more and more, they are asking, you know, "Now, just be yourself, be yourself." And it's like, "No, I can do it like this." And, "No, no, no. Just do it straight."

"Have you heard my Irish accent? It's great."


So, you guys talked about your technology before. Obviously the technology in Uncharted 2 is pretty incredible. You've got a game, it looks better than most things on PS3, really on consoles in general. No installation. Fast load times. How do you guys work with, internally at Sony, with Sony Studios, but third-party studios for PlayStation 3 development? And do you guys license the technology, leverage it for other partners?

Well, we try to be really open with the whole game development community, but especially with the first-parties. We have a great relationship with Sony Santa Monica. They're just, like, a block away of course. So, we see them often. You know, Insomniac we're good friends with and Sucker Punch and a lot of those second parties as well. So, we do a lot of, just sharing of ... not necessarily code, directly, but definitely ideas and philosophies and production, methodologies. We try to our artists talking directly to one another so that the actual people who are doing the work are extending those ideas.

We also, at the end of Uncharted 1 and the end of Uncharted 2, we've taken all of our source code and posted it on the internal network for all of Sony's first party developers, so they can pick through it and find whatever they might find useful. So we like to show them that way as well, but we don't actually license the technology out to anybody. It's really not in a form that would work for anybody else. It's really tied to the way we have our network set-up and our studio. And if we wanted to actually make it something that anybody could use, it would require probably seven years of work of making it more modular and something that...
Speaking of Sony Santa Monica, they outsourced the PSP development of Chains of Olympus to Ready at Dawn. Would you guys partner with someone like that and do a PSP version of Uncharted?

Yeah, we definitely wouldn't ourselves. We're trying to just focus on the PS3 technology. But, yeah, I think it would be fantastic to see the game (move) onto a handheld system.

It sort of feels like he has so many stories you could tell in a smaller space.

Yeah, and each one of the episodes is sort of like a standalone thing and I think we could do it pretty easily if we can find a different partner to work with, I'd love to. Going back to the technology question, though, we do have a team at Naughty Dog called the Ice Team. And they have been working since, I don't know how long, probably five or six years on PlayStation 3 technology writing.

Is that team internal to Naughty Dog?


I did not know that. I thought it was a Sony first-party team.

Yeah, it's internal to us.

I see a lot of Ice Team credits on a lot of other first-party games.

Yeah. And then they also repackaged all those routines into the Edge libraries, which then get distributed to third-parties. So pretty much anybody developing on the PlayStation 3 is using code that was a separate development team.

How about PlayStation Move? They showed it off here. It's been in development. We saw it at E3 last year and it's been in development long before that. We've seen it as early as PlayStation 2, variations of it. The question for you would be: How long have you guys known about it, been working with it? Have you guys done any consulting with it, in terms of helping them create hardware peripheral that works for developers, that works for designers and artists?

Yeah. Sony's really good about getting the developers involved in the process, the development of all of their initiative software or hardware and getting our feedback early, showing us prototypes and different ideas that they have and directions they could go. And just listening to our feedback. So yeah, we have been able to take a look at it in its early days. I'm really happy with where it ended up. I missed the conference, the keynote here at GDC, but I caught some stuff online. And yeah, there's a bunch of really cool games that I had never even seen.

But going back to what you were saying, whether we'd ever want to do a smaller project. I think that would be a really fun way to have Naughty Dog do a downloadable game or something with PlayStation Move. It's not something that I feel we could easily incorporate ... well, we could, but I guess I would rather us build something from the ground up than trying to apply it to a game that's sort of organized, with it's controlled methodology established.

The team had a big break after Uncharted 2 shipped. But, did you guys immediately come back to work and know what you were working on or do you guys have a development process where you internally decide, "Here's what we're gonna go on to?"

Yeah, we actually are pretty bad about that, about preparing for the next project. Everybody's so just heads down and all hands on deck getting the game done, Uncharted 2 done, that the key people that would be planning the next project are critical to closing out the game. So, pretty much we wrap up, print a gold master, ship it off to Sony, and then everyone takes their vacation. We come back and now we've got to figure out what to do.

"Maybe we could go to Jak and Daxter as the next project. Maybe we stick with Uncharted [laughs]. Maybe we come up with a new IP."

It's a bunch of people just shuffling around the office. Lots of Minesweeper games.

Well, there's a couple things that are working in our favor this time around. One is that we have DLC to work on. So, a lot of people have just got back to work on that and there's the core group of developers that start planning our next project. The other thing is it's a period of development that we've decided to embrace. A lot of people are concerned about being inefficient and you've got a team of 60, 80, 100 people, whatever it is, sitting around waiting, trying to figure out what to do.

We've actually found that our team does really good in that downtime of just being self-starters and tackling problems that they've got interest in, something that they saw as a deficiency in the last game that they want to try to refine in the engine or a game-play mechanic and they just use that time to experiment. And they just pick up little pet projects. And we've found that although on paper it might look like a really inefficient time, it pays dividends on the next project when we look back. Because a lot of the greatest ideas and innovations came in that...

That is like what I asked about before when you have these huge game and people finish them and a lot of people have started a process of going and making smaller games. Bungie's an example of a huge studio that finished Halo 3 and then a bunch of them went on to do ODST, which sort of turned into this other thing. While everyone else went on to do Halo Reach. It's interesting to see how studios spend the time in between major projects and huge event games where it might be hard to fill that time.

Jak and Daxter, that's a game that really put Naughty Dog on the map. You guys have kind of grown up in, I think, multiple ways, right? In terms of studio size. In terms of the genre you're working in. Maybe even your audience. And Jak and Daxter has gone off to do its own thing. Do you guys feel any ownership of that property anymore? Do you feel any desire to return to it? Or is it, sort of, in the past for Naughty Dog and you guys have your sights set elsewhere?

Yeah, it's hard to say. It's hard to admit that would be in our past, because we definitely still have a real soft spot in the heart for the franchise. And I, in my fantasy, would love to be able to have the resources to be able to tackle that project. But, right now, Uncharted is sort of the focus of the studio for DLC. Maybe we could go to Jak and Daxter as the next project. Maybe we stick with Uncharted [laughs]. Maybe we come up with a new IP. It's tricky to be able to tackle all of those at once. Right?

We don't have the resources. So, we're gonna have to choose our battles. I'm not sure whether Jak and Daxter will win that battle. Like you were saying, though, with trying to find a partner to work with us on the PSP version of Uncharted, I think it would be a shame if there weren't a Jak and Daxter for the PS3 generation. So, if we can't find a partner for one of those, then maybe we're going to have to find a budget ourselves. [laughs]

Who does that final decision rest with on what the next project is? Is it collaborative? Is it one person's decision that, "OK. Here's what we're doing"?

Well, it's definitely a collaboration within Naughty Dog. Sony is really great about giving us a lot creative freedom and they don't really try to dictate what we do next. They definitely partner with us and are involved in the process and that decision-making process some, brainstorms, but basically they're gonna give us the creative freedom to tackle the project that we have the most passion for.

You don't have Howard Stringer banging down your door every morning, saying, "Hey! Wells! Come on! We need that game!" That's his accent, by the way.

[laughs] Yeah, no, it's a great relationship with Sony and they look to us to find what's inspiring to us and work on that.

Do you guys have any insight into the Uncharted movie? Is that something that you're consulting, or is that something you're even aware of? Are they coming to you? Is that a partnership?

No, we're working really closely with Ari Arad Productions. He checks in with us maybe every other week. But, he's keeping us up to date with the progress and just he's real great to work with and really respects and gets the franchise. It's remarkable. You know, you're always worried about partnering with somebody that doesn't quite get the essence of what makes it tick. And he definitely does. I couldn't be more excited about working with him.

Is this in the writing phase right now?

Yeah. It's just in the very early stages, there's still no date set for it. But it's moving along. So I don't think it's gonna be one of those that sort of dies on the vine and doesn't get made.

So the big question here would be staff picks for Nathan Drake. Do you guys have a board where people get to write in their pick?

It's always really hard, because, of course, we're always like, it's Nolan North. He's Nathan Drake to us. And it will be interesting to see how it gets cast. But, in our hearts, it will always be Nolan.

Did you guys see the Nathan Drake half-tuck shirt day that Justin McElroy did?


It was on Twitter. Yeah, he had everyone post photos. At the end of the day, he had a huge montage of everyone doing the half-tuck. And he got some really clever entries. It was Nathan Drake Half-Tuck Day.

That's awesome.

That's what he called it.

And we have Tim Schafer to thank for that term. That was awesome. [laughter]

I think it even trended on Twitter, so it was pretty popular. So what's one lesson, overall, that Naughty Dog took away from Uncharted 2 that's going to influence and effect and change the way the studio makes games in the future?

There are two sides. One is from the gameplay side, but I'd rather answer from the production side. And it was just the way in which we all trusted one another to work collaboratively and make the game as awesome as it could be. It was really one of those things where it was the definition of a team effort. And you just know the guy sitting next to you is going to exceed your expectations if you give him the creative freedom to go for it. And it just paid off. It really came together. And I don't think any of us really expected the game to be received the way it was. We were happy with what we were doing. We were trying to make a game that was better than the first one, but everybody pitched in, everybody worked so hard to make it and I couldn't have been more proud of them in the process.

OK. Well, congratulations on the game, of course, and good luck tonight at the GDCA Awards. I think you guys are probably going to do pretty well.

Thank you.

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