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Naughty Dog's Evan Wells reflects on the studio's evolution, and online-enabled future


Uncharted developer Naughty Dog has managed to become one of the premiere first-party development teams at PlayStation over the past fifteen years. Each consecutive release has garnered more attention for the studio, and Uncharted 2's multiple Game of the Year awards have made the studio the envy of the industry. Evan Wells recently talked with us about the benefits of working with Sony and the advantages that being a first-party studio offers.

"It's a great place to be," Wells said. "We have a great relationship with Sony, and it's wonderful to have the backing of a major company and a platform holder -- it does give us a lot of opportunity to take risks, and build some pretty massive games. But we also have the independence and the confidence from Sony to be able to drive our own creative decisions, and pursue the direction that fits our company culture the best."

The closure of development studios has become an all too common trend in the recent years -- with game budgets reaching eight-digit figures, the risks are significantly high. But Wells doesn't foresee an end of independent gaming. "I don't think it will ever swing completely one way or another. There's always going to be a mix. You see some really amazing games being developed by these first-party, publisher-owned studios. But you also see some amazing independent games, as well. I think it's always going to be a mix. I don't think it's going to become predominantly one way or another."

As technology has advanced, the Naught Dog has evolved its approach to game design. Knowing full well how rapidly technology can change, Wells emphasized that "we take things one game at a time around here." He described the early days of development on PS1 and PS2 and how emerging technology allowed them to create new kinds of games. "When we are presented a new piece of hardware, we look at what it's capable of, and then we tailor our game design to fit what it's offering. On PlayStation 1, with Crash Bandicoot -- that was in the early days of 3D when these machines were barely capable of rendering a proper 3D scene -- so we knew that we had to create a game with a very iconic character, with a big head and big eyes and a big mouth; so you can read the expression on their face. On PlayStation 2, we had a little more horsepower, so we decided we could go for something a bit more humanoid. Still an elf, still fantastic -- we didn't feel like we could go for something sort of real just yet."

It was technology that allowed the Uncharted concept to be conceived. The PS3 was a significant jump in power over its predecessor and allowed Naughty Dog to pursue a more realistic design approach. "When we saw PlayStation 3, we thought, 'Okay, wow, we can finally tackle real-world content.' And that's what sort of drove us to go for Uncharted. We wanted to challenge ourselves to do something different from the rest of the industry: They were doing characters with definable silhouettes -- giant space armor or something. We said, 'Let's strip our character down, and let's have him be a guy in a t-shirt and jeans.' So the reason why he's going to be memorable, or the extraordinary, is the character in the story we're telling."

Certainly, the Nathan Drake has resonated with players. We discussed the results of a recent PlayStation survey that pegged Nathan as the #2 favorite character of PS3 owners. But, we couldn't help but talk about Jak & Daxter, and how far it dropped on the list. When asked if he thinks Nathan Drake is a better character than the elf-like Jak and his "ottsel" companion, he responded: "I don't think it's speaking to the quality of the characters; we just haven't been able to provide the fans a new experience in a while."

Although Wells acknowledges the rabid desire for a new Jak game from fans, it doesn't seem like Naughty Dog has any plans of returning to the franchise soon. "We definitely love that universe, and that franchise. But we are making one game at a time right now. We could go back, we might go back, I'd love to go back. But right now, we haven't really announced a direction. It would be fantastic to build the team to where we could take more than one project, and really start exploring more than one franchise at a time."

It seems likely that the team is continuing work on the Uncharted franchise, considering how far along in development their next title is. When asked about adding Move and 3D support, Wells said it might be "too late" to incorporate both. Regarding Move, Wells said, "We're certainly not as ready to commit to supporting it in our future titles. If we're going to do something with it, we're going to build something from the ground up with it." The potential addition of 3D generated nearly the same response. "I, again, can't say we're totally committed to supporting it, because there's a lot of technical hurdles involved. But I sure want to. It's a really cool technology and it can make a really beautiful game even more immersive."

Even though the two technologies are big bullet points for Sony, Naughty Dog is given the freedom to pick and choose the features it wants to add to the game. "Sony is a fantastic partner to be working with. They will present us the technology they are going to be pushing hard, and give us the opportunity to be part of that campaign and that effort," Wells explained. "But, they understand that they aren't going to push technology into games where they don't belong, just to have a bullet point on the box.

We just scratched the surface of what we want to do in Uncharted 2, and are busy at work at making an even stronger online experience. - Evan Wells

They really want to make sure it's supported in a way that's going to benefit the technology effort and the game that's using it. They've been really good about that. I think there's some games that it's appropriate for, and some where it'll fall flat, and Sony recognizes that."

While the studio hasn't decided on adding Move support to its next game, it's something that Wells sees huge potential in. "I'm a big fan of motion-controlled games. It's something that I was initially hesitant to believe would really take off. I've definitely done a 180 on that, and admitted that I condemned it too quickly. Now, I think the opportunity to do some really cool and new kind of gameplay is available to all the Sony developers, and I think we're going to see some really neat games." Wells admitted skepticism over 3D as well, but it appears his concerns have disappeared. "I guess I'm always a skeptic, because I was skeptical about that one too. I thought it would be cool for awhile, but I'm not sure if it's going to totally change the way I play games. But when I started seeing games that really took advantage of it -- wow. It's amazing."

Wells was tight-lipped about what the team's next project is, but it seems certain that the next title will expand upon the online efforts of Uncharted 2. "We're extraordinarily dedicating to pursuing online features," he said, adding, "I think I feel safe in saying that going forward, there won't be another Naughty Dog title that isn't connected online in some way or another. Not necessarily always competitive multiplayer, but there's so many things you can do to build your community and to make rapid adjustments and changes on the fly based on feedback from players. We just scratched the surface of what we want to do in Uncharted 2, and are busy at work at making an even stronger online experience."

Surprised by his forthcoming nature on the studio's online ambitions, we quizzed him about the possibility of doing an online-only game. That's something the team seems uninterested in, simply because story will always be part of the team's DNA. "Story-based games are another area of the industry that we're trying to push forward and blaze new trails in. I don't think we'll ever abandon the single player experience in order to focus on the online experience. I think that you can do both very effectively."

Before wrapping up, we discussed the potential of a "PS4" and what new technology could offer the team. "The fidelity is only going to get better," he told us, when describing how the studio's pursuit of "interactive performance" would change. "The PlayStation 3 is already capable of quite a bit. But we still hope to do more with being able to read subtle expressions in our characters' faces. We do think that we're finally able to put acting between lines, so that all of the communication and acting that we're getting out of our characters and our performers isn't just through the words written on the page, but it's through the expression and subtlety of facial movement. I think that's what's going to keep getting stronger and stronger with advancing technology. You'll be able to process the subtle shifts in the focus of the eyes, or even a twitch in the face, and those things can communicate quite a bit."

This got us wondering if such advancements in technology would draw A-list Hollywood talent away from movies and into games. However, Wells take was that "you see them do it now. It's really a question of how much you're willing to pay first of all, and how into it they are. It takes a huge effort with our actors to become part of the team. We worked with them for more than a year, really, for cutscenes. We're bringing them in several times a month; it's very similar to them taking a role on a television show, where you're shooting consistently over a long period of time. We do that so that they can really learn their characters, and we can learn the actors; and we can write our scenes and use their personalities even better. They become a team member, they contribute in unbelievable ways to the overall quality of the game."

It sounds like Nolan North can be confident about his job security for awhile.

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