The Making of Uncharted 3 – Part 1 [Interview]

31 Oct 2011  by   Paul Younger
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It’s a rarity, but some games take you by storm. Honoured with only the third 10/10 in IncGamers’ history, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception is one of those games. It’s a masterclass in cinematic videogame creation, a style that is often confused and fudged by developers as they try to make something too close to a movie.
The genius of developers Naughty Dog is that they create games that are cinematic without forgetting that gameplay should be the first and foremost priority. Rather than being a slave to cinematic techniques, they use them to bolster and improve the gameplay.
It’s this, among other things, that we discuss with Uncharted 3 game director Justin Richmond and Naughty Dog community manager Arne Meyer.
*Part 2 of this interview can be found here.
Our Uncharted 3 review is here.
Warning: Some elements of this interview contain minor spoilers, these sections are clearly marked below.  

IncGamers: Some people might say that cinematic storytelling and heavy characterisation gets in the way of gameplay. What would you say to that?
Justin Richmond: I would say, play our games.
Seriously, though, that is a problem that we face ourselves. Every time we do a story beat, we could take away player control and build a set-scene. That’s a constant tension within the story and we try very hard to make sure the gameplay blends with the cinematics in a way that feels natural.
When you make this style of game that’s probably the biggest pitfall, pushing story in an unnatural way. We very much believe that you should be playing those big moments; that you should be in control.  
One of the arguments that’s always thrown at us is “Well, what about Half-Life? That doesn’t have cutscenes.” Yeah, but they lock you in a room and then talk at you for three minutes… it’s basically a cutscene. We’d rather take control of the camera and present the action and info in a really interesting way. Don’t get me wrong, I love Half-Life but I find it distracting that I can use the gravity gun to shoot cans at some guy’s head when he’s talking to me.
It’s just our style, though. That’s how we like to do things.
IG: How do you go about designing that at the base level? Is the gameplay defined by the story, or is it the other way around?
Arne Meyer: It’s both. For example, the cargo plane and cruise ship sequences were some of the first that we did because we think they really resonate as gameplay experiences. Then we tell Amy [Amy Henig, creative director at Naughty Dog] that we want to include them and she’ll figure a way of including them in the story. Then, on the other hand, Amy will come to us with essential story elements and we have to figure a way to wrap them up in gameplay.
That’s one of the good things about the way our studio works, we’re very fluid and very collaborative. Amy writes the script over the course of the development; we don’t start with a 200-page script and then struggle to fit everything into the game. There’s a lot of give and take over the course of the development.

IG: What part does level design play? Uncharted 3’s levels don’t look as though they’ve been stitched together from pre-made ‘blocks’, as they so often are in other games.
JR: No, that’s not a technique that we use. There’s two ways to work, 1) build everything custom for every level or, 2) build blocks that level designers can fit together.
What we do is we lay out a template of a level without any art assets attached to it – essentially, it’s a grey mesh. Who designs the level will affect the detail of that part because some of our level designers used to be artists, so those guys tend to do very complicated layouts. Then we build the art around that.
But what the artists are great at is identifying pieces that they can reuse. So, they might use a wall, a window frame or a piece of floor over and over again before painting new textures over it to make it look different. Our texture artists go in and paint ‘blends’ over almost everything so it looks really integrated into the area.   
The downside to that approach is that changing something becomes very difficult. Building a custom path like that means it has to be right, so we’re very careful about playtesting and making sure it works. If there’s one thing Naughty Dog are known for, it’s for doing everything custom. Our engine is built to allow us to churn out that kind of complicated geometry.
IG: Drake is accompanied by a companion for much of the campaign, whether it’s Sully or someone else. Did you think about implementing full campaign co-op?
JR: The reason we haven’t included it so far is that, as far as the story is concerned, we want to be with Drake all of the time. We want to tell Drake’s story and we want to make players feel a certain way.
Co-op, in general, tends to mess that up; it gives a totally different vibe. You know, it’s hard to tell a serious story when some other player is constantly chucking grenades at your feet. We’ve always had a story to tell and a way that we want to tell it. It is something that I’m personally interested in, and we’re not ruling it out for the future, but for these games so far we haven’t really wanted to do it.
IG: And how does it feel to be imitated? From what we’ve seen of the new Tomb Raider so far, it’s much closer to what we might expect from an Uncharted game.
JR: It’s an honour, but at the end of the day I just hope that those guys make an awesome game. The reason we make these games is so that we can play them. I’m really interested to play the new Tomb Raider…, we’ve always been very open as a studio, go to GDC [Games Developer’s Conference] and there’ll be 15 talks about exactly how we made the game. We don’t hide that stuff.
And there’s a reason for that, we want to bring the whole industry up and raise the level of the games being made. I think the Tomb Raider guys are doing what they want to do and they’ve made some bold choices with the way they’ve approached the design of Lara. I haven’t played it but I hope it comes out really amazing.
AM: They might have learned stuff from us but I’m sure there’s stuff we’ll learn from them, too. That’s the whole point about sharing and playing other people’s games.

IG: What about sharing between Sony’s internal studios? How much of that goes on?
 It’s not just internal studios, we’ll share with everybody! Guerilla (Killzone 3), gave us some screen blending stuff that we didn’t have and we worked on some of the lighting stuff with them as well – they use an engine that works in a similar way to ours.
We talk to Bungie (Halo), Respawn (studio set up by former Infinity Ward employees), anyone willing. We call them up and ask for pointers on sorting out a problem we might have, or they might call us up. Nobody wants to remake the wheel if you know somebody has already figured it out, so it makes sense to share. You still need to figure out how to apply things to your own game, though.
IG: [*Possible spoilers*] And the desert sequence… it can’t have been easy to create an interesting gameplay experience in such a vast, empty environment.
JR: Yeah, you’re right. It wasn’t easy. From the very beginning of the project we knew that that sequence was going to be a big deal. We also knew, almost from the beginning, that we were going to do the cargo plane bit and that it was going to crash. That was our first real trailer actually…
We wanted to do a lost in a desert sequence and to make you feel as though you’re in that moment with Drake as he’s slowly losing it after days and days alone and without water. So, we figured out the tech we would need – like him getting dusty and the footprints – and then we sat down and designed each day individually. Then it was Amy that decided we should use the T.S. Elliot quote over the top of Katherine Marlowe’s voiceover.
It worked out really well. But it was Kurt Margenau (co-lead designer on Uncharted 3) that put that whole sequence together, he’s a really smart guy and he just owned it. I remember him setting up the helicopter sequence and I was like “holy shit, this is awesome.” At first we were worried that players were going to be bored, but Kurt set it up in a way that was so epic that it worked.
Still, it was a difficult playtest because players would fall off the dune and try to climb the helicopter. So we had to build a system thing to allow players to walk along the edge of the dune without falling off. We had to subtly take away control like that, but it feels better for the player. Also, the areas look amazing because they’re quite small and the artist were able to spend hours and hours refining the look – that shot of the dune, for example, is a huge money shot for the game. 
*Continue to The Making of Uncharted 3 – Part 2.

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