Naughty Dog designer maps out Uncharted 2 development

DICE 2010: Richard Lemarchand describes the unique and potentially frightening philosophies that drive the critically acclaimed developer.

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LAS VEGAS--While many of the speakers at this year's DICE Summit are here to talk about the formal business strategies of making games, today's first presentation offered a more unconventional look at one studio's game development process. In the vividly titled presentation "How to Fly By the Seat of Your Pants Without Crapping Them," Uncharted 2 co-lead designer Richard Lemarchand talked about the philosophies and structure that make Naughty Dog unique and why their fast-and-loose development process would scare most game producers.

Uncharted 2 co-lead designer Richard Lemarchand.
Uncharted 2 co-lead designer Richard Lemarchand.

Lemarchand began by talking about the history of Naughty Dog and why the team's success has affirmed its faith in how it makes games. Since the company was founded in 1986, it has gone on to create a number of successful franchises, including Crash Bandicoot, Jak and Daxter, and Uncharted.

To date, the Santa Monica-based developer--described by Lemarchand as a "medium-sized" company of 120 employees--has sold north of 40 million games, generating well over $1 billion in sales. The studio's most recent success has come from the Uncharted franchise. By Lemarchand's math, last year's Uncharted 2: Among Thieves has been reviewed 381 separate times, garnering a "staggering" 153 perfect scores.

As a way of explaining this success, Lemarchand detailed Naughty Dog's "loosely structured" development process. He described Uncharted 2's preproduction cycle as lasting a full half-year, a time when there were no firm deadlines, milestones, or any tangible production goals. Lemarchand described this as "a very free-form time" when the whole team got together to throw around story ideas, create rough gameplay prototypes with whatever tech they had lying around, and pile up mountains of concept art.

Naughty Dog wrapped up Uncharted 2's preproduction in April 2008 with a spreadsheet called a macro design. Whereas most studios begin development with a 100-or-so-page design document, Lemarchand said that Uncharted 2's macro spreadsheet was a mere 70 rows long with "enough of a level of abstraction that you don't waste time devising details that later get changed." The final game would deviate from this macro design by only 5 to 10 percent.

Uncharted 2's development was just as free-wheeling as its protagonist, Nathan Drake.
Uncharted 2's development was just as free-wheeling as its protagonist, Nathan Drake.

However, Lemarchand was quick to point out that moving to full production didn't suddenly put the team on a tight schedule with deadlines looming over everyone's heads. The team uses the creation of levels and environments as a "backbone schedule for everything else to hang off," he said, organizing the entire development into weekly blocks of time for artists to create environments, then letting the design work fall into place after that. "What we call the micro design--that is, all the nitty-gritty, detailed design work that needs to be done to create the game--we do this work on a 'just in time' basis."

Lemarchand recognized that this sort of strategy would frighten a lot of producers, so he provided some insight into the unique corporate culture of Naughty Dog as a way of explaining why this by-the-seat-of-your-pants process works for them. This meant bringing out the old standby of industry summit presentations: corporate pillars.

Naughty Dog's first pillar is its organization. Not a single employee at the company goes by the title of producer, the management-focused role most developers use to maintain production schedules and make sure milestones are hit on a timely basis. Instead, everyone who works on the game is encouraged to take on organizational duties. "Everyone at all levels of the company works directly on building the game," he said.

Generally, this means discipline leads--design leads, programming leads, and so on--are the ones who act as impromptu producers, because their deep involvement with their work means they have the best idea of when something can be done, and they care more about making sure the work looks great than adhering to a strict schedule. However, this organizational system doesn't just mean people will only volunteer to move up in the hierarchy. Lemarchand offered up the anecdote of Naughty Dog's copresidents Evan Wells and Christophe Balestra doing work well below their positions as heads of the company. Wells, he said, did a significant amount of design work, while Balestra programmed much of the network code for the game's multiplayer features.

Environment design proved to be the backbone of Uncharted 2's development schedule.
Environment design proved to be the backbone of Uncharted 2's development schedule.

The second pillar Lemarchand discussed was Naughty Dog's focus on open communication. Everyone at the company is encouraged to talk to people outside of their discipline or above their hierarchy about whatever ideas or criticisms they might have with something about the game. "The people on the receiving end of the constructive criticism--including and perhaps especially our game designers--are obliged to take the time to listen to what their teammates have to say." This requires a willingness to accept and deal with one's own faults on a daily basis, and as a result, people without thick skin just don't succeed at Naughty Dog.

Similar to this second pillar is the third: cross-disciplinary collaboration. Lemarchand said that walking through the Naughty Dog office often results in seeing two or more people from completely different disciplines huddled around the same work station, working out certain parts of the game. Someone from the animation team working with a writer on story elements might seem odd, but it's something that Naughty Dog openly encourages, in both culture and office layout, where low desk walls mean you can see what everyone else is working on at all times.

"No one discipline could have created the collapsing hotel," said Lemarchand in reference to one of Uncharted 2's most memorable sequences. But to him, it's that open and free-wheeling nature that has led to so much of Naughty Dog's success. "I hope it all sounds very messy and chaotic, because it is," Lemarchand remarked toward the end of his presentation. "But at the end of the day, we believe that we're messy in a good way."

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