Naughty Dog dissects Uncharted 2

GDC 2010: Co-lead game designer Richard Lemarchand maps out the many pitfalls his studio had to overcame to release 2009's award-winning action adventure.

Who Was There: Having laid out Naughty Dog's "seat of your pants" design philosophy at this year's DICE Summit, co-lead game designer Richard Lemarchand turned out at the 2010 Game Developers Conference to provide a postmortem on Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, which picked up a record five Game Developers Choice Awards tonight.

Uncharted 2 co-lead designer Richard Lemarchand.

What He Talked About: Lemarchand began his postmortem by providing a rough overview of how Naughty Dog starts each of its projects. He said that Uncharted 2's design process began by creating a short list of project goals that the team would refer back to.

Of these goals, he said the team wanted to create a fully playable version of a big summer blockbuster action adventure that kept the player in moment-to-moment control throughout the play experience. The game itself, he said, would rely on adventure romance and pulp fiction tropes, with a story that didn't take itself too seriously and explored the theme of trust and betrayal. Naughty Dog also wanted a story that was character-driven, deciding to include a larger cast of characters than the acclaimed 2007 original. These extra characters would serve as emotional satellites, revealing more about the main character, Nathan Drake.

Naughty Dog spent the first six months of Uncharted 2's 22-month development cycle on preproduction. Here, the team had no conventional deadlines, he said, with the focus placed on free-form ideas, concept art, and lots of prototyping. Out of this, they came up with ideas that they felt were too good not to include, such as the train sequence or the cliff-side monastery scene.

Of that train sequence, Lemarchand said that it was one of the first they conceived and last to be completed in the game. In fact, the sequence drove much of the technology in the game, including what he called the "dynamic object traversal system," which gave Drake the ability to more freely move and act in the game's environments.

These independent ideas were eventually cobbled together by way of an elaborate flash-card system, as certain events were arranged and rearranged along a bulletin board to achieve an ideal order. These cards ultimately led to Uncharted 2's macro design, which is like a traditional design document only far more concrete. Ideas such as swinging on free ropes, hand-over-hand free climbing, and the ability to pull out Drake's gun at any point all came out of this process.

Set-piece design was a priority to Uncharted 2's gameplay.

The preproduction phase is also when they hit upon incorporating lots of set-piece sequences. Lemarchand cautioned that though these high-intensity scenes were very rewarding for players, they were incredibly time-consuming to create. In the end, they hired highly technical scripting designers to make sure everything got done on time.

Lemarchand said that one drawback for so heavily developing the game in preproduction is that there was no real time for reflection. As a result, fairly late in the development process, the team realized that there weren't enough strong beats in the game to warrant the long gameplay. But, because they had already committed so much to the final ending, they had to make it all fit.

Once into full production, Lemarchand likened the development process to Gromit from Wallace and Gromit laying train tracks just ahead of a speeding locomotive in the Oscar-winning short The Wrong Trousers. Levels were first designed using block mesh, which let the team sketch out an experimental flow, and they simply began building out the level with art, play testing, and iterating. He said that a problem with rushing ahead like this is that they miss opportunities to create interesting scenes or elements. It can also lead to game design that could be misleading or confusing to the player, a problem Lemarchand said was prevalent in Uncharted 2.

The game designer then noted that with about nine months before launch, the team realized that Uncharted 2 suffered from serious frame-rate issues. Fixing these issues and bringing the game up to 30 frames per second became of paramount importance, and the team took it to the wire to iron it out.

One scene in particular that was exceptionally problematic for the studio was the aforementioned train sequence. "An evil monster" to create, the train sequence had 50 separate cars that all moved. This is opposed to how developers have handled it in the past, where the train itself is static and the background simply zips by.

Nathan Drake took no prisoners at tonight's GDCAs.

He said that to solve the issues with the train, they had to do a lot of "weird stuff," like teleporting the train to various positions depending on, for example, where players died. This, of course, led to a good many bugs, such as when enemies dropped a weapon, it would fly off into space, or a thrown grenade would be flung back at the player's face. All in all, shoring up these bugs helped tighten up the game.

Moving on to Uncharted 2's initially controversial multiplayer component, Lemarchand said that much of Drake's movement and abilities were simply ported over to the online arenas, and it worked well. Naughty Dog also hired a dedicated multiplayer designer, noting also that the co-op missions "may have been the point where we overextended ourselves." At the end of the day, though, Lemarchand said that the multiplayer actually helped the single-player game, because the snappiness of online play fed back into making the story mode more crisp.

Lemarchand then addressed the game's 2009 E3 demo, the first public exhibition of the game. He said that basically the only thing that had any kind of polish in that demo was what was onscreen, and turning the camera even a fraction in the wrong direction would have exposed a lot of embarrassing behind-the-curtain, in-development content. He also said that it was this showing that made the team realize just how much they had bitten off and still needed to finish.

Lemarchand said that "one last disaster" in the game's development process is that the team did not adequately allot enough time for postproduction needs. Therefore, particle artists and the like were left scrambling up until the end to reset certain effects that had been disrupted by certain late changes. In the future, he said, Naughty Dog plans to build a proper postproduction phase into the schedule.

Quote: "Not only did the game run at 30 frames per second, but also 60 miles per hour!"--Richard Lemarchand, on ironing out Uncharted 2's frame rate issues on the all-too-problematic train level.

Takeaway: Uncharted 2 proved to be an arduous undertaking that resulted in its fair share of hiccups in development. However, with its emphasis on set-piece design and character-driven gameplay, not to mention loads and loads of hard work, Naughty Dog managed to ship one of the most highly decorated games of 2009.

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Discussion

35 comments
freema
freema

This is my all-time favourite game. After much deliberation Zelda: Ocarina of Time moved down to second place. At least for now ... or until Uncharted 3 :) . Stay classy Naughty Dog!

itBit
itBit

@AnelZukic well said, and I think that the best example on an experienced studio that gets the job DONE at a limited time is Epic Games that launched a triple-A title such as GOW2 in just 1 Year of development .. now that's what I call impressive!

GWA17
GWA17

im deffinately going to get this game when i get my PS3

AnelZukic
AnelZukic

reading this makes you realize why it is a problem to make a game in 20-24 months, and that you need a big and experience studio to make it in time, but also it makes you realize that you MUST plan if you want to avoid mistakes and in this case bugs and glitches :) It was just because it is Naughty Dog that they succeeded, you really think a small studio would make it in time? I will also say that Square Enix makes a good job at planning at having long develop time :)

otaviogalileu
otaviogalileu

@gstealer Have you heard about The Last Guardian? It's from Ico Team, the ones who made Shadow of the Colossus... And it looks GREAT... look at the trailer in the GameSpot page for the game... Now about Uncharted 2... Maaan, it is one of my favorite games, ever! the first one was already great (although it didn't suck me in as much as 2) And that train sequence was just like a blockbuster!!!!! I couldn't believe! Up until that moment I didn't know current generation consoles were capable to do stuff like that...

matchpenalty11
matchpenalty11

One key component about the Uncharted series is that it does not have (or need) a single story arc to drive the entire series. Other than adding to the character background, Uncharted really had nothing to do with Uncharted 2 storywise. This allows the developers to keep making more games until the audience gets sick of it or they run out of story ideas.

tonitorsi
tonitorsi

1 of the best games ever crafted. Naughty GOD strikes again!. We are so lucky to have such extraordinary developers in this industry.

gstealer
gstealer

IMHO, Uncharted 2 was already a great ass game...I'm not a huge fan of the game, but I must admit it was, and it is a awesome game. If they wanna launch a Uncharted 3, then only 2 things can happen...it will either fail, or get the third 10/10 on the PS3. And also...they will probably push the PS3 to the max with graphics...Or maybe not, who knows? I still think it's too early for a game to push the PS3 to the max...Maybe Killzone 3? There are rumors about it....Or maybe even Shadow of The Colossus 2? DAMN, now that's a game that I would pre-order and everything! Tho...There are only rumors about the game being made...Man I can only imagine what the game would look like =OOOOO!

monson21502
monson21502

great graphics. other then that nothing really stood out. its really that simple

oajlu
oajlu

then why didnt gamespot give goty to u2?

hotbodyboy_2006
hotbodyboy_2006

Since games like Mass Effect 2 are already revolutionizing gaming, Uncharted 3 should also go about the non-linear path.

Neosword
Neosword

Very informative. I love hearing about the difficulties the teams have to overcome, because very rarely does that get conveyed in the final product (and when it does, it's not a good thing).

pete_merlin
pete_merlin

Game was good, but was dependant on set pieces if you ask me

Generic_Dude
Generic_Dude

'Has had to overcame'? Nice English, Tom.

oista
oista

I only wished that heist chapter lasted longer, that was so badass. Actually I wished the whole game lasted longer. I was upset when it was over... Bring on Uncharted 3!!

Dante200X
Dante200X

Oh right mjc, the multiplayer somehow made the game worse. That makes total sense!

Keivz_basic
Keivz_basic

Sounds like they could've used more time. I don't think this game was delayed and maybe it should have been. In the end it all worked out but their bosses should cut them some slack. No one likes a slave driver.

Waranabatokwa
Waranabatokwa

@SicklySunStorm that reminds me.. i read an article once that Santa Monica Studios received inputs from Naughty Dog in the development of God of War 3.. not really surprising since both studios are in santa monica CA.. but personally, i hope SMS kicks the ass of ND with GoW3, then ND will kick the ass of SMS with U3, (repeat cycle)..

30NIGHTCRAWLER3
30NIGHTCRAWLER3

Uncharted 2 is my favorite PS3 exclusive and game of 2009.

Kleeyook
Kleeyook

I really like UC2. I hope UC3 will at least improve stealth mechanics though. It's not really bad but MGS4 is much more realistic. I mean, how could the enemies just ignore thier ally fallen on the floor after we stealth attack them like they didn't exist?

SicklySunStorm
SicklySunStorm

They should have spoken to Santa Monica when doing that train sequence.... I'm sure with what they squeezed out of God of War III, they could have given them a master class and made the job much easier for this sequence. Not that I don't think they did a good job, lord no(!) They did an awesome job, but when you see what Santa Monica have achieved, especially with Mt Olympus sequence, it kinda makes everything else, even other PS3 titles, simply pale in comparison.

MERGATROYDER
MERGATROYDER

Uncharted 2 was easily my favorite game of 2009. I felt buying my PS3 was justified because of the quality that game produced.

Just-Adam
Just-Adam

One could only imagine what Uncharted 3 will be like :o

CTR360
CTR360

UC2 rocks best game last year easily one of the best games this gen consoles

Black_Adder_
Black_Adder_

The game was short. Multiplayer was easy...traded away month after buying... WAS WORTH EVERY PENNY PAID FOR IT!!! I'd rather play short game which really holds me to my PS3 system not allowing to go to sleep at night. Naughty dog's crew are the best. I will buy Uncharted 3 with no doubt.

snake3rules
snake3rules

RE the last sentence of the article: Ummm "one" of the most highly decorated this year ... try easily the most highly decorated this year, bar none.

da_illest101
da_illest101

i find that the first one was a ok game, but the second one blow my mind away, it's good to see that some developers don't only care about graphics. This game was amazing on every possible aspect

jm3811
jm3811

The train level is awesome, I noticed nothing wrong.

Bangerman15
Bangerman15

i know sounds like it was a pain developing lol, but look at the end result... their next game is probably gonna be even more epic

Sully28
Sully28

Wow sounds like the game had a boat load of problems through out development. Its amazing to hear this because the game came out so fresh, i cant honestly say i didnt have one bug or odd instance when playing the game.

Gamer_4_Fun
Gamer_4_Fun

Such an amazing game... makes my eyes water, lol.