Sure. My name is Neil Druckmann and I am the creative director at Naughty Dog. I'm also a writer. I live and work out of Santa Monica. Naughty Dog is located in Santa Monica.
I guess my whole life intersects with videogames. I've been in the games industry now for 12 years. All 12 of them have been at Naughty Dog and I've worn different hats throughout the years, from programmer to designer to lead designer to writer to now being creative director and have worked most recently on The Last of Us and Left Behind, the DLC for The Last of Us, and most recently Uncharted 4: A Thief's End.
Yeah. So, the the first question I have down here: Are you exhausted right now? [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] I was. I'm somewhat well rested now. Usually when we finish a project everyone is pretty burnt out. The last few months of a project can be quite grueling, but this is kind of for me the fun part of -- the pace is kind of light, you're not feeling the stress, it's early ideas for the next project.
Different people on the team like different aspects or different parts of the project. For me, I really like the blank canvas. There's something that I really enjoy there. That's where I'm at now, so that's a lot of fun.
What does the job of being a creative director at a big budget game company or studio actually entail?
That's a good question. I guess it depends where we are in production. Early on, it's working closely -- I have a directing partner, Bruce Straley, who's the game director, although we kinda just see each other as co-directors at this point. So, it's working closely with him at the pre-production, early production part to figure out, "Okay, what is this game that we're making? What is it about? What are we trying to say with this game?"
And sometimes to answer that question, we have to dive in and just start fleshing out the ideas of the game. There's a what we call the "macro," which is on the high level of, like, "Where are we going? Who are the characters that we're meeting? What are the different locations? What are different mechanics that are coming in at different parts of the game?" So we try to flesh that out as much as possible so we have a beginning, middle, and end.
Once we feel confident in that, then the next part of being a director is pitching that vision and that idea to the team. So, we'll -- now the team is so big it doesn't fit in one room but maybe we'll bring in all the leads of different departments and pitch them on the story and the experience.
Let me back up. So, part of putting that pitch together is working with concept artists. So, trying to call out the important parts or points of the story and then getting images for those whether it's locations or narrative climax or some kind of gameplay mechanic, but we really try to get as many visuals so people can in their mind close their eyes and imagine themselves playing this game and experiencing these high points of the game.
Then we will pitch it to all the leads, answer any questions they might have as much as we can at that point. Then it's more managerial stuff. It's like, "Okay, what's the makeup of the team? Is there something about the pipeline that we have to change?" Those will be big discussions early on of, "Okay, we have this idea for this game. What does this mean for tech?" So, it's meeting with programmers and saying, for example, in Uncharted 4, we realized that we're gonna have much more open levels bordering on kind of open-world scale and we didn't have the streaming tech for stuff like that. So it's like, "Okay, well, how do we even put something like that together? What is the roadmap for having the tech to making a level like this?”
Yeah. That was something I wanted to ask you about. I think Naughty Dog has a reputation to be pretty free to do whatever you want. I know you just had a game come out and I don't want to ask you a question on the eve suggesting you should have spent your time differently, but what do you feel are the limitations of the big-budget game design model?
Hmm. [Pause.] Well, what comes to mind -- and I don't really have this problem -- is if you're attracted to a certain kind of idea that on its own is niche, meaning it's not gonna have a large audience, then it's hard to justify making a big-budget game. And obviously the more niche the idea is the more risky it becomes. So, if we wanted to do -- I don't know, a horseback riding game that has no combat or no tension but it's gonna have the budget of Uncharted 4, that game is probably not gonna make its money back.
Luckily I'm drawn to certain ideas and concepts that at least for the time being happen to have a certain mass appeal and we have a track record of being successful. that I don't run necessarily into that issue. There's times where I think -- have you played Uncharted 4?
I have, yeah.
There's situations where it's like, "Okay, we're gonna have this really slow opening to establish these characters and we want to spend a big part of our budget to show mundane life in an action-adventure game." Those are things that might not pan out and on paper can look very risky that at Naughty Dog, I guess, we're pretty fortunate that Sony is hands-off creatively, where we can take those risks in a big-budget game and where I can see other teams and from anecdotes that I've heard, that producers, and executives, and marketing people would get nervous seeing a big chunk of the game being that and not being big explosions -- the stuff you imagine the average gamer being into. But I kind of like challenging what that concept is of what people are into. I think if it's compelling enough, they could be into all sorts of experiences that are not obvious mass appeal, that kind of stuff.
I think it's interesting, because in an example like Uncharted 4 -- I think it's a continuation of something you have striven for, which is relatable characters. But in Uncharted 4 it's relatable characters that are still running around and shooting guns. Can’t we be doing more in these games than that?
I have shot guns in my life. I've never shot a person. But speaking of challenging conventions, why do you think even when you're challenging conventions we're still running around shooting guns?
I think people are drawn to conflict. I think great stories are told with conflict and conflict can happen on different levels. There's this existential or external conflict where your life is in danger and guns are a quick way to represent that. You say you've shot guns but you haven't necessarily shot a person but I'm sure you have heard of stories of people getting shot and you can imagine the tension that comes from that.
And then you can have personal conflict between characters and that's the stuff we're getting more into. And then internal conflict of, "Who am I as a person? Philosophically, what drives me?" And we try with our games to hit every level of conflict.
And I think that's just part of, specifically, for Uncharted and that genre, it's part of a heritage of storytelling of taken worldwide conflict and simplifying it and stylizing it -- so it doesn't have the same weight as, let's say, real world violence. The example I like to use is Indiana Jones shoots and kills people with little remorse. But you don't feel like, "Oh man, he should have post-traumatic stress disorder having just shot that guy that had that big sword in Raiders [of the Lost Ark] or having shot and killed all those Nazis and just blew them up with an RPG and then just cracked a joke with his dad."
And you just buy into it because it is part of this simplified version of reality that just kind of pokes at those conflicts versus, like, so you have those Nazis in Indiana Jones versus the Nazis in Schindler's List, which have a very different weight and a very different tone. And I kind of compared them -- not to say we're of the degree of artistry of those films, but the difference between The Last of Us and Uncharted, I think The Last of Us, despite having infected and zombie-like creatures, the weight of the violence is closer to our reality, our world, whereas in Uncharted, it's much more stylized and I hate to use this term but it just comes to mind: comic book-y.
And it is just part of the fun romp of the history of pulp action-adventure stories.
I do get the sense that is something you want to do, to tell different type of stories or use different types of characters. What tools in the storytelling toolbox do you feel are underutilized and overutilized in videogames?
I'd say the part we were talking about before, the external conflict is over-utilized. It is kind of a quick go-to of saying, "Oh, I want to create tension, so let me have people chasing you and shooting at you and blowing stuff up." But it's kind of like eating candy and at some point you just get numb to it and it starts -- you start getting nauseous and you're just eating the same kind of candy over and over and over.
I think the stuff that's underutilized -- in a lot of ways it's harder to pull off, are those downbeats where you are moving yourself away from the external conflict and moving more into these personal, social, internal conflicts because I think there it's harder to find the gameplay, there's less heritage of gameplay in those areas, and you have to start looking into indie games or early adventure games to find examples of people exploring that space.
As for us, I think over the last two, three games we've gotten more and more confident in those areas to the point where it's interesting to look at the reaction for Uncharted 4 because there are some people who are pushing back to say, "You've gone too far. There are too many down moments in Uncharted 4. I don't have enough action. I don't have enough explosions."
And then other people would say they totally appreciated it and truly feels more of an adventure game than an action game. They're more invested in the character than they've ever been. And it's just an interesting -- I don't really have a takeaway to say, "Oh, we've done something right or we've done something wrong." That's where we are as developers. That's the stuff that's exciting us.
I think Uncharted 4 is an example of that, of our evolution as storytellers, game designers.
For people who are on the "outside" of games and who don't really pay attention to videogames, I think all they see is shouting and shooting. What big-budget games do you feel say something about what it means to be human?
[Pause.] What comes to mind is Half-Life 2. I know I'm going kind of back in time, but I still draw from that game and there's moments in Half-Life 2 -- there's more kind of awkward with the way games have evolved with playing this silent protagonist that doesn't speak. It is a little odd, I think, nowadays. But there are moments with Alyx that, to me, Alyx was kind of one of the first grounded human characters that I felt like through gameplay, just traversing the world with her and hearing her react to it, I was making a connection with. And I felt when she was sad. I was celebrating with her when we accomplished something. When I see her kind of throwing a ball to a big robot named D0g and having fun with him, it felt like a person doing it. There's moments where I forget this is a game scripted by a team of developers and stringing together a bunch of animations and editing a bunch of lines that were recorded probably at different dates. You forget all this and you just see Alyx. You just see this person.
And we are constantly striving for that. And I think people outside of games maybe don't realize the kind of personal connections that can exist in games.
Just as an anecdote, and it kind of relates to the WGA is I'm on the board of the Writer's Guild Foundation and I've been brought on as the first videogame writer to be on that board. Part of it was just to educate the other board members and show them how far games have come and all I did, really, was I brought -- they asked me to do a presentation and give an example. I brought up The Last of Us, which I don't know if you've played.
Yeah. I have.
So, I just played the first 15 minutes from the opening until Sarah dies and I turned the lights back on and I could just see people's jaws are open because they didn't realize, "Oh, you can tell this kind of story in games?" And then they started asking me questions, "Well, what other stories can you tell in games? Can you tell a nuanced political thriller? Can you tell a romantic comedy?" I'm like, "Yeah, absolutely. The only limit is your imagination and what you are drawn to and what you want to make and obviously getting the funding for it."
But if you do it right, you can connect with characters, I believe, more strongly and more powerfully than even in passive mediums like film or TV.
Are there types of stories you feel like we still don't see in videogames that you'd like to see?
That's getting harder and harder to say yes to because there might not be in big-budget games, but I think of Gone Home and I think of what a beautiful story that is about a teenage girl has grown up and finding herself and her sexual identity -- that'd be a weird statement even a few years ago, to say there's a game that was on the bestseller lists and won a bunch of awards.
[Pause.] Moreso I would say I would love to see those kinds of themes explored in big-budget games and in third-person -- even the stuff we're trying to do as action games, I hope we have an influence on that kind of stuff.
Where do you feel your games fit in in the landscape of bigger budget games?
I think -- I don't know how to answer this without tooting our own horn but I think we put story first and I think for the most part that's rare in AAA games. As much as people do that lip service, it's one thing to say, "No, we hired a big-time screenwriter from Hollywood," than to say, "We're going to construct our whole pipeline and decision-making process around the story and the characters we're gonna throw away lots of fun gameplay ideas if they don't fit the story.”
And likewise, we're gonna get rid of -- the story's gonna evolve if you can't play it. No matter how great the story is -- and The Last of Us is an example of that, where the story went through several iterations, until we landed on something and felt like, "This is not only a great story, but this is a story you can play." And now we can construct it and now everything has to match this and everything has to be about the characters.
And when we talk about levels, most of the time we're not talking around, "Okay, this level, we're gonna introduce this mechanic and what are the different fun ways we can use this mechanic?" It's more about, "When you enter Pittsburgh, this level is about building trust between Joel and Ellie and now what are the mechanics we can build and evolve that are going to better and better build that trust between these two characters because we know at the end of it, we want to maybe throw a wrench in that relationship and break that trust." There's gonna be some character payoff for all these mechanics that we're building and I think so far when people try to copy what we do, that's the element that they miss.
I remember when we did Uncharted 2 -- Uncharted 2 was kind of revolutionary in how we approach setpieces and spectacle. But I think more than that is the reason Uncharted 2 works so well is those were all tied with interesting characters that you cared about. So when you're on this big moving train and it's graphically impressive and you're enjoying the thrill ride and the adrenaline rush moreso than that, you're caring about it because at the end of the train is Chloe, this person that double-crossed you and yet you really care about her and you have these conflicted feelings towards. I think people often copy the surface part of what we do, which is the spectacle, and miss this more internal soul of those moments.
There was -- I don't know if you read, there was a Q&A with Charlie Kaufman late last year in Vulture where he was talking about his perception of TV and movie writing and how it worked before he got jobs in it. He says, "You see shit on television or in a movie and you think, How did that person get a job when they wrote that? When I was trying to get into the business, I'd see stuff on TV and it was crap, and I was like, I can write at least this well. And then you'd her that, well, these people are really brilliant, and the specs they write are amazing, but once you get into the system, you have to dumb it down. So there must be all these amazing comedy writers out there who are doing things that are not good because that's what they're paid to do. And you know what? It's really not true. There are really good comedy writers out there, but there are a shitload of people who are not, and they also work, and the stuff that you see on TV is a fair reflection of the level of skill out there, and people should know that."
So, my question is: Is the same true of writers in big-budget games, too?
I think people that don't make games have a hard time understand what a miracle it is for a game to come together, especially one of these big-budget games where you have multiple studios around the world making content and material that all has to come together.
[Laughs.] When we finished Uncharted 4, we told the team, "It's like, the fact that we just finished this game is a miracle. The fact that this thing actually came together and you can play it from beginning to end is such an impossible task. And then to go above that and actually have it make sense and then to go above that and to actually have it have some kind of emotional resonance is -- I don't even know how that happens."
I struggle with comprehending that.
[Laughs.] Can you elaborate on any parts in particular you struggle with comprehending?
Well, the thing that we talk about is having a plan is so important. That macro, that initial pitch: If that pitch works, you're walking someone through the story and they're emotionally moved from that pitch and they get what the story's about and what it's trying to convey, but then when you dive in and you're looking at a jump or a part where Sam hands Nate the rope and there has to be some brotherly, competitive nature and you're just doing so much work to just make that beat land and have a line that has a little bit of humor behind it work effectively, you lose the forest from the trees and you just have to trust that that initial plan is going to -- as long as we keep refining all these beats until they start working, we find that the whole game is working strong together.
This is a quick tangent: Alpha, for me, is the worst part of production 'cause now it's like, "You can play the whole game and see how none of it works."
There's this impossible task in front of you with varying limits of time. And then it's like, "Now, how do we make all of this work, this 17-hour monstrosity?" There's no time to sit back and look at the whole thing holistically, you just have to sort of go. That initial plan is to have faith in that and trust it and just go through the game and beat-by-beat get feedback and work with the team to try to make those beats land and do what they're supposed to do and you go through the whole game and you finish one pass. Then you go back to the beginning and you go through the whole game again and do another pass. And you go back and you just keep doing that until someone says you're out of time and you release and put it out to the public. And then you hope, because you've been on this game for years and you have no idea anymore if it works or not and people tell me, "Oh, when you finished the game you knew it was great, right? You knew it would review real well?" It was like, "No. I didn't." If the game would have reviewed -- if I would be surprised if it reviewed poorly but I wouldn't be surprised if it reviewed average because I have no concept anymore of what this game is. All I had was the faith that the initial plan would work. And I think that's what people don't understand.
They sometimes will look at a minor narrative beat -- I'll try to think of an example of something people have picked on in Uncharted 4. [Pause.]
This is a weird example but I'll use it.
There's a part at the end where Nate has to leave Elena and Sullivan and this is sometimes where you're building things in isolation of other things. So, we captured this scene where there's a vertical distance and there's a time pressure that then says Elena and Sullivan can't join Nate, so Nate has to off on his own. At the time, when we constructed that, we thought Nate wouldn't have his rope with him. Because things are sometimes done in isolation, the level afterwards had all this kind of interesting traversal with the rope. We're like, "Okay, so we have to give him the rope back." And when we focus tested that scene, they watched that scene and were like, "Oh, he has this rope but they can't climb up even though he has this?"
We were trying to justify it to ourselves. We're like, "Well, you know, you can only use the rope on these very specific icons. That's the mechanical way of using the rope." But in a narrative space and logically, it's like, "Well, he could use lower the rope for them."
And we realized this pretty late in production. So, we can't change the scene, we can't change the level afterwards. So, really, the only thing we could do is try to get your mind off of it. So, during that cutscene, if you play it now you just see Nate doesn't have the rope on his hip. And doing that, for most people, and I would say 90 percent, at least, they don't think about it. Because we took the rope off only for the cutscene and then we give it back to you right after the cutscene. But those people who do notice are like, "Oh, what the fuck? Why would you do that? Just come up with something else. Like, it's clearly a problem." It's like, "Yes, it's clearly a problem in hindsight."
But when you're producing this thing and you have to worry about 100 other moments that aren't working to a worse degree than this, all you can do really with that problem is Band-Aid it, stick it in together best you can, and move on. Otherwise, you'll be iterating on this game for a year.
No. It depends. There's so many viewpoints in media.
If I go on Metacritic or something and look at the reviews for Uncharted 4 there's, like, 100 reviews. So, you're gonna get all sorts of different opinions and perspectives and each one of those people has a different understanding of production and how the games are made and some people have a pretty deep understanding and they see those those things. Some people don't. It's interesting that now I see a lot of reviews -- I'm actually encouraged by this -- where they're critiquing the story more in-depth and they're talking about character arcs and motivations and relationships both positively and negatively towards our games, but I just like the depth of the discussion. I find that pretty new for games. Because usually it would be like, "Oh, the story was intriguing."
Or, "Great voice acting!" And that would be it and that would be next to "fun factor" or "game length" or "value." And now I'm finding it that it's like, "No, that part actually made me reflect on my life and my relationship with my wife and how my writing career has actually gotten in the way of my relationship." So, it's kind of cool that people are dissecting them in that way and I would say that the next step that I would want from game criticism -- and there's a few people that have this, but I think more people need this as they're diving into narrative deconstruction, is a better understanding of the craft of writing. Which I think you see more in film criticism, that is that language is lacking for me in some of the game criticism.
[Laughs.] Yeah. We get that sometimes, where "cinematic" is a pejorative. Whereas I see "cinematic" as you're telling a story succinctly with images.
Speaking of critics and new voices that have come up in the last couple of years, it feels very deliberate that there is more time spent with female characters in Uncharted 4. I didn't have my stopwatch out and wouldn't anyway, but it feels intentional and noticeable how story weight is distributed among everyone.
I think I have read or seen you talk about how inspiring you found Anita Sarkeesian's work. It may be hard to know where and why your decisions get made, but was this a natural extension of what you were doing anyway and in The Last of Us, or were there other influences as well?
Well, the biggest influence, more than anything by a large factor, is my daughter. Since starting The Last of Us, I had my first kid. And that is also what drew me to some of the media criticism of someone like Anita Sarkeesian. And then, you know, reading some other books about the impact that media can have on kids' self-esteem, who they look up to, who they try to emulate and realizing there's a dearth of compelling female characters in media in general but more specifically in games, the media I mostly dabble in.
I felt like, "Oh, this actually something I could have an impact on. This is something I could be more thoughtful about." So I just became really interested in, I guess, female characters and more recently just diversity in general. There's certain people in the team who are even more versed in that kind of criticism than me, one of which I mention often which is Ashley Swidowski. She's our lead character concept artist, which is kind of a great position for someone that's thinking about that stuff and she's constantly -- the way my mind works, I'll come up with a character and my initial version of a character might be of a white male. And she will challenge that and say, "Okay, what if it was a woman?" And an example of that with_Uncharted 4_ where the epilogue -- when I was writing the epilogue and thinking about it, I thought, "For production reasons, Nate will have a son. We can use the same model as the kid from the flashback sequences because then at first you'll think maybe it's another flashback sequence and I can twist it and you can realize it's Nate's son."
I'm just talking to her about these kind of stories ideas and she just kinda sat back and said, "Oh, what if it was a girl? What if he had a girl?" And I'm like, "Oh, I didn't just think about it that way. Let's take a second, let's try to imagine it. Yeah, it's kinda cool and you can project more of Elena into it and kind of -- yeah. That sounds exciting. Let's do that."
[Laughs.] This is kind of an unanswerable question but it is unusual to hear someone in the bigger budget videogame space answer a question like this. But that's a very reasonable walkthrough of, "Oh yeah, this could just be that way. I hadn't thought of that." Why do you think that's been so difficult for some portions of the videogame audience to go through that mental thought process and be like, "Oh, okay. That's fine. That doesn't actually change much, honestly."
It's hard to answer for the industry at large. I could say some of the stuff I've gone through and I could see the pitfalls, which is I have just a limited viewpoint on life based on the experience I've had. So that's why it's good to have a more diverse team or just to develop a process where you're constantly challenging your assumptions. And I think that's just good across the board to avoid cliched narrative moments or just anything to say, "Is this the most unique and original we can be? Is there something more interesting than this initial idea?"
So I think that's just a good process to have creatively for anything.
It took me time to develop that muscle or that kind of instinct. [Laughs.] And then the other thing is marketing, I find, by its very nature tends to be very risk-averse and it protects where games were. It's kind of a chicken and egg thing. Statistically, games used to be teenage boys. You would think of games, you would think of teenage boys, and if you look at marketing for games in the '90s, it's all aimed at straight teenage male boys through and through. And then, having that kind of lineage, that heritage, that when you make a game that stars a female character or has a really strong female character, then the mindset might be, "Oh, that's going to be harder to market because teenage boys don't want to play as a girl." And that's true for some of them.
As another kind of side anecdote, when we did focus testing for Uncharted 4, where we bring players in and play through the game and give feedback, we had a couple -- by the end of production, we have tested and had 200 people play through the game at various phases of its development. There were a handful of them -- guys -- that had issues with some of the narrative beats that were involving women in the story. So much so, actually, we had to ask one to leave because he had such a physical reaction, especially to the epilogue where he's playing as Cassie. He was so upset and just started cursing and I don't know what the point of that story is other than to say -- maybe just the point is you could see that and if you have the mentality that "I just need to please the focus testers," then you might lose a significant portion of the audience.
I think that is true and I think when people criticize the big-budget space there is a lot made of risk-aversion. What do you feel are the risks that bigger budget games make and maybe you can talk from some of the games you've worked on that are risks you made and you don’t get much credit for because they didn’t wind up in the final product?
Usually things that don't make it into the game for us are just something we couldn't fit due to time constraints or we realized that for pacing reasons -- like, there's a big setpiece that we cut out of Uncharted 4 and it was partially for production, just to get the game gone, but also because we looked at a sequence of three events in a row that were big setpieces and it felt like as we were looking at the schedule and we're seeing we have too much game for the amount of time that we have, what can we lose, and it's like, here we have three setpieces in a row and could easily lose this middle one, butt these other two together, and really no one will know any better until I mention it in an interview, and then people will know about it.
[Laughs.] But that would never happen.
[Laughs.] Right. So, those are the things we usually cut. I have never cut anything due to trying to avoid controversy. If anything, when I feel that instinct or that fear come on, I hang onto the idea even more. One of those is -- you might have seen when we first announced, the fact that we had a black character played by a white actress turned out to be quite controversial.
And that came to being due to a bunch of different reasons and I knew that would get a little controversial but I felt it was important to the game. The situation -- whatever reason we've ended up with that choice, that was the right choice for the game and no matter what I'm gonna hang onto it. I'm not gonna change anything due to fear. And that's something I'm proud of, that I don't operate out of fear or fear of the market and how it's going to react. I find the character compelling, I find the performance superb in what Laura [Bailey] gave it, and I think the combination of the look and the performance of that character is something I've never seen in a videogame and I was gonna fight for it. I didn't have to fight for it -- I just wasn't going to mitigate it in some way.
You're from Israel originally, right?
[Pause.] That's a very interesting question that I've never really thought about. I don't know much this applies to Uncharted, but definitely with The Last of Us, there's something about -- [Laughs.] Whatever. I was thinking about it and I don't know if this is delicate or whatever. But there's something about the way foreigners view the United States is different than how Americans view the United States.
This is true. There’s nothing divisive about alleging that.
For me, I always grew up with an admiration. I would consume so many movies and comic books and dreaming of going to Disneyland when I lived in Israel. There was a certain appreciation and a deconstruction and a love for things American that I think if you play The Last of Us with that lens you see it all over the place, like when Joel and Ellie enter Pittsburgh and Ellie's lookin' out the window at these skyscrapers? That's me when I first came to the United States and driving through Manhattan and looking up at these -- because I remember when we first arrived in the United States and we landed and first went to Long Island because we had some distant cousin or something and stayed with them. I'm looking around and seeing these suburbs and I'm like, "Yeah, I guess this is the United States." It's not what I imagined the United States to be.
And then we took a train that becomes a subway and you walk out of the subway station into Manhattan and you walk out and see these skyscrapers and there's the Statue of Liberty and I remember having this awe of, "Yes! This is more what I imagined the United States to be.”
And there's something about that that I tried to capture with The Last of Us. I guess that's the kind of most clear example. I don't know if there's anything more than that.
Yeah, I wasn't sure if there even would be anything.
This is something I know you know and people have been writing about a fair amount and I'm sure you have meetings about, which is just that budgets for bigger budget games, like, I saw earlier this year Gears of War 4 would have cost Epic $100 million.
There is an escalating cost curve that's been happening in videogames since the '80s. Is there ever concern or discussion over there? Is Naughty Dog worried about whether these games are sustainable?
[Pause.] I guess we haven't had that discussion, like some kind of existential crisis for the studio. We are aware that the budgets are ballooning and at the same time, for us, they've been more and more successful. So, it's good that those curves are lining up with each other. I think we're gonna hit some kind of diminishing -- or that curve for the cost is going to flatten I think relatively soon. Because as far as the things that cost a lot are -- well, the thing that costs the most for us are salaries for the developers in-house. So, the more developers you have, the more expensive the games are gonna be. MOCAP and the technology behind MOCAP of R&D and renting a sound stage and bringing actors onboard, I feel like for the most part that's going to flatten. I don't see it getting more expensive than what it is now. If anything, it might start getting cheaper sometime in the near future.
[Pause.] And hopefully, right, I look at sales of the PS4 and it doesn't look like consoles are dying and I think we're gonna get more and more people that accept games, that are gamers. So I think we've hit -- I'm really bad at predicting the future, by the way.
I'm not asking you to.
I feel like we've seen the worst of it, as far as, "Yeah, these games have gotten more expensive and the studios that can make this kind of game have shut down or gone more lower budget versions of these games." You're not seeing the middle-budget version anymore. But I think we've seen the worst of it. If anything, the indie games are gonna get more and more sophisticated as tools get better and cheaper.
As a quick example of that, like, Crash Bandicoot took a whole team for Naughty Dog to make over a year-plus of production. Crash Bandicoot in Uncharted 4 was one scripter.
So, it's like, games are getting harder to make and yet they're getting easier to make if you look at the games we used to make. So, Uncharted 4 right now, yeah, it's a big-budget expensive game that very few teams can make that kind of game, but in a few years I think there's gonna be a bunch of teams that can make the kind of games that we make now.
How many people made Uncharted 4? How many people were on your team and all teams?
In-house, and these are all very rough numbers, at the height of production we were 300 people. And then you can double that with all the people we worked with externally.
What do you feel are the strengths of large teams versus smaller teams?
The most obvious is the amount of game you can make. Like, when you play Uncharted 4 you're going through so many different environments and so many different looks and that takes a lot of people. A lot of people have an eye for detail. To fully sell and immerse you in when you're in Libertalia -- and there's so many details that as you're just walking by you're probably not even noticing, but you kind of have to get to that level of insane degree of detail for you to be immersed in that world because when you notice something missing, it takes you out.
And then you look at the amount of animations, and we have hours upon hours upon hours of just in-game movement from Nate, of stuff that was motion captured and put into the game. We have over three hours of cinematics in this game, so that's more than we could do internally. Yeah, just the scope is probably the first thing that comes to mind.
The fun is the chaos that it introduces, that you have to communicate a vision to so many people sometimes on different parts of the world, to make sure that all these parts are being developed by different people all come together and feel like there's a unified look and voice to this thing at the end.
I know you said you're bad at predicting the future and you hope that these escalating costs are going to level off, but have you felt that the escalating cost of production has been impacting the types of games that people are able to make in AAA?
[Pause.] If I try to just look at patterns, it seems like you're seeing fewer genres. Fewer new genres, at least, in AAA. There's a lot of sequels. Again, because they're trying to mitigate risk and it's like, "Well, if this game was successful, at the very least slapping this name on the next," and again, maybe I'm being a bit too harsh on it because we just made Uncharted 4.
[Laughs.] Yeah, I could see that. I could see how it's harder to pitch a new IP, a new kind of game, and say it's also gonna cost them a lot of money to make this new game. You're seeing it. Like, you're seeing Guerrilla Games are making Horizon. I'm super-excited for that. When we did The Last of Us, a lot of people in the industry were telling us we're crazy: We were doing a new IP at the end of a generation that's gonna come out after the next generation's already gonna be announced, and it's gonna bomb and it's gonna bomb hard. And we just felt like -- [Laughs.] I don't know what we felt like. I'm sure my bosses probably thought about it differently and more logically, but for me it was just, "Fuck it. This is a cool idea we're really excited to make. We have the go-ahead from Sony so we're just gonna go ahead and make this thing and see how it does."
And by the way, when we made Last of Us, Bruce and I thought this game would never be as successful as Uncharted. We're making something way more niche. And it turned out to be at the time the most successful game we've made.
When do you think we can break big budget games out of that cycle of shooting, looting, and running?
I don't know if you ever will. The only reason I can say that is because I look at the film industry and I say, "Okay, what are the biggest budget movies?" Let's just think of a few: Star Wars: The Force Awakens. That has a lot of shooting and fighting and killing.
[Laughs.] And it's at least the seventh sequel, yeah.
Transformers, Fast and Furious. Okay, what's the AAA Titanic? What's the AAA version of Gravity? In film there are these exceptions, but for the most part the biggest budget movies is, like, Mad Max and there's something about -- and I don't know how to articulate it, exactly, but something about stories with this external conflict that's the easiest for people to relate to and quickly jump into and escape in. As you're getting more sophisticated and more subtle -- I don't know. I hesitate on that because I don't know if that's necessarily true. I think you could lose people. You could definitely lose people if that's the only thing you have.
As great as Gone Home is, Gone Home doesn't have the numbers of Call of Duty or Uncharted. You could say that's marketing, but I see Gone Home as this more subtle, nuanced experience that -- you have to be a little more sophisticated to appreciate. The thing that I'm more interested in is how do I take this genre, and I want to draw those people that normally would not play a Gone Home or not be as interested in a game that has level of subtlety and sophistication and how do I get them to fall in love with that kind of stuff within this genre to maybe kind of educate them and get them to become more sophisticated so we can venture off? We've kind of done that with The Last of Us and Left Behind and now Uncharted 4, games that are still action and they're still thrilling on that very basic level, but within it there's a level of character-driven sophistication that I hope people are appreciating on a mass appeal.
Going forward, we can't -- it's evolving and what does it mean to be an action film? And some of my favorite action films that I can think of, they have very little action in them and actually they're very good in their restraint of how much action they're throwing on the screen. Like, Children of Men has been a huge influence. Even when I think of Gravity, that film is filled with action but I guess it's not shooting and it's not killing. Yeah, so maybe games have to find that weight of creating thrill without necessarily resorting to violence.
Someone would have to take that on and say, "That will be my goal with this game.”
There's nothing that we do during the making of the game or how can people share this -- for us, photo mode, I think it was Infamous: Second Son is the first time I've noticed it. I think a lot of people on the team took notice of it, where people were taking pictures in the game and they looked amazing and it felt like, "Oh, that's something our games could really benefit from.”
And we did that on The Last of Us: Remastered. We didn't have it on the PS3 version.
And so, yeah, going into Uncharted 4, we already knew that we were gonna have that mode and were thinking more about what kind of filters and tools could we give you to play with and with this game we added the ability to turn off characters or you could just take pictures of the environment. When it's time to get that mode, and that mode is one of the lowest priorities as far as finishing the game, which is why it was only part of our day-one patch. But when we get to it, we are more conscious that it is a big part of how people are enjoying the game and what tools within this can we give them to express themselves in some way through playing the game?
This is another odd marketing sort of question, but there was this clip I found on YouTube many years ago of Harrison Ford playing Uncharted 3, it seems, for Japanese TV. I don't know if you were involved with that at all, but what is the story behind it and who was it intended to turn the heads of?
I actually have not -- no one on the development side was involved with that. That was marketing idea and I believe that was a Japanese marketing idea, where they had some opportunity to have Harrison Ford play the game and use that as a way to market it. As far as I know, that's how that came to be. I thought it was awesome, because here's someone whose work we clearly we've admired and been inspired from and there he is sort of playing the game. He's not quite holding the controller right.
I think he's in his hotel room and it looks like he just woke up or something.
This will be my last question and it is a big shifting of gears from that and also intentionally very broad: What have videogames accomplished?
Wow. That is a very broad question.
[Pause.] I don't even know where to start because they've accomplished so much. I guess I could just ramble for a while.
First, it's almost like asking, "What has art accomplished?" [Pause.] Because you could look at it from so many avenues. From technology, videogames have been at the forefront of pushing graphics and getting people to upgrade their graphics cards and new consoles competing with each other and this console war of getting the best graphics out there and that's been -- if you think about it, such a short time from Pac-Man to now, how different games look and have evolved and it's thanks to that kind of competition. They've created careers, they've inspired people to pursue careers, myself included. They have given people -- this sounds really weird -- but they've given people hope in a form of escape when they've been at a low point in their lives and there's people that I don't know who go to many conventions, but whenever I do I always have some group of people come up to me and tell me how much The Last of Us or Uncharted has helped them at some difficult part of their life.
Ashley Johnson, who played Ellie in The Last of Us told me a story of how this girl came up to her and told her she played Left Behind and because we get to see that Ellie in that story is a lesbian, she was so connected with that character that that gave her the courage to come out to her family. I think videogames, I guess, in the simplest form have accomplished art, which is they have helped people view the world a little differently, maybe behave a little differently, maybe pursue their own passions a little differently.
I guess that's all you could ask for from any art to do.