Today Uncharted 3 is released in Australia, but it could have been so different. As a high end, prestige development team, Naughty Dog has always had high-end expectations for its work and the end product. This time round, things were even trickier than usual, resulting in a crunch period that Uncharted 3's Creative Director described as the most difficult period she's ever endured in the games industry. We spoke to Keith Guerrette, Lead FX Artist at Naughty Dog about this difficult time in development.
“It was pretty brutal this time around,” says cinematics animation lead Josh Scherr. “I mean, there’s always crunch. There’re always people putting in extra hours.
“But this time around, just because of the scope and the ambition of the game – even after we had gone back and shortened some things, trimmed some other things – there was just still a lot to do, in the amount of time we had to do it."
Josh Scherr is talking about Uncharted 3, and the 'crunch'. With a development team like Naughty Dog, who is committed to continually pushing the technical boundaries of its own internal tech, some sort of last minute teething problems are typical. With Uncharted 3, however, a stringent desire to outdo its previous work on Uncharted 2 combined with its commitment to a flat corporate structure left the team facing its greatest challenge yet.
Keith Guerrette is the lead FX artist at Naughty Dog. Currently he's on holiday, recovering after what was one of the most intense periods of work in his professional life. We spoke to him about Uncharted 3, the development process and the pros and cons of Naughty Dog's unique corporate structure.
"I‘m the lead FX digital effects artist on Uncharted 3," says Keith. "It’s my team’s job to help create all the details featured in Uncharted's massive set pieces. We’re the one’s pushing the technology, but we’re also the ones implementing the art for the particle effects.
"It’s our job to make sure we cover the world with life, to make sure every set piece has the pop it needs. We’re like the frosting on the cake."
By his own admission, getting to the finish line with Uncharted 3 was a super human effort on behalf of himself and the entire team. But the rewards, to an extent, balance the negatives.
"For me it’s all about the puzzle," he claims. "The objective is always in mind, we want to make things as realistic as possible, but how to get there is such a challenge. Doing it within the restraints of the game engine and also making it function on the PS3 can be difficult, but when you have something that meets those requirements, it is really, really rewarding.
"There is this crazy phase of utter depression when you can’t make things works and then complete disbelief and excitement — giddy, childish excitement — when it finally starts to work and you can see the potential. I love it."
But then there's the crunch, that intense period of time when developers sacrifice their time and their lives to get the finished product out of the door on schedule. It's a phenomenon that has attracted negative attention in the press, as overworked staff members move perilously towards burn out, but according to Keith, the team at Naughty Dog blames themselves for the difficulties faced towards the end of Uncharted's development.
"At Naughty Dog whenever we do crunch, it’s always our fault," he claims.
"We don’t have project managers, we don’t have co-ordinators — there’s no management in house, Naughty Dog has a very flat structure. So this game definitely killed us, but the entire time we were sitting there saying ‘this is our fault’. We’re the ones that came up with this. We were the ones that wanted to push ourselves.
"And we did this because, well, we didn’t expect Uncharted 2 to be as big as it was. We knew we had this incredible game, but we didn’t think it would take off like it did. So when it came time for Uncharted 3 we just sat down and thought big. We tried to improve in every possible area, so from the start we were just passionate about making this massive game, and as the deadline started to come closer and closer we began to realise that we had such a huge chunk of game left to do and we had a huge job ahead of us."
FX are typically one of the last part of the puzzle in the production process, so in a sense Keith was used to the crunch. This time, however, the entire studio was under the same pressure.
"It was across our whole studio floor," he explains. "My department, we’re basically the last part of the production pipeline apart from audio so there is always going to be a crunch for me at the end. It’s something we’re trying to fix, but a crunch for my department is not that unusual. For this game almost the entire development studio was involved right until the end."
We wonder what the studio atmosphere is like during crunch — it appears to easily be the most intense period of development, but it's also the period in which most problems are being solved. The game goes through the most rapid improvements during that time. We ask Keith — how does that mixture of pressure and reward affect staff?
"There are definitely times when we get passionate in conversation and have debates about the direction," he replies. "It can get pretty fiery, but we’re fine because we don’t have an ego about it. We’re able to step back and see the other person’s opinion. At some point someone might make a scene, but we actually resolve our arguments by doing both and seeing which one works.
Passion often gets the better of people, but it's also the reason why Naughty Dog is able to achieve their goals.
"Every single person who comes to Naughty Dog is passionate about what we’re doing. Because we don’t have management we don’t have anyone telling us we have to work on that, or we have to work on this, because it’s my decision to do the things that I do — we’re very involved.
"But at the same time, because of the way we approach things, we can’t be egotistical about it. So anyone can approach me and tell me it’s not good enough — I don’t take it as an insult. Emotionally I really do take that as a compliment that someone’s come over to help me be as good as I can possibly be. We’re trying to achieve the same things together."
Naughty Dog's flat corporate structure makes it a far more flexible entity than most other AAA studios — less squabbles, less politics — but there are negatives.
"One of the beautiful things about Naughty Dog is that we have a very fast iteration time," Keith explains. "So when we sit down to try something, we can get it down in a couple of days and then we can sit down and say, you know what, this was a waste of time! Or we realise that this is almost there and we need to try something else.
"Our iteration process is so fast because we don’t have politics," he continues. "I think it’s also because we’ve built the engine completely in house. The people who are working trying to iterate it are the ones who have the deepest knowledge of the engine and the tools. If my basic tools as an artist don’t do what I need them to, I just need to walk five steps and talk to the person who made those tools. And then an hour later they’ve checked it in and I can do what I wanted to do."
That's the major advantages of a flat development structure — the ability to act rapidly.
"My role as a lead is really just a form of communication," claims Keith. "It just means that when we have meetings I can go and speak for my team. That way there aren't 150 people in the one meeting. It makes communication a little easier. I don’t need to supervise my team. That’s the great thing about Naughty Dog — I trust absolutely everyone. If I go over there and make a suggestion, I can walk away without a worry because I know 100% that they’re as motivated as me — and they’ll get it done."
Naughty Dog's structure allows for flexibility and trust, but Keith openly wonders if the team's lack of a production manager could have been responsible for Uncharted 3's incredibly intense crunch period.
And there's also a secondary issue — as the team grows in order to navigate the challenges of big budget development, how do they maintain quality without the need for more defined roles?
"Our flat structure has a lot of pros and cons," claims Keith. "The cons are what you talked about earlier — we don’t have anyone that’s overseeing the entire production. We go gangbusters, we go to town, but this time it was a really tough production schedule for us.
"We’re kinda going through some growing pains — our team is expanding, it is a hard to be as strict with the people we’re hiring, so we have got a couple of people that have come in and they don’t quite fit that same corporate structure that we have at Naughty Dog. Sometimes, especially with the artists, there are egos and they’ll get a little angrier than we would like.
"But I think that’s the process of growing a company. Naughty Dog has done a great job so far — it started off with three employees and we just shipped a game with 150 employees, but we still manage to keep almost the same garage company feel. I think that’s important, but there are some negatives that we’re very well aware of."
Keith heads back to Naughty Dog in a week, to start work on a new title, but he's proud to admit that he has absolutely no idea what that game will be.
"I’m happy to tell you that we don’t know what we're going to do next," he laughs. "The Uncharted team is on vacation, they’ll probably be getting back now. I start back in a week, and we’re going to start talking about what it is we want to do. Sony gives us the freedom to come up with our own projects and game ideas. That’s one of the most powerful things about being at Naughty Dog, our publisher isn’t injecting its opinions constantly — they trust us.
"Sony obviously loves the Uncharted franchise, and to be honest we still have some really cool ideas that we want to try in the Uncharted world, but we definitely want to make sure that whatever we do ends up being something completely new and challenging for us personally. We want to keep our passion going.
"No matter what we do we’re going to put a tremendous amount of passion, blood, sweat and tears into it. We want to make sure it’s something that we care about and hopefully at the end that means it’ll be a game worth playing."