How The Makers Of The Last Of Us Almost Spoiled Their Own Game In 2011

For two years, the developers at Naughty Dog managed to successfully keep one of the biggest secrets in gaming. So how is it that they almost spoiled their own surprise in front of millions of gamers? Ah, that's a good story. (No spoilers, I promise!)

What happened?

"We screwed up," Naughty Dog's Neil Druckmann recently told me, now that he's able to laugh about it.

Druckmann is the creative director of The Last of Us, a post-disaster survival-action game that his studio was making in secret since 2009 all the way until December 11, 2011 when it was announced during the Spike Video Game Awards. This was a game from one of the most respected video game studios on Earth, a game that dozens of people were working on, a game that somehow didn't leak to Kotaku or any other outlet. Except that it almost did and, if it happened, it would have been Naughty Dog's fault.

That's the short version.

The long version, about how Naughty Dog put a Last of Us easter egg in Uncharted 3, thought The Last of Us would be announced before Uncharted 3 came out and then... forgot that the easter egg was in there!... can now be told.

Let's go back to 2011. Let's go back to Naughty Dog's big November release of that year and take a look at this little easter egg that was posted online on December 8:

Seems subtle enough, right? Someone found a newspaper in Uncharted 3 that mentioned a fungus. Viral advertising for a mystery game called The Last of Us had been making the rounds. It seemed to involve a killer fungus. A connection! And a complication: Naughty Dog, though, was obviously a studio that only made one game at a time. Couldn't be them, right?

Here's IGN's Greg Miller back then, trying to work the same rumour and thinking the same things the rest of us were:

Got all that? Then get this exchange I had with Druckmann and The Last of Us game director Bruce Straley a couple of weeks ago. Now it can be told!

Kotaku: Can I ask — given all the secrecy behind this game — are you able to tell me the story about how it is that the easter egg or teaser for this game got put in Uncharted 3? What's the origin of that?

Neil Druckmann, creative director: [laughs] Originally we were going to announce The Last of Us at E3 of that year [so June, 2011] and then we ended up...

Kotaku: The year of the [December 2011] VGA trailer announcement...

Druckmann: Yeah. So we said, 'Okay, it would be cool. The game will be announced and then Uncharted 3 will come out afterwards. So the designer [of the November 2011-scheduled Uncharted 3] came up to us and said, 'Do you mind if I put in this Easter Egg? So after somebody played Uncharted 3, they'll be like, oh, they're talking about The Last of Us.' 'Cool.'

And then we ended up pushing when we announced it and forgot about the newspaper. We just completely forgot about it.

Kotaku: When did you remember you had it in there?

Druckmann: [laughs] When it was found. When it was discovered, a week before the VGAs.

Bruce Straley, game director: [laughs] When it was online.

Druckmann: We were in a meeting and we get a text from one of the designers saying, 'Cat's out of the bag.' We were like, what f...? We've held it this long!

Druckmann: I'm like, 'Oh no, we've been found out.'

Straley: We didn't know. What does 'cat's out of the bag' mean? We get over there and there's just this energy.

Druckmann: We walk back to the design pod, and the designer who put it in comes up to me and he's like, 'I just want you to know, you approved it! You approved it.' And I'm like, 'Approved what?' And then we went on NeoGAF or something and someone's like, 'There's the newspaper there.'

I'm like, 'Oh no, we've been found out.'

And then the awesome things is... we don't know how it happened, but everyone was like, 'It can't be Naughty Dog, because they just shipped Uncharted 3.'

Straley: 'They only have one team.'

Druckmann: 'They've got to be doing a favour for someone. It's Sony Santa Monica!'

Straley: 'It's Guerilla Games. It's got to be Guerilla Games!'

Kotaku: It's the new Killzone!

Straley: One guy posted something like, 'No guys, I think it's Naughty Dog. For real!' And everyone else is like...

Druckmann: 'Don't be an idiot! They're a one-game studio.'

Kotaku: Was that you? Was that you in there posing?

Straley: I don't have an account. Yeah, that was luck.

Kotaku: You had approved the easter egg? When the designer showed it to you, did that come flooding back to you?

Druckmann: Yeah. We forgot about it. We should have taken it out. We screwed up.

Straley: These games are so big, right? They're several hours long. Every single pixel has to be touched. Every animation is created from hand. It's overwhelming. You can't look over every detail. So this one little thing in the background, nobody's thinking about that.

Well, that's one that they wouldn't have been able to blame on us. The game was subsequently announced on December 11, shocking plenty of people. And we'll finally all be able to play the game on PS3 on June 14.


    Personally I'm getting sick of the constant secrecy in tech and gaming. It doesnt make me more interested. It doesnt make me more likely to buy your game. It just pisses me off. How does knowing that a game is in production and who is making it at an early stage make a difference to sales and experience other than the fact that

    Last edited 30/05/13 3:13 pm

      I haven't been able to quite figure that out either. My suspicion is that it has more to d with hiding the number of failed projects that occur from shareholders.

        What sense would that make here? They only make one game, and its one of the highest grossing games in history..

        not at all, the shareholders would know what projects they are working on well before the public does. That's why you see project names come up in shareholder and budget reports

          Thats not true at all. Those reports are public. Shareholders don't get any more information than we do.

      exactly. I think its a bit ego driven - wanting to watch all the speculation online.
      If anything, knowing the developer helps. I'm f***in sick of zombie/mutant games and movies, but because It's Naughty Dog, i know it will be a kickarse game

      Last edited 30/05/13 3:47 pm

        "i'm f***in sick of zombie/mutant games and movies" Really bro? I can't seem to get enough of them! We've got next to NONE good zombie fps games on ps3 and I know xbox and PC has a couple but that's it, I don't believe I keep hearing people say this but whatever. And as for movies the same thing goes there's only maybe a dozen or so really good zombie movies and that's it bro.

          Im more sick of the genre because theres a lot of shite out there. I do love Dawn of the Dead, Shaun, and the Walking Dead (s 1&2)
          Fingers crossed this game sets the standards for other games to actually follow!

          Last edited 31/05/13 10:31 am

      Actually I prefer it when studios withhold announcements as long as possible. What's the point of knowing about a game a year or two before you can play it? I don't want to know about a game until the developers are fairly certain of when it will release. I hate getting my hopes up only for a game to keep getting delayed.

      You don't want to play your cards too early and end up changing core concepts or having to lower your goals due to unforeseen restrictions.

      Additionally, there's an art form to building up hype, you don't want to risk your potential customers getting bored of a premise or product before it even comes out. Not to mention having competitors steal and improve on your idea.

      Last edited 30/05/13 8:38 pm

        This is exectly right. Just look at how many people got annoyed at the changes in Bioshock infinite from the original video/s. Keeping stuff a secret until you are absolutely ready for the public to see it is usually a better idea.

      i agree, i especially have a problem when a game company obviously leaks information to journalists and goes on saying we cannot comment and rumors and speculation, like what call of duty was doing for a couple of years.

      I prefer this approach, actually. I'm sick of games being hyped to the point where you know pretty much everything about them and have seen most/all of the coolest bits before they're even released because they've been releasing trailers every month for 12 months and every major gaming website has done 2 or 3 hands on previews etc.

      I long for the day when a game comes completely out of the blue with no hype or expectation and blows me away.

        This happened with the latest Altelier game on PSV...there was no announcement, no trailers, nothing...just popped up in the PSV store one day and had sales through the roof.

      all I want to know is what games are in development and when they're released. I don't want to know much about the story, characters, what cool stuff previewers did in a demo. Example in hand: everyone knows Fallout 4's in development. What's Bethesda going to lose by saying 'it's in development, we're aiming for a release next year'?

      It seems everyone's focused on making these big Apple style announcements and everything has to be just right when it happens.

      Quit whining. Some people tell you, some don't for a litany of reasons. Sometimes it's as simple as waiting for money for marketing, perhaps the concept is great but the execution is sloppy and they want to clean it up, perhaps, they don't even know if it will be greenlit yet and cancelled games hurt customer trust and satisfaction, perhaps they're waiting on licensing and legal issues to be cleared up before they get sued...

      I could go on but the mere fact that you complained instead of thinking about why a company doesn't give you everything you want, when you want it suggests that there's no way it'll be worth it.

      You'll find that all businesses will wait till their product is in its final stages of production before making any sort of announcement. It's more about saving face and is also a courtesy to any other companies that are involved in the deal.

      The reason why developers do it is because there is a fear that if something really good is coming out, people wont buy current games and will wait for the new one. Also creating hype for a game by being secret about it and only showing people little bits at a time is just effective marketing. It's all about business, if people know everything about a game and the hype is gone, then there probably going to be less likely to buy it. I mean look at Sega's colonial Marines, they didn't reveal too much, people assumed it would be good and bought it (even though the final product really sucked)

      Last edited 30/05/13 6:35 pm

    Bitch please...
    Bungee put a Destiny teaser in ODST.

    Before they released Halo 3, before they released Reach, before they became their own studio again, before they signed a deal with Activision, before they're game got announced through leaked court documents...

      ODST came after 3. Not chronologically, but release wise.

        Yep that's true, but it's pretty cool that they teased the title and world years before they announced their next game. I wonder if they grabbed the domain (destinythegame) at that time too, or if that would have been too much of a give away?

        I love teasers like this, the newspaper in Uncharted 3 was awesome. Pixar do it in almost all of their movies, showing the characters of their next film years in advance, usually hidden as a toy or something in the background.

        Last edited 30/05/13 4:09 pm

    Erm.....even if the Fungus led someone to think it was their next game.....Fungus.

    I don't see what the problem is, it wasn't a full on leak or anything that damaging. If anything at all came out of it, it's that people were talking about naughty dog, (and uncharted 3) which is good for them and maybe good for some more sales.

      same here. Don't know how this would "spoil" the game in any way.

    Oh wow, people might have known in November 2011 that Naughty Dog was making a game called "The Last of Us" which will be released in 2013 instead of knowing it December 2011. The game would have been ruined!

    ... or it wouldn't have made a blind bit of difference. I mean, seriously.

    A better story is the one about the Arkham City stuff that was hidden in Arkham Asylum...

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