PALGN recently had a chance to meet with Evan Wells, the co-president for Naughty Dog. Evan was in Australia promoting Naughty Dog's latest title and their PlayStation 3 debut Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. Below is the first part of the interview with Evan where PALGN talks to him about Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. We also ask Evan how far Naughty Dog pushed the PlayStation 3 and find out why it is his wife is holding her bladder. Check back tomorrow for the second part of the interview and stay tuned for our updated preview impressions on Thursday.
PALGN: Firstly can you just introduce yourself and your role on Uncharted?
Evan Wells: My name is Evan Wells and I am Co-President at Naughty Dog. On Uncharted I just made sure things got done. My background is actually in game design professionally. I did game design on all the previous Naughty Dog games and so still have my finger in that side of things.
PALGN: For anyone who is not aware of Uncharted: Drake's Fortune why should they be looking out for it?
EW: Well Uncharted: Drake's Fortune is our first PlayStation 3 game and it is an action adventure game in the third person. We drew our inspiration from the classic pulp action adventures, you know back into the 1920's and 30's your old comic books and novels and television shows and movies a lot of that stuff that Indiana Jones is based on. More recently, movies like National Treasure are trying to do the same sort of thing in the modern day which is what Uncharted is, it's not a period piece, we're set in the present day. For the first time Naughty Dog is doing something in the realm of realism instead of very stylised cartoony stuff. It's an exciting new project for us, We really didn't just want to rest on our laurels and take the easy route and rehash another Jak and Daxter on the PlayStation 3, we thought here's some great new technology let's take advantage of it.
PALGN: Can you tell us a little bit about some of the characters in the game such as Nathan and Elena?
EW: Nathan Drake is the lead, he is our hero. We based him on the concept that these characters are everyman; they aren't superstars, they aren't acrobats, they aren't commandos, they aren't highly trained. They're just thrown into a situation, they find themselves above their head and they get by just through sheer tenacity, their strong will and sometimes luck and so that's Nathan Drake. A little background on him. He believes the name Drake comes from the English privateer from the 16th century Sir Francis Drake and he thinks he has some historical lineage to him. History books say Sir Francis Drake never had kids so everybody is a little skeptical of this. In this game we delve into a little bit of that, not only is he out to find his fortune in treasure hunting he is also trying to establish some lineage to Sir Francis Drake as he is sort of following the trail of clues that were left behind.
PALGN: And Elena?
EW: Elena, Elena Fisher is our heroine. She comes along, she's actually introduced right in the very first scene. She's a cable network single one man show documentary hostess. She's out their trying to make her big break, trying to get a bigger budget. She's basically trying to go around the world and discover lost treasures, solve mysteries. It's one of those types of cable television shows that i'm sure we're all familiar with. She ends up funding the outing where Drake is going to. Drake has finally located where he thinks Sir Francis Drake's coffin has been dumped overboard off the coast of Panama, this is real history, this has happened . The history books say he died of dysentery and was dumped in a lead coffin off the coast of Panama. We pick up, our hero Nathan Drake believes that this is not true, based on the fact that Sir Francis Drake had always asked that he be buried on land back in England. Even thouh he was this great respected, knighted figure in England, his crew didn't follow his wishes and just dumped him off the coast of Panama. So, Drake follows the clues, pieces some things together and ends up off the coast of Pananma being funded by Elena Fisher and they pull up the coffin and this is where our story starts, sure enough the coffin is empty.
PALGN: So when did development start on Uncharted? Was it after Jak X?
EW: Yeah, Actually that was when full production started. We rolled the team over and we had two full years of production with the entire team on it. About a year before that we had some engineers and some really early concept work, most of that year was spent going back and forth on some concepts we didn't do. But sort of laying the foundation technology for what Uncharted would become.
PALGN: And is the game finished now?
EW: We GM'd (Gold Mastered) last Friday and we're waiting for approval from Sony.
PALGN: Is there going to be a demo on the PlayStation Store?
EW: There will be a demo. We actually finished that up on the same day. It's also being tested by Sony right now and I think it will be available probably about twelve days before the Blu Ray disc is available in stores. So, it will give people a chance to try it out and hopefully they will go out to the store and buy it.
PALGN: How long will the single player campaign in Uncharted last?
EW: I think the average player will probably spend somewhere in the vicinity of ten to twelve hours on their first play through. We've got four levels of difficulty in there; easy, normal, hard and crushing for people who want to get back in there and try again. There is a lot of replayability actually to go back in and look for the secrets we've hidden throughout the game. There are 60 treasures hidden throughout the game which you've got to try and locate. We've also put into the game a medal system, so as you're playing the game if you perform special feats you'll get medals, such as getting a certain number of headshots, getting a certain number of headshots in a row, killing people, doing a special brawl combo, just lots of things along the way that will unlock the medals. The medals then contribute to your overall medal score and your medal scores then feed into our bonus system which allows all of the unlockables to be unlocked. So we've got different skins so you can play the game through as different characters, we've got different rendering modes so you can play with some effects, we've got a lot of cheats. We've got a tonne of unlockable content in terms of behind the scenes footage, interviews with Naughty Dog, some interviews with our actors and actresses that played the parts as well as seeing them in the mo cap suits. There's a lot of interesting stuff.
PALGN: Would the plan be in the future to have these unlockables converted into trophies for Home?
EW: Yes and we actually started the whole process in the hopes that it would be a part of Home. Then the delay came of course and we weren't able to tie it in at this time. But from my understandings talking with Sony they're making the process very easy to patch things like this directly into home so people can bring that directly across.
PALGN: On the subject of patching, Uncharted features rumble...
EW: It does feature rumble, it's not even patched, it's straight in. We got the libraries in time to include that with the shipped game.
PALGN: What does rumble bring to a game like Uncharted?
EW: Quite a bit actually. You realise how much you miss it once you've got it again. Even the weight of the controller feels better. All of the little things like explosions going off, firing your weapons, all that stuff is fed into the rumble controller. We actually spent a lot of time, we had a programmer dedicated for weeks on end just going through the game and finding every last little tiny touch that might benefit from using the rumble and he put it in.
PALGN: Will Uncharted take place primarily in the jungle?
EW: Yeah, that's actually something that we've been trying to change people's perceptions of because a lot of the early stuff we showed was jungle. That was the first environment we tackled, it was one of the most important environments we could tackle, simply because it is very complicated to do and a lot of our technology was based on making sure that we could do a lush environment and pull it off to the detail that we wanted to. But, it's not our only environment. Most of the game, about 75% of the game takes place on this one uncharted island and it is overcrowded with the jungle, so basically everywhere you go there will be jungle juxtaposed against other parts of the environment. But also on this island is this lost, 400 year old Spanish Colony. So, basically everything that you might imagine being in a Spanish Colony is present in our game, either flooded with water or overgrown with jungle or being completely delapatated and damaged over time. We really wanted to create, that was one of our very first ideas before we knew what we were doing at all with Uncharted, we wanted to create this juxtaposition of man made structures with organic life and seeing how those intermix. Just that feeling of unease when things aren't as they should be. You know you're used to seeing things like this but now they're not. So that's sort of a theme that we kept trying to pursue through the game.
PALGN: So there will be a large variety in the environments?
EW: You start off on the coast of Panama and then you end up in the Amazon, which is a different jungle, going through a pre incan temple. I'm sure i'm not spoiling this because it's been out on the net. You've got a derelict U Boat that you find in the Amazon, it's completely out of place and you don't know where that's going but it goes somewhere. Then you're thrust on this island where you're now coming across a bunch of the old Spanish settlements. The first piece of architecture you come across is a fort. You get to go all through the fort into the depths of the fort, into the systern, there's some really cool environments in there. You end up going to the central area of the island where the main town square was, it's been completely flooded so you've got these really eeery spooky buildings that are poking out of the water, you gotta jetski around there. You end up in a monastry, a library, in the catacombs, so there's a large variety.
PALGN: Can you tell us why Uncharted is only possible on the PlayStation 3?
EW: There are a few things. Primarily the whole experience is enabled by the use of the hard drive. If we did not have the hard drive then we could not present the game in the seamless load free way that we are. After you start until you turn the console off and go eat your lunch and come back there is not going to be another load time and you can play the game from start to finish. That was really key to us something that we established with Jak and Daxter and it keeps you immersed in the experience. As soon as you hit those load screens, as soon as you have to take that break, you may put the controller down, you may do something else we really just want to engross you in this experience. So, the hard drive really helped with that. The other thing that we've got going for us is the Blu Ray. We filled that thing up to 24 plus gigs, it was right at the end where we were literally running out of place where we were having to start pulling some stuff out, we ended up fortunately finding this unused cache of audio lines we were able to pull out to save some space so we could get everything in that we wanted to get in. I'm not going to stand here and say it would have been impossible to do on DVD but it would have been a different game, it really would have. It could have looked worse, we would have had to make concessions in terms of our compression. We would have had to spend a lot more developer resources focusing on how to get it on the disk when we could have been creating the game, making it more fun, making it more beautiful. So I'm really happy just to have that. We're still on single layer and this is our first game out of the gates. So I highly suspect that on our future games we'll even go to a double layer and we're going to even start putting more than 24-25 gigs into a single game.
The other important thing for us was the use of the Cell processor and how it enabled our animation system to work. Everybody who is working on the PlayStation 3 or the Xbox 360 gets this increase in the number of polygons they can use, they get an increase in the fact that now we've got these really cool pixel shaders and we can do these really cool materials like water and leather and put bark on trees. So you're going to get an immediate upgrade for free and you just get it with the hardware. But, what's not going to come for free is your animation and you're animation if you've got these really detailed environments it's not going to mesh. We wanted to put a lot of our engineering effort into making sure that we had an animation system that would allow, what I think are some of the most talented animators in the industry to really create and have their vision come through and be supported by the technology.
Basically, in Jak I we had somewhere in the vicinity of 300-350 animations for Jak and everyone was really happy with the fluidity of his movement and the response. In Uncharted, Drake has got more than 3500 animations and the difference is we're now taking the cell processor and we're taking say two dozen of those animations, like we've got his running animations, flinching animations, reloading animations, rolling animations, just dozens of animations all at once being layered on top of each other and then the cell processor recreates on the fly the single frame of animation that you need to be able to play the game at that moment and the fact we can just dump more and more work on that processor and its SPUs just means we can free up our CPU to do more general purpose tasks.
PALGN: So this was the first time that Naughty Dog has used motion capture?
EW: Yes, and that was a big change in direction for us. It was of course a big learning process too. We always like to pretend it was easy but it was definitely hard. We went through a lot of ordeals with that like animators being concerned because they do cartoony animation, they thought it was going to be dry. Once they saw what was capable, everyone thought wow this is a brand new challenge. That's one of the reasons we did Uncharted to begin with, we wanted to challenge ourselves and wanted to teach ourselves new techniques and different parts of game development or even cinematic development that we have never had to use before. The animators really got into it, we worked with some really great actors and we made sure that we focused heavily on being able to do some really cool stuff with the faces and making sure that we get the expression that the actors were expressing on the stage. We wanted to make sure that came across in the 3D models. So, we focused on the mouth a lot, make sure that they could speak the words and that you could really believe that they were speaking aligned. Then we realised that the mouth wasn't nearly as important as the eyes. I mean the eyes express so much in a person, humans are programmed just to look into a person's eye and you can read so much expression just through really really subtle changes and differences. I just had to check myself a few times when I was talking to our character modelists and our animators and comment on the eyelashes. It really is important if they look long then you're breaking the illusion. You pop out of it really quickly if you're not focusing on these details. We spent a lot of time on that, I can say this because I wasn't that involved in it but the story and the writing was really top notch I think and something really exceptional for a video game.
PALGN: The idea of drawing off history and adding in some fiction is a good idea for the game..
EW: Well yeah, we wanted to take the classic pulp action adventures that were traditionally you know based in a historical period and we wanted to do it modern day and we were looking for examples and there really weren't a lot and two that really came to the forefront were National Treasure and The Da Vinci Code and so we knew that we really wanted to tap into some part of history that was foggy or fuzzy or where not all the blanks were filled in, so we could start to build into that. If people really want to geek out and Google search and follow up on on some of our historical details, they're all based on fact.
PALGN: Do you think Uncharted is bridging the gap between film and games?
EW: I really think it is. I've said this a couple of times where I feel like we're kind of finally paying off what everybody was claiming they wanted to do in the 90's which was to make an interactive movie and for the last 10 or 15 years that's been considered negative, but I really feel that the graphics and the fidelity that we're getting out of these next generation consoles is far enough along that if it's done well you can immerse yourself and really feel like these are real actors and they aren't just these models being puppeteered around. All that effort we put into the eyes, the mouth and the expressions and the wrinkles and the skin and you see the muscles flex and all of that stuff I think means you are as engrossed in watching the events unfold in a video game as you would a movie. Part of what I'm using to back that up is that I brought the game home to play with my wife, or my wife watched me play basically. Her girlfriend was over and they were literally watching it like they were watching a movie. They were like "Oh, I gotta to go the bathroom" and I said "well I can pause it" and they were literally worried about missing something they were that interested in what was going on. And that was our goal and I think we accomplished it that we wanted to put you in the middle of this big budget summer blockbuster and have you really feel like you were starring in it.
PALGN: So if you had to make an estimation how much % of the power of the PlayStation 3 do you think you used?
EW: Okay well it's not going to be an exact science but it's interesting that you bring the question up because we just recently before I came here as we were wrapping up production, we did do some profiling of the performance of the PlayStation 3. As far as the Cell processor and the SPU's are concerned we were only using about 1/3 to 1/2 of the SPU's at one time and so there is still quite a bit more we can do, I was also comparing where we're at at the end of development for Uncharted compared to where we were at the end of development for Jak and Daxter and we've been able to do so much more with the PlayStation 3 and there's still so much more on top potential. I really am excited about what we'll be able to do 2-3 games down the road, I mean just looking back on the difference between Jak I and Jak III is amazing.
Continue to part two.
PALGN would like to thank Evan Wells for his time. We'd also like to thank Rebecca Rice and Adrian Christie for their hard work organising this interview. PALGN flew up to Queensland courtesy of Sony.