ANGELES — Co-presidents. Co-directors. Co-animation
leads. Co-art directors.
video game-maker Naughty Dog, it doesn’t take long to
notice that co-responsibilities are commonplace. Pitting
bosses against each other to decide on characters,
gameplay and script is a key strategy the Los
Angeles-area firm credits for its succession of highly
latest, "Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End," topped
the charts in several countries with 2.7 million copies
sold worldwide during its first week on the market last
month. The $60 Sony Playstation 4 exclusive culminates
Naughty Dog’s series featuring fictional treasure
hunter Nathan Drake. It’s like a "playable summer
blockbuster" movie, in the company’s words.
Dog has long cultivated an unusually free-flowing
development process that empowers anyone at any stage to
share their ideas — and defend them. Its dogmatic
emphasis on uniting story designers and technology
makers is the sort of multidisciplinary collaboration
that’s all the buzz at business schools and
may dismiss the system as unreplicable in a company with
thousands of employees and dozens of projects, compared
with the 200 workers at Naughty Dog focused on one game.
But Naughty Dog Co-President Evan Wells insists it can
scale, offering the "Uncharted 4" journey as a
you get a single person having too much authority, you
get surrounded by yes-men or not enough people
challenging you," Wells said. "You’re going
to get better results when you have more challenges to
LeMarchand, who retired from Naughty Dog in 2012 and
became an associate professor in the USC Games program,
said Naughty Dog’s "magic" emanates from the
mind-meld of technical and creative workers.
Dog’s structure dates to its founding in 1984, when
technology was simple enough for two people alone to
create a stellar game. In Naughty Dog’s case, Jason
Rubin led design for games such as "Crash
Bandicoot" and Andy Gavin handled software
programming. They chose Wells to take over a decade ago,
but he immediately made an equal out of Christophe
Balestra, a tech guru.
the latest "Uncharted," the co-presidents
delegated day-to-day gamemaking duties to another pair,
storymaster Neil Druckmann and technology overseer Bruce
company, which is a unit of Sony Interactive
Entertainment America, didn’t produce a complete
script from the beginning. Druckmann’s teams offer a
core idea — "obsession" is the one for
"Uncharted 4" — that guides decisions.
Dog wanted to explore whether its adrenaline-fueled
protagonist Drake could really give up adventure to
settle down with his family. Is there any way he could
preserve some of that treasure-seeking impulse? What, if
anything, could tip him away from family?
questions inspired ideas for characters, locations and
gameplay elements. The story designers scribbled the
plot points on index cards arranged on a cork board. The
idea was to have a foundation, but one that commanded
less attachment than a hulking script book, Druckmann
the action-adventure shooter "Uncharted 4,"
discussion included having wide-open terrains that gave
players more choice. They wanted smarter enemies that
could slow Drake. They also sought to highlight nuanced
movements and facial expressions that could convey ideas
translate the index cards into sketches. An
"Uncharted 4" drawing showed a strong
emotional bond between Drake and his brother —
inspiring Druckmann to better incorporate the
relationship in the index-card script.
by step, the informal chatter and emails evolved into
specific jobs on Tasker, an internally developed
shrugs his shoulders at new hires who try to author
comprehensive memos detailing far-off plot points and
they’ll learn," he says. "Documentation can
become stale very quickly."
belief means Naughty Dog doesn’t lean on producers for
organization. Many game companies have a producer for
every 10 developers, Wells said. They call meetings and
centralize planning, acting as guardians of developers’
wants everyone to track their own responsibilities.
become a crutch, where it’s someone else’s job to
make that communication," he said. "We want
people to get out of their chair and get the help they
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producers might prevent the frustration caused when some
people are left out of conversations, Naughty Dog has
found that the speed gained from not having those middle
managers more than makes up for it.
if you’re off course by 45 degrees, you’re still
moving faster forward than if you’re constantly
bogging everybody down and affecting their
workflow," Wells said.
the closest thing to a master document beyond the index
cards is a 90-minute video of a Powerpoint presentation
Straley and Druckmann gave to the company when pitching
the project. New employees are instructed to watch the
video to get up to speed.
game companies leave the writing until after the
gameplay is built, but writers and developers get
started at the same time at Naughty Dog. Rhianna
Pratchett, lead writer for "Tomb Raider"
games, said calling in writers too late turns them into
Dog pays a premium to keep writers in-house and working
from day one. But Wells says they achieve a better
harmony with the graphics because they play the game and
constantly fine tune the story.
same goes for actors, whose motions and voices are used
in the game. They record, play the game and re-record.
They’ll do dozens of takes to marry the tone with the
action, coming to fiercely embody their characters.
the setup increases costs — but Naughty Dog has
home-field advantage. Game companies outside the region
usually have only a couple of weeks in Los Angeles for
filming. "Uncharted 4" took two years to film,
with actors in the studio no fewer than five days a
month, Wells said.
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and Druckmann have adjoining desks. They overhear what
the other is working on, and talk to each other to
resolve any story versus gameplay conflicts before
undertaking work on major scenes.
Druckmann locks himself up in a conference room from
time to time to crank out scripts, or he’s stuck on a
motion-capture set. Because they don’t schedule formal
meetings or centralize planning, a week of separation
can cause divergent actions.
mismatch in "Uncharted 4" involved a scene
where Drake is sneaking into new territory. Druckmann
had anticipated Drake being unchallenged. Straley’s
team had guards.
got into a heated discussion: Can the story shift? What
will it affect? A solitary experience made most sense,
so they removed the guards. That required redoing art
and code, wasting three weeks of part-time work for
three people. They bit the cost.
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mix-up came when actors in one scene were oriented in
the opposite direction of what software programmers had
anticipated. Naughty Dog was willing to reshoot, but
video editing software managed to flip the scene without
too much disturbance.
every inch of the game also leads to adjustments. A
scene where Drake walks through a crowded gala didn’t
teach players anything new about Drake’s character,
Druckmann told Straley. So Straley’s team added a new
challenge for players: Drake, to prove to his brother
his tough-guy bonafides, decides to try to pickpocket a
passerby faster than his brother can.
back and forth between teams and avoiding strong-armed
planning isn’t without downsides. Emmett Shear, chief
executive of video app Twitch Inc., told employees in a
corporate values memo publicized last month that though
"the enemy of speed is coordination," the flip
side is that "the enemy of good decision making is
ignorance … of the knowledge of others."
can get out of hand. Mistakes can crush a product. The
way to get around that is to establish a "shared
vision of the future," with individuals instructed
to find the fastest way there, Shear wrote.
similar philosophy has enabled Naughty Dog to deter
major bottlenecks or rifts between departments. Rivals
have taken notice: Microsoft Xbox division chief Phil
Spencer in 2014 called the studio’s operations worthy
of study because of an "amazing track record."
Dog releases fewer games — six over the last decade
— than most competitors. But they get almost universal
support from critics, and sell well, with the
"Uncharted" series approaching 30 million
copies sold. Only a small cadre of gamemakers, including
former Microsoft studio Bungie, have enjoyed similar
the culture where you put ego aside and come back to a
succinct vision of what we’re trying to achieve,"
Wells said. "Everyone gets that core message, and