Speaking at GDC 2010 last Thursday, Naughty Dog lead game designer Richard Lemarchand gave a candid presentation on the development of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves - a post-mortem of the game-making process that covered, in his own words, "what went right and what blew up in our faces like a red explosive barrel!"
Just one face in a crowd of hundreds, it's a unique opportunity to get a glimpse at the game-making philosophies and techniques of one of the world's leading developers. Here we recap the session in detail and expand upon it with Naughty Dog's assistance and our own unique visual assets. Enjoy!
"We start every new project with a shortlist of project goals and refer back to them throughout development to make sure that we stay on track," says Richard Lemarchand. "Our top-line goal was that we wanted to create something that a lot of us at the studio had dreamed about for a really long time: that is to say, a fully playable version of a big summer blockbuster action-adventure movie which kept the player in moment-to-moment control nearly all the time as drama exploded around him."
Lemarchand and Naughty Dog also sought to expand upon the strong character-driven premise of the first Uncharted, but with even more ambitious aims for the sequel.
"Our story in Uncharted is character-driven rather than plot-driven and we decided to include a larger cast of characters in Uncharted 2," Lemarchand explains. "The other characters would help to show us more of the world that Nate operates in and would act like emotional satellites, revealing more about the good and the darker sides of Nate's character.
"While Uncharted: Drake's Fortune [the first game] had greed and its consequences as the main theme, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves would be about trust and betrayal and whether it's better to stay loyal to your friends or to act in self-interest."
The first Uncharted worked hard in melding gameplay and story into one coherent, almost seamless experience, and the Naughty Dog team pursued this "playable cinema feel" that would drive many of the different improvements to the technological side of the project, while prioritising a wide range of graphical enhancements to the team's proprietary engine.
In addition to that, multiplayer was green-lit for the sequel, with the co-op elements only being added very late on in the development cycle. "We knew that at the very least we wanted to make a competitive game with several different game types," says Lemarchand.
Uncharted 2 was created in a total of 22 months, and six months of that schedule was spent in pre-production.
"The way we handle pre-production at Naughty Dog is one of the things that we think makes us unusual as a studio, in that during pre-production we don't have anything in the way of conventional deadlines or deliverables," Lemarchand explains.
"Our pre-production period is a very freeform time where we brainstorm, we talk about gameplay and story ideas, make lots of concept art and pre-visualisation animations and we do as much prototyping of gameplay as we can with whatever tools we have at hand. By doing this we quickly come up with a handful of game ideas that are simply too good not to include in the game."
One such idea was a gameplay equivalent to the epic Paro Taktshang, the so-called Tiger's Nest monastery in Bhutan in the eastern Himalayas. Just a single photo of this incredible spectacle fired the imagination of the Dogs.
"The way that the monastery seemed to cling on to the side of the cliff seemed perfect for Uncharted," enthuses Lemarchand. "The photo gave us a good grounding in reality for the larger-than-life scenario that we invited, and was also suggestive of the kind of perilous climbing gameplay that we love so much, so we soon began to design a level based on the Tiger's Nest, long before we had any real idea of how it fit into the rest of the game."
The second tent-pole idea was the concept of Drake fighting on the top of a train as it sped through the landscape. However, with Naughty Dog adopting its signature perfectionist approach, the team wanted to execute the concept in a way never seen to date in a videogame.
"We didn't want to go down the same route that videogame train levels had taken in the past where the train is actually static and the ground is scrolling by, creating the illusion of movement," Lemarchand explains.
"We wanted to do it for real... gameplay ideas like these in pre-production can drive the technology part of the game. This level was one of the first we conceived and one of the last that we completed and it drove an enormous chunk of the new technology we created for Uncharted 2."
One of the centrepiece tech components was a system dubbed by the team as the "dynamic object traversal system", which essentially allowed Drake and all the other characters in the game to use their moves and combat techniques on any moving object or environment.
"This might not seem like a big deal but for those of us who have been working on 3D character action games for a while, it was pretty much the Holy Grail because it allowed us to do things that we'd only been able to dream of before," Lemarchand explains.
"It was amazingly complicated to get this to work. Our programmers had to touch or rewrite nearly every system in the game from the player control to objects to collision to enemies and allies AI... Taking the leap to do something like this took a lot of tenacity and courage, and we had to keep going even when it felt like an impossible task, but it paid off in countless ways - from the collapsing hotel to the convoy, Uncharted 2 was able to stand out of the crowd and wow our players with things they'd never seen before."
One of the game's most celebrated sequences - the Himalayan village - was also dreamed up during this crucial six months of development.
"One more idea that emerged from pre-production was that of Nate collapsing in the snow and being rescued by a mysterious stranger that for a long time we just called The Rescuer," Lemarchand reveals. "Nate would then wake up in a peaceful Himalayan village and discover that the saviour was a village leader called Tenzin and that they didn't share a common language.
"We planned that Nate would leave the village with Tenzin to explore a puzzling mountain cave system, before returning to find the village now under attack by a well-equipped army. We thought that this would create a particular sequence of emotion for the player almost entirely through gameplay. Even though much of the rest of the story was still undecided we were able to stick a pin in this idea and proceed confident that it would find a home in the game."
Literally the only tangible document that was derived from this half-year of hard work was the so-called Macro design, literally just an Excel spreadsheet, but hugely important for the developmental effort.
"It's a list of levels and corresponding story beats that shows the locations the game visits, what play mechanics are used in each level and whether they're core mechanics or special gameplay sequences," as Lemarchand puts it. "It shows what enemies the player will encounter and what allies will accompany Drake on each stage of his journey."
Nate's moves list was also significantly fleshed out, the idea being to make him even more adaptable, capable... and dangerous.
"We wanted to Drake to have the ability to pull out a gun and fire no matter what he was doing in the world, whether it was climbing, balancing on a fallen beam - even when he's in mid-air during a jump," says Lemarchand. "It didn't take us very long to flesh out his abilities, expanding Drake's traversal options like this was good for devising combat scenarios because we could throw down some enemies in any section of the game and in that way discover novel combat set-ups in the most unexpected traversal sequences."