You could see this coming a mile off. Platform gaming specialist reaches the logical conclusion of its successful trilogy and works out how it can extend the brand while it gets to grips with next gen technology. Answer: churn out a cutesy racing game in 12 months featuring "all your favourite characters from the gaming universe".
Not that we're being overly cynical or anything, but this is exactly how Naughty Dog developed the Crash Bandicoot franchise before it moved onto something new, and so roughly the same scenario holds true for Jak X, the combat racing title coming to PS2 this autumn. We can't say the idea exactly had us rushing to place our pre-orders, but now we're warming to the idea.
In its defence, Naughty Dog co-president Evan Wells insists it wasn't planned this way, and that this isn't yet another childish karting game with big heads and tiny bodies racing around childish day-glo environments. Like the world needs another one of those, hmm? In fact, the more he told us about the game, the more appealing it sounded, so hear the man out and read up on what could actually turn out to be a another great addition to the Jak series. After all, ask yourself: when was the last time Naughty Dog let us down?
Eurogamer: What's your role been on Jak X?
Evan Wells: I'm the Co-president of Naughty Dog, but I'm basically acting as game director on this project.
Eurogamer: Tell us about Jak X and what you're trying to achieve with this one.
Evan Wells: Jak X is a new genre for the franchise. Racing - and vehicles - has always been a constant presence in the Jak & Daxter universe; in fact it's been part of the character design with Jak's goggles and the racing helmet so we really felt that the racing in the previous games could be fleshed out to a full game, and it would also give us the opportunity to work on multiplayer and online for the first time.
Eurogamer: Have you still got the same trademark Jak & Daxter humour in there?
Evan Wells: Absolutely; we have a fully fleshed out adventure [single-player] mode much in the same vein as past Jak games. There are over 100 different events that you compete in; we've got 45 minutes of in game cinematics that tell a very humorous Jak & Daxter story.
Eurogamer: Have you used the same writers?
Evan Wells: Yeah, Dan Arey was our creative director has continued to write and we've got the same voice actors. They've done a great job.
Eurogamer: On a technical level have you done anything particularly outstanding?
Evan Wells: Yeah, absolutely. We really had to revamp the engine. The engine's been progressing over the course of the past three games, but in order to do an online multiplayer racing game we really had to make a lot of changes. We had to revamp it to support split-screen, add online and LAN ability as well as being able to tune and customise your cars, we had a major overhaul of our rendering system and loading system, and we're also using a lot of the same elements we had in the past games - like spooling. All of our tracks are enormous and we actually had much more data than could be stored in the PlayStation 2's memory at any one time, so we had to spool in chunks of the track as you're racing around it, so the detail's very rich.
Eurogamer: How long would you say it would take the average player to get through the single-player adventure?
Evan Wells: The single-player adventure will last maybe 15 to 20 hours at least. I mean it really depends how good a racer you are, right? But there are over a hundred different events and you can constantly go in tuning and customising your car, so if you spend a lot of time on that you can kill a lot of time just tricking out your car, you know. Of course, multiplayer could be just endless. We made Crash Team Racing on the PlayStation One, and I still get phone calls and letters from people saying they're playing it today, so we're hoping that this game will have similar success.
Eurogamer: It's interesting that you've followed the exact same progression with a platforming trilogy followed by a racing game...
Evan Wells: Yeah, it wasn't planned out! In fact we wanted to make sure that Jak X was not a kart racer. We want to challenge people's expectations of what they'll get out of a character based franchise, you know, going into a racer. We didn't want to go for the big oversized heads and the tiny little go-karts racing around these childish backgrounds.
We wanted to give it the Jak & Daxter treatment, so the cars are normal-sized proportion for humans, and we know it's very visceral, the game is very fast, and the explosions are very powerful, the cars are actually fully destructible; you can dent them, you can scratch the paint off, the dirt panels will shake and then get ripped off the car. We really wanted to get that rich experience you expect from a Jak & Daxter game.
Eurogamer: Did you look at other games for inspiration during the making of Jak X?
Evan Wells: Yeah, absolutely. We looked at all kinds of vehicle games and we wanted to make this the best of the best, so we looked at the arcade racer, the intense, fast speed, the ease of pick up and play controls, and we really wanted to capture that feeling, and we also wanted to allow the personalisation and the customisation that you see in racing sims, but we also wanted to have the over the top explosions and combat that you see in a vehicle combat game like a Twisted Metal, and of course we wanted to wrap that all up in the Jak & Daxter universe and tell a great Jak & Daxter story.
Eurogamer: From first glance it has that Smuggler's Run look about it...
Evan Wells: There's a bit of that. We have two different types of venues: we have the tracks, which, of course, you race around, but there are several different events of track that are not just circuit races. There are death races, which are not about crossing the finishing line first; it's actually racking up the biggest kill count as you go around the track. So, in each venue we try to have maybe six or eight different events.
So we have those tracks, but we also have the open arenas. It's not all linear. It's going to have wide open freeform gameplay that you would expect - you saw it in Jak 3, where you had to go out and hunt those big dinosaurs in the desert. Well we've got events like that, and there are also events where it's a straight up deathmatch, and we also have Capture The Flag events and stuff like that.
Eurogamer: What other characters have you got in Jak X?
Evan Wells: All the favourites from the previous Jak games are back, and we've also introduced a couple of new critical characters in this game too. We've got Razor, who is sort of you're arch rival and he's very aggressive and very egotistical and he's always picking on Jak, so you sort of see that unfold behind the scenes before the races and between events, and then you've also got GT Blitz who's sort of the race commissioner and also the voice and face of the television presence that this sport has so that everybody can see it. He's always trying to goad Jak & Daxter on to race in more spectacular races and get the ratings up.
Eurogamer: How many players does the multiplayer mode support?
Evan Wells: You can play two player split-screen locally and six players online, and you can also play two-player split-screen online, so you can have two players playing in the same house against players anywhere.
Eurogamer: What modes have you got in there?
Evan Wells: We've got lots of different modes. We've got limited and unlimited modes which are the biggest difference when you go to play multiplayer. Limited mode allows anybody to come in and have an even match [even if] I've had the game for a month and you only bought it last week.
You know, I might have built my car up and tricked it out and tuned it, because the cars are fully customisable; you can upgrade the engines and all kinds of different performance handling and characteristics - but it wouldn't be fair if I came up to [play] you if you had just gotten the game. So [to make it fair] we introduced a limited mode which means that each get a stock car with a few modification points apiece to add to our handling, accelerations, top speed, whatever we want to tune our cars to, right there before we start the game, and then we can play in a limited match and it'll be much more even.
Or if you want to go unlimited and race no holds barred, you can bring in any car that's as tuned up and customised as you've made it and race them head to head.
Eurogamer: Are you working on any other projects besides Jak X right now?
Evan Wells: Right now we're wrapping up Jak X - we've got about four months of production left. But basically the whole company's focus is trying to get that out of the door. We're obviously really excited about PlayStation 3 and excited to get our hands on that.
Eurogamer: Have you had much input into Daxter on PSP?
Evan Wells: We're working very closely with the studio Ready At Dawn. It's actually been founded by a former Naughty Dog, and he's working with some guys from Blizzard, and they've got a really talented team. We've given them the models and the animations and textures and stuff from the Jak & Daxter universe so we know it will remain true to the franchise. Also our creative director Dan Arey is working on writing a story and coaching the voice talent.
Jak X will be released exclusively on the PlayStation 2 in October via Sony Computer Entertainment.