The lead visual effects artist for Uncharted 3, Keith Guerrette, was around a few weeks back in time for the Armageddon Expo in Auckland, and while I couldn’t get my schedule to work in well enough to meet him in person, Sony NZ was gracious enough to accept some questions I’d had on my mind (at least one of which he wasn’t well placed to answer, but was good natured enough to let me get it off my chest.)
1. Games are considerably more collaborative than other creative productions; what, if anything, can you point to in Uncharted 3 and say “That’s the way it is because of me and the work I did.”?
One of the most personally rewarding things about working in the video game industry, and at Naughty Dog in particular, is that we have a proportionally small team size, with a completely open, collaborative environment. So at the end of the project, if I can look back, I can see my personal influence in some capacity across every single level and cinematic of the game and be proud of it.
2. Uncharted 3 is one of a blossoming number of high profile games which are playable in 3D. As a developer, do you use 3D in a particular way to make the experience more impactful?
3d was a very interesting challenge for us, because it meant that we needed to render the entire scene twice, rather than once, in the same amount of time. In order to do this, we had to optimize our render pipeline, and make sacrifices where-ever possible, but we absolutely didn’t want to affect the artistic potential for the 2d experience. We developed a tremendous amount of workflow and pipeline technology to allow us to alter the game slightly when you enter 3d by subtly lowering the resolution of certain objects, or removing smaller details that the absence of would not actually be noticed (rolling tin can on the ground, spider webs in the corners, etc.)
Once we started working with 3d, we realized that there’s actually an impressive amount of "wow" factor added to many of our scenes, and a new art form to learn in regards to using the 3d appropriately – Looking down the cliff face as Drake shimmy’s along an edge actually gives you a decent sense of vertigo – Chasing through the narrow market stalls really did provide me with a stronger sense of immersion. The 3d technology in hardware, and many bits of software are still in an early phases of the growth that I want to see. But when it works well, it really works well. I’m very excited to see this line of technology and presentation improve.
It’s also worth mentioning that when we made the decision to tackle 3d, we also made the decision to implement split screen functionality for our multiplayer experience. Many (but not all) of the challenges and difficulties are shared between the two.
3. Uncharted 3 supports LAN/system link play in an age where it seems increasingly unlikely. How hard is the implementation of LAN play, and is their pressure from the online multiplayer services such as PSN to have them as the only way to play multiplayer?
As an artist, I don’t know that I’m necessarily the best equipped or involved to answer this question properly, but I did watch its progress from the side-lines. Local LAN is something that we’d actually wanted to implement for a fair amount of time, and the need for it in our development continually presented itself in a weird way – during game conventions, we wanted to demo the multiplayer experience everywhere, but internet connects can be quite flaky. We developed the system link tech without being sure that we would include it in the final game, but once implemented, we realized that it was a feature we should fully support.
4. What significant pieces of information were gained from the multiplayer beta, and what impact have they had on the final product?
The multiplayer beta was HUGE for us. Testing gameplay mechanics, UI features, server loads, and even just basic gameplay styles between a small team of 100-200 employees and focus testers is VERY different than the tens of thousands of people across the world judging our game from the moment they begin the download. We tracked everything that we could find a way to, and for everything else, we sat and listened to the community. Almost every aspect of the multiplayer experience was revisited and adjusted based upon the feedback and information we received – especially the weapon balancing.
However, our interest and involvement in this feedback loop actually didn’t end or recede with the close of the public beta. We are still, and will continue to, watching the community closely with the desire to address everyone’s concerns and continue to support excitement with new events, give-aways, and DLC.
5. The fire fight on the back of the truck convoy in Uncharted 2 was a high point in a game full of amazing and fantastical sequences; did this or any other high-action scene pave the way from anything as or more incredible in Uncharted 3?
In many ways, Uncharted 2 was another rough draft for our technology – we spent a tremendous amount of energy getting our tools and design to work across the full 2 year development, but we’d barely had the chance to use them. Because we had these tools already at our disposal for Uncharted 3, we had the opportunity to run through our tool and rendering pipelines and optimize, custom fit, and rebuild to squeeze even more out of the ps3. This was huge for us because we were able to pull together some of the most complicated and epic dynamic set-pieces ever seen in video games, and we had time to focus on keeping them fun for a player with no appreciation for the tech to experience.
6. While being critically acclaimed and highly regarded, Uncharted doesn’t seem to crack the heights of popularity as certain military shooters. What do you think is holding Uncharted back from that level of mass appeal?
This is a tricky question. I feel that the success of many of those other games (without naming any) is derived from the fact that they’re marketing techniques breached into new demographic of people looking for competitive entertainment that wouldn’t have necessarily considered themselves gamers, and the developers did a fantastic job filling the role.
The great thing about these fringe gamers is that they are starting to look around at the rest of the industry and consider other genres of games. As a primarily story driven, not action-driven game, Uncharted 2 achieved a level of success that we wouldn’t have ever dreamed of, and Uncharted 3 already has the indicators to do the same. Personally, I feel that the gaming industry is opening up to a broader set of gaming styles and experiences. The number of incredible games releasing this quarter and over the next several months is certainly going to help.
7. Nolan North is arguably the hardest working voice actor in videogames these days, but he’s still known best as Nathan Drake. Do you attribute this to the design of the character himself making it memorable, or something that Nolan brings to the role himself?
I was actually thinking about this on my own while I was flying out here to New Zealand.
I think Naughty Dog was fortunate enough to be one of the first studios to focus primarily on creating a world around relatable, emotionally rich and playful characters within the confines of this generation of consoles. All of our actors and actresses, particularly Nolan, absolutely incredible at instilling personality, depth, and warmth into our CG characters but their own charm, playing off of each other, or just being wonderful and like-able people themselves. I have no doubt that Nolan’s career would have taken him great places without us, but I like to think that the perfect opportunity and fusion that we’ve given each other has allowed us to make something altogether special.
8. What’s one feature about Uncharted 3 that you’d really like people to know about, but seldom get a chance because no-one asks?
This is a difficult question to answer because I want every player to experience our game as they would naturally, not notice my bullet points and pay attention to them as he/she is playing it. That said, its fascinating to me to see different people pick up the game, and watch the things they notice or simply walk by without a thought. The amount of hours that we spent trying to make small bits of tech or art work correctly are not always proportionate in any way!
For example, during the cargo-plane sequence where Drake causes a mid-air explosion – we spent a decent amount of time across a few months creating tech and optimizing the beams of light shining in through the windows – making sure they are always oriented correctly, as if cast by the sun, despite the rolling and moving of the cargo-plane through 3d space. I’ve asked dozens of people what they thought of them after playing through the demo sequence – not a single person has consciously noticed them, and many didn’t even realize the cargo-plane was rolling and diving! Now that said, do I regret the effort in anyway? No – its the small details and challenges that keep us excited and refreshed at Naughty Dog.