What would E3 be without a Naughty Dog trailer?
Oh, and there’s another one too, The Last of Us remastered!
What would E3 be without a Naughty Dog trailer?
Oh, and there’s another one too, The Last of Us remastered!
There’s a bunch of Naughty Dog news in the air that I thought worth commenting on. First of all, at VGX 2013 Naughty Dog was awarded Studio of the Year! Awesome! Well deserved. Congratulations dogs!
Then, in the flurry of ThanksGavin activities, I must have missed the trailer for the upcoming The Last of Us downloadable pack (Left Behind), which had a bunch of new single player levels. I’m very excited about this even though the trailer is… minimalistic
And another teaser from the DLC:
And finally, it has been officially announced that Uncharted will be coming to Playstation 4. While this is hardly a surprise, it’s still awesome news and I’m sure — like me — all of you fans can hardly wait.
Periodically I was asked by Pixelvolt to answer a few interview questions.
I’m also posting the interview here for posterity:
Pixelvolt: Many enjoyed the Crash Bandicoot trilogy more than Super Mario 64 or DK64. How do you think the Crash Bandicoot franchise did against Nintendo’s heavy hitter platformers?
Andy: Crash Bandicoot was in development during the same period as Mario 64. We started in 1994 and first saw our rival at E3 in May of 1996, only 3 months before we shipped. Basically that meant that Mario had no influence on us (although it was to later inform Jak & Daxter). Doing platforming in 3D was hard, and both games took different approaches. Our aim was to try and bring the Donkey Kong Country style gameplay into 3D as faithfully as possible. Mario went for more open puzzle solving and exploration (Miyamoto called it a garden or sandbox). I personally like ours better because it’s more straightforward to play with less thinking involved (more twitching). I don’t like my platform games to involve too much thinking – I do plenty of that at work.
Pixelvolt: Were there any N64, GCN, or Xbox games that you enjoyed playing?
Andy: My favorite N64 games were Goldeneye, Zelda, and Banjo-Kazooie.
Pixelvolt: Do you have a personal favorite out of the Crash Bandicoot games?
Andy: Crash 2. It’s better technically than Crash 1, has a bigger more flexible move set, and the play is very balanced. It’s hard but not brutal. Crash 3 is great too, but I think it relies a little too much on gimmick levels (jet skiing, flying, etc).
Pixelvolt: Naughty Dog has always been great at pushing the limits of hardware. Can you give us some details from the development of the Crash series and the Jak series and just how far things were pushed – and how they were pushed?
Andy: Crash 1 was all about forging into the unknown. Everything was new. The gameplay was totally new. We had no model for how to do it in 3D, and it took 6 months of unplayable test levels before we developed some that were actually fun. On the technical side, the sheer volume of data was overwhelming for the computers of the time (1994-6). We had to do all the tool processing on big Silicon Graphics workstations. I actually had 8 gigs of memory in my desktop machine by fall 1996! Imagine that, the memory alone cost $75,000! With Jak, the seamless loading was hard. We had been heading in this direction with Crash, which featured a very sophisticated streaming system and extremely short load times (3-4 seconds!), but with Jak & Daxter, we had this early mandate to eliminate loading entirely. It was hard but very cool in a subtle way. Very few games do it even now.
Pixelvolt: Was it hard to leave Crash Bandicoot behind, and do you think there is a chance that Naughty Dog will save Crash from his most recent outings and produce another game?
Andy: Naughty Dog doesn’t own all the rights to Crash; Activision owns most of them, so it’s difficult for that to happen just from a legal perspective. Still, a fan can always hope.
Pixelvolt: What were some of the immediate allowances that were enjoyed most when switching from Crash to Jak?
Andy: No one would ever call the PS2 an “easy” machine to program for, but there were certain niceties compared to the PS1. Z buffering was a big one. On the PS1, you had to sort all your polygons and make sure they didn’t overlap. The PS1 really freaked out when polygons stretched off (or into the screen). Another more amorphous advantage was the huge step up in raw processing power, which made it possible to stop worrying about individual lines of logic (as much).
Pixelvolt: How did it feel among your video game peers when CTR: Crash Team Racing was being developed? With Mario Kart 64 having thought up the kart racer genre, was it awkward? Many gamers enjoyed CTR much more than MK64; how did this reaction make everyone feel after it was released?
Andy: Obviously, CTR owes a big debt to Mario Kart, even if the graphics are better looking and more detailed – but I also think – and this is one of the game’s big triumphs, that the handling and gameplay we achieved was really first rate. The combination of steering, power sliding, powerups, and the like was really very, very fun (not that Mario Kart 64 and Diddy Kong Racing weren’t too).
Pixelvolt: What do you and ND think of the current state of Crash Bandicoot. Since Crash Bandicoot: The Wrath of Cortex, almost all the fans agree that the quality has skydived; what do you and the original development team think of the situation?
Andy: I try not to look at anything Crash related after Crash Bash. It’s all kind of sad because even the basic art design isn’t “correct” with the standards of the Crash character.
Pixelvolt: Did you learn anything from video game development that is assisting with your writing at all?
Andy: As a serial creator (having made over a dozen major video games), it was interesting how similar the process was to any other complex creative project. Video games and novel writing are both very iterative and detail oriented. They use a lot of the same mental muscles.
Pixelvolt: What do you plan on doing next? Do you plan to do anything in addition to writing?
Andy: I just finished up adapting Untimed (my time travel novel) as a screenplay. And I’ve got three different new novels in the works. The one I’m working on at the moment is background notes for an epic fantasy series. I’m trying to create an entire extremely detailed world so that’s a lot of fun.
Pixelvolt: Do you ever think you’d consider returning to game development?
Andy: I might someday. I have a cool dungeon crawler idea I’ve wanted to do for years. But right now, I still get to build worlds, characters, and general IP. I can do it faster and without as much stress. I miss the sheer exposure the games got as the whole business is on a much bigger scale than publishing. I’m immensely proud of all my games, but I also think Untimed is as good a novel as my favorite, Crash 2 is a game. Hint, hint. Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink. Buy, read.
Pixelvolt: What were your thoughts on Jason Rubin and THQ? I know a lot of ND/THQ fans thought he did a great job, despite everything working out the way that it did.
Andy: Jason had a real uphill battle there and very little time to fight it. He’s one of the most talented people I know, so I have to imagine that he did as good a job as humanly possible.
Pixelvolt: Tell us about your books. You’ve been a huge reader for quite some time. When did you decide you were going to leave the gaming industry and pursue writing full time?
Andy: I’m a lifelong creator and explorer of worlds. As far back as first grade, I remember spending most of the school day in one day dream or another. I had a huge notebook stuffed with drawings, story bits, and concepts for an elaborate Sci-Fi/Fantasy world I cobbled together from bits of Star Wars, Narnia, and Battlestar Galactica. By fourth or fifth grade, not only was I losing myself in every fantasy or Sci-Fi novel I could, but I was building Dungeons & Dragons castles and caverns on paper. Then from 1980 on the computer. Over the following decades, I wrote dozens of stories and created and published over a dozen video games all set in alternative universes. And as an avid reader (over 10,000 novels and who knows how many non-fiction volumes), it was no surprise that I eventually decided to write some books of my own.
Pixelvolt: Would you ever consider having any movies or games made based off your books? If so, would you oversee any of the development?
Andy: Uh, big yes. As I mentioned, I just finished adapting Untimed into a screenplay. That was a lot of fun and took far longer than I thought, including at least six major drafts. Untimed is a focused story of about the right scope for the big screen, and it’s fairly short (75,000 words), but I still had to cut at least a quarter out of the novel and learn to adapt the story telling to the new strictly audio-visual medium. Now I just need to figure out how to sell it and get it produced. Haha. Film, unlike novels, is a very collaborative medium.
Pixelvolt: What are you currently playing?
Andy: I’m still playing a bit of WoW. I have on and off since launch and used to be a serious raider in the Vanilla, BC, and Lich King eras. I played The Last of Us when it came out from start to finish and that was hands down the best story-based game I’ve ever played. Really, really emotional and intense. My two games of the moment are really different: the new Mickey Mouse Castle of Illusion with my five year-old (I loved the Genesis original) and Bioshock Infinite. That’s an awesome game too. The control and character isn’t quite as good as TLOU, but it’s really engaging, and I’m totally drawn in by the 1912 alternate America and its in-depth and surprisingly accurate depiction. Speaking of 1912, my first novel, The Darkening Dream, is a fantasy set in 1913, so if any of you are curious, think Bioshock Infinite, minus the floating city and plus a 900-year-old vampire, crazy Egyptian gods, and some nasty succubus on preacher action.
The below is an interview I did earlier this year:
I grew up in the simultaneously cosmopolitan and suburban area of Northern Virginia (just outside of Washington D.C.). I was the right age to catch the first big wave of gaming in the late 70s, early 80s. I played all the arcade classics as they came out and eagerly pestered my dad for an Atari 2600. This was a time when there was tremendous experimentation and creativity going on. New video game genres were invented all the time.
In 1980 my science teacher brought into class a Heathkit H8 her husband built. We were given a single mimeographed sheet of paper with the BASIC commands. I read this and then wrote out longhand a draft of a text-based RPG where you wandered around and fought orcs and trolls for gold and tretchure (I could program, but I couldn’t spell). During lunch I typed in and debugged the game, editing my paper copy as needed. It may seem overly ambitious to try and recreate D&D as one’s first program, but you have to make what you love.
At the age of twelve, I met Jason Rubin in class (we were both bored and loved games). Seeing as I was a great programmer and Jason a great artist (by middle school standards), an instant partnership was formed. We sold our first professionally in 1985 (at fifteen). This partnership continued all the way through school and beyond. Our company, first called JAM Software, was soon renamed to Naughty Dog (1987). We made and published six games before the original Crash Bandicoot.
Since Crash Bandicoot: Warped, the third title in the franchise and Naughty Dog’s final main instalment in the series, gamers have felt that Crash Bandicoot has lost its magic. As someone who was there at its creation, how do you think the series could be revitalised?
Crash needs a total reboot. There is an opportunity to reset the history and go back to his creation story and the original conflict with Cortex. In that context, one could reprise classic Crash 1 and 2 settings and villains. At a gameplay level, it would make sense to use a more modern free-roaming style, ala Banjo-Kazooie, but with state of the art graphics. There are very few (almost none) true platform games being made today and it’s a shame, as the mechanics were really fun. I would concentrate on Loony Tunes style animation and really addictive action oriented gameplay. That’s what we did with the original Crash and there is no reason it couldn’t be done today — but it would look every bit as good as early Pixar cartoons.
Given the current Crash games, people forget that he was once cool. Our Crash had a certain whimsical edge to him. Sure it was goofy, but it wasn’t dumb. Crash has a deliberate touch of post-modernity, not unlike other cult favorites like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s thematically very different, but the same kind of self-referential meta-cultural quality is there.
What do you make of Crash Bandicoot today? Are you sad that he’s gone from PlayStation Icon to yesterday’s mascot? (Maybe also talk about your opinion of non-Naughty Dog Crash endeavours, did they fail?)
I don’t pay much attention to recent Crash games. For me, He’s like the hot high school girlfriend who put on 50 pounds. I just can’t look.
Post Naughty Dog Crash games fall down not only in being too goofy, but in gameplay and balance. We tried very hard to make every level and every segment of every level evenly paced, addictive, and engaging. Every pile of boxes, every set of enemies, was carefully placed to try and build a rhythmic pulse to the gameplay. Crash was about being frantic, but at the same time relatively free of frustration (although some Crash 1 levels were too hard). There was a lot of layered depth so that you could merely finish the level, or you could try to maximize your performance in terms of collection, speed, or both.
The latest game in the Jak series was the PSP spin-off Daxter in 2006, which was developed by Ready at Dawn. Do you think the Jak series should be resuscitated, or is it best left in the past? (perhaps speak about what it had going for it, how you feel the series progressed in terms of quality, if it needs to be brought back)
There is a lot of opportunity in the Jak franchise as well, but fortunately for the little orange back-talker, Naughty Dog (aka Sony) still owns the rights. Who knows, he might surface again.
What was it about Sony and Playstation that made you feel that it was the perfect brand for Naughty Dog to partner up with? (relationship with Sony over the years, why you felt it wouldn’t harm Naughty Dog’s future)
In 1994 when we started, Sony didn’t have a mascot character. So we set about creating one on the theory that maybe, just maybe, we might be able to slide into that opening. I’m still surprised it worked.
Ultimately the relationship with Sony was a really great partnership. Sony is a quality driven company, and we were a quality driven studio. Naughty Dog products are fully commercial in the spirit of early 80s George Lucas and Steven Spielberg efforts. We believed in mass market pulp that through sheer quality rose above its commercial pulp sentiment. This jived well with Sony’s culture, which was driven to high quality products with the broadest appeal.
In 2004 both Jason Rubin and yourself left Naughty Dog. Considering the company was, and still is, producing high quality games, why did you leave? (perhaps talk about your time at ND, memories of working on certain games, where you think you brought the company, what state you feel you left it at, and where it is now)
This is complex. At the simplest level, when Jason and I sold Naughty Dog to Sony, the deal structured the working relationship for the next four years. Highly unusually, this actually played out according to plan and to the total satisfaction of both parties. We intended to make threes games, and we did: Jak 1, 2, and 3. In addition, by 2004, Jak X and Uncharted were well underway.
As the company grew, Jason and I groomed senior guys who were capable of running the teams. Namely, Evan Wells, Stephen White, and Christophe Balestra. By Jak 3, Evan was the game director anyway, so it was time for them to fly by themselves. And fly they did, as the post Andy & Jason Naughty Dog games are probably even better.
The two biggest Naughty Dog Ips since your leaving would have to be the Uncharted series and the upcoming title The Last of Us. As someone who is now on the outside looking in, how do you view both of these franchises? (Do they keep in line with what you hoped ND would achieve? Do you wish you were still working at ND in order to help develop these kinds of titles?)
Uncharted is in every way a Naughty Dog series. It follows from, and improves upon, the things we were working on with Crash and Jak, taking them to the next level. Evan was an instrumental co-creator of all the Naughty Dog games since Warped, and he was both steeped in and a major contributor to the games from 1998 on. He and the rest of the gang kept heading in the same direction, they just raised the bar on execution even further.
For a long time, Naughty Dog games have been about integrating narrative and gameplay. We wanted to draw people into the world fully and give them a rich story without detracting from a game’s most important quality: fun gameplay. Uncharted took this to the next level with storytelling that’s better than a lot of movies, while retaining intense playability.
Now I’m also really excited for The Last of Us, as apocalypses and teen girls who fight are two of my favorite things (in fiction).
With talk of the PS4 on the horizon, what do you think Naughty Dog is capable of on next-generation systems? (technically, narratively)
I think NDI will just keep taking it to the next level. Uncharted 3 and The Last of Us already look so good it’s hard to imagine where there is to go, but I expect not only will things look even more real, but the machines will have the power to include more and more enemies (or whatnot) on screen. We could see zombie games with a couple hundred zombies (not necessarily from NDI).
As a serial creator it was interesting how similar writing a novel was to making a game. Video games and writing are both very iterative and detail oriented. They use a lot of the same mental muscles. My latest novel, Untimed, is about a boy name Charlie, who falls through holes in time. A clockwork man is trying to kill him, but there’s an eighteenth century Scottish girl who can bring him back home – assuming they don’t destroy history by accidentally letting Ben Franklin get killed.
Untimed (http://untimed-novel.com) is very much in the same broad fun spirit that characterized Crash and other Naughty Dog games. I return to one of my favorite mechanics, time travel, which I forced into Crash 3 and Jak 2 (no one complained). Creating the world was very similar to what you do with a game. I had to balance the pros and cons of time travel for my heroes. If your characters are too powerful, there is no jeopardy. So I had to invent all the restrictions and deal with the issues of paradox. In many ways, this is like balancing a video game control set. There are differences of course: games are about fun, and novels are about character and dramatic tension, but the fundamental creative process is similar.
Title: The Last of Us
Genre: Zombie / Survival / 3rd person shooter
Played: June 15-25, 2013
Summary: Masterpiece (even if I weren’t biased)
With The Last of Us, the trajectory Naughty Dog has been pursuing for over a decade reaches for and achieves new heights. This synergy of world building, gameplay integration, emersion, and story telling really began with Jak & Daxter. True, with Crash Bandicoot, we made inroads in all but the last (anyone remember the “Crash, can you find my battery?” plot of Crash 2?). Crash focused on integrating addictive gameplay with a consistent, coherent, and lavishly produced setting (I’ll include character in this setting), but it didn’t have any true story or drama.
The Jak franchise introduced a more elaborate narrative and characters with more complexity, particularly in Jak 2 where we started integrating the cinematic segments in a more interwoven fashion. The Uncharted franchise took this to new levels, essentially becoming Indiana Jones type movies that you played, but TLOU climbs yet another step further, delivering characters you care about , true drama, and intense cinematic language while preserving a completely coherent style and intense gameplay. Everything about the game serves to reinforce the overall tone: the pathos of two people trying to heal in the face of great horror.
The art design is fabulous. Again, even though the Art Director (Erick Pangilinan) is one of my best friends (obviously biasing me) this is objectively true. It’s certainly one of the best looking games to date. There is a deliberate choice to heavily light — stylistically overlight — the entire game. While there exist some dark underground parts, for the most part, the lighting is luminous. Intense white light (think Minority Report) starkly bathes this ruined vision of America. No gloriously decayed texture is left hidden. Closeups of characters show every stain and frayed thread in clothes worn for months (perhaps years?). This is a world of contrast. Lush greenery has reclaimed much of the urban landscape, yet crumbled concrete, rusted steel, and burned out cars litter the scenery. As do sordid blood stains and desiccated corpses. There is a sense here of great violence, and desperation, much of it in the past. Little details abound. Shrines to dead loved ones. A tiny grave marked with a teddy bear. Family photos. Rarely does it look cloned or stamped (although that door with the weird seal is everywhere) . Nor, despite a strong and coherent visual style, is it repetitive. As we move from the Northeast to the Heartland to the Mountains the scenery — and even the seasons — keep changing. Weather is used to great effect. The rain in early Boston sequences is stunning, as is the chilling lakeside blizzard late in the game’s second act.
The minimalist string music compounds the game’s haunting atmosphere. While the game is full of detail, it’s in the broad sense, fairly stark — as the bulk of the scenery is ruined and deserted. This lends the whole world a quality of emptiness reinforced by the matching sonic starkness. The sound effects are harsh and solidly naturalistic, emphasizing both the natural (bird noises) and the discordant tone of decayed materials (like rusted garage doors opening). To this background soundscape is added the grim punctuation of the combat sounds. Every grunt, sneaker squeak, bolt action, and gurgling last breath is vividly apparent.
There is a minimalism to the interface that fits with the overall tone. The title screen is a single frozen camera shot of a window. The menus are barely styled and contain only exactly what they need. The art is simple and iconic. Not only does this work from a stylistic point of view, enhancing the serious tone of the game, but the controls are direct and to the point, easy to use, preventing you from getting distracted by mechanics. With TLOU, it’s the story and characters that matter, not the mechanics of saving a game. Many elements traditional in modern titles are toned down or absent. Achievements? Not part of this world. Secret collectables? The game has them — in the form of Firefly pendants — but they are understated mementos of the dead, not the bombastic collectables typical of the genre.
Technically the engine steps out of the limelight and just delivers — and delivers in spades. Bugs are minor and few and far between. I never crashed or got stuck. There are some frame rate problems in the biggest and widest of shots (and they do look gorgeous) or sometimes with the flashlight or “hearing mode,” but this never hurts the gameplay. I noticed a couple extremely minor graphical glitches. Mostly stuff just works, often combining multiple disciplines in classic Naughty Dog brilliance. The animation, particularly in interaction with the backgrounds and other characters, is a triumph of both art and programming. It’s perhaps the slickest, most lifelike, ever used in a game. The AI is first rate. The environments feel wide open and vast, and they have a certain non linearity, yet because of the nature of the game you must be contained, and it’s done very artfully. Rubble fills stairwells, broken down vehicles block alleys, collapsed bridges deter overzealous exploration. So much of what makes this game look so great is the amazing synergy between art and tech. The rain, the water, the snow, the glowing light effects, the realistic shadowing and flashlight. It’s all solidly in both realms.
Different elements of the gameplay work well together. The game’s phenomenal pacing is made up of story cuts, intense combat, sneaking, and scavenging. This last, which is surprisingly satisfying, is sometimes done in the heat of battle — or at least when hiding from deadly foes and desperately looking to bolster ones supplies — and sometimes an end all onto itself. These quieter moments, after a brace of nasties are defeated, or in an abandoned section of city, are welcome relief. The game rarely has enemies sneak up on you once a section has been identified as safe, so these provide a nice break in the tension. The crafting itself is simple. There are a 4-5 resources and similar construction costs for pairs of items. Healthpacks and molotov cocktails share resources, as do shivs and weapon enhancements. Everything is in short supply and desperately useful. Pills can be used to upgrade your character, but you must chose in which manner. Spare parts upgrade guns and the like. The weapons are nicely differentiated, each with it’s own strengths and weaknesses, and they get noticeably better when upgraded. The shortage of ammo always prevents any weapon from being overpowering. Even the assault riffle, gained in the last level, isn’t too fearsome against your body armored opponents.
Let’s discuss the gameplay. Technically TLOU is a 3rd person shooter, but it makes a number of stylistic alterations in service of mood that completely alter the feel. This isn’t your typical shooter where ammunition is plentiful, the character sponges up bullets, and healing is easy. You can only survive a handful of hits. The arrival of more than 2-3 mobs in close proximity is a near certain recipe for death. The healthpacks (potions) take some time to apply and are in short supply. Joel and Ellie do a lot of creeping around in the shadows. The key here is to avoid agroing too many mobs, and when you do, to lose them by getting out of the way. A number of mechanics serve this end.
There are a lot of shadows. Counters and obstacles are conveniently crouching height (this rarely looks forced). You can creep around fairly rapidly. Humans can see and often probe the darkness with flashlights. The infected are generally blind (or crazy) and so are easier to sneak up on — but clickers and bloaters are tough and can kill you in one bite. Joel (and Ellie) have quite the sense of hearing and can “hear” through nearby walls to spot the outlines of enemies. This is a little gamey, and the mobs apparently can’t do it, but in practice works quite well. One of the most effective strategies, particularly with the infected, is to stay in stealth at all costs. There are a couple of ways to kill silently (more or less). Humans and runners can be strangled or knifed (which wears out your blades but is quicker). The bow can be used to silently kill most opponents at a distance and if you’re lucky, you won’t break your arrows. Overall it is deeply fulfilling to wipe out a whole crew without them ever seeing you. This often requires replaying the section several times to learn the layout and careful looting of every possible supply.
Speaking of which, the looting, scavenging, and crafting mechanic is awesome. Everything is so scarce, ammo so valuable, and everything you craft so useful that a few items easily make the difference between life and death. It’s also extremely satisfying to evade some opponents, sneak around, craft an extra shiv or health pack and then kill them. You can augment the melee weapons to make them kill faster (very useful as while melee is satisfying, should a second or third mob show up while you are pummeling someone, it’s bad news). You can build shivs (essential for fast silent kills, surviving clickers, opening secret doors) or healthpacks or a number of bombs. The bombs come in three types. Molotovs, nailbombs, and smokebombs. Each have their use. The fire is great against infected. The nailbombs can be thrown OR left around as mines. I didn’t appreciate the smokebombs until near the end of the game, but they create a kind of dead zone that the human mobs won’t fire into and which can be used to kill them. Used sequentially and in tandem with the flame thrower they make a lethal combination.
I have a few quibbles. The aiming can be difficult at times, particularly until you upgrade “weapon shake.” It’s few hard to land a head shot (or even sometimes a shot) before someone shoots you. When opponents are behind you or off to the side it can be frustrating to try to turn and strike them. There is some kind of quick turn around move. I didn’t master it (but should have). Some sections with lots of enemies are quite hard. There appears to be at least a bit of DDA (Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment) to help you get by if you die a lot in one spot. Actually fighting bloaters and particularly bloaters together with clickers can be VERY hard.
I’m betting TLOU required A LOT of tuning to reach its current fun factor, as it would be easy for gameplay involving so much hiding, creeping, and dying to be boring — but the elements combine to make it really fun. After the first chapter I learned to become methodical and search every corner for loot. Instead of being tedious, this served as a break from the tension and turned out to be incredibly satisfying. The melee is extremely graphic with a good amount of variety. It’s quite creepy hearing a guard gurgle as you strangle him or slamming an infected in the neck with a baseball bat “augmented” with taped on scissors. Everything serves the horrifying mood.
And mood is one of the game’s greatest strengths. TLOU draws from nearly every post apocalyptic source and builds trope after trope into a satisfying, coherent, and perhaps more realistic whole. It’s prettier and less hopeless than The Road – and considerably more believable. No film could ever offer this scope. The sets (or CGI) would be far too expensive, the cast too enormous. Yet TLOU also strives to compete with film in terms of emotional engagement and character development. I’d argue it succeeds.
The longer form (it took me 18 hours to play through on normal difficulty) helps with the character part. I’m becoming of the increasing opinion that film is actually an unsatisfying format — offering far too little depth, particularly in this day and age when the 2-3 hours are mostly consumed by overlong effects driven fights. Some of TLOU’s vignettes should come off as forced, as they are drawn directly from tropes and fairly straightforward. One that comes to mind is when the hunter humvee murders two innocents while a hiding Joel and Ellie watch. However, in the context of the game and characters it was surprisingly effective. TLOU is a clear case where the whole transcends the sum of the parts. And hell, a lot of the parts are pretty damn good.
Neil Druckmann (who I hired as a promising intern programmer a whole career ago) turns out an emotional script. Again, it draws extremely heavily from tropes. Everything any post apocalyptic survival story has ever had is here: hunters, cannibals, resistance leaders, a cure, friends who turn (into zombies), reversals, quarantine zones, etc. But in moments little and big the relationship between Joel and Ellie builds — so much so that the little downtime conversations are real gems. By the time the Pittsburg chapter concludes, Ellie becomes in your head someone really worth fighting for — and the remainder of the game — wow, it really delivers. I often feel (reading or watching) that the second half lets me down. Good as the first half of TLOU is, the second is several times better.
Really notable for me was the entire “winter” sequence. Coming out of a really emotional turn in Colorado TLOU employs cinematic language and plotting in a highly effective way. So much do we care for the characters, and so pretty is the game, that it manages to make 10 minutes of trudging through the snow exhilarating! And that’s only the beginning. I really liked the way the game cut back and forth between playable Joel and Ellie as it told the story from both perspectives. Although, I have a slight nitpick with the “arc” of the section villain, who starts out with some complexity and sympathy and turns monster without too much explanation. But such is the momentum of this story that it sails right over speed-bumps like this.
So basically, if you care about video games at all, play The Last of Us.
Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us is nearly on us, and the review ban has been released, so I felt I’d round up a couple. Check out these reviews! They average 95, which is pretty unheard of. The most often repeated word is “masterpiece”!
[ NOTE 6/14/13: I started playing and the playable prologue alone is nearly worth the price of admission! ]
First the awesome launch trailer here:
Then the review roundup:
Naughty Dog and Sony released an awesome “red band” (uncensored) trailer for their upcoming post apocalyptic survival game, The Last of Us:
Looking cool! Damn, those people look realistic.
Yes I know, they’re “infected”, but name change or no, it’s still Zombie Time! Here is a recent video with some infected – enjoy!
and, even better, this Story Trailer:
Naughty Dog has just released a 15 minute gameplay video, so check it out while you wait for the game itself.
It’s really interesting how the gameplay has evolved from Uncharted, and how faithful this new style is to survival films. Watching, it has that slow burn tension that is characteristic of Zombie movies. It’s incredibly cool how realistically responsive the AI mobs are to your presence and actions. Good stuff.
August arrives, and with it another teaser. This continues that cool creepy vibe driven by the bluegrass soundtrack.
E3 (the Electronic Entertainment Expo) has bought us an extensive new gameplay coverage video for Naughty Dog’s post-apocalyptic survival game, The Last of Us. Aside from the recently released Diablo III, this is my most anticipated upcoming game, and I suspect I’m not alone.
The Last of Us, Naughty Dog’s new game in development, has a cool new trailer. Check it out!
We interviewed Andy Gavin, the co-founder of Naughty Dog (with Jason Rubin) and creator of Crash Bandicoot. We asked Andy how he got in to the industry, about the inspirations, motives and ideologies behind Crash Bandicoot – one of the games industries seminal characters, and on on what makes a good videogame character. He also told us about the entirely different culture and ethos he built up at Naughty Dog – which meant putting the player first. We also asked him to reflect on his successes and ‘failures’ at Naughty Dog, about what he thinks of the company now and about his future plans. Today, Andy has turned his attention to writing – and is now an established novelist – so we also asked him about what he’s reading, and what he’s working on right now.
Just some of the highlights from this in-depth interview…
What inspired you to start Naughty Dog – how did you get in to the games industry?
In the 1970s I was hugely into fantasy novels, fantasy role playing games, and early video games. When I first encountered a computer it was only natural that I tried to make games. Back then, unless you knew how to program, computers were pretty much good for a blinking cursor. Then about two years into my programming career I met Jason Rubin. My programs were better than anyone our age, and his art skills (particularly on the computer) were better than anyone else’s. It was a match made in heaven and we started working on games together. In those early days we called the company JAM Software, but we renamed it to Naughty Dog around 1985.
“Jason and I wanted to take Donkey Kong Country style gameplay and make it 3D. We called it the “Sonic’s Ass” game.”
What were the aims behind Crash Bandicoot – what was the brief? Was it to create a character to compete with Sonic and Mario, and to create a mascot character for Sony – or something more?
Yep. At that time character action was one of the most popular genres, and one of our favorites. Jason and I wanted to take Donkey Kong Country style gameplay and make it 3D. We called it the “Sonic’s Ass” game. And it was born from the question: what would a 3D platformer be like? Well, we thought, you’d spend a lot of time looking at “Sonic’s Ass.” Aside from the difficulties of identifying with a character only viewed in posterior, it seemed cool. Although we worried about the camera, dizziness, and the player’s ability to judge. When it seemed likely that Sony didn’t have a mascot character of their own we jumped on that too. Essentially we planed for Crash to become exactly what it did – but the fact that we were successful still stuns me.
We wanted to do what Sega had done with the hedgehog and Warner Bros had done with the Tasmanian Devil and find some kind of animal that was cute, real, and no one really knew about… …we loved the word bandicoot.”
What was the inspiration behind Crash Bandicoot – where did the concept come from?
We wanted to do what Sega had done with the hedgehog and Warner Bros had done with the Tasmanian Devil and find some kind of animal that was cute, real, and no one really knew about. We bought a copy of Tasmanian Mammals – a field guide and flipped through. The Wombat, Potoroo, and Bandicoot fit the bill. We loved the word bandicoot. Personality-wise we felt he should be goofy and fun loving, and never talk.
What was the symbolism and ideology behind the mannerisms, attitude and behaviour you gave Crash Bandicoot?
As the machine didn’t really have the power to pull off giving Crash a voice that wasn’t lame, we needed to use animation to draw in the player emotionally. This jived with one of our main design goals, which was to make the animation better than had ever been seen in a game before. We wanted at least Looney Tunes level quality, if not Disney level. Animation is an emotional language and our top flight cartoon character designers showed us how to convey the whole range of human motion in the exaggerated vocabulary of traditional animation.
What was the reasoning behind the colours you gave Crash Bandicoot?
Simple, Crash needed to pop against the background so you could see him easily. Since he lived in a natural world of greens and grays orange was the hottest and most complementary colour. Real animals want to blend. Cartoons want to pop.
Crash Bandicoot is of a few games which has a real cultural impact and it’s created an extremely loyal group of superfans – a fan community which is still going strong, producing fan art, writing ‘fan fictions’ – some devoting much of their life to a character you created. What are your feelings about being behind a cultural icon?
It’s amazing that this happened and I feel very gratified to be a part of it. I chalk up one of the main reasons the game was successful to the character’s iconic quality. Crash is a sort of every-creature. While he has his goofy side, his natural enthusiasm and willingness to rebound from any upset (literally) make him highly endearing.
Crash Bandicoot Fan Art is very popular – this piece is by ‘ZoDy’ on an online community for artists called DeviantArt
Could you share any interesting facts or ‘secrets’ about Crash Bandicoot that even the biggest superfans may not know?
The original Crash Bandicoot has an entire extra level on the disk that is not accessible without a cheat device. It’s called Slippery Climb and was a monstrously big and difficult “climb on the rainy castle wall” level. It was cut because it was too hard and we didn’t have time to balance it properly.
What makes a good videogame character?
Video game characters aren’t especially subtle, but they are appealing. They need to be visually distinctive, with clear expression of personality traits. Visually, Crash is orange, big head, and gloves. Then on the personality side, playful, resilient, not the brightest bulb, but willing to go the extra mile.
Would you say that seminal ‘mascot’ characters like Crash, Sonic, and Mario are playing a less important or significant role in the games industry? Why do you think it might be the case?
It does seem that as games become more realistic they have less distinctive characters. Many current console games now are essentially military. The badass space marine is iconic, but not really distinctive. What makes one different from another?
“I’m sure the games are still widely played, probably more than any other PS1 franchise.”
Some say that Crash ‘failed to innovate’ over the years ‘rendering the character useless’ – what would you say to that?
It’s not fair of me to comment on the non Naughty Dog games. I feel that our four Crash games innovated relative to the speed of release (1996, ’97, ’98, ’99). We tried to really pack tons of new stuff into every successive game while keeping the best of the old. Fans knew that with our games they would really get their money’s worth. They voted with their wallets in huge numbers, and I’m sure the games are still widely played, probably more than any other PS1 franchise.
How much would you credit the sophistication of Naughty Dog technology to your background in LISP at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory?
I was always a technically ambitious programmer, but MIT and the addition of Dave Baggett to our team really helped us up the ante. Dave and I fed off each other, each convincing the other that the next impossible thing was possible. But Mark Cerny also played no small role in this ambition. While he only coded a guest module or two in each game he’s brilliant and he really pushed Dave and I to rise to the next level.
Why did you decide to leave Naughty Dog 2004?
This is a complicated question and there are several answers. A) My contract was up and to stay (on terms I wanted) I would have had to haggle out a new one (boring). B) I was burnt out after over ten years of 90-110 hour work weeks. C) And most important, we had been training our top guys (Evan Wells, Stephen White, and Christophe Balestra) to run full game teams. They were ready.
Since handing over the reins, are you happy with how Crash Bandicoot has developed over the years?
Crash is a little like the really hot girlfriend that you dumped because of an important at the time argument. Then, years later when you run into her, find she’s a hooker with a crack problem.
What do you think of the company now? Is it how you visualised it would be?
Naughty Dog on the other hand is the kid that grew up, got straight A’s at Harvard, then founded an internet company and made a fortune. Plus they still come home for the holidays and send Mom flowers on Valentine’s day.
Would you ever consider returning to the company?
I still have tons of friends there. I just dropped by the other day and I had a rush of nostalgia for all the excitement and the sense of being part of something huge. But Evan and Christophe have things totally under control. More than that, they keep the ship running better than ever. So they don’t need another officer at the helm.
My writing fulfils a very similar creative outlet, namely building worlds.
Do you think you’ll ever return to the gaming industry as a whole – or even create another video game?
It’s hard to say. My writing fulfils a very similar creative outlet, namely building worlds. There are still games I crave making (achem… fantasy games). Really I’d love to build the most incredible MMO ever (I’m a huge WOW and Diablo fan) but then I think about the $150 million budget, the six year development plan, and the 200 person team…
What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the gaming industry throughout your career?
Ha. I can’t even begin to answer that. My career started when the Atari 2600 was king and continues to modern console games, iPhone, and Facebook games. But the really big thing that is changing is the move away from the packaged goods model where a complete game is sold for $40-70. Download only games with subscription and micro transaction models will soon be the norm.
What do you make of the games currently being released now, …including Uncharted – Drake’s Deception? What do you make of console gaming as it is today …and the games you find most interesting right now?
UC3 is a blast, I love it. I still love fantasy games. My favorites this year, having finally quite WOW (again, for now), are UC3 and Dark Souls. I really want to play Skyrim too, which I’m sure I’ll love. I got it release day too, but I had one novel to finish editing and a second to publish – I didn’t dare put it in the machine.
Zoë Ainscough couldn’t recommend Uncharted 3 enough in a review which appeared recently on PostDesk Gaming
“I don’t think the future [of games] will be better graphics – it’s not important any more. Part of it will be new business models of allowing certain aspects for free and charging for others. Making this all work in a way that doesn’t destabilize game balance will be a challenge” …”new ways of paying will have a huge effect on the structure of games”
What do you feel the future of gaming will be – and how is it going to develop over the next few years? Will it rely on enhancements in technology – or are you seeing other trends?
I don’t think it will be better and better graphics. That will happen to some extent, but it’s not important anymore. Part of it will be new business models of allowing certain aspects for free and charging for others. Making this all work in a way that doesn’t destabilize game balance will be a challenge. Integration of even more elaborate social structure is another trend. I think that in the next few years we will actually start to see less of the incredibly expensive monolithic console games. As disks go away new ways of paying are going to rear their heads and this will have a huge effect on the structure of games.
Is this forming the basis for the future of gaming?
Across your entire career to date, what achievements are you most proud of? What was your biggest success?
#1 is founding Naughty Dog and establishing in it a kind of corporate culture and ethos that puts the player first. Really NDI is all about providing good value to the player. Value in games is wow factor, fun, novelty, and a polished entertainment experience that minimizes frustration. I’m also proud individually of each of my “projects.” This includes all thirteen major games I wrote, Flektor, my compilers, both my novels, and even my website:http://all-things-andy-gavin.com .
One of the biggest was difficulties in integrating with radically different corporate cultures after acquisition… Jason and I always put customer and innovation first trying to do ambitious projects with a very high level of execution. Sort of an Apple (with Jobs) model. Not all companies run this way. There are other models like “rip off the other guy cheaper.” This is valid, but we just never thought that way.
What has been the biggest ‘failure’ that you’ve had to overcome in your career?
I don’t have what I consider any serious failures. More a lot of “lessons” of various degrees of severity. One of the biggest was difficulties in integrating with radically different corporate cultures after acquisition. Hint this had nothing to do with Naughty Dog or Sony which went great. Jason and I always put customer and innovation first trying to do ambitious projects with a very high level of execution. Sort of an Apple (with Jobs) model. Not all companies run this way. There are other models like “rip off the other guy cheaper.” This is valid, but we just never thought that way.
Has being a novelist always been an ambition of yours?
I’ve been an avid reader my whole life (over 10,000 novels and who knows how many non-fiction volumes). Mostly fantasy, horror, historical or science fiction. In high school, I won several national literary awards for my short stories and I was an editor and contributor to our high school literary magazine. In college, despite being a diehard science guy, I took creative writing classes (sometimes I was the only guy) and submitted stories to Science Fiction and Fantasy magazines (not that they ever bought any!). I wrote the stories for some of our games (don’t judge my novels by that, in the old days games couldn’t afford real stories). But the insane work output needed for Playstation games didn’t leave me the time to write and so it was with considerable zeal that I turned to it seriously two and a half years ago.
“My first novel, The Darkening Dream, was just published. You can find out all about it at the-darkening-dream.com and it’s for sale now.”
Tell us about your new books – and what are you working on right now?
I have three books in various stages of production. My first novel, The Darkening Dream, was just published. You can find out all about it athttp://the-darkening-dream.com and it’s for sale now. This is a fast paced historical fantasy about a bunch of teens who try to stop some really creepy supernatural chaps from maiming, killing, and destroying the world. The teens get in over their heads. Really over their heads. All of the magic (and there’s a lot) is based on real historical occult, which makes it much creepier than the made up stuff – because truth is stranger than fiction. My second book, Untimed, is a YA time travel novel about the crazy adventures of a boy no one remembers, who falls through a hole in time and finds himself lost in the past. It’s really slick, funny, and fast paced. I just finished editing it and am now figuring out who I want to publish it. Then I’m supposed to be writing my third novel, but instead I’m answering interview questions and learning how to layout a print ready file. J
What are you reading right now?
Julian, by Gore Vidal. This is a historical bestseller from the 60s about Julian the Apostate who is a really interesting Roman Emperor from late antiquity. It’s part of a particular a branch of investigation for my new novel. All of my books involve history in some way. One of my ambitions is to show that history doesn’t have to be boring, quite the contrary. Untimed bounces through four centuries and it’s lightning paced.
“Creating worlds and stories has always been one of my great passions. I’ve been doing it my entire life. With novels it’s very intimate and you have nearly infinite control”
What are your plans and ambitions for the future?
In the short run (2012) I’d like to finish two more novels (gulp) and turn The Darkening Dream and Untimed into bestsellers. The writing part of being a writer is really fun and creative – although way more work than I imagined, and I imagined a lot. Creating worlds and stories has always been one of my great passions. I’ve been doing it my entire life. With novels it’s very intimate and you have nearly infinite control. There are limitations of the medium, POV, etc., but there are few technical tradeoffs and no budgets or meetings. Only time and imagination limit what you can do. This is why, despite the profusion of all sorts of fantastic new mediums, novels are still one of the beststorytelling devices. Most games are more about gameplay and fun than story – even if Uncharted has been changing that. Long form television (like high budget cable shows) is also very good now. I love HBO and Showtime dramas. They sport some of the best writing in film or television today. Film is really too short for in depth characterization, although the best of them rise above this limitation.
You can find more on Andy Gavin’s writing at andy-gavin-author.com, on his first novel at the-darkening-dream.com, and the second novel atuntimed-novel.com. The Darkening Dream is available on Amazon Kindle for $4.99 at Amazon.com and for £3.27 at Amazon.co.uk. [Prices correct at time of going to press]
The Darkening Dream is an “ominous vision and the discovery of a gruesome corpse lead Sarah Engelmann into a terrifying encounter with the supernatural in 1913 Salem, Massachusetts. With help from Alex, an attractive Greek immigrant, Sarah sets out to track the evil to its source,never guessing that she will take on a conspiracy involving not only a 900-year vampire, but also a demon-loving Puritan warlock, disgruntled Egyptian gods, and an immortal sorcerer, all on a quest to recover the holy trumpet of the Archangel Gabriel.Relying on the wisdom of an elderly vampire hunter, Sarah’s rabbi father, and her own disturbing visions, Sarah must fight a millennia-old battle between unspeakable forces, where the ultimate prize might be herself”.
Title: Stake Land
Genre: Zombie Thriller
Watched: February 22, 2012
Summary: Impressive addition to the genre
Steak Land is a very ambitious film. On a diminutive budget, it attempts to paint a fairly complete vision of a post-apocalyptic America — and is successful enough to be impressive. There is nothing original in the set up. Some kind of virus has devastated the world turning much of the population into vampires/zombie hybrids. Those that didn’t suffer this worse-than-death fate had their necks torn out or their brains eaten. Our heroes are a teenage boy and a kick ass monster hunter known only as Mr. They travel across America seeking a monster free zone picking up various strays along the way. Meanwhile, the zombie-like “vamps” pop out of nowhere on a continuous basis. And even worse there are homicidal religious maniacs deal with.
None of these themes are new. And the film feels a bit of the mashup of The Road, the Book of Eli, I am legend, Zombieland, and 28 days later. It’s on the darker side, rarely comic, and closest to The Road. But without the completely unrelenting sense of dread and hopelessness of that film. Despite costing a fraction of the above, Steak Land manages to feel pretty authentic. And it’s ultimately more successful and watchable than The Road or the Book of Eli. the director spends time his characters, and in particular on post-apocalyptic America as well. By frequently lingering on the devastation, and on the multitude of corpses, he fairly effectively paints the bleak landscape. There some effort here to imagine different approaches to survival. Not only complete sense, but I give him an A for effort. The monsters a fairly interesting, combining the mindless qualities of zombies with some of the powers and weaknesses of vampires.
The same is true with the characterization. The writer-director wants to make these fleshed out characters. And some extent he succeeds. There are occasionally cheesy moments, but they are certainly forgivable given the budget. His religious nut job villain is quite enjoyable — although when he inevitably vamps out a little gratuitous. And the concluding events felt a little rushed, robbing them of proper emotional depth. Still, the film is a surprisingly impressive addition to the genre.
Interestingly, the film has many superficial similarities to Naughty Dog’s upcoming game The Last of Us.
A video interview of myself and other Jak & Daxter team members talking about the game 10 years later.
A couple of weeks ago I went back to Naughty Dog to do some interviews for the Jak & Daxter Collection, which releases tomorrow (February 7). And of course you should go buy this right away, only one click AFTER you buy my novel, The Darkening Dream. But my thoughts about the visit have been logged on the Naughty Dog blog:
While I’m still good friends with many Naughty Dogs and frequently see them socially, it’s been a couple years since I was in the office itself – and this was my first time in the new gigantic Watergarden 2.0 space.
Wow! My baby is all grown up and popped out a helluva pack of rugrats. When I left, the office was 25,000 sq/feet and we had about 80 people – which at the time, seemed enormous enough – now it’s over twice that big with more than twice the folks. From the walls hang giant murals of Naughty Dog masterpieces. It’s enough to make you feel small…
I also got the chance to catch up with all my friends, virtual and real.
Modern man has a wide variety of “pure” storytelling mediums, like film, long form television, and novels. While these have some very significant differences they all share the same basic focus on plot and character. Typically at least, good stories introduce a character with problems, get you to like them, then chronicle the struggle as they are compelled to change and adapt to overcome these problems. In the end, they either do so, or are defeated to teach us a lesson (a variant we call tragedy).
These elements: character, plot, and transformational arc, are completely central to the normal story (I deliberately ignore weird experimental storytelling). Really, they are the core of what makes a good film or novel.
But with a game, this whole business is secondary. The primary focus of a game is fun. And fun through gameplay. Does Tetris have any character or plot? Did even Doom? No. But they were fun games. Really fun.
The gameplay in Uncharted 2, for example, has three primary modes: survival gunplay, platforming, and puzzle solving. The player must assess the layout of the level, learn it, and navigate it without getting killed. This involves anticipating the enemies and taking them out first. You use the weapons at your disposal, the mechanics, and the terrain provided to do so. With platforming you need to come to understand what the character can do physical, find your way, and successfully traverse the route.
When these are done well, when the design is varied, the levels pretty, the enemies cool, and the challenges measured, challenging and above all, doable – it’s fun. Uncharted 2 is such a game.
It also has a pretty darn good story which is woven in with the design of the levels and the challenges. This adds to the whole thing. Watching the next segment of story becomes part of your reward for finishing a segment. There is a tremendous level of art that goes into getting both of these to work at the same time, but certainly each is constrained at times by the needs of the other.
Content in games is expensive and difficult to make. Therefore it needs to repeat. You really do need to shoot the same enemy hundreds of times. Otherwise the enemy isn’t providing enough mileage to justify the labor involved to create him. The player is also in control and therefore the consequences of his play affect success or failure.
But in storytelling, success and failure are the carefully monitored heartbeat of any good story. You bring the protagonist up, dash him down, grind him into the ground, lift him up, slam him sideways. I knew this intuitively when writing my first novel, The Darkening Dream. I’ve read so many books and watched so many films and shows that it seemed “obvious.” But at the same time, it turned out to be far from easy. Writing a good story has less constraints than making a good game, but it’s still extremely difficult. You need to be constantly balancing the issues of character, motivation, the logic of the plot, and the need to seesaw the dramatic tension. In the end stylistic concerns sometimes overwhelm dramatic ones (to the reader’s detriment).
In a game, it’s even more complicated, and there is barely a chance of hitting all the right dramatic notes. The player has a lot to say about this natural up and down pacing, so the story-based game tries to separate how well you are really doing from the actual plot. Usually death or failure in the game causes the player to merely repeat some segment of the game (and hence the story), when they finish the level and get the next segment of storytelling, they’ll get it regardless of whether they died once or 100 times. The better player merely proceeds faster.
This is different, but even more problematic in a less linear game such as World of Warcraft. There, the mechanics of the game heavily distort the conceits of storytelling. The story is even broadly linked to the chronological evolution of the game in real time. For example, in December of 2009 Blizzard released the Icecrown Citadel patch of Wrath of the Lich King, making it possible for players to finally reach and confront the ultimate boss of the expansion (the titular Lich King). But the fact is, in order to properly maintain the reward mechanics of endgame raiding, each character was and often did, progress through this segment of the story once, or even twice a week.
Now, two years later, the Lich King has been defeated, the world of Azeroth has been broken, yet it’s still possible to go back to Icecrown and take on Arthas again. And again. Ditto for any of the several hundred even older bosses. Players accept that they have random access to a long and convoluted story. In fact, the need to generate so much gameplay in WOW has created a body of lore that gives the Silmarillion a run for its money. But the way in which it’s experienced mutes the emotional intensity.
What really provides the excitement in WOW (and many other games), isn’t the question of whether the dragon queen Onyxia lives or dies, but the – shall we dare say – drama of whether she does tonight, for us, the group fighting her. And more importantly, will she drop the Nemesis skullcap (arbitrary cool piece of loot) one has been trying to get for six months.
It’s probably hard for younger gamers to recognize the position in gaming that Japan occupied from the mid eighties to the late 90s. First of all, after video games rose like a phoenix from the “great crash of ’82″ (in which the classic coin-op and Atari dominated home market imploded), all major video game machines were from Japan until the arrival of the Xbox. Things were dominated by Nintendo, Sega, Nintendo, Sony, Nintendo, Sony… you get the picture.
And in the days before the home market eclipsed and destroyed the arcade, Japan completely crushed everyone else. Only the occasional US hit like Mortal Kombat even registered on the radar.
All of this, not to mention the cool samurai/anime culture and ridiculously yummy food (see my sushi index!), made us American video game creators pretty much all Miyamoto groupies.
But on the flip side, American games, if they even made it to the land of the rising sun at all, almost always flopped.
Japanese taste is different the wisdom went. Special. Foreign games even had a special name over there (which I have no idea how to spell). These “lesser” titles were stocked in a seedy back corner of your typical Japanese game store, near the oddball porn games.
So it was with great enthusiasm and limited expectations that we approached the mutual Naughty Dog, Mark Cerny, and Sony decision that we were going to take the Japanese market really seriously with Crash. Sony assigned two brilliant and dedicated producers to us: Shuhei Yoshida and his then assistant Shimizu (aka Tsurumi-0600). They sat in on every major planning meeting and we scheduled the whole fall for me to localize the game in exacting detail (while we were simultaneously beginning work on Crash 2!).
For the most part, Yoshida-san made things happen and Shimizu, who has literally played like every video game ever made and read like every manga, worked the details. I (with a bunch of help from the artists) had to put in the changes.
Somehow Yoshida-san was able to maneuver the game into being not one of those funny foreign games, but an official bona fide release of Sony Computer Entertainment, Inc. the first party Japanese studio. And it was to be sold and marketed pretty much like it had been made in Japan! Wow!
So to pull off this cultural masquerade Jason and I decided that Shu (as Yoshida-san was affectionately known) and Shimizu got pretty much whatever they wanted. They after all, knew the mysterious Japanese market. Which turned out to be pretty darn true. And, besides, both are really really smart and crazy hard workers (Shimizu is famous for sleeping under his desk) and so we all got along famously.
The gameplay itself wasn’t really too much of an issue. Shimizu did help us smooth out some sections and make them easier (often by adding extra continue points − opposite of Europe). But there were a lot of other changes.
First of all, we had to translate the text. Some of this wasn’t so bad. But the main logo was a 3D object and Jason had to painstakingly create a version of the paper design the Japanese provided us — which required lots of checking from Shimizu as he doesn’t speak Japanese.
Above is the opening in Japanese.
And things got even harder (for me) with the in game text. The Playstation didn’t have a lot of video memory and we were using a medium resolution 512 pixel wide mode anyway. What little there was, we had pretty much consumed. But the Japanese language has four alphabets! One is Latin, two are similar but different looking phonetic alphabets, and the last is the giant Kanji pictographic database. Kanji would’ve been impossible, but we needed to cram the two extra phonetic sets in. Plus the characters are more intricate than the Latin alphabet and need more pixels. I can’t remember what I did to squeeze them in, but I do remember it was painful. One part I do recall was implementing the sets of letters that vary only by an extra dot or ” mark by drawing them with two sprites (hence saving video ram).
Once the font was installed we had to input the crazy looking “shift JIS” text. One of the problems in those days was that the text editors all 8-bit, unlike today were 16-bit typesets dominate. And with a European language you can usually tell if a line of text had gotten swapped or mangled, but in Japanese… and even worse, in shift JIS it just looks like a bunch of garbage characters.
So again, Shimizu had to check everything. A lot.
Our opening and closing cut scene dialog was recorded in Japanese using very high profile Japanese actors (so they told me). We replaced those audio files (using one of my automated systems of course!). There were also a good number of cases throughout the game where we had placed text in textures. The configuration screens, loading screens, load/save screens and all sorts of other ones. These all needed new versions. We collected all of these textures, shipped them out to Japan and got back Shimizu certified versions in exactly the same sizes with the Japanese text. I used and upgraded the system that I had built for the European version so that any file (texture, audio, etc) in the game could be “replaced” by a file of the same name in the same directory with a .J on the end (or a .S, .E, .F, .G, .I for various European permutations). The level packaging tool would automatically suck up the most appropriate version and shove it in the J versions of the levels. I’m not sure we left ANYTHING untranslated. Even Japanese games usually had more Engrish. Achem, English. I so remember a Castlevania with “Dlacura’s grave.”
Then the Japanese came up with this idea of having Aku Aku explain various gameplay mechanics to you when you break his boxes, much like the raspberry boxes in Super Mario World. This was a great idea, except it meant that the game was suddenly filled with about 200 extra paragraphs of text. Undecipherable text. I had to squeeze that into the levels too. More problematic was the seemingly simple fact that when a big block of text comes up on the screen the game effectively needs to pause so the player can read it. You can’t just “hit pause” but need a separate state. This simple feature caused a lot of bugs. A lot. But we stomped them out eventually.
Above you can see a walk through of the first level. A lot of the PITA localization work was in the save screens (big fun: character entry screen in three Japanese alphabets) and the various statistic screens at the end of the level. I think the Japanese allowed us to do away with the horrible password system and use memory card only.
The Japanese also had some famous actor record a whole collection of really zany sounding grunts and noises that Crash was to make. Shimizu lovingly crafted long lists of extremely specific places in the game where exactly such and such exclamation was to be uttered. He was never one to spare either of us from a great deal of work But his willingness to tackle any task himself, no matter how tedious, made him hard to refuse. I also had to squeeze all these extra samples into the extremely tight sound memory, mostly by downgrading the bit-rate on other sounds. This caused Mike Gollom, our awesome sound design contractor to groan and moan. “3.5k is pure butchery” he’d complain. I found this SGI tool that used a really advanced new algorithm to downgrade the sounds, they sounded twice as good at any given bit-rate than the Sony tool.
Anyway the really funny bit about these Crash sounds was the subjective feel they left us Americans with. Strange! They made Crash sound like a constipated old man. But the Japanese insisted they were perfect. I guess they were right because the game sold like crazy over there.
Another weird audio difference was that five of the songs were swapped out for new ones. Josh Mancell the composer put it this way:
An 11th hour decision made by the Sony people in Japan. They felt that the boss rounds needed to sound more ‘video game-like’. The only reference they gave was music from the Main Street Electrical Parade at Disneyland. I only had a day or so to write all those themes. My favorite comment was about the original Tawna bonus round music. It roughly translated into ‘the sound of the guitar mixed with the tree imagery is too nostalgic-sounding’. I’m still scratching my head on that one.
There were also a host of minor but strange modifications we needed to make. One was that a few characters originally had four fingers, which is typical of most American cartoon characters. Apparently the Japanese have a more than usual dislike of disfigured humanoids. Fingers were added (to make them the normal five). There were a whole bunch of little visual, audio, and gameplay changes Shimizu had us make to the game. Most of these I felt were neutral, different but not really better or worse, so I just trusted him and put them in. Occasionally if they were a really pain I pushed back.
Eventually, right around Thanksgiving, just in time for Jason and I to head to Japan to promote it, the Japanese version was ready!
The American version shipped in early September 1996. We finished it in early August (manufacture took a month). From my perspective — and it’s worth noting that during the Crash period I personally did most of the localization work — the European version was finished at the same time. I’d killed myself getting it ready during July. But Europe itself liked to drag matters out with a leisurely testing schedule. I wanted it done, because until it was, I couldn’t do much else.
At Naughty Dog, we pioneered the idea of simultaneous international release. By Crash 2 and Crash 3 the same exact code, conditionalized very slightly, ran all three versions. Jak & Daxter was one of the first games where the American version included the European languages. By Jak II you could switch languages on the fly in the menu anytime. We wanted one code base, one art base, one thing to debug. We wanted it for sale simultaneously world wide. I wanted one gold master.
This goal and the tools to do it began on Crash 1, and were fairly well in place by Crash 2. The international groups weren’t quite as on board and year after year dragged out the European and Japanese editions for extra testing. As best I can tell this resulted mostly from a “this is the way it’s always been done” kind of mentality. Jason and I have never been big on that type of reasoning. Still, that personal caveat aside, even from Crash 1, Sony’s international teams did an awesome job, putting in a tremendous effort to ensure the product was really polished for each territory.
Anyway, each territory had its own quirks. With the European version, they stemmed from PAL, the old European video standard. PAL actually has a slightly higher resolution and better color fidelity than NTSC (the US standard). But the kicker is that it runs at 50 hertz instead of 60. For Crash this meant that the frame rate would be 25 frames per second instead of 30.
The resolution itself wasn’t much of a problem. Crash was mostly a 3D game and it wasn’t hard to adjust the projection matrix in the engine to render the game to a different resolution. But the aspect ratio of PAL pixels is also a little different and Crash did have a certain amount of bitmap graphics like the powerups and font. The PAL frame buffers were larger and the machine had the same video RAM so increasing the resolution of the sprites was rarely an option. Generally, we just had to live with a slight aspect shift or stretch them to fit. I developed notation in the original data so that different kinds of sprites could go either way in a fairly uniform manner.
The real kicker was the frame rate. One of the reasons why the animation in Crash is so so much better than most of its contemporaries is that we stored every vertex for every frame — then compressed the living crap out of it. This meant that each segment of animation was sampled from Alias PowerAnimator at 30 fps. I modified the tools to support making a second copy of every animation where the step rate was adjusted to 25fps. The pal version used these files instead of the originals. This worked about 80% of the time. Sometimes it became necessary to notate a particular animation segment as having a strange or custom step for PAL, or even hand code certain frames. I added special constructs to my custom language (GOOL) which made this stuff as automatic as I could.But the physics and collision systems also needed to adjust to the different frame rate. I had done PAL conversions for Rings of Power and Way of the Warriorand having every great programmer’s hatred for tedium had developed the notion when starting Crash that I would notate all “time and space based” units not in the traditional game programmer manner of “moves X pixels per frame” but in a kind of neutral space. Hence everything in Crash was measured in meters, seconds, and the like. I built into GOOL constructs like (meters 5) or (meters-per-second 2.5). The compiler or the runtime (depended) would convert these on the fly into the appropriate pixel per frame units.
This had a number of big advantages. First of all, even without the PAL issue, it allowed the physics (and the enemies) to move in a fairly frame rate independent way. Special functions were used to deal with velocity and acceleration which took into account the current frame’s estimated real time (based usually on how long it took the previous frame to compute and render). This meant that the code which propelled Crash in a parabolic arc as he jumped would move him further per frame if the frame rate slipped to 20 or 15 (which, unfortunately, it sometimes did). This wasn’t a perfect solution, 15 fps still played worse than 30, but it helped.
And it really paid off with the PAL conversion. The hard work — and it was incredibly tedious — really only took me about five days. After running all the automatic convertors and debugging those I had to go through the entire game and check every single level, every creature, every behavior of every creature or object and make sure it stilled played and looked okay in PAL. If it didn’t I had to play with the numbers, or in the worst case add some special “if PAL do it a little differently” clauses to the GOOL code.
But this was in a world where most American games just played 16% more sluggishly in Europe and most European games 16% fast in America.
Crash played great in both — and looked great in both. The Euro version actually even looked a little better (higher resolution and better color) although the feel at 25hz was slightly inferior. But we didn’t invent the TV standard.
The final tricky bit with localization was the language(s). Crash 1 didn’t really have any voice (which was to become a huge deal in later games). But it did have some text.
In typical programmer fashion, I invented another system for this. All of the text was generated by literal strings in the GOOL code, and since I controlled the compiler, I added a feature where a mapping file could be created for each language specifying the English text and the equivalent phrases in each of our five languages (English, French, Spanish, German, Italian). I changed the way strings were handled to index into a table and to have five files on disk for the string buffer. This is typical now, but was very unusual then. Even on Crash 1 you could change the language on the fly. But Europe made me put the toggle only at the main menu because they didn’t want to have to test for weird bugs that came up when you switched languages in the middle of a level.
I systemized all of this stuff by having the tools and the game itself both have separate notions of: video rate (NTSC, PAL), territory (which country’s disc it actually was), and language. This separated the concept of language from territory, opening up the possibility of foreign languages in the American versions (which didn’t happen until Jak 1 for logistical and legal reasons).
As requests came in from Europe to do peculiar and territory specific things like “make the game harder because European gamers like a challenge” (after Crash 1 we refused to acknowledge this “truism”) I modified the tools to allow territory specific overrides in the files that controlled the game data. For example, CONTINUE_POINT_64_32 in the jungle level, “hide in europe.” While I’m not sure the frustrated Euro gamer appreciated it, the system did make serving the producer’s requests easier.
In any case, the Euro version of Crash was lavished with the same attention to detail with which we did everything, and Sony Europe did the same. This was one (if not the) first product for which the whole international organization was behind and where they controlled the worldwide rights. Each Sony territory really pulled out all the stops in supporting and promoting the game as “made here.” It was highly localized, not just the game itself but each little country in Europe doing its own advertising and marketing campaign. Even the Irish filmed their own ads with Irish accented actors. Traditionally game players were highly “nationalistic” with, for example, French games selling better in France. The attention paid by both us and at all levels of the Sony infrastructure to selling a worldwide product aimed specifically at each and every consumer group really paid off.
The game sold like wildfire everywhere. Although we had certain champion territories like France and Australia (Crash’s virtual birthplace) who really poured on the love.
This is the kickoff post for my new experimental — and hopefully permanent – giveaway program. Via this contest you, dear reader, will have the opportunity to win signed copies of Crash Bandicoot and Jak & Daxter games as well as my books and cool toys. All you have to do is participate in my gleefully elaborate scheme to help sell and promote my new novel, The Darkening Dream.
Or by clicking anytime on the big contest icon in the sidebar.
So if signed copies of any of the following look up your alley, read the rules and participate! And even if you aren’t a collector they apparently have significant dollar value because a set of four signed Crashs sold on Ebay recently for over $453!