Interview: Amy Hennig on Making Uncharted 2, Maximizing PS3, and More

November 02, 2009 | By:

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Amy Henning

Last week we brought you first word about Uncharted 2‘s initial sales and developer Naughty Dog’s plans to support the game with DLC this year. Today we’re pleased to bring you the entire interview we conducted with Creative Director Amy Hennig, who was very generous with her time. We discussed the game making process, the advantage of good voice acting, the possibility of bringing the franchise to PSP, working exclusively on PS3, and we finished by getting her thoughts on Legacy of Kain, the previous franchise she worked on at Crystal Dynamics six years ago. Enjoy!

IndustryGamers:  The game’s had glowing reviews, but how do you feel about the retail reception so far? Meeting expectations, exceeding them?  

Amy Hennig: I would definitely say it’s exceeding expectations. Being in the industry for a while you learn to try to manage your expectations because you’d rather be surprised with good news than disappointed. It’s a tough business, but from the early numbers I’ve seen getting reported back it’s exceeded any estimates we had internally, and it’s certainly outsold the first game by many, many times. That and the critical reception so far has been really gratifying.

IG: Obviously Indiana Jones has been an influence, but what other influences affected your design choices on Uncharted 2?

AH: A lot of our influences were the same ones that were influences for Indiana Jones. When we set out to establish a new franchise or IP and we were just starting with the PS3, we knew we wanted to do something that was different than everybody else was doing in the industry. It felt like there was a lot of cynicism in games. Things were gritty and post-apocalyptic and it seemed like what was missing – for us anyway – was the charm and the humor and a little bit of romance (in the non-specific sense of the word), and just the fun and color of a genre like action-adventure. We went back to the earliest aspects of the genre, back to novels from the 19th century through early pulp models like Doc Savage and really early adventure movies like Gunga Din and movie serials like Jungle Girl from the ’50s… the list of influences is huge.  And we dug up all these obscure movies like China and Secret of the Incas that had influenced Lucas and Spielberg as well. 

And in addition to Indiana, we looked at Goonies and more recently things like National Treasure and DaVinci Code, and we examined this whole spectrum of the genre and everyone playing in this same sandbox and we said, “Wouldn’t it be fun if we dissected this experience?” We broke it down into its component parts and conventions and we said, “How do we take that well loved experience and turn it into a truly interactive gameplay experience while telling a story that would have that nostalgic appeal but not seem corny or cheesily retro?” I think the trap that a lot of movies in this genre fall into is they get a little too tongue-in-cheek. We wanted it to be contemporary. 

IG:  We’re aware that a movie is in the works with Columbia Pictures, but putting together a story for a video game versus a film are two very different challenges. Can you talk about your approach to crafting a story specifically for a video game?

AH:  The things that you wouldn’t even worry about in a film like a costume change become a huge issue for us because suddenly you’re asking an artist to spend a month or two remodeling a character… and then there are other things that would be miserable for a filmmaker to deal with like a shot where the characters weren’t quite filmed correctly or the lighting was bad. Well, we can just move the sun! [laughs] So things that are easy for us are hard for them and vice versa, but there are a lot of similarities too. Our challenge is to take a lot of elements you might find in a film and say, “We don’t want to make that a passive experience, we need to make it an active one.” We need to make sure the controller is in the player’s hands as much as possible even though there are some non-interactive moments. 

And we want to take this spectacular set piece of this intense moment and let you play through it, which is our advantage over film. We have to acknowledge that our medium is interactive and film is passive. It’s a completely different experience, and it’s actually different in terms of dealing with questions of agency and morality on the player’s part. I think there are some interesting things that we have to deal with that film doesn’t because you can watch a film and say it’s an edifying experience… but if you’ve got the controller in your hands and you’re actively doing things it’s a whole different emotional and moral question. I think it’s important for us to look at that. Also, to tell a traditional story there’s a certain amount of linearity required, but we need to widen that up for the player… we need to give them a lot of latitude and choices so they can personalize the experience.  

Another challenge is, because we want the player to identify with Nathan Drake, we don’t ever want to put the player in a privileged position like you could in a film. So for instance, we never can cut away and say, “Meanwhile back at the ranch here’s what the vilains are doing.” The player doesn’t see or experience anything that Drake doesn’t. That makes the storytelling that much more complicated because we can’t fill in information; all the exposition has to happen right there in the game. 

IG: Uncharted and Uncharted 2 are both very cinematic games, and a sign of increasing convergence with Hollywood. Some studios, like Ubisoft with Assassin’s Creed for example, are making actual short films to expand the universe and help promote their games. Would you be interested in doing something like that, perhaps make it available for download on PSN?  

AH:  There’s no right or wrong way to do any of this; there are lots of ways to tell stories within franchises. I actually hate it when people get really dogmatic about because I think it’s silly. I think what we’re finding is that there’s maybe more pressure now to expand your IP with ancillary stuff. For instance, we released a motion comic [on PSN] that has a little backstory vignette of Drake, and of course we’re working with Arad Productions and Columbia on the movie… But I don’t know that we would ever do little standalone live-action shorts or anything like that; we’d probably stay within our medium, and maybe do some episodic stuff with our game engine, just so the look would be more consistent. But in terms of that melding of Hollywood and games, which I think we’re even more aware of being here in LA than some other developers would be, where that’s affected us has more to do with how we work with our actors and the approach we take with our production processes.

IG:  Speaking of the actors, one thing that seems to really make a huge difference in the games you’ve worked on is voice acting. The Legacy of Kain and Soul Reaver titles had amazing performances. And Uncharted does as well. What’s your thought on how far acting in games has come today? 

AH: It’s definitely improving; I think we keep raising the bar for each other in the industry. One of the things we tried to do back on the Legacy of Kain series, which we carried forward with Uncharted as well is that we always have the actors working together. That’s one of those things which unfortunately is much rarer than you would think in our industry. To step back for a second, everything has to start with the writing. You have to take the story seriously and it has to be one of the pillars of your production; it can’t be an afterthought. You have to look at it the same way as if you were making a film or TV series… it has to be a character driven story. I think that’s why maybe we have a greater demographic appeal than some other games, because we do take it seriously. Despite all of the spectacle and visceral excitement in the game… we’re pulling the player through by making them care about the characters underneath. I think that doesn’t happen enough in games.

Thinking about it from an actor’s perspective, they say acting is reacting, but for most games the way they record dialogue is the actor is all alone in front of a mic, they read it, and they have no idea why it’s relevant to the story, who they’re talking to, and they’re not talking to the other actor. Just taking that one step of having the actors together makes a huge difference because now they can follow a rhythm and react. And for Uncharted, what we’re doing is unique because the process is much more like we’re working on a TV series. We have the actors working with us over the entire course of the production on a regular basis. We do table reads, we rewrite together, all the actors perform together on the mo-cap stage… so we pick up all of that organic stuff, improvisations, ad-libs that would never occur otherwise.

IG:  I was amazed when I read last month that Naughty Dog doesn’t have any management or producers. That’s pretty unusual. How did that come to be and how does the team stay on track?

AH:  Well, we call it organized chaos. This is something that started with Naughty Dog culturally when it was just a handful of people and we’ve managed to maintain it as the company’s grown to its current size, which is closer to 100 people. When I say we have no producers, obviously we do have producers at Sony and I don’t want to make it sound like they’re not part of the picture, but they’re very hands-off; they’re there to make sure we have what we need financially, resource-wise, that we’re getting advocated back up into the company, all that kind of stuff. In terms of day-to-day management, people are shocked because we don’t really have meetings, we don’t have schedules per se… we have some spreadsheets where we chart out some macro goals. Everything’s just done a little bit ad hoc. What that requires is we all act as managers. We have to be self-managing but we do have leads and directors in the different departments. It’s very flat though – not a vertical structure in terms of hierarchy. We expect that any person in the company can kick up a concern or idea to anybody else. These meetings might happen in the hallway spontaneously, and that’s where some of the best stuff in the game comes from. What that means is we have to be real smart and only hire experienced people who are self-managing, outspoken and communicative. … We’ve made some pretty good games and never slipped a date, so something’s going right. It’s voodoo I guess. [laughs]

IG: Uncharted 2 is arguably the system-selling title for PS3 this holiday season. Did you feel that pressure from Sony to really show what the PS3 is capable of?

AH: No, although it’s possible that Evan [Wells] and Christophe [Balestra] felt pressures that they didn’t let trickle down to the rest of us. I think the thing is that I’m not sure anybody knew just how good the game was going to turn out. Sometimes you don’t know when you’re working on it and it isn’t until the eleventh hour and all the pieces come together and you’re like “Wow, this is really coming together.” And that would go for us internally and for Sony, so it’s hard to hang your hopes on something too far back and say “We’re projecting this is going to be our tent-pole for the year.” I think it was more a gradual realization that the stars were going to align – the new hardware and the price cut and the fact that some other titles were slipping into next year and that our game was just coming together so well. It was sort of just serendipity… So it was great timing, and from the initial numbers we’ve seen it does seem to be turning into a system seller, which is great. We’re just blown away – it’s surreal for us to see the reaction the game’s getting.

IG:  We heard from one of our sources who indicated Naughty Dog hasn’t necessarily been thrilled with SCEA’s marketing efforts for Uncharted 2, that Sony could have done even more to push the title out there. Are you pleased with the marketing?

AH:  I think it’s really come together. There were some concerns on the previous game I think. To be honest, I think it was a little bit of enigma for people. It’s not a very typical game. Even though we’re coming from this action-adventure tradition, I think people were looking at the game and wondering, “What’s the hook?”  We’re looking at Drake in a t-shirt and jeans… how do we sell this guy? He’s not Kratos and he’s not a space marine, so how do you communicate this somewhat ambiguous message that if you buy this game you’ll be playing a summer blockbuster? I think it took us a while, both internally and at Sony, to figure out how to get that message across. I feel like we’ve done a much better job on Uncharted 2. It was a gradual thing to engender enough support and faith that even without that iconic hook that we could communicate this message and people would latch onto it. Thankfully, the response, both critically and in terms of sales, I think has confirmed that. You don’t have to have some one-word hook or costumed hero… I think you can market a game like you market a film, and there can be some nuance to it and people will respond. In a way, I don’t think it was until we came out of E3 that any of us realized what kind of momentum that game already had. That helped light a fire under all of us. 

It’s a tough time also, because of the economy nobody in the industry can pour ridiculous amounts into marketing anything right now; we have to be a little conservative. That’s what’s so nice to see – regardless of that, our game seems to have this great word of mouth, and when you’ve got that kind of fan support that’s even more gratifying than thinking some multi-million dollar ad campaign is selling a bunch of games. That people are evangelizing it to each other is way more flattering. 

IG:  Why wasn’t there a special edition release for Uncharted 2?

AH: I can’t really speak to that as well as someone within Sony, but we would have loved to have seen one, to be honest. I think it’s very cool that we’re doing the Fortune Hunter edition, which because of its  price point and manufacturing costs would have been prohibitively difficult to market and sell at retail. It’s a nice gift to the fans; I wish more people could get it in their hands. It’s not cheap – even we have to pay for it if we want a copy, believe me! 

IG: Third parties sometimes complain about difficulty for developing on PS3 but studios such as Naughty Dog, Insomniac, Guerilla Games or Sucker Punch have learned how to really push the hardware it seems. Are the third parties just being lazy?

AH: No, I think they’re just in a difficult position and I think I can speak to that a little bit; I’ve been at Naughty Dog for six years but before that I was at Crystal Dynamics and we were a multiplatform company. There’s a huge benefit to being able to focus on one piece of hardware and customize your engine to that hardware, especially hardware like the PS3. This probably sounds like PR speak and it’s not – that machine is a beast. It’s amazing what it can do. When you get all the SPUs working and you’re really using the Cell processor to its full capabilities like we’re able to do with Uncharted 2, it’s awesome. But if you’re a company that has to do multiplatform development, you can’t write completely separate engines for the different hardware. You have to sort of write a common engine and then port it over, and unfortunately what we’ve seen most times is a lot of the publishers and developers are writing for the 360 and then porting to PS3, and that doesn’t let them take advantage of everything the PS3 can do. 

So we’re really in a privileged position to be able to use the hardware to its fullest, and I’m hoping some of us who are single platform developers can raise the bar for people who are doing multiplatform development and that our audience out there will require more of them, now that they know what the PS3 hardware can do. I think our game is proof of what can be done, and we’re not pushing the hardware as far as it can go. When we talk about really using the hardware to its full potential… we’ve got all the SPUs running but we can still optimize our code. If we do another game on this hardware it’s going to look better than Uncharted 2.  

IG: Is there a plan for DLC in Uncharted 2?

AH:  Absolutely, we’re working on that now, and what we’re prepared to say is that there will be DLC available before the end of the year. Without going into specifics, it’ll involve new maps, new characters, things like that. Some of it will be free of charge and some of it will be purchasable. We’ve got a lot of people on the team working on this stuff, some really cool stuff that people will be excited about. So we’re definitely taking it very seriously.

IG: A lot of the big franchises from PS3 seem to be making the transition to PSP, like God of War, Gran Turismo, LittleBigPlanet, Metal Gear, and so on.  Before we get to an Uncharted 3, do you think we’ll see a PSP title that perhaps bridges the gap or tells a side-story?

AH: It’s certainly a possibility; there’s nothing we can announce at this point, but it’s hardware that we’re excited about. As we were talking about earlier, you want to maximize your IP in all these ancillary ways… you want to explore the different possibilities with it.  Whether there will be a PSP title or if it would bridge anything between games I can’t speak to, but it’s something we think is pretty cool as a possibility. 

IG:  As one of the more important studios working on PS3, what are your thoughts on the upcoming PlayStation motion controller? Has Naughty Dog had some time to explore some ideas to support it?

AH: Actually, we were so busy with Uncharted 2… I’ve personally not had a chance to mess around with it.  Perhaps Evan or Christophe or one of the tech guys have. It’s definitely cool and I think there’s a lot that could be done with it. The concern that developers always have to look at is we never want to do anything gimmicky because players see through that right away. What you want to see is developers looking at that input device as the primary input, and what kind of games could you make for it, as opposed to feeling like “well, we tacked something on because this piece of hardware exists.” That’s the challenge – how do you really exploit this thing? It’s a whole different paradigm. Fundamentally, when we look at something like Uncharted 2, that game is primarily about traditional input; it’s about sitting on the couch with the controller in your lap and losing yourself in the experience.  We wouldn’t want to deviate too much from that idea.

IG:  Finally, before we wrap, I wanted to ask you about Legacy of Kain, since I’m personally a fan of that series. I realize you can’t speak for Eidos, but do you think we’ll ever see that franchise again? Did you want to continue work on it?

AH: Well anything I would say is complete speculation because I’ve been away from Crystal Dynamics for six years now, but I felt like I got to do what I wanted to do. Do I feel like I got cutoff midstream? No, I’m the one that left and joined Naughty Dog, and I knew in the middle of development on Defiance that I was going to leave and join Naughty Dog. So I was wrapping up my story. All I can tell you is that Eidos and Crystal Dynamics legitimately love that franchise. If anyone thinks it’s sort of been thrown in the dustbin without any thought or care, that’s not the case at all. I know they would love to revive it when the time is right and resources are there. I’m sure it’s something they talk about; whether it’ll ever happen I don’t know. I think it would have to be reinvented a bit at this point. If I was magically there working on it, I would look at it that way too – you have to look at it from the perspective of the marketplace and the audience. You can’t necessarily craft things for a fan audience because you’ll end up with a niche product. But I think they still see the franchise as a valuable IP in their stable, and they’re just waiting for the right time to do something with it. I know they’re solely focused on Tomb Raider right now, and they’re not a huge studio, but who knows if Eidos/Square Enix would consider outsourcing it.  [Editor’s note: We reached out to Eidos for comment on LoK, but have not yet heard back.]

IG: Amy, thanks so much for your time today.

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