Game development is an art. Some are good at it, but many developers struggle. Those who consistently produce great hits are a rarity in the industry, and Naughty Dog is among the rarest of all with successes like Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (2.7 million copies sold in its first week) and The Last of Us, my favorite game of all time and one of the biggest blockbusters on the PlayStation 3.
GamesBeat interviewed the co-directors of those games, Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann, about Uncharted 4 and the decisions they made. During that conversation, I asked them about their advice for game developers.
Here’s what they said. And here’s the links on our other stories from the interview: Saying goodbye to Uncharted, making games over movies, Naughty Dog’s headquarters, the ending discussion, and the Monkey Island Easter egg. And here’s the full comprensive interview.
GamesBeat: How do you talk about some of this in the context of advice for developers, people who are maybe starting out making games?
Bruce Straley: It depends on if they want to tell a story or not. Even if you don’t use narrative, dialogue, cutscenes, cameras, the tools of cinematography from film—even if you don’t do that, still understanding at least what makes a good story, and trying to then think about what your mechanics are and what you’re trying to do with the story, having a setup and a payoff, a completion to the story—setting up the boundaries for your world and obeying those boundaries.
There are certain rules of storytelling that we constantly have to obey around the world we’ve created so that there can be an investment and a belief in that world and the characters in it. You as a creator can come up with those boundaries and rules for yourself, but then you have to adhere to them.
Neil Druckmann: This is something I learned working with Bruce. Be thoughtful. Some games are made just to be fun. “This is a cool mechanic. How do we tie a couple of fun things together?” Our approach, though, is always, “On the highest level, what are we trying to say with this thing?” Everything has to get filtered through that. Each segment, it’s building toward this higher-level argument, something we’re trying to say. And underneath that each bit has to get filtered back to that higher-level message. I think that’s what makes our games stand out.
GamesBeat: And also how you carry this across games. You’ve made four of these now.
Straley: To what Neil said, it’s interesting how many things we end up having to throw away. We can come up with a million ideas. Ideas are cheap. Words are easy. But to find the ones that resonate within the world that we’re creating, or that pay off something else we set up inside the story, but also scale into the mechanics we’re building in the game—all of that is where the difficulty comes in. But that’s the goal, to stay true to the experience we’re trying to make. Like Neil said, what are we trying to say?
We can come up, right now at this table, with a fucking awesome 12 ideas and slam them together and they might make a game that’s playable. It might even be fun. But would it have the same resonance as something that makes you feel like you got something out of it? It’s like Dada video games or something. Having a thoughtfulness as far as the through lines of execution.
GamesBeat: Lots of studios have made two, three, four games, and their first one is still the best one. It’s hard to do consistent hits. I wonder what your thoughts are about that. You’re able to work on something for three or four years and commit to a huge project with all these commercial pressures that come up. How do you still manage to succeed on this higher level?
Druckmann: The easy answer is “lots of hard work.” [Laughs]
Straley: Good answer.
Druckmann: We’re in a fortunate position where, because of the track record we’ve had and the games we’ve done previously–we’ve drawn so much talent from all over the world and all across the industry. We have some of the most talented programmers, designers, writers, artists. We have an amazing team. I honestly believe no other team in the industry could have pulled off Uncharted 4, this version of Uncharted 4.
Straley: I agree.
Druckmann: Maybe a different version, sure, but this version that looks like this, plays like this, resonates like this, I don’t think that would have been possible. And then the pressure is honoring that, knowing that the people around you are super talented, super passionate, and want to make the best game possible.
That makes everybody step up in a way that, from stories I hear, can be rare. Sometimes people can be checked out. “Oh, man, we’re doing another sequel. Here we go.” We’re in a fortunate position where, despite how successful our past games have been, this is the last one. We’re going to move on. That’s rare, to be in that position.
Straley: That really drove us, though. Saying it was the final one, knowing that it’s our last chance to make Uncharted great—it’s our last great Uncharted, our last opportunity to make a great Uncharted.
Druckmann: If we don’t get it in this one, that’s it.
Straley: Knowing that, with everybody in the studio and the talent there—I don’t know what drives all of us, what kind of crazy defect we have, what baggage we carry around that makes us do what we do. But collectively, in this studio, we’re all driven to make this the best we possibly can. Knowing it was the last upped the ante even more. This is our last chance. We have to make this amazing.
We all kinda killed ourselves a little bit in the process, but I think we’re all satisfied, because ultimately we can walk away knowing we created something collectively that resonates, and that we’re very proud of. We’re very proud of the team. I’m very proud of the work I put in so the team can be proud, and I know Neil feels the same way.
As far as success, the key is, one, we tried really hard to learn about story and apply that to games. But when we come up with something, a story, already there’s something there where we’re thinking about gameplay. We know that the experience can be interesting. We’re already invested in it. We already know, in our gut, that it feels great. There’s a feeling that we’re then in pursuit of for the next however long it takes to make the game. And all we can do is try to hang on to that feeling and go back to it. ”What are we doing? What are we after?”
Because the initial idea resonated, that’s all we can do. Just trust that and go with that. You can’t think about the industry. You can’t think about what else is out there. I know that sometimes – a lot of times – Neil and I will say to each other, when we talk about an idea, “I’ve never played that in a game before. That’s awesome. That sounds cool because I’ve never seen that, never played that, never done that.”
That feeling is also exciting. Not only are we invested in what we’re doing experientially and what we’re telling in the story, but we’re also creating these moments that we feel, as players, we would be excited to play, because we’ve never played anything like that before.