Keighley: Is it that much important to have that vertical slice, and then you build the game after that?
Hennig: You have to be careful about how that’s defined. Everybody defines what that means differently. Then you hear about whatever other kind of slice. There are so many things people try to do. Again, until you start making the whole game—that might be fine for something that has a very singular mechanic, but a game like Uncharted, or Jak for that matter, where it’s a mix of a bunch of different mechanics and genres, the idea that you can actually get all of those mechanics nailed in this vertical slice — you’re almost done with the game by then, right?
But you want to know what your core mechanics are. You want to make sure the moment to moment experience is represented. Even if you have to mock some of it up — even if you have to say, “Well, this mechanic isn’t going to be done for nine months, but we can represent it through a little animatic or a cutscene or something to fill the space” — you need to be able to ask, “Does this represent an experience that makes us all want to play that game?” Depending on the kind of game, the definition of a vertical slice changes quite a bit.
Audience: You talked about having ideas that you can’t necessarily see at work until the game is finished. Were there ideas you had for something like Uncharted that, in the end, turned out not to work?
Hennig: There are lots of examples of that. Sometimes it’s a piece of a level that has to go. You might think it would have been brilliant, but it’s the wrong thing for the game at this point. One of our classic examples is in Uncharted 3. We had this whole escape from the Syrian castle, and then you got on a bus and there’s supposed to be this amazing bus chase set piece that did not happen. You can see the sutures where we sewed the game together.
Another example of a time where this kind of thing ends up in the shipping product is — there’s some debate about this, but throwing back grenades. On the one hand it felt very cool. If I’m quick enough I can just throw this grenade back at the enemy! But it breaks all of the reasons we’re trying to flush you out of cover. Suddenly can plant yourself behind a wall forever if you’re good at throwing back grenades, because that was our main means of flushing you, other than having enemies just rush you.
Again, you have to have a holistic approach. Something can be a very good idea in isolation, and even be fun, but if it breaks everything else, you have to be willing to say, “No, we can’t do it.”
Audience: There was quite a dilemma a few months ago about EA and this question of whether single-player games are “dead.” What do you think about that?
Hennig: To be fair, they didn’t actually say that. I think that, like everything in our world today, the bad versions get around the world before the truth can get its pants on. Did Churchill say that? I think so. It’s really tough. Shawn talked about that in relation to Sony. God bless Sony for supporting these kinds of games, because they’re terrifying to make. They’re very expensive, and it doesn’t suit the model of having a massive open world or hours and hours of gameplay or running a live service, which is what everybody is shooting for these days.
It’s not that we’re looking at the death of single-player games, or that players don’t want that. Some publishers are going to fall on one end of that spectrum or another based on their business plan. Fair enough. It’s just that the traditional ways we’ve done that are getting harder and harder to support. That’s why I’ve talked in the past about feeling like we’re in an inflection point in the industry. We’ve talked about this for a long time. How do we keep on making games like this when they’re getting prohibitively expensive? We don’t want to break the single-player experience, but there’s pressure to provide more and more at the same price point games have always been.
That isn’t sustainable, I believe. I think it breaks the purpose of a single-player game. I was saying to some people here, I play games because I want to finish them. I want to see the story. I like the arc of a story. I don’t see the ends of most games. How crazy is it that we say it’s about narrative, but we make games where a fraction of the audience sees the end of the game? That’s heartbreaking.
I hope that we see more shakeup in the industry. We’ll open up the portfolios — maybe with a subscription model — so we can see that there can be story games that are four hours long at an appropriate price point. We have digital distribution. That should be possible. We shouldn’t be stuck at this brick and mortar price point and trying to make more and more content, breaking the spirit of these games.
I don’t fault EA for that decision, as hard as it was personally for me. I understand the challenge. We have to come at this in different ways. I think it’s about portfolios of games at different price points that allow us to do more than just PUBGs and Fortnites and Destiny clones.
Audience: When you’re writing about historical characters like Henry Every, how do you do research? Do you do it by yourself, or do you work with experts that help you?
Hennig: No, I’m not that smart. I’d have to be much cleverer if I did it all myself. I love doing the research. It’s one of my favorite parts of these games. Certainly one of my favorite parts of Uncharted is the excuse and the opportunity to research architecture, history, things like that. I find that very exciting. If I’m honest, it’s also a means of procrastination. You can research forever and you’re still working, but you’re not actually tackling the thing you should be tackling sometimes.
But yeah, there’s a huge opportunity to do a lot of historical reading, visual research, architectural research for these games. People talk about creating these mood boards, whenever you’re creating a movie or a game. It’s a better touch point for the team, to have that stuff, than a lot of documents. You want visuals. It’s very important, even though I’m dismissing it as procrastination. Which it is.
Audience: Do you think there is a future for games where story and gameplay are more closely integrated? In Uncharted, you tend to have waves of enemies, and then you move on to a story scene. Do you think that in the future we’ll see less and less dissonance between gameplay and story?
Hennig: Oh, sure. I think we see it all the time. We see it in a lot of Naughty Dog’s games, and we see it in a lot of Sony’s games, and of course others as well. The thing is, you have to take it so seriously, because it’s constantly breaking like that. There are times when it breaks so late in the process that you just have to say, “What are you going to do?” You don’t have the time or the money to keep changing things.
But I think there’s plenty of room for a non-dissonant approach. I’ve talked about how I’m very proud of Soul Reaver, because we started from a blank piece of paper in its design, and the unity between its game mechanics and story — it’s pretty aligned, right? But in Uncharted, and in The Last of Us, talking about things I’m closer to, the whole point is that the mechanics — the gameplay and the story are as coherent as possible.
What we get into, again—the violence, against a backdrop of pulp adventure and romance, it’s a hard thing to sustain. If you look at Indiana Jones, he might kill five guys. We’ve gotta make a whole game. One thing I’m interested in is whether we can do good gameplay without so much reliance on gunplay. Personally, if I never had to make another game with a gun in it, I’d be fine with that, especially in today’s climate. It’s a convenient mechanic, and sometimes it’s a matter of scale.
What I don’t want to see happen is that dissonance bothers us so much that we stop making lighthearted games, where everything has to be grim to accommodate the violence. Again, it’s opening up the portfolio to say, “Why aren’t we making Uncharted games that don’t have all that shooting in them?” We have a big audience that would like to play those games on the couch next to their partners and spouses who are saying, “Don’t play without me.” Why don’t we put the controllers in their hands? We’re turning them off through the difficulty of the violence. There’s a big audience out there waiting for a different kind of content.