Amy Hennig and Mark Cerny are both 53 years old, and they attended the University of California at Berkeley at the same time. And while they both have achieved great things during their careers in video games, they haven’t crossed paths that often.
Hennig received the Honor Award at the Gamelab event in recognition of her 30-year career, which has included stints at Crystal Dynamics, Naughty Dog, and Electronic Arts. She worked on Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain and Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver at Crystal Dynamics, among other titles. She jointed Naughty Dog and contributed to Jak & Daxter. But her lasting legacy has been her work on the Uncharted series, which she guided as creative director until 2014.
After leaving, she joined Electronic Arts to work on a single-player Star Wars game, but EA canceled the title last fall. EA closed Visceral studio and rebooted the game in its Vancouver, Canada studio. Hennig told Eurogamer last week that she left EA in January, and she has now started an independent studio.
Cerny dropped out of college to work on video games. At 17, he contributed to games at Atari, and he created Atari’s Marble Madness at the age of 18. He worked on games at Sega, including Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Starting in 1996, he started working closely with Sony, Naughty Dog, and Insomniac Games. He has worked on dozens of games and was the architect of the PlayStation Vita.
Most recently, he was the architect of the PlayStation 4 and created the Knack series. During most of his career, he has been independent as a consultant at Cerny Games.
Hennig and Cerny did a fireside chat with Geoff Keighley at the Gamelab event in Barcelona last week. They covered how they crossed paths during their careers, and it was a rare moment with two masters of the craft of game development. Here’s an edited transcript of their fireside chat.
Geoff Keighley: I wanted to kick this off by hearing about the backstory for both of you guys. How did you fall in love with video games? Both of you have been doing this a long time. When did you start playing games? How did you find your way to the game industry?
Amy Hennig: Like most people at the time, I stumbled into it. There was no path I was following. I always loved games. I was one of the kids — this is in the ‘70s — and it was pretty sad, but I would spend all my money at the arcade. There wasn’t much to play back then. There was Pong, Night Driver, and my favorite game, Sea Wolf, because there was a periscope you could look through. Like a lot of people my age, I also discovered the Atari 2600, Dungeons and Dragons, Star Wars. These things all collided to shape the kind of person that I am.
But I never considered it a career. I studied English literature, and then I was working on my master’s in film theory and production. The way I stumbled into it is I was taking any job I could to pay for school. I was doing textbook illustrations, page layout, all kinds of things. I ran into a friend from high school at a garage sale who said, “Hey, I’m supposed to do the art and animation for this Atari game with an old buddy of mine from the scouts, but I can’t do it. Can you take my place?” Of course I just saw dollar signs, so I said sure.
I worked on this Atari game with one other guy, just me and this programmer, for a year while I was still going to film school. By the time we finished it, it never got published. But I thought, “Oh, a new frontier.” I’d never considered that I could take what I’d learned and apply it here. At the same time, I was getting the message in film school that I should dream smaller. I wanted to make movies like Indiana Jones and Star Wars, but that was never gonna happen for me, especially as a woman. I saw a blue ocean. Not that I was that discouraged, because I’m stubborn, but I saw a new frontier in games. I just went that way. Quit film school and got a job at EA as a junior artist.
Keighley: You were in school at Berkeley?
Hennig: Yes, this is part of the connection with me and Mark. We’re exactly the same age. I’m five days older. It’s funny, because we’ve known each other for more than 20 years. Our paths kept just missing each other.
Here’s the funny story. We’re both 53. We were comparing notes, talking about how we’d missed each other. He grew up on the east bay and we both went to UC Berkeley. I thought we must have seen each other over there, but he’d graduated before I got there, even though I’m five days older. So he’s a genius. I’m not a genius. You graduated in what year?
Mark Cerny: Well, I dropped out.
Hennig: I graduated from high school in 1982, and if I’m honest, I should have graduated in 1986, but I took a while on my honors thesis and I graduated in 1987. You were long gone before I got there. You were at Atari by then.
Keighley: Mark’s had an incredible career, more than 35 years. Let’s pick it up. Your career people have heard bits and pieces about, but when did you first start playing games, fall in love with games?
Cerny: I started before the words “video games” were a noun. The local computer science museum had a DEC PDP-11. You’d type in “go north.” That was Lawrence Hall of Science, up on the hill in Berkeley.
Hennig: I think I went there too.
Cerny: It was great. Playing games and writing games were so close. You could bang out sentences in BASIC and do you own little stuff. Based on that, in the ‘70s, when the Apollo came out eventually — we even got games in color at some point. I kept looking at this. Hey, this is something I can do. I don’t have to play their experiences. I can create my own experiences.
My brother was hugely influential for me. He had exactly the same feeling. He was doing electronics back then. He would put pieces of tape on motherboards and etch them. You’d pull off the tape and you had copper to connect the circuits. He was building stuff. We started trying to make our own games together. I do have to say, after that we took very different paths. He now runs the opera in Calgary. But a lot of this was really the two Cerny boys just being fascinate by the idea that we could make games, back in the ‘70s.
Keighley: I didn’t know there was another Cerny. So the two Cernys loving the idea of interactive technology — you mentioned you both went to Berkeley, but you were a bit earlier. Everyone knows that in the formative years of Atari, you were there, building content and games. How did you find your way from experimenting with your brother to getting a job in the industry?
Cerny: Today there are all these amazing tools. If you want to make games you can pretty much make games. I mean, you still might want PR and publishing and all of that, but actually making the game is not too distant. If you go back to our era, you needed to be associated with some large corporation to do anything.
Amy’s breakthrough, she went to the right garage sale. In my case, I was interviewed for a book on video game strategies. There were no game magazines, so if you wanted to get better at playing an arcade game, you’d buy a book and the book would tell you the strategies. I was a very good player. At Defender I might have been the best player in the states. I was definitely the best player in the San Francisco bay area. I got interviewed for this book.
And then, just a coincidence, a couple of months later I was really getting tired of college. I was looking at maybe moving into games somehow, but I didn’t have a way in. On a random weekday night, mom didn’t want to cook, so we were down in the flats in Berkeley going to get a Chinese dinner. This reporter’s walking down the street and I asked him if I could get an interview at one of these places, because he’d also interviewed the creators. The times were so different. He said yes. He was a starving writer, and it was going to cost money to call from San Francisco to San Jose. Real money. But he said that if he could have $20 to make that hour-long phone call and explain the whole situation to the vice president at Atari, he’d be happy to do it. That’s the cost of the phone call. Add inflation, it’s $70 today.
Just a chance meeting, but it all turned out great. Atari, for some reason — I was 17 years and four months old. They thought, why not take a chance on this kid?
Keighley: And you never looked back.
Cerny: I’m glad he gave me the chance. I’m very grateful.
Keighley: You, Amy, as you mentioned, were going to film school. You were interested in telling stories. Early games, there was a bit of narrative there, but it was about the mechanical experience.
Hennig: These cartridges couldn’t do dialogue, so game stories were, you know, the President has been kidnapped.
Cerny: Our stories were the art on the side of the arcade cabinet.
Hennig: But stories in general, there was text on the screen if you had that.
Keighley: Were you drawn to the idea of doing more with story in these games, when you were first getting a job? What was driving you?
Hennig: I don’t think I was that forward-thinking. In hindsight maybe I was, or maybe I was guided by some premonition of where the industry would go. But I think it was just clear—I could see the labyrinth I was going to have to work my way through in the film industry. It’s not that I wasn’t willing to do that, but I saw this other industry where it seemed like the rules hadn’t been written yet. Even just working on that small Atari game, I felt myself sparked in ways I hadn’t felt even in school.
While it’s cool to learn all this stuff, I was learning about things that other people had already figured out. Whereas trying to make a game, we had to figure it out. There were no tools. We were just an artist and an animator. It was a side-scrolling Atari game. I thought the Atari 7800 could do better than what I’d seen, so I ruthlessly copied from the Nintendo Power magazines. Also, I’d kind of lied about my ability to do this job, because I needed the money.
Cerny: My first job interview, they were talking about programming experience. I talked about my largest assembly program I’d created. I neglected to mention it was the only assembly program I’d created.
Hennig: So I cribbed, shamelessly. I literally had a magnifying glass and I looked at the Nintendo Power magazines to figure out how they were using those few pixels we had. Which is crazy now, thinking about how you have access to all this software and all these tools. There was nothing. Every piece of software I had, most of it was pirated. I didn’t have any money.
I had to figure out clever ways — I used a French program called Graphist Paint, which was a precursor to Photoshop that people have forgotten about. That was bootleg. I used MacroMind Director, was that it? To do animations. I had a Mac for the other work I did to make money. I would port everything over to the Atari ST. But to lay out the levels, we had no tile editor or anything like that. I drew them on paper, and then I took the cheat sheet — this is probably too elaborate. I drew out every tile, like the corner of a platform, and I had to give every single one a hex ID.
To lay out the levels I would go to the programmer’s house and we would sit in his kitchen at the table. I would read the first column in hex of every tile I was using. Then I would give the hex number for the next column and read down the hex IDs of the tiles in my little drawn-out map. It would take us forever. Then we’d have to go back and fix anything if I’d read it wrong or it was flipped. That’s what it took. But it was inspiring.
In film school we were learning about the Lumiere brothers and Edward Porter and Sergei Eisenstein, people who had to figure out what film was. But then we were just following their lead. In games, we got to be those people. We got to figure out how we were going to make this stuff, what the mechanics and the language of these games would be. That’s what inspired me. I wasn’t thinking so far ahead like, “Someday, we’ll have photorealistic characters.” I was just intrigued by the fact that we had to solve such bizarre technical problems. I kind of got off on it. It was fun.
Keighley: Mark, that’s a lot of what you were doing, right? You were small teams of a couple of people.
Cerny: I was working with one person. It was a luxury when an artist was brought in. They were good times. I got to meet a lot of people before they were the people that you know of today. I got to work with Ed Logg and share an office with Dave Theurer. Between those guys that’s Asteroids, Centipede, Missile Command, a few other extraordinarily famous titles. When I went over to Japan, Yu Suzuki and Yuji Naka, before anybody knew who these guys were.
Hennig: I worked with Ed Logg, Dave Ralston, John Salwitz. This was at EA, because they briefly considered doing location-based entertainment, arcade games, and then they wised up and said no and killed the whole department. But it was funny, because that’s another near miss. I think you were also considering joining that group.
Cerny: At some point, yes?
Hennig: We worked with a lot of the same people.
Cerny: The tools were just terrible. If you wanted to change one keystroke in your program, it would be 15 minutes before you could see the effect. The process for getting artwork into an arcade game, my God. It involved eight-inch floppies and burning ROMs. You’d pry out the old ones from the motherboard and put in the new ones. That was just your art. When you could do RAM, when you could just think it up and put it in there — it was close to half a day if you wanted to get the numbers zero through nine in your game. That’s how crazy it was.
Over the past couple days, what’s gotten so much better is, we have the chance to iterate so much more than we could in the ‘80s. God help you in the ‘70s. There weren’t even programs. You were a hardware engineer. You built it out of resistors and one-shots and that was your game. It worked or it didn’t work.
Keighley: What kept you going back then, when it was so challenging?
Cerny: Coffee, mostly.
Keighley: Did you imagine a day when it was going to be easier? Were there breakthroughs?
Cerny: If I could go back I would have done the tools. Because that would have changed the ‘80s.
Hennig: Who did Pinball Construction Set?
Cerny: That was somebody who was thinking much, much further ahead of the time. We have to create the tools so we can make the games. That’s what Media Molecule is doing today.
Hennig: It’s interesting, though. Could we have foreseen? One thing that was starting to edge me away from film, when I was in school, was I took classes in animation. I also was part of a little pilot program to learn Wavefront on a Silicon Graphics. I think five or six of us were allowed in the program. I think PDI was sponsoring it back then, when they were doing the Pillsbury Doughboy a long time ago, those old commercials.
These machines — the software cost thousands of dollars and the machines cost tens of thousands. There was one. It was such a weird little program. It was in a closet in the film department with all the cycloramas, all the stuff in storage. We had to cram ourselves in there and work at midnight and not let the janitors know we were there. But you could do some really cool stuff. That was the precursor to Alias and Maya and all this stuff.
At the same time I was doing pixel art on this Atari game, and then I got the job at EA doing the same thing on Bard’s Tale IV, which also didn’t get published. It was a great humbling lesson to work on two games that didn’t get published right out of the gate. But I could see that there was more. I could connect the dots. We were going to be doing more complex stuff.
Keighley: Initially it was all through art, though. Do you remember when you wrote your first line of dialogue?
Hennig: Technically there was text in the Michael Jordan game, but I wouldn’t call it a story. That would be generous.
Keighley: What games did you work on at EA? It was a couple.
Hennig: There was Bard’s Tale IV for a year, doing little pixel animations and stuff. Then I did a bit of art for Desert Strike. That was my first published game, on the Genesis. Then I was the lead designer on the Michael Jordan: Chaos in the Windy City SNES game. Infamous. I still stand by the quality of its execution, but the idea was not mine. Somebody else can take credit for that. Cocaine can maybe take credit for that. That was the ‘90s.
The first thing I wrote and recorded was for Soul Reaver. That was probably starting in about 1997, I think.
Keighley: That’s another interesting connection point between Mark and you. Mark was at Crystal Dynamics in the early days, when it was just starting off with 3DO titles. Crash and Burn came out at the 3DO launch. Fast forward a bit, you got to work with all these great people making all these great games. How did your path lead you to Crystal?
Cerny: A number of Sega people on the marketing and business side had broken off to start Crystal Dynamics. I was the first game guy through the door. I stayed there almost two years. Helped get Crash and Burn out the door. Somebody yesterday was saying, if it’s bad, it’s bad forever. Certainly Crash and Burn wasn’t our finest effort, but it was nice. I got to work with the 3DO technology. It wasn’t quite ready for prime time if you wanted to do 3D, but at least you were using the math and getting experience there, which paid off on PlayStation.
Keighley: And you called your game Crash and Burn, which turned out to be fairly accurate. Crash and Burn crashed and burned.
Cerny: Basically, the day I left, Amy came in.
Hennig: Pretty much. He was infamous by this point. His name was whispered in hushed tones in the hallways at Crystal Dynamics by the time I got there.
Cerny: What did they say about Mark Cerny?
Hennig: “Watch out for that guy!” No. You were a canny negotiator, I think. Anyway. Nobody said anything negative.
Cerny: It was all good stuff about how infamous I was.
Hennig: [laughs] Well, you were larger than life.
Cerny: Then I went to Universal to do Crash and Spyro, and you were doing Gex?
Hennig: When they interviewed me, it was either to be the lead designer on Gex 2, or to be the design manager of the studio. Just because of the way things sorted out, I got the design manager job. You were the programming manager before you left. And infamous in that role, apparently. [laughs] I said I would do that for a year, but I really wanted to make a game, not just manage other people.
The first thing I got handed to me was a design document this thick for Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain, which was supposed to be alpha. They said, “We think this is in trouble. Could you look at it?” That became my job for the next year.
Keighley: Someone else had written it already?
Hennig: Right. Silicon Knights had been working on the game for a while.
Cerny: Yeah, I’d read that design doc. We’d had conversations. It looked great. But it was like, “Guys, is this scoping? You have one boss fight with 15 stages in a design doc. Do you think you’ll really ship on such and such a date?”
Hennig: They’d done a lot of the story work and a lot of the cinematics. They’d made a lot of the tileset for the world and the characters and things like that. The assets were there. But I think they had only one designer on staff, one dedicated designer. There was Denis Dyack and Ken McCulloch, but they had only one designer who was just a game designer.
Ultimately we ended up putting 10 people on that project and spent a long time working on the game. We helped them take what they had and really crafted it into this dark Zelda. There were great ideas, but there wasn’t a lot of structured design there. We collaborated with them on it for the rest of the year. That was my first game at Crystal, and then once I completed my first year, I said, “Okay, we talked about how I wanted to have my own game and be a director.”
That’s where Soul Reaver came about. But it wasn’t originally Soul Reaver. It was supposed to be an original game. The codename was “Shifter.” It was supposed to be about this sort of fallen angel. It was a lot of the same themes, but it was not a Kain sequel. We worked on that for a while and pitched it. People were interested in what we were doing, but they said, “Can it be a Kain sequel?” Uh, okay? Then we figured it out, like you do.
Keighley: That was an interesting time. Crystal and 3DO — full-motion video was coming in. Story and dialogue were a bigger part of games. Mark, you had come out of a time period where it was all about gameplay, because that was all you could do. Tell me, how did your role on games began to change when there were bigger things like design documents? There was a team aspect, an interplay between building characters and worlds and then the gameplay and systems.
Cerny: I declared my war on design documents, because I just — when the team is seven people and one person is just writing things for the publisher to review, that’s not a good model for game development. You also get fooled. You fool yourself. You start thinking that the paper represents the game you’re going to be making. The paper represents the game you’ll be making for the first month, but then you play it and throw it out and start all over again.
Hennig: It was a very silly time, I think. Everyone thought we had to have these giant game design documents, and it never made any sense. I felt terrible as a design manager, being responsible for enforcing this stupid idea, that we had to have these design documents. It’s wrong the second it comes out of the printer. Things change that fast, if you’re doing your job right.
Cerny: I think it’s wrong as soon as you’ve built a little slice.
Hennig: No, I think literally — you print it and you’ve already changed your mind about something. It’s an iterative, collaborative process, even in pre-production.
Cerny: But you can’t prove it’s wrong until you can play it.
Hennig: For sure, yeah.
Keighley: It’s a living document.
Hennig: Which is why we tend to do things that are more succinct. They tend to be online, like conference papers and things like that now. It’s not that there’s no documentation. But it’s more a living document.
Keighley: You were always a big believer, Mark, in just playing the game, iterating on the experience.
Cerny: That’s what you did in arcade games. There was this big philosophy — I think it was centered at EA, probably — that you needed to be doing careful planning and have charts and all of that. It didn’t make sense to me. I left Crystal because I got lured down to Los Angeles by a friend. “Come to Universal Studios and we’ll give you a big bag of money and total freedom.” Which is a good pitch. Big bag of money was $5 million in those days.
Keighley: For you personally?
Cerny: No. To make games. And no rules meant I could say to the teams, “Let’s do a one-pager. That’s all we need. Maybe four pieces of art. And let’s just start building it and see where this goes.” I worked with Naughty Dog, which was three people, and Insomniac, which was two people. That’s how those projects got off. That was Crash Bandicoot and Disruptor. It certainly didn’t hurt that we didn’t have those design docs. As Amy was saying, they’re wrong almost the instant you write them.
Keighley: Working with Naughty Dog, you did Way of the Warrior for 3DO, and then moving on to Crash, a legendary franchise. Mark, you were there at Universal, and this is another example of you guys finally coming together. A lot of folks from Crystal Dynamics ended up at Naughty Dog, right?
Hennig: Definitely. That was the seed studio. A lot of people made that transition. We had met. I don’t remember exactly where. Probably at GDC or something like that. But then we didn’t get to sit down and consider working together until I got to Naughty Dog in late 2003. We were around.
Cerny: Right. Uncharted. Or you were there for Jak?
Hennig: Jak III, for a year.
Keighley: Mark, you had left Universal at some point, and then become more of a design consultant working with Naughty Dog and Insomniac. You continued with those studios.
Cerny: Absolutely. My 20-year anniversary is coming up. I left Universal on October 1, 1998 and went freelance as a consultant. This October 1 is the 20-year anniversary of Cerny Games, which is basically me.
Keighley: I remember I would go to Naughty Dog or Insomniac — at Insomniac there was one little office, a Cerny Games office, right off the elevator.
Cerny: It was Cerny Games renting space. Insomniac was my landlord.
Keighley: As Amy was saying, games were getting more complicated. There was more dialogue and world-building around them. Especially with Crash, I think everyone knows how you helped Naughty Dog refine that game. When you finally got to work together, it was on Uncharted. In many ways, Mark was — was he working for you as a consultant, Amy?
Hennig: It’s all kind of a blur.
Cerny: I was doing odd jobs. One of those odd jobs was, our level designs were so far behind. I was trying to figure out how to get everything done.
Hennig: The crazy thing is, on Jak III — when I joined I was the third designer. Dan Arey was there. He was the writer and creative director on the Jak series. Hirokazu Yasuhara, who was the real level designer….
Cerny: I’d swear Neil Druckmann was there.
Hennig: No, not when I joined. When I joined for Jak III, Evan was transitioning into a co-president role. I joined when Andy Gavin and Jason Rubin were still there, but they were transitioning out. Jason was there for the first year I was there, because he was still working on Jak III, as was Andy. Andy stayed on another year after that. But to work on Jak III, it was Dan and Yasu and me, plus Evan with whatever time he could spare.
Yasuhara was an amazing designer, but he did everything on paper. You’d worked with him before on Sonic. Figuring out — there’s always been this interesting transition in games. We used to do everything on paper because we had to, and then eventually we started doing white boxing. I miss paper mapping, because you interrogate your ideas a different way than you do in white boxing.
Cerny: It’s good, but it’s hard to make these levels.
Hennig: It’s very hard. We had to put meter-high level markers on all the floors. You can imagine that–one of the first things we worked on for Uncharted was this fort. This multi-layered space with interiors and exteriors. How do you map that out and represent that on a piece of graph paper? It was really when we were having to transition into thinking about how to gray box or white box things. But yes, you were very helpful in trying to figure out level design.
Cerny: This was actually my first experience working with a creative director. You were called the game director. It was interesting. We level designers — you would come and explain what it is that the goal would be. This level should look like Piranesi, the famous architect. We’d go and look at books and try to come up with a level that looked like Piranesi. You’d come by and shake your head and we’d go back to look at books again.
I used to wonder, why is Amy mad? And it wasn’t until I became a creative director myself that I understood the curse of being a creative director, which is this: you have the vision for the game. You know what it is you want to be making. You explain it to someone. If they get it instantly, you’ll never see that person again on the project, because you don’t need to communicate. The brilliant people on the project who are — realistically you’ll see them three times in the course of the game. If you have a masterful UI designer and you can explain the vision, you’re done. You spend your time almost exclusively with the people who don’t understand what you’re trying to do. That’s the load you bear. And so we just didn’t get it.
Hennig: That’s definitely true. I’ve said that before. You can compare it to being a parent, which is a weird analogy. The good kid doesn’t get any attention. It’s the bad kid that gets all the attention. I don’t mean to have a positive or negative charge there, but trying to work through with people that are having a harder time, you feel like you’re neglecting all the people who get it and they’re off and running. The important thing there, too, is that you’re doing your job right. You aren’t dictating to people what to do.
Cerny: A lot of people say they want to be the creative director, but what they mean is, they want every idea they have to be what goes into the game.
Cerny: That’s exactly not what a creative director is.
Hennig: A lot of people come to me and say they want to do what I do. Sometimes I look at where they’re at and what they aspire to, and my only question is, why? Tell me what you think that means to you. Inevitably it has something to do with having control. And of course that’s when we laugh, because the job is the opposite of that. You have to get comfortable with giving up control. If you white-knuckle it too much, if they can feel your hands on the reins — some people can make good games that way, so it’s possible. But I don’t subscribe to that perspective, that way of being a director.
What you want to do is give people enough rope to hang themselves, really. Describe the idea and let them surprise you by elevating it in a way you never considered. You’re “yes, and”-ing each other, basically. It’s improvisation.
Keighley: You’re setting up the parameters of what a level is going to be, but you’re not saying, “And then Drake is going to turn left and this happens.”
Hennig: That would be too specific. The analogy would be, they say that as an art director you shouldn’t try to hold their pencil. A conductor of an orchestra isn’t trying to play all the instruments. You’re trying to shepherd this thing into existence. Same thing working with actors. You don’t give them line readings. You hire them because they’re going to interpret the work and elevate it and surprise you.
In its best form, you are in control. It would be disingenuous to say we don’t have any control. Of course we do. But the point is it’s a shepherding kind of control, which can be very difficult and frustrating. The people who usually say they want creative control, it’s coming from a place of frustration. You know they would be white-knuckling the job, as opposed to saying, “I want to be able to inspire and shepherd something into existence.”
Cerny: When I was saying you might only see that brilliant UI designer three times, it’s not because exactly what you’re thinking has ended up in the game. It’s because you look at it and say, “That’s not what I was thinking, but it’s better.” Hopefully it’s better, but you settle for it being something that’s good and in the same general direction you were thinking of.
Hennig: It takes a level of humility. I’ve always said that. You have to have enough humility to say — in your head, not out loud — “That’s not what I would have done, what I was picturing, but is it better than my idea?” If so, awesome. Is it just as good, even though it’s not what I was picturing? Then that’s fantastic, because they have a sense of ownership and passion. If it’s not as good, you have to have enough ego to say, “Here’s the reason I asked for it that way. Here’s a correction.” And have the presence of mind – because we’re all human beings with flaws – to not react the wrong way in the moment.
It can get your hackles up, right? If somebody seems like they’re defying you or deliberately misunderstanding you. Sometimes your first internal reaction is to say, “Why are you not doing what I asked?” But you have to stuff that down and say, “Actually, what they’re doing is fine. It’s better than what I was thinking.” Especially with actors. In the moment, if they do something, you have to realize, “That’s brilliant. That’s better than what I wrote. Let’s do that.” Not have ego tied up in it.
Keighley: Mark, I’m sure you’ve had many of those moments.
Cerny: Have you ever given a line reading?
Cerny: That’s a tricky one, right?
Hennig: But you have to know when to do it. Every actor is different.
Cerny: When do you do it?
Hennig: Not right out of the gate. If they’re not getting it, usually you’ll say, “Do you mind if I give you a line reading?” Most actors will say, “Of course. That’s fine.” At that point, you’ve earned their trust, hopefully. But you have to let them fail first. Also you have to make sure you’re not giving the line readings where you’ve written it in your head a certain way and — then you don’t want an actor. You just want a puppet. You don’t want a partner. I’ve very rarely given line readings. It’s usually because there’s something that’s unclear and they’re not quite getting it. It helps them to go, “Aha, got it, thank you.” But again, you don’t do it right out of the gate.
Cerny: Do you ever have a moment with actors when you’re thinking, “My God, this is so much better than what I wrote?”
Hennig: Of course! Every time.
Cerny: You probably have that less than I do.
Keighley: Translating back to level design, I’m sure there were moments on Uncharted where the team would come back with a level and….
Cerny: It’s not Piranesi.
Hennig: But that’s what you want. You want to say, “Okay, here’s the goal. Here’s the start. Here’s how we end. Here’s some of the turns we have to have in the level, the story moments we need to get in there.” And then ideally the designer comes back with something like, “Holy crap, I never even considered that. It elevates what I was imagining. I’ll go back and write my stuff differently.” If I haven’t shot it yet, that’s great, because what you’re doing informs that.
The best example of that, talking about Neil for instance — one of the things he worked on in Uncharted 2 was the Nepal level. Some of the stuff we showed at E3 was the whole helicopter chase, the building collapsing. A lot of that was his inspiration. And really, a level like that, you might just say, “Here’s what happens in the story. We come to the level like this. And we need to end like this. We need to have a downturn right here.” The designer will say, “Got it,” and if they’re somebody like Neil they’ll turn that into something you never considered. It probably wasn’t in scope, but you just say, “We gotta make this work, because it’s awesome.” When we write those scenes and shoot them, it’s now informed by these things you never thought of.
What you have to keep in mind as a collaborator — that’s why we get very uncomfortable when it seems like we’re getting singled out. We as game developers. It seems trite to say so, but it’s a group effort, a team effort. So much of it is being in the right place at the right time with the right people and the right ideas. It seems wrong for any person to be elevated like you’re the author of this thing. You can’t even remember sometimes whose ideas were what, because it’s this big messy wonderful process.
Cerny: That’s a good sign.
Hennig: Yes, it is. “I don’t think that was my idea. That was somebody else’s.” You do your best to give credit where credit’s due, but part of it is acknowledging that it’s this messy organic thing and that’s what you want. Same thing with the actors. Sometimes I remember an actor saying, “How about if I do it this way?” And it’s such an elevation. It sticks in your memory. But most of the time we’re all sitting around with the pencil out thinking about whether to change the blocking here or there. They always say good ideas can come from anywhere. You have to be open to it.
Cerny: How do you reconcile having something like a six-month-long pipeline between actors on stage and getting stuff in the game, with all the iteration?
Hennig: You mean like if you’ve already shot a scene?
Cerny: Yeah. I think that’s something people struggle with. There’s this weird thing. The notion is, game mechanics, those will change even weekly. You’re always trying to find your game. But the storyline is something that somebody came up with and you just shoot it and you’re done.
Hennig: Well, this is the crazy thing about what we do. I’ve talked to some folks here about this. Nobody understands that we don’t shoot it anything like a film. It’s not like you have a pre-production process, then a finished script, then you shoot that script, then you just insert it into the game. The point is that, like everything in game development, you’re in pre-production, production, and post-production all the time until you’re done.
It’s a messy process. With the writing, we don’t have a script. We have a treatment. We have an outline. Then we write — anyway, the way I’ve done it, the way we did it at Naughty Dog, you write one scene at a time, out of sequence. You shoot that stuff out of sequence over the course of a year. You write just before you shoot, because the game is changing so much underfoot. That’s the only way you can stay as accurate as possible.
Of course you can’t shoot it all at the end. You have to shoot as you go. It’s a balancing act. You make sure you’re very aware of what’s going on in the level. Sometimes we’re shooting scenes in levels that haven’t been laid out yet. Other times we’re shooting scenes in levels that are already finished and exist. And then you bend around.
Keighley: Is there sometimes a tension there? You can’t do this because this is how the scenes connect up.
Hennig: Sometimes we can bend around that, and sometimes, well, we already shot that scene. We had a couple of examples we’ve used in the past in Uncharted one. Sometimes things get broken. We had this little quiet scene between Drake and Elena after the whole jeep sequence. They’re supposed to swim for it, then stop and take a breather in this quiet scene.
The designers decided that was too boring. From where you came out of the water to where the scene happened, there was nothing happening. So they put a combat event in there, which completely changed the tone of the scene. You’re murdering these guys, and then you sit down and have a sweet little romantic moment. I’m like, “Oh, guys…” But, well, gameplay’s gotta win. You can’t win them all.
There was another time in Uncharted 2, because we were trying to scope the game down, as you do–in the museum, after you’re betrayed and you have all the guards coming after you, there was some discussion as to whether we could cut that whole escape sequence out. We could just get on with the game. Maybe it was extraneous. And I said, “We’ll have 20 minutes of cutscenes back to back if we do that.”
Again, it’s this holistic back and forth all the time. Sometimes story has to win. Sometimes gameplay has to win. Sometimes they don’t quite connect, but you do your best. I’ve had scenes where I shot it and then we needed to change — I know what it was. In Uncharted 2, I had to rewrite the whole scene and ADR over the scene we’d shot to change the context to fit what had happened. We have to do all kinds of creative stuff. You base your decision on where you are in production. How finished is the scene? How malleable is it? And sometimes you just let things go, like romantic scenes after a gunfight.
Keighley: The fact that you can do that, that’s what makes games so special. Like Mark would say, you have to be able to iterate. You have to be fluid. People are playing and evolving these levels. That’s important. How much, for both of you — as a creative director, how much do you focus on the nuts and bolts of the mechanics? How it feels in the controls and the system.
Hennig: A bit? It depends. Some more than others. If the game’s not fun to play, we all lose. I would say the creative director, along with everyone on the team, is playing the game and saying, “This isn’t there yet.” If the player’s not having a fluid experience, they’re not going to appreciate the story that’s happening around this stuff. We’re all responsible for gameplay.
Keighley: Iterating on gameplay and level design is a big part of what you do, Mark, and the kind of world-building Amy does, you’re now focusing on that too as a creative director. Tell us a bit about that tension and how you position your time on a project.
Cerny: I have a plan for how I’m going to spend my time, and yet really, things come up and they get dealt with. I know that doesn’t sound very sophisticated. You’re creative director, but there are these issues with gameplay mechanics — technically that’s the game director’s job, but you still have to talk it through, if it’s not the best stuff. I love this phrase. I heard it for the first time yesterday. “A bad game is bad forever.”
Hennig: The creative director and game director are very overlapping roles. It’s just too big of a job anymore for one person.
Keighley: Do you have a creative director, and then someone who’s more focused on gameplay, and those are separate roles?
Hennig: Yes, but they overlap so much. They can go right up to each other’s boundaries. You don’t expect that the game director has no opinions on the story and is not participating in that. It’s just that you agree on what that is and you have to break up and say, “I’ll go write that and shoot that. Maybe I’ll make sure the concept art matches up.” And they say, “Great, I’m going to make sure the mechanics we’re talking about get prototyped. I’ll make sure the level design honors what we just said and doesn’t go a different direction.”
Keighley: Is one subservient to the other, though?
Hennig: It depends on the team. There are situations where somebody — there might be more hierarchy based on experience, but ideally you’re partners.
Cerny: I haven’t seen any real division there. Just the belief that it is more than one person can do. That’s why it’s divided between two people. If one person is trying to everything related to directing the game, wow. You need a solid structure in order to do that. You need that project to be run like an army, if that one person is going to be able to communicate all issues related to both creative direction and gameplay.
Keighley: As games get bigger in scale — we talked about the early days when it was a couple of people. Now it’s not necessarily about the design document, but how much of it is a challenge around managing teams and projects of this size, the structure that’s vital to these things being cohesive?
Hennig: It’s interesting, looking at Naughty Dog. We never had producers in the traditional sense. We always resisted that. Again, not that there’s anything wrong with producers, but there’s lots of cases where too much of that inhibits risk-taking, which is absolutely necessary to what we do.
And so I think one of the challenges we face, as teams have gone from 30 people to 100 to 200 to 300 to whatever Ubisoft is at — it requires more structure. It requires that your leads in your disciplines are basically producers too, ideally. It’s a lot more important to make sure the vision is communicated, especially now that we have so much distributed development. We don’t do it all in one place anymore. We can’t.
Cerny: There’s this terrible moment in your career — we started when the teams were small. And then one day you have a project and there’s somebody on your project who you run into in the halls and you don’t know their name or what they’re doing on your game. Talking about distributed development, to say that is even naïve. That’s just your local operation. You may have a branch office in Singapore contributing to your game.
Hennig: Or multiple branches, because you have outsourcing. You have external partners. It’s a lot to juggle. You either have to have very informed producers who understand the discipline that they’re producing, or you have leads that are very organized. That was the thing at Naughty Dog. The leads really spent half of their time planning and organizing their tasks, making sure things were getting tracked. Which is a shame, because you want them spending all of their time on their craft. But we had always felt like that was a good tradeoff, rather than introducing a lot of overhead and management structure.
Keighly: Mark, your philosophy of rapid iteration — as teams get bigger, it’s that much harder as the game sort of gets away from you.
Cerny: It’s much harder. I was thinking the other day, because we were building a new prototype, and in the time it takes to do a prototype now, we would have done two vertical slices on two completely different games. You could do a vertical slice in six weeks, if you go back far enough.
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.
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