At a splendid preview event in Dublin for Uncharted 3, we sat down with co-lead designer Richard Lemarchand for an exhaustive talk about how a game of this scope and scale is assembled and his own role in that process. A veteran designer with almost 20 years of experience (including titles like Soul Reaver and Jak 3), Richard talks in this first part about how he lucked into the job of game designer and the origins of the Nathan Drake character.
CLICK: So what exactly does a lead designer do?
RL: A good question. The answer could potentially be very long! The lead game designer, indeed any game designer on a project like Uncharted 3 does a lot of different things in the course of development. Its often said that game designers are kind of like the glue that holds the team together in terms of running between our programmers and animators and audio people helping facilitate the creation of the game and at the beginning of the project that's really to do with rounding up all of the ideas we want to use. And those great ideas come not just from the game designers at Naughty Dog but everyone on the team – there’s a sense that everyone there is a game designer. And so we corral those ideas and find the ones we want to use and then it become a process of putting the game together and the designers become much more just like any other artisan on the team, working on the computer and the tools to piece together animations and graphics to create the finished game.
CLICK: And what’s your background, how did you end up with this job?
RL: I'm actually kind of unusual for a video game developer; I’ve always been a game designer! I was lucky enough when I came out of college in the early 90’s to basically talk my way into a job with a developer called Microprose [of X-Com and Civilisation fame] who had offices near where my parents live in the west of England.
CLICK: And what was the first game you worked on?
RL: Um… the very first game I worked on was F15 strike Eagle II on the SEGA mega Drive. It was the second ever 3D game on a home console, so I'm kind of proud of it!
CLICK: You’ve been with Naughty Dog since around 2004 – can you remember the first time Uncharted appeared as a concept?
RL: I think that I do, there was an idea being booted around for what was then a next gen system game. And I saw bits and pieces of concept art being made, heard some ideas for a game that would really represents the same kind of maturation that the Jax and Dexter games had represented compared to the Crash Bandicoot games. And of course I immediately got very excited about that idea!
CLICK: Was Uncharted 1 your first title with Naughty Dog?
RL: Actually no I joined to help finish up Jak 3 and worked after that on Jak X: Combat Racing.
CLICK: And was the character of Nathan Drake already fully formed at that time?
RL: Well we actually are a little tight lipped about that. We batted around a lot of different ideas at the beginning of that project but yea Nathan appeared pretty early on.
CLICK: And was he always the character as we know him now – unsure and genuinely terrified of the scrapes he gets himself into? A self aware hero?
RL: The aspect of Drake's character in terms of the way that he is a regular person who finds himself in an extraordinary situation was really always there in his conception, almost from the very beginning. But yea it was always an important part of the characters existence. Because we felt that would help to create a stronger r emotional bond to the players.
CLICK: You talked in your presentation about trying to make the game cinematic – how do you set about doing that?
RL: We really had to study the techniques of cinema to be able to apply them in an interactive context. And I think we all feel that we’re continuing to learn those skills just as cinema itself continues to evolve. But we have a particular set of considerations in terms of the fact that we’re making an interactive experience, it’s a game. And we always want the player as far as possible to be in moment to moment control of the action.
CLICK: Is it hard to find the balance between spoon fed story and interactive gameplay?
RL: Well there’s just balance to be found there. We have a lot of different tricks up our sleeve, little techniques that we might use to reposition the camera in response to some action in the scene. We’ll momentarily take control away from the player to do some discreet action and then we can perhaps cut. But whenever possible we like to make that action initiated by the player.
CLICK: Would you say that you’d sometimes have to lead them by the nose?
RL: Well I wouldn’t… No it’s an interesting way of putting it. But with video game players, you can’t really lead them by the nose. What you can do is subtly guide them to what they should be interested in. By the way you make the environments – greater density of detail is more interesting to players. You can use colour in the environment or even more importantly animation to draw the players attention and lighting plays a huge role in the shaping of the psychological landscape around the player that we can use to suggest that this might be another path.
CLICK: Do you constantly have to develop new techniques? When everything looks as beautiful as it does in Uncharted, how do you make one area interesting enough to draw the attention of the player?
RL: Well it’s something that I think all of us at Naughty Dog who’ve been working in 3D games for quite some time, we’ve been learning it all of our 3D careers and those lessens we’ve learned earlier still apply today. The techniques I mentioned are some of the important ways we help to draw the players in. lines of dialogue are also important, from the other characters that accompany Srake, they can be very powerful.
CLICK: The Uncharted games always have a heavy basis in history – how do you decide on which stories to pursue?
RL: We’re very much indebted to our creative director and writer Amy Hennig for helping us in that regard. We always end up with long shopping lists of places that we would like to see in the game and some fall by the wayside, some we use later. Sometimes our selection is driven by a piece of technology that we want to include. This time it’s the system for showing sand that you’ve seen.
CLICK: You talked about the technology a lot in your presentation – do you think its something that most players notice or is it just part of the experience of Uncharted?
RL: It depends on the player as to whether they notice or not. I think foremost it’s an interactive entertainment experience. We don’t want the tech to get in the way of the players fascination and gameplay based engagement with the world. But game players are a very sophisticated well informed bunch and you know they do appreciate when you go the extra yard in terms of tech.
CLICK: This is the third game on the same PS3 hardware – has it reached the end of what you can do with the technology now? Each game is prettier than the last, how do you do it?!
RL: I think the answer to this question really lies in the nature of the system architecture of the PS3. It’s a very complex and complicated piece of equipment and like any piece of computer hardware it’s very hard to come to the end of your knowledge of what can be done with it and I think that previous generations of hardware have shown this. If you remember the games that came out towards the end of the PS2 shelf-life – games like Shadow of the Colossus…
CLICK: God of War 2…
RL: Right. Games that really showed that there was a lot of life left in the hardware. And I think that same can be true of the PS3.
Read part two here
and check back forour full account of the latest Uncharted 3 preview.