In A Interview with Stephen White, Co-President and Lead Programmer at Santa Monica, CA-based videogame developer Naughty Dog about creating games for the next-generation consoles … and he offered some suggestions for dealing with next-gen hurdles.
Q. Naughty Dog is known for the “ Crash Bandicoot” and “ Jak and Daxter” franchises which have sold over 35 million units combined. What have been the fundamental keys to the success of your titles and how do you plan to apply those to your next-generation game development?
A. One of the biggest factors in the making of a successful game is hiring very talented people who are motivated and can get the job done without the need for extensive management and finely detailed schedules. Instead of throwing a lot of bodies at a problem and having pure managers manage those bodies, we have fewer people and our managers works directly on product as either artists, programmers, or designers. For example, people are often surprised to find out that we have no internal producers at Naughty Dog. It's not that we are anti-producer since there are certainly some fine producers in the industry but so far, we haven't needed to fill a purely producer role. Being “in the trenches,” our managers can make important decisions quickly with a good understanding of potential repercussions. Our staffing and management strategy has allowed us to adapt intelligently and efficiently and, as a result, we have a great work environment, we make polished games, and we never miss our ship date.
Q. How have the technical specs of the PS3 created hurdles for developers and how is Naughty Dog dealing with those hurdles?
A. The biggest hurdle is that more power means more things are possible and with more possibilities come more overall work and more difficult problems to solve. Our ultimate goal is to create a game that becomes a technical landmark for the hardware. For the PS1, we created “Crash Bandicoot” which featured streaming, highly detailed, real-time environments. For the PS2, we created “Jak and Daxter” with its organic, wide open, free-roaming environments using an extensive level of detail and data-streaming technology. For the PS3, we again want to create an experience that the consumer hasn't had before. We want to really push the machine in several areas so some of our systems are becoming several orders of magnitude harder. Our programming staff is relatively small so, to achieve our goals, we are very actively searching for additional programming talent.
Q. What improvements will the powerful capabilities of next-gen consoles make in next-gen games and do they outweigh the extra effort that needs to go into making those games?
A. I'm more excited about the next-gen system than I've been about any system in my nearly 20 years of programming professionally. The PS3 has the muscle to allow us to do many things that I've spoken wistfully about doing for years but that have been unachievable on past hardware. As an example, we are in the early stages of a huge evolution in graphics due to advances in pixel and vertex shader technology. While shader technology is certainly not unique to the PS3, people are going to be blown away by the stunning visuals and immersive experiences of PS3 games once developers start grasping the possibilities of this technology. The other thing I'm most excited about is the raw processing power of the Cell processor chip which opens up many possibilities for stunning visuals and new gameplay experiences not previously possible. Animation alone will undoubtedly go through a tremendous evolution in sophistication. I occasionally reminisce about the simpler days when making a game only took a few months and a handful of people, but I feel blessed to be in the industry at a time when so many epic and immersive things are possible. Ultimately, the most important component of a good game is gameplay, but we've sure come along way since “Pong.”
Q. How is Naughty Dog addressing the issue of growing team sizes as you make the jump to the next-gen technology?
A. Hiring is absolutely our biggest issue right now. We have a desperate need for talented programmers, artists, and designers. In the not-too-distant past, we did all of our own recruitment, but now we have come to rely on recruitment services like Digital Artist Management to find the talent we need. We are also very actively developing technology, tools, and methodologies to make things easier to create the code and content of our games, thus reducing the total number of additional people that need to be hired. We are focused on making easier-to-use tools and increasing our ability to iterate rapidly.
Q. Do you have any advice for other developers who are ramping up for the PS3?
A. Consider middleware and other forms of shared technology. This is not a knock against the PS3 since this is my advice regardless of the next-gen platform -- especially if you are developing cross-platform. As I mentioned, more power means more possibilities which means more complexity. The bar in terms of technology is being raised so very high that many studios will not have the time or staff to both make the game and the fundamental technology behind the game. Using various forms of middleware or other shared technology will allow those studios to more quickly prototype and focus on gameplay.