Ben and I got into a little scuffle over whether Uncharted was going to make a dent this holiday season, and almost immediately Sony contacted us to say yes, this is a game everyone should be interested in. To prove the point, they scheduled a chat with former Chief Technical Officer turned co-president of Naughty Dog, Christophe Balestra, and he had some interesting details on why you need to be watching this game. Make up your own mind.
Walk us through the history of Uncharted. Where did the core ideas come from?
The history of Uncharted … wow, it's been a long process. We started aboutthree years ago with a tiny group and once we were done with Jak X, everybody moved over to start working on Uncharted. The development was difficult at the beginning because we started with zero lines of code. The fact that we had our own language on thePS2 helped us back then, but not very much with this transition. We wanted our technology to be shared within Sony and maybe outside of Sony as well, so we had to rewrite everything in C++. It has also been a learning curve to get familiar with the shaders but I feel that we did more than catching up, we really pushed the envelop in terms of shaders and lighting. Animation was the thing we wanted to push more than anything else. We had to write very specific tools and get animators and programmers to work together constantly to get the quality of Uncharted.
From what we understand, Uncharted is using some fairly intense technology that's proprietary to the PS3. Besides the high-dynamic range lighting and water effects showcased in the PSN behind-the-scenes videos, how are you utilizing the power of the PS3 in your game?
The PlayStation 3 has a lot of power. When we started Uncharted we were really ambitious and had no idea what the PS3 would give us. Once we got the first devkits, we realized quickly that we could do everything we had planned to. Thethree main points for me are the Cell, Blu-Ray and the hard drive. We’ve been using the Cell for pretty much all our systems: rendering, particles, physics simulation, collision detection, animation, AI, decompression, water simulation, etc … and to give you an idea of the power of the PS3, we're using only 30 percentof the Cell processor.
In terms of Blu-Ray, we just couldn’t have made Uncharted without it; with Uncharted we have almost filled it (91 percent). We're also using the hard drive to pre-cache data from the Blu-Ray disc. That allows us to stream up to 12 streams for sound, load level data super fast and more importantly to stream textures constantly to guarantee high-res quality on the screen.
Aside from the technology of the hardware, what is Naughty Dog doing with the title to leverage features unique to the PS3? Are there plans for downloadable content through the PSN, for example?
Uncharted has a trophy system to unlock a lot of cool features and also gives you an idea of how a good a player you are. In the future, we’ll be looking at how to incorporate those features into Home.
Uncharted is coming out at a time where the competition for the gaming dollar is, to put it lightly, intense. Do you have any misgivings about releasing the game at a time with such a dense collection of games that also have big names attached to them?
Naughty Dog has just created a new big name which is Uncharted. We are really proud and confident about the quality of our game. I'm sure Uncharted is going to be one of the best games this holiday-season.
One of the on-going concerns about the PlayStation 3 has been that development is a difficult process. Frame rate problems, engine inconsistencies, and more seem to be par for the course, and we've seen third-party developers dropping title features and even games altogether because development is either just too difficult or too costly. What has Naughty Dog done to cope with these problems? What is the team doing differently than the competition?
First of all, Naughty Dog is exclusively focused on the PS3 which makes our task a little bit easier. That said, we are completely aware of some of the issues that teams can have and we've been trying to help them. Sony has released "Playstation Edge," a set of high level tools and runtime libraries to facilitate the use of the PS3. A big part of that technology has been developed here at Naughty Dog and we have a group of programmers dedicated to this effort.
We're also planning on giving a lot of talks about how we made Uncharted and have no secrets about our technology. I think the PS3 is the machine of the future, the transition might not be super easy but Sony knows and is helping third-party developers. If you look at other industries we just have to deal with a multicore processor and in companies like Google programmers probably deal with thousands of machines, so in terms of complexity I think it’s totally manageable.
Your game is going to be supporting rumble. How long have you guys known Sony would be releasing the DualShock 3? How important do you think rumble is in a game like Uncharted, and for the PS3 in general?
We got a prototype a few weeks before we finished the game and we're very happy that we had the time to add this feature to Uncharted. It connects you even more to the game and I think it’s something people will enjoy.
Naughty Dog is a studio built on successful franchises. What are the plans for Uncharted? Is this a one-off title?
Crash was a franchise, Jak & Daxter was a franchise and yes of course Uncharted will be a franchise. It takes a lot of effort to create a universe like Uncharted and there is so much more we want to do. It would be a waste if we didn’t have a sequel to make it even better than the first one.
What else does Naughty Dog have in the pipeline that you can tell us about?
As I said we’re only using 30 percentof the power of the Cell, so there’s more to do. We already have very sophisticated technology and we'll push to the next level for our next game.
We'd like to thank Christophe Balestra for his time. Uncharted: Drake's Fortune will be hitting the PlayStation 3 exclusively on November 20, 2007.