What do a schizophrenic marsupial, a tomb explorer and an apocalypse survivor have in common? Obviously the studio that created them, Naughty Dog. Welcome to Studio Tour the column where we tell the story of developers and creatives who gave birth to the masterpieces of the industry. Today Naughty Dog is considered one of the most important teams of the Sony team, perhaps the real diamond point among the internal studios dedicated to PlayStation.
While waiting for The Last of Us Part 2, today we will retrace the entire history of impertinent dog from the beginnings to the worldwide success, but to start we must go back in time, until the early 80s . He is here, in a Virginia class where young people study in preparation for the Bar Mitzvah, which Jason Rubin and Andy Gravin know each other. The two teenagers discover they have a strong passion for video games in common, and more: Jason loves programming with his Apple II, while Andy shows strong artistic skills. They then decided to join forces, forming the " JAM Software ", at a time when the industry emerged from the 1983 abyss thanks to Nintendo.
Just from the house of Kyoto came the inspiration, if one can define it, for their very first project: a perfect and working copy for Apple of Punch Out, the title on boxing published on the Japanese console. The two boys recorded all the movements of the game, recreating it by heart on their PC, spending an entire year to give life to their version, with the intention of selling it.
Before he ran into some legal trouble, however, he arrived an innocent mistake of youth : during a backup of the only copy of the title Jason Rubin erroneously rewrote the disc, destroying twelve months of work. Soon after, in 1985, the first original game of the duo was born: Math Jam, an educational title to learn mathematics on Apple II, sold initially for a quarter of a dollar. The newborn JAM Software started placing packages containing a floppy disk and an instruction book, photocopied and packaged inside a plastic bag. The first customers were schoolmates, then classmates, and finally from school. And when the institute was beaten in every direction, Andy and Jason inquired about how to sell it to other facilities.
Set aside the burden of educational games, the two boys began to develop the first title to have fun with : so it was that the following year they created Ski Crazed, where they had to descend along a snowy mountain. To develop it they used a computer tool they themselves modified, to color and animate two-dimensional sprites. By working with an unofficial program, they were not able to save image data normally.
To do this they were forced to brutally shut down the PC after each session, recovering the unpublished material from the emergency cache. All these sacrifices paid off when Sky Crazed was introduced and accepted by a small Michigan publisher: Baudville. The game sold 1,500 copies, and the pair started to develop another title for the same publisher. In 1987 Dream Zone arrived, a text-based adventure that, for the first time, brought the duo to the Amiga and Commodore consoles.
With a storyline that played the role of a boy who was a prisoner of his dreams, Dream Zone was a commercial success for JAM Software, selling over 10,000 copies. Andy and Jason, however, were dissatisfied with the Baudville distribution and, with just three games in assets, contacted Electronic Arts for an agreement .
EA was intrigued by Dream Zone, and presented a $ 15,000 deal for a new project to the JAM kids. In addition, they would have earned 10% of revenues on copies sold. Meanwhile, the team had changed its name, choosing the iconic Naughty Dog in 1989, and in the same year publishing Keef the Thief for Apple II, Amiga and MS-DOS. This humorous RPG went on to sell 50,000 copies, and for the first time put the duo in front of a publisher who also influenced artistic decisions during development.
Despite everything, EA supported the two boys who spent almost three times the budget on the production of Keef the Thief, accepting the idea of a new yet more ambitious RPG: the code name of the project it was Buccaneer and the requested budget was set at 90 thousand dollars, a figure that increased to 150 thousand during the processing. All conditions accepted by the company. However there was a further difficulty during development: Rubin and Gavin had grown up meanwhile, and had enrolled in several colleges in different states. In a telematic shuttle, with the poor vehicles of the time, the two worked from their respective universities in Michigan and Pennsylvania.
From Rings of Power to Way of the Warrior
After completing their studies the two met in Virginia, but in the meantime the development had been delayed, bringing to three the two years of work initially set. Net of all the difficulties, Rings of Power saw the light in 1991 on Sega Mega Drive, marking the definitive passage of Naugthy Dog to the world of consoles. It must be said that an isometric RPG was not the best choice for a console title, but with 100,000 copies sold, the success of Andy and Jason grew month after month.
EA sold every single copy of Rings of Power, but decided not to print further copies, since the cartridge contained a battery to save game progress, increasing production costs. It was at this time that Jason Rubin and Andy Gravin realized that Electronic Arts was a company that was not inclined, at that time, to favor experimentation and creativity.
They then decided to take a break from the industry, with the idea of giving some time to study and relax. Obviously it did not go like this: Jason opened a company of special effects and 3D graphics, also getting an offer from the world of cinema for the film " Wolf " with Jack Nicholson. However, the industry in which they had distinguished themselves came back to claim them, and during 1993 an agreement came to develop a title for a console launched that year. We are talking about the 3DO, a platform marketed by Trip Hawkins, founder of Electronic Arts who, to push sales of the car, decided to contact the guys from Naughty Dog. The idea of abandoning the support of cartridges to move to the potential of the CD-ROM convinced the duo to accept the offer.
Thus was born, in '94, Way of the Warrior a project that followed the most popular genre of the moment: the fighting games. The title was developed in Jason's apartment, which had meanwhile moved into the dormitories of MIT and Harvard students, and the two boys even set up a home set to record the wrestlers' animations. Despite the ambition, the production difficulties of the project were largely undervalued: for the first time the two understood that they would not have made it with their own forces, and began to hire other students to speed up development. The roster was created on the models of friends and relatives, since, in order not to have creative constraints, it was decided to self-produce the game with the gains collected by Rings of Power.
With this choice Naughty Dog soon found in a period of economic difficulty but Way of the Warrior would have been the card to recover. Without a publisher, the two boys decided to present themselves for a new deal, and three offers arrived on the table: the first came from the founder of 3DO himself, asking them to keep the game as exclusive for the platform, the second from Crystal Dynamics , interested in the engine developed by the guys to create another title, Samurai Showdown. Finally, Universal Studios, who made an offer for the development of three games in the future. If Andy and Jason had accepted Trip Hawkins' proposal, Naughty Dog would not exist today, since 3DO later revealed itself to be a big commercial flop, which led to the company closing three years later.
Way of the Warrior was a qualitatively poor game but Universal did not withdraw his offer, which Gavin and Rubin accepted. The duo moved to California to work on what would become the PlayStation mascot : Crash Bandicoot. It was still 1994, and Universal gave carte blanche to the developers, who learned a precise lesson from the times on 3DO: they needed help to make great games. So it was that Naughty Dog hired his first two employees in January 1995, Dave Baggett and Taylor Kurosaki.
The Birth of the Marsupial
The team immediately understood that the industry was discovering the potential of 3D, and at the same time Way of the Warrior's way tried to anticipate market demands. The idea of creating a recognizable mascot like Mario or Sonic made the group move towards the platform genre. The inspiration for managing the camera came from the Donkey Kong of the competition, while the concept of the main character came from the Looney Tunes . For the first time Naughty Dog was quietly producing funds and an inspired artistic vein. A detail remained to be defined: the name of the protagonist. During development, the future mascot Sony was nicknamed Willy the Wombat then changed to Crash and, later, to facilitate the pronunciation, Crash Bandicoot.
Meanwhile the market was seeing the famous debut Nintendo plumber in the three-dimensional world with Super Mario 64, while the Sega Saturn recorded the arrival of Nigths Into Dreams, both 3D platforms. It was these releases that drove Naughty Dog towards an agreement with Sony and PlayStation. Going into detail, the development team had Universal's financial support, but had never obtained the real tools to build the game.
To create Crash, once again, the group fumbled with existing machines, hacking and modifying what was necessary. Sony was not really looking for a mascot, rather focused on the power of the brand, but inevitably found it in the project of Gavin and Rubin. 9 September 1996 Crash Bandicoot was released on PlayStation.
The developers remember with fun the reviews that were among the defects " It's not Mario ", and yet, thanks to the success of the Sony console, the copies sold exceeded those of the plumber, putting the name Naughty Dog in the global spotlight. Crash was in fact the first "American" game to have a strong response also in Japan bringing Sony and Universal to push for an immediate sequel, with an increase in funds and employees. Since the development of the first chapter a man in particular proved to be attentive to the needs of Naughty Dog: Mark Cerny, at the time Vice President of Universal, who helped the developers so much that he later abandoned his position to follow them.
In November 1997 came the sequel to Crash Bandicoot, which recorded another success, leading to the umpteenth growth of the team, which was beginning to collect characters with a past in the industry. One example is Erick Pangilinan, who in the past had worked with SEGA, and who was later fired for company decisions along with other employees. When he was in front of Naughty Dog's workplace, still considered an independent growing team, Erick was impressed by the mix of kindness and dedication of the group. He later stated that it was " like being in a family, but everyone was so committed to making it clear they weren't joking. For SEGA I was a number, nothing more, but in Naughty Dog things were different ".
So it was that Crash saw a third episode of the platform series and a fourth title dedicated to kart racing (coming soon in a remastered version with the title Crash Team Racing Nitro Fueled), collecting great praise from public and critics . But when the character was at the height of his glory, things started to go wrong with Universal, who due to subsequent bureaucratic transformations brought with him the license of the character, making it later cross-platform. The situation also affected Naughty Dog, who found himself in a limbo of agreements between Universal and Sony, needing to define his own identity. They had created Crash Bandicoot but they didn't own it and the new millennium was preparing new challenges.
New mascots on PlayStation 2
Already in 1998 they began to build a first concept, initially called Progetto X but the studio was about to go through a crucial phase: the transition to PlayStation 2. To develop what would become first Jak & Daxter $ 14 million was needed. Rubin and Gavin would have liked to self-finance the project as done in the past, to keep creative freedom intact, but together they could barely cover a third of the expenses. Naughty Dog later became a Sony internal study, bureaucratically clarifying the ownership of the new IPs, conditions that were accepted without delay by the Japanese company.
Unlike the adventure with EA, the team did not weaken with the agreement , but became more organized and structured. Furthermore, personalities like Yoshida and Hirai calmly supported the work of the team. It was at that time that the relationship with Naughty Dog was defined that still exists today. Gavin and Rubin sold the company to Sony in 2001, and the team leader progressively moved into the hands of Evan Wells and Cristophe Balestra.
In the meantime work efforts moved to Jak & Daxter, a title designed to be a bigger, better Crash with an open and accessible world to explore. It was also a baton from the old talents of Naughty Dog and the new recruits to expand the study. One of these was Josh Scherr, who came from the world of computer graphics animation, and joined the team in February 2001.
During development, several ideas rejected in the previous series found fertile ground in the new IP : real animated scenes, multicultural influences to embrace the largest global user base and the desire to build a deep narrative in support of adventure. However, it was Scherr himself who noticed how the characters spoke by looking at the virtual camera, with slow and conventional rhythms of acting for the industry. Taking advantage of his background, he simply decided to follow a different acting model, even going against some of his colleagues.
This is because Naughty Dog used to organize meetings where everyone was free to talk openly, and as told in certain testimonies, even a sound designer had the chance to criticize the whole project in front of his superiors. Scheer therefore had to win several resistances, and development times lengthened beyond the established date, but it was precisely at this time that a fundamental aspect of Naughty Dog emerged: they would only publish games that they would have been proud of, no matter a few weeks late .
Jak & Daxter: The Precursor Legacy was released on December 3, 2001, garnering tremendous global success. Unlike Crash it was an evolving brand. After the release the developers in fact began to feel the influences of the other exclusive Sony, like God of War and Killzone and, going further, even those of GTA III. It was perceptible that the market was moving in search of greater realism, with the desire to bring more credible, immersive and even violent worlds to consoles. Jak & Daxter obviously had none of these features.
Jak II Renegade was then developed with new intentions, to get closer to the tastes of the public: the open world drift and the introduction of shootings are a clear example. Looking at the series, we note the tendency to become increasingly dark as the episodes pass, embracing the direction in which the industry was moving, penalizing, however, sales on Japanese territory.
Naughty Dog, in short, was evolving but continued to maintain its identity, almost like an independent studio that grew over the years becoming ever larger. After Jak X, developed rapidly like Jak 3, the company prepared for the new generational change . It was also the period in which Gavin and Rubin left the team definitively, after some years of consulting and support for programmers.
An unexplored adventure
The future was certainly uncertain and it was another crucial moment of the study. By mutual agreement with Sony it was initially decided to divide the study into two parts to approach PS3 and PSP. However, the team ran into a huge problem, namely the fact that it was not possible to adapt the engine used until then to the new platforms. It was therefore necessary to start from scratch, at a time when Naughty Dog played a central role in the strategies of the Japanese giant. A program was established to build a new engine, to be shared with other Sony satellite studios, but to do so the PSP project, which was supposed to have Jak as its protagonist, was abandoned. Paradoxically, it was on that project that a programmer named Neil Druckmann had spent hours of effort trying to demonstrate to his superiors his creative qualities.
It was the first time that a very promising title had been set aside, but the passage on PS3, the age-old question of the engine and the debut of Uncharted put Naughty Dog in a tight spot like never before .
Many employees who had been hired thought of working on projects like Crash or Jak, but the studio was moving in a new direction, not shared by everyone. The question of the engine clearly influenced the well-being of the studio, forced to reprogram every tool from scratch, after excellent results with past generations. It was a period in which the idea of paying for an engine built by someone else occasionally flashed, but the philosophy of the studio was to do it on its own. Involuntarily, the new PS3 had caused more than a headache.
For the debut of Nathan Drake, Amy Hennig the writer who had worked on Legacy, among other things, was hired shortly before of Kain Soul Reaver. Amy then explained that at that time the industry was moving towards a common front made up of games with a post-apocalyptic taste, and often first person. The team didn't want to throw themselves into the fray of confrontation: instead something was needed that continued the tradition of the studio, full of humor, positive atmospheres, but with the right dose of realism to do justice to the new hardware. From this philosophy was born the choice to use human characters, not stylized or cartoon, and the inspiration also came from Tomb Raider, considering that Amy Hennig had played a role in Cristal Dynamics before moving to Naughty Dog.
Many ideas were rejected: a totally underwater world, a Nathan Drake in the role of an archaeologist of the future, committed to recovering the relics of our era, and some projects related to science fiction. In the end the idea of a great adventure with positive tones was maintained, inspired by Lara Croft Indiana Jones and many other influences that took shape in Drake's debut. The challenge was to combine the cinematic soul of the project with a gameplay that left the player free to act.
In 2007 Uncharted finally saw the light but the team felt insecure: he was afraid of betray one's fanbase, accustomed to another kind of experience. Despite some resistance from the press, and a slightly turned on marketing campaign by Sony, Uncharted worked, marking a good success for Naughty Dog which, meanwhile, began to think of a sequel. The reasons behind the serialization of Nathan Drake are different: the desire to take back many ideas discarded in the first chapter and the awareness of having just scratched the power of PlayStation 3.
With Uncharted 2 the The work system of the studio changed, became more analytical, technically more complex, defining a growing security in the team's means. The attention to detail became deeper and more critical, and if Drake's debut came primarily, by the creators' own admission, from a series of clichés loved by all, it is with the second chapter that the story was further deepened. The fruits were not slow in coming and, in 2009, Uncharted 2 Il Covo dei Ladri was considered one of the best titles of the year.
The success gathered increased the media pressure on the team working on the new Drake adventure. However, Naughty Dog felt ready for another challenge, and tried again an internal division, to work on two parallel projects. Thus, on the third understanding of Uncharted, only part of the team was engaged, while the other began work on The Last of Us.
Uncharted 3 was a chapter that marked fewer innovations than the transition between first and second episode, breaking criticism and published. The weight of the glory gathered by Among Tieves was still alive in the eyes of the fans, who did not appreciate some choices made by Amy Hennig. In particular, protests about the narrative dissonances took shape, with a positive hero like Drake capable of exterminating groups of enemies with a smile on his face. Despite everything Uncharted 3 was however a commercial success, but nothing compared to the project taken care of by the other side of the team.
The last will be the first
After working on the design of the first two Uncharted, the former Neil programmer Druckmann was chosen to take on the role of creative director of the new project, which promised to exploit every drop of experience in the studio. The Last of Us marked a new milestone for Naughty Dog, and influenced the industry itself, setting a new level of narrative depth. The motion capture used enhanced the talents of the actors who impersonated Joel and Ellie, with a mature plot focused on their relationship.
For the occasion a new engine was developed, the result of the long experience gained with PS3, making the title a true swan song of the generation in every aspect, even the technical one.
Meanwhile, preparing for the move to the new generation, the remaining part of the team began work on the new Uncharted for PlayStation 4. Amy Hennig wanted to address all the criticisms she had received, so she designed a very stealth game, different from the previous chapters, where Nathan would not have fired a single shot for at least half of the adventure. It would have been the discharge of Drake and Uncharted, but Druckmann and the other developers, back from the work on The Last of Us, opposed many of the choices made by the writer.
Naughty Dog then faced another small crisis, but this time it was Amy Hennig, who left the studio for good. Some of his ideas were retained, but we will never know which game would become Uncharted 4 End of a Thief if he kept his main philosophy.
Naughty Dog represents flagship of the internal studios of Sony, and with the continuation of The Last of Us coming we are sure that its history will be destined to be remembered for a long time yet.