We spoke to Naughty Dog's Arne Meyer about Jak and Daxter, making vehicles work and Uncharted 4's improved artificial intelligence.
12 April 2016: Last year, we spoke to Naughty Dog's Arne Meyer about a whole manner of things concerning Uncharted 4 and the company itself. With just over a month until the long awaited (and somewhat final) fourth installment is released, Arne has returned to Australia to answer a few lingering questions on Uncharted 4's vehicles, characters and AI.
We spoke at length with Meyer about the recently leaked concept art for Jak and Daxter 4, the challenges that introducing vehicles presented and a couple of the craziest places Nathan Drake nearly visited.
- Communication Strategist for Naughty Dog
- Former Community Engagement Manager at Vivendi Games
- Proud of owner of one of the most mouth-watering,
vegetarian-friendly Instagram accounts around
Off the back of the demo yesterday, I wanted to talk a little about the dynamic interactions between allies and enemies. When we were in stealth we had Sam and Sully jump in and take out a few enemies. How do you balance that AI, so they’re helping out without completely doing the job for you?
AM: All of our AI systems, especially in combat, they’re very systematic and very based on what’s happening at the time. There’s a lot of refinement, trying to find that everything is acting as it should, that your allies aren’t running out of cover, trying to figure out what the player is trying to do.
We keep playing those scenarios over and over again, trying to make sure they’re helpful but not too helpful. In the overall spectrum, you don’t want them to be detrimental, but you don’t want to be too helpful. A lot of that is the continual tweaking of the AI and their routines because it’s systemic, it’s very based on what’s happening at that moment. You can’t plan for every eventuality. It doesn’t really work that way. It’s almost like there’s a slider and different variables, you start tweaking them and all of a sudden the AI is taking over too much, so we tweak it a little further to counter that. “
My colleague and I got our hands on the demo and both had totally different experiences with the AI. During his playthrough, Sam and Sully were taking too much control over the situation, killing enemies before he could get to them, whereas it worked as intended for me. In one situation, I was cornered by a curious guard and Sully came out of nowhere and took the thug out from behind. It was really cinematic.
At times, the AI felt so clever, I felt like I was playing online co-op. I was wondering whether co-op campaign was ever considered during development of Uncharted 4. Was it ever tested?
Nah, it’s always been single player. It goes back to the philosophy of how we wanted to treat character development and narrative in the game. We’re always trying to focus on Nathan Drake. That’s why you always play as Nathan Drake, there are only other characters so they can draw out different aspects of Drake’s personality. You have to make them react accordingly to whatever situation you’re in. Everything is built for that single player experience, to draw you to learn more about Drake himself.
How does that single chapter DLC fit in with everything else? That’s a question we haven’t answered so far.
Uncharted is one of those games where you’re just as happy to watch someone else play it as you are yourself.
Recently, news broke about Bruce and Neil revisiting old The Last of Us 2 concepts after the single player DLC for Uncharted 4 is completed. Past DLC featured little story, mostly single player and co-op challenges, but with Bruce and Neil on board for Uncharted 4’s DLC, will we see more story driven content? Is the DLC going to extend the narrative past the main campaign, or is Uncharted 4’s campaign final?
So that’s the challenge. Without going into it too much, the challenge we’ve set up for ourselves; once the story ends, how does that single chapter DLC fit in with everything else? That’s a question we haven’t answered so far. That’s going to be something we still have to figure out. Obviously, it does precedent an interesting position where we say, you know, this is the closing chapter, but we’re not saying “we’re never working on Uncharted again” because we’re obviously working on the smaller DLC chapter, but then how does that fit into everything? How does it fit into the timeline, what story are we going to tell, but we really don’t have an idea. These are all the questions we need to begin asking ourselves. But, you know, I think that’s really in the back of Bruce and Neil’s minds at the moment. It’s the last thing they need to worry about so close to release.
Bruce and Neil’s fingerprints are noticeable in the demo we played. Uncharted has always had great dialogue, but the inane chatter between Sully, Sam and Drake during downtime really reminded me of those moments with Joel and Ellie in The Last of Us. Can you identify any influences from The Last of Us that carried over to Uncharted 4?
“It’s not that much really. It’s funny you say that, because that chatter you mention has always been a part of Uncharted. This is just the next evolution of it. We’re just getting a lot better at it. There isn’t a lot that directly carried over from The Last of Us, beyond the fact that TLOU is the last game we completed and we learn from every game that we work on. There are different aspects of it where we say, that was interesting or we’ve done that thing better than we’ve ever done before and we use that for the foundation for Uncharted 4. Two most direct things are; our engine, because TLOU helped us port our engine over to PS4. Even before Uncharted 4 some basis to our tech and tools pipeline was helped by TLOU. And I think we carried on some aspects of the AI routines. Because the TLOU AI routines were a result from improving upon the Uncharted 3 AI routines, and then again for 4.
When I sit back and I look at everything we tried to do 1, 2, 3, The Last of Us and Uncharted 4, you see a lot of the same concepts, just pushed further with each iteration. We’ve learnt about our pacing, taking high-action moments and slowing them right down. We’ve learnt not to be afraid about taking our time. We toyed around with pacing in Uncharted 2 and 3, and really pushed it with The Last of Us. We slowed down the pacing for The Last of Us and really took it to the extreme, which wouldn’t have worked out with Uncharted 4. We’re expanding on things that have worked for past games, say the slow-mo in the Tibet scene in Uncharted 2, we’re now more comfortable expanding on that for Uncharted 4.
Looking forward, is there any particular feature in Uncharted 4 that the team is super proud of and likely to carry over to Naughty Dog’s next game? Maybe something new, say vehicles, that haven’t featured in a Naughty Dog game since Jak X.
The vehicle aspect is great for us. Because it’s something we haven’t tackled before and we’re feeling really good about it. We learned a lot from it. Not only in terms of how to make a vehicle drive well, and something to take you from point A to point B but also to use it as part of the narrative, part of the problem solving scenarios.
I think there’s a lot of stuff we learnt from that especially. For us it was a huge step forward in terms of working on the PS4, being able to figure out how far we can push the visual quality and make it feel like it’s in the real world. For example the textures for the rocks you saw in the preview sequence, that really impressed me. Rocks are always really difficult to do in any game. It’s a really easy thing to get wrong. The team’s really done a great job with textures and the level of detail, and even draw distance. A lot of these things we’ve been trying to push for a while, but now it feels like we’ve come into our own and they are things we would like to keep expanding on. The vehicles is probably the best example of that though.
Were there any huge problems introducing vehicles that the team ran into? Any moment they thought it might not work?
I don’t think there was ever a moment we thought it wouldn’t work. It was definitely something where we realised it was a very ambitious thing to do because we knew we had to get the technology and the physics right, and get the feel of driving right, but it was also like, where do we place this into the game so it fits with the narrative. Because now with a vehicle right, the idea is, well that means we can open up the space. One of the reasons why we picked the section for the recent preview, is to answer the question, can we give you a really broad environment and not make it too slow, can we give you the opportunity to explore and still make you want to progress through the story and not feel like there’s too much of a break. With the Uncharted games, we always want you to feel so invested in the story, to the point that you want to finish it in one sitting, there isn’t a natural break point where you say “Oh okay I’m done with this chapter, I’m going to put the controller down and come back to it. We always want you to keep going forward. That was the biggest challenge. Can we create this broad environment where you can drive and jump out and do what you want and not feel like there’s too much of a down time and you think ‘Oh that felt good, I’ll grab some dinner then maybe play some more”.
I just finished Uncharted 3 in three sittings.
That’s exactly what we’re trying to do. That feeling of ‘just one more chapter’.
Back to the jeep. In our preview, the characters (Nate, Sully and Drake) all interact with the vehicle and have unique dialogue related to the jeep. As you mentioned, the vehicle is a part of the narrative, a part of the puzzle solving process. So we’re not going to see any GTA moments where we can just hijack the closest car or motorbike.
Right, we’re not a driving game and that goes back to your previous question. We thought ‘how to we introduce this so it’s not a driving game’...
...but so it fits with the narrative.
So, will we be driving other vehicles in the game?
Shrug. (Laughs) Not to be cagey about it, but the answer I have would be the same if someone asked ‘what locations will we visit? What environments will we see?’ I think there’s some snippets and some hints of the variety of places you’ll visit and things you’ll do in the trailers we’ve released. If you take a closer look at some of the trailers we’ve released I think you’ll get the answer to some of those questions.
‘IT’S FAN ART, he just loves our shit’.
Interesting. Going back to a question I asked you last year. I asked you if you were a betting man, what would say the chances were of a new Jak and Daxter coming out any time soon and you said no, you wouldn’t bet on it. But just last month a freelance artist, Andrew Kim, leaked some concept art for an unannounced project that clearly depicts Jak and Daxter. How have Naughty Dog responded to that? Has Naughty Dog communicated with Kim at all?
We obviously had investigated a new Jak and Daxter a long time ago. Anything surrounding that is part of the initial exploration. There’s a lot of art we didn’t release, some that we did put together. But there’s nothing in the works right now.
You have to remember, a lot of the time, a lot of the artists that we work with are big fans of our work. A concept artist who used to work with us went freelance. Well, he put out some fan art of The Last Of Us and everyone all of a sudden is like ‘Oh Last of Us 2’ and I’m like ‘IT’S FAN ART, he just loves our shit’.
Right, these guys probably have portfolios full of fan-art.
Yeah, like, it’s all a great exercise for them, which is great. The people who leave our company come back with new stuff, because they’re such fans of the games they’ve worked on that they’re kind of their own inspiration, which is awesome.
A question about some voice talent. Robin Atkin Downes has voiced two “final bosses” now, in Uncharted 1 and 3. Those characters are well and truly dead.
Laughs That’s right.
There’s no debating that.
Right. But Robin’s not.
No, he’s not. So, assuming the final boss role goes to Nadine or Rafe, does RAD have a much smaller role this time around? What’s the scale of his role?
Shrugs! Really? Again?
It’s really tough. We haven’t really talked about our principal cast. That’s something we’re keeping close to our chest. We haven’t really talked about. You know, Elena’s involvement. Once the game comes out you’ll get a better idea of all of that.
I get it. The story is what we all love so much about Uncharted, why give it away?
We really think about how much we release (before release) and there’s always fans who will say ‘Oh this trailer has spoilers, will the previews have spoilers?’ But as a studio, we’re always conscious of how to preserve the final player experience. You want to keep that sense of wonder, right? So we’re always going err a little but on the conservative side, trying to preserve the final experience.
(Looking over the following questions) Uhhh, I'm anticipating a few more shrugs.
Nate’s journey in 1 and 3 were pretty much directly influenced by Francis Drake’s journey. I feel like we kind of wrapped that up in Deception. Does Francis Drake have a part to play in 4 or have we well and truly closed that arc?.
When we were exploring the Francis Drake part, it was really in relation to, let’s try to explore more about Nate’s character - it was always in service of that. Let’s find out more about his background. Let’s find out about what motivates him. Let’s find out about the secrets that he’s got. We answered a lot of the questions about Francis Drake’s role in Nate’s life during Uncharted 3, but that doesn’t mean we’re done exploring Nate’s background - obviously with Sam coming into it. Even though it might not relate to Francis Drake’s adventures specifically, we’re going to learn more about where Nate came from and what has made him into the man he is today. We saw little glimpses of that with little Drake in Uncharted 3. We’re pulling a back a lot of layers of Drake. I don’t want to say we’re going as far as answering all the questions, but we’re wrapping up a lot of things that may have been suggested or hinted at in previous games. Really feeling like there’s a sense of closure, one package.
Right, because it’s already confirmed, or at least suggested, that Nate’s name isn’t really Drake. That’s why I was surprised to see Sam’s character named Sam Drake, which is kind of telling in itself about their history together and Francis Drake being an influence for both brothers.
It was alluded to in Uncharted 3 that Nate had family so bringing Sam in really gives us the opportunity to explore their background. I’ve always found interesting that Nate has always kept secrets, not just from the player, but his surrogate family in Sully. You’d figure that after all these years adventuring together that Sully would know these things, why would Nate hide some of it? Now with Sam in the picture, we get to reveal a lot about Nathan’s past that he’s hidden from everyone else in his life.
We nearly named the plane chapter in Uncharted 3 Drakes on a Plane.
Granted the preview we played was Chapter 10, not too early in the game, but I kind of got the feeling from the dialogue that Sam and Sully have some history as well. They trade stories about dealing about the old days adventuring and pilfering. It felt like they were familiar.
I think it’s a great example of the types of people that we’re trying to pattern Sam and Sully after. Sully is a bit of a father figure, a mentor and he’s still playing that role here. Even though he might not know Sam, they still have this sense of family. Sully’s always cracking the old man jokes. We’re trying to show that comfortability in the interplay between characters. Remember, Sully also gets pulled back into this life, I mean he never really left, but Drake’s called him up in need and Sully’s on board. He’s familiar with all the characters in the underworld, and it’s just very natural for him to fall back into.
PR requests last question
Right, I’ll wrap it up. This being the last Uncharted game, for now…
Laughs “For now”
I just wanted to know if you have any stories of the craziest pitches for where to put Nathan Drake next e.g. Nathan Drake in Space that just never worked?
I don’t know about ideas that never worked. We did joke around about having Uncharted in space for a while. After Uncharted 3’s plane crash scene, the conversation turned to ‘Oh can we do a weightless scene’ ‘How far can we take it?’ ‘This could be our Moonraker’. I think that was probably the craziest one. But we always come up with really outlandish ideas and types of situations to put Drake in. There was an idea for an abandoned city on stilts in Southeast Asia that could have been really spooky and we really wanted to send Drake there.
There were other ideas we toyed around with, like chapter names. We nearly named the plane chapter in Uncharted 3 Drakes on a Plane. Which was relevant at the time. Laughs.