Naughty Dog Artist Talks About Working at the Studio, PS4, and How Uncharted 4 Will Blow Your Socks Off

on September 25, 2014 5:44 PM

Back in July we introduced the lovely work of Andrew Maximov, one of the newest artists hired at Naughty Dog, and currently working on Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. 

After the feature, we decided to get in contact with Andrew in order to ask him if he was willing to give us his perspective as a freshman in Naughty Dog’s kennel, and the result is the interview below.

Andrew gives us an insider view on Sony’s prominent first party studio, and on the process that saw him landing a job that can be considered a dream for many. He even gives us a few teasing words about his work on PS4 and on Uncharted 4.

If you want to try your own luck in the gaming industry, he also provides some useful insight and advice.

So, without further ado, here’s what Naughty Dog’s new kid on the block told me:

Giuseppe : Could you introduce yourself and give us a brief overview of your career before landing at Naughty Dog?

Andrew: Hey there, my name’s Andrew. I made art and video games professionally for the last 6 years, and probably amateurishly for almost as much. I was born and raised in Minsk, Belarus. The last dictatorship in Europe. At 18, after a year of getting my degree in international affairs and economy I dropped out to make games for a living.

I started at Wargaming.net working on Square Enix published RTS Order of War and then moved on to be probably the first full time artist on World of Tanks, which to everyone’s great pleasure ended up blowing up the way it did. However, realizing that I maximized my artistic potential there, I left to look for more challenging opportunities before World of Tanks had shipped. After not being challenged with freelancing anymore and the tumult of belarusian presidential election of 2010 and protests of 2011 I could hardly stomach the idea of being there much longer.

So I got a job in Canada and after 12 months of Canadian visa paperwork I was finally able to start as an artist for Gameloft Montreal. I worked on Modern Combat 4 for iPad and a bunch of other fun games, before I moved down to San Francisco to help Kixeye out with a very stylish indie-looking game, that unfortunately no longer exists. And so – I’m here : )

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G: Could you tell us the story of how you’ve been hired, from the initial approach to the done deal?

A: Ha, if this story was a movie it would definitely be a “When Harry met Sally”. It spans years, countries and even continents and is pretty crazy all around : )

The initial dialogue started in 2012 after I released my desert project (“The Desert”). A week or two after, I got an email from recruitment at Naughty Dog asking if I’d be interested in doing their art test. I was still in Belarus at that time. I had three weeks before flying to Canada to start a new job and I thought that it would be a great way to spend them. I spent a week on the test and a few more days on a video and presentation. Then I had the phone interview and probably a day after I landed in Canada I got an email saying that I was accepted and that they wanted to start working on relocation. And that’s when it turned out that they didn’t think they could get me a visa with the amount of experience and education I had.

Fast forward a year. I’m doing a talk at the Game Developers Conference. Immediately after it’s over, while I was packing my stuff to clear the stand, a man with a glorious beard approaches me. It turned out to be Tate Mosesian – Naughty Dog’s Lead Artist and one of the people I had interviewed with a year ago. He hands me his business card and says that if I ever want to talk about a job again I should get in touch. Coincidentally, the same day I get a job offer from a company in San Francisco and that offer has a five day timer on it. Well since I do have the five days I get back to Tate and he puts me in touch with Naughty Dog recruitment again. The time frame was too short for us however to figure things out and they weren’t in a position to guarantee me a work visa on such a short notice.

Fast forward another year. It’s Game Developers Conference again. Me and Tate bumped into each other again and one thing led to another – we ended up going out for drinks and just spent the evening talking about art and games and all kinds of things. Which was really interesting and provided me with a different perspective on Naughty Dog and how a game studio could operate and it kinda stuck with me.

In a couple of months I realized that I needed a change from my current workplace and was investigating some of the potential opportunities I’ve been approached with. One of the companies I talked with was Riot. I mentioned it to a fellow russian-speaking artist who works at Naughty Dog (yes all russian-speaking people know each other : ) ) and he said that I have no excuse now not to swing by Naughty Dog too, cause they are right across the street. And I did. I came down to LA and spent the day at Naughty Dog doing a formal interview. I had a blast, I got offered the job right there and accepted within the next 24 hours.

You know the rest.

G: You’re one of the newest, if not the newest, hire at Naughty Dog, which is considered one of the top studios in the industry and is known to be extremely selective. Do you feel like it’s a crowning of your career, or a beginning?

A: What comes before a beginning? : ) I have such a long way to go, that it genuinely scares me. Which is good ‘cause fear keeps you on your toes, makes you go home after work and keep working more. I hope the day I’ll feel like I’ve achieved something so good I should become complacent will never come. And if it will, I’ll just have to find a new career and start all over.

I’m also kind of glad you asked this question, because, something that probably not all of your readers are aware of, is that in the games industry a company that makes great games is not necessarily a great company to work for or just might not be the company for you.

I’m at a stage of my professional life where I left the fanboy goggles far-far behind and the idea of working at Naughty Dog is no more attractive to me than a nameless indie team trying to connect with their audience. Which is good. Because it means that I came to Naughty Dog not for the elusive prestige or just because I wanted to be a part of the new Uncharted, but because I felt aligned with the company’s values, because I could respect their production philosophy and loved the people here who relentlessly strive for excellence. I wanted to work at a place where the best is not good enough – and I found that in Naughty Dog.

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G: What kind of working environment did you find at Naughty Dog?

A: I think “organized chaos” is a pretty accurate term. Everyone works very hard with minimal supervision. If you need to organize things between a few people you just go ahead and talk to them. That’s it. This work environment is what you make of it. There are no producers keeping track of tasks and no managers to report to, none of that.

This works perfectly for me, but some personality types might actually thrive under good managers and producers, so it’s a very company-specific decision. Which is good, because it means that we have to attract people with similar kind of work ethics and attitude. Now they might not be easy to find but so far our recruitment has been doing an amazing job.

G: Your personal portfolio includes some extremely creative and detailed pieces. How would you describe your style and philosophy as an artist?

A: Why thank you. Philosophy is a very loaded word but I do have some convictions when it comes to art that I try to communicate both through artwork and the education work I do. And that is not losing sight of what you’re doing it for. Art is about having something to communicate. Beauty can be a story of it’s own, but fidelity or detail can’t. We see those two everyday and they do nothing for us unless provided with artistic context. And I always strive for that context to be deliberate.

Take the first Silent Hill movie for example. It wasn’t a classic but one of the awesome things they did, was making the main character’s shirt transition from white to blood-red as she goes through the depths of hell that is Silent Hill. Now this is brilliant not because they just chose nice colors, but because their artistic choices reinforced the psychological states that the character was in and the story in general. They even managed to get away with a seemingly static element such as a shit color becoming a dynamic one. All to support the story.

This is what art is all about. Making all things meaningful through the context of the message you’re trying to communicate.

Uncharted does that too. Dangerous things will have more sharp angles and color will be carefully composed to influence your mood and so on… When you’re making a consumer product you’re no longer just expressing yourself willy-nilly. You’re talking with your audience. And that part of the art gets me really excited.

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G:  We have learned that you’re working on Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. What exactly is your role?

A: I wish I knew really : ) It kind of historically happened for me from job to job that I always come in with the best intentions to do mostly art, but find myself in a situation where I can make a greater contribution developing new art techniques, technology and features.

Since I can write code as well as producing art I fall into this in-between area of putting programming to the better service of aesthetics as well as making the code more optimized, because I know which parts of the real world simulation are aesthetically insignificant and can be omitted without any harm and to some performance gains.

So I split my time between writing code and doing art. Right now we are at a stage of production where we can still afford to squeeze in new tech art features so more of my time is dedicated to that. In fact I probably do more trigonometry and algebra in a day than any artist ever should : ).

But once we get over that hill and start closing in on the final production stint, the amount of new features introduced is going to be minimal so I’ll be able to focus more on producing art and supporting the team. That is actually another great part of being involved with technology and infrastructure, probably the greatest really – you get to play support to the amazing artists that are making the magic happen.

Getting to hear their problems and being able to give them a solution to save them hours of work, or a new shiny feature to play with is nothing short of fantastic. Especially with the amazing art team we’ve got here. If I can do my part to make them feel empowered – I’m a very happy camper.

G: Could you describe your typical working day at Naughty Dog?

A: I’d love to, but I’m not entirely sure there’s such a thing as typical day at the office here : ). Especially being involved with a lot of R&D. Every day you’re just trying to solve a problem in a way that no one has ever done before. Or maybe even solve a problem no one in tried to solve before because it seems impossible. “This sounds crazy! Let’s do it!” is a phrase I heard only at Naughty Dog and, honestly, it’s like music to my ears : )

G: Is there something in particular about the studio or about your new colleagues that impressed or surprised you?

A: Oh, it’s always the people. Companies don’t mean much without them. Here everyone is just amazing. And having the privilege of meeting them and getting to work with them never gets old. Everyone’s commitment to not making compromises and not taking the easy road is definitely something I value greatly and have the utmost respect for. The studio is very diverse too, so you get to hear a lot of amazing stories from people coming from very different backgrounds.

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G: How much creative freedom are you allowed in your role?

A: A lot. Naughty Dog is not one of these places to have someone stand over your shoulder and tell you how a certain pixel should look. Everyone’s just thrown into the deep end of the pool:”Here’s a chunk of the game, make it look awesome. See you in a few months.” Which is what you do when you can trust your people. And that trust is really priceless.

On the other hand, that might sound surprising, but creative freedom is all about being creatively aligned with your team. Artistic problems are ones with many correct solutions. And everyone here embraces the part that they have to contribute while feeding on the work that came before them. And that’s why it’s not like everyone is just doing their own thing, ‘cause that would end up in a cacophony of shapes and colors.

G: Besides creative direction, are there any specific technical limitations you have to pay attention to as an artist, working on PS4?

A: Limitations are always there and I believe they are good for us. They guide us and help us not lose our focus, which is crucial not only for art, but for a business too. If we had unlimited detail on everything, a lot of productions would have collapsed under their own weight just because it’s not economically sustainable and honestly, not necessary artistically.

That said, PS4 is a great piece of hardware to work with, and I can say that not only having done art for it, but also having developed graphics features and written code for it. Now you probably can’t quote me on this but I personally believe that we’ll be able to roll out some features you’ve never ever seen before anywhere else. It should be really cool! : )

G: While we know you can’t go into details, what do you think of Uncharted 4 from the point of view of someone working on it and seeing it grow up from inside?

A: It’s going to blow your socks off so hard that they’ll burn a hole through the Earth and come out on the other side – that’s all I can say really : )

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G: To conclude, do you have any advice for those who are moving their first steps in the industry, and aim to work at a renowned studio like Naughty Dog in the future?

A: The first thing to do is understand whether you like making games or the idea of you making games.

It’s like love – when you love making games – you love the whole package with all the good things and bad. It’s a very tough business, it’s years of hard work to even get into, it’s a struggle to overcome your insecurities, dealing with plentiful and inevitable rejections and learning to live with being constantly dissatisfied with yourself. It’s going to chew you up and spit you out. And if you really love it, you’re going to pick yourself up, shake off the dust and ask “Is that all you got?”. And then do the whole thing over and over again.

If you are not ready to do that, then the best advice I could ever give you is go out there and find something that will make you feel as strong about it.

The next step would be to go to polycount.com, register on the forums there and start absorbing all the knowledge and inspiration from there. There just isn’t a better place for game art education then this. You’ll make some great friends there over the years, hear a few penis jokes and will learn a ton. I’ll be there to say ‘hi’ too : )

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Andrew is actually working on a large amount of educational materials for those who want to make a career out of video games art, and it should be released in the coming months. You can already find quite a lot on his YouTube channel, and personal portfolio site, and if you have questions on the topic, he’s quite willing to help on Facebook.

Note: The views expressed in this interview represent the personal opinion of Andrew Maximov and not the stance of Naughty Dog as a whole. All the pictures included in this page (excluding the ones at the top) are part of Andrew’s personal portfolio. They don’t represent Uncharted 4 or any game he’s working on.

 /  Executive News Editor
Hailing from sunny (not as much as people think) Italy and long standing gamer since the age of Mattel Intellivision and Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Definitely a multi-platform gamer, he still holds the old dear PC nearest to his heart, while not disregarding any console on the market. RPGs (of any nationality) and MMORPGs are his daily bread, but he enjoys almost every other genre, prominently racing simulators, action and sandbox games. He is also one of the few surviving fans of the flight simulator genre on Earth.