During an hour long but extremely interesting presentation at at the Semana Informática in Lisbon Naughty Dog Lead Programmer Jason Gregory took some time to explain a few of the inner workings of the studio, specifically how they keep their relatively small programming teams efficient and happy, and on how they prioritize between story, gameplay and the various elements of a title to turn it into a great game.
Programmers at Naughty Dog receive a lot of trust and they’re given a lot of personal responsibility. The programming team of a game like Uncharted or The Last of Us is made of about fifteen programmers on gameplay and twelve on so on rendering and tools. That’s why each programmer has to “take a pretty big bite” out of the pie and be responsible. On the other hand programmers feel really empowered and encouraged to to their best.
The studio is also not afraid to let people that don’t fit the team well go, making room for someone that fits in better.
Gregory also stressed on the importance of collaboration and even aggressive criticism within the team, and even within members of different disciplines (like programmers and animators), that often sit near to each other so that they can talk and exchange ideas.
The studio doesn’t have any producer, but it’s just that no one has that official title. Everyone in the company is pretty much a producer. Everyione needs to be able to bring the feature he’s working on from concept to the final shipped game.
According to Gregory, not everything done at Naughty Dog is “rocket science,” only some of it, but a lot of the times when given a choice between something risky and unknown and a tried and true method, the latter option will be chosen to keep things simple, pragmatic and effective.
At Naughty Dog every designer needs to be “firing on all cylinders at all times,” so the game is always running, with no long interruptions. It’s never down for more than half an hour at any given time.
As an example of this, as soon as the transition from PS3 and PS4 was made, the team immediately got the engine running on PS4. It wasn’t optimized and ran at two frames per second or at full framerate at super-low resolution, but people could already start using it. Then over the following weeks it was improved.
According to Gregory it’s important to “get things up and running and then refine them as you go and keep them running.”
Another element peculiar to Naughty Dog is the attempt to balance story and gameplay, and systemic gameplay (elements that are used through the whole game) with one-off set pieces (elements that often require a lot of effort but are used only once in the game). They also stress a lot on attention to detail and on prioritizing what’s important over what isn’t. Finally, they’re really ruthless in cutting out what isn’t important and doesn’t work.
Instead of figuring out how much time they have for a game, and then creating a game that fits into that time (like most companies do), Naughty Dog does the opposite. They decide what kind of game they want to make and what kind of story they want to tell, and then extrapolate how much content will be needed to that end, finally deciding the ship date based on that.
Looking at the results, that definitely seems the best approach. To be fair, they can afford it because Sony gives them a lot of freedom in deciding what to do with their games, and that’s definitely not something that can be said for every studio out there.