Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is definitely one of the most anticipated games of the generation so far, and the latest demo I had a chance to play left me impressed and eager for the release date on May 10th.
In order to get more color on what we can expect from the game, and on how the folks at Naughty Dog feel about it, I had a chat with Lead Designer Ricky Cambier. He talked about a variety of topics, from the large and quite open exploration levels, to the driving mechanics, and even a hint to the fact that we can expect even better in the future from the studio.
Personally, I have no doubt about that, but without further ado, I leave you with what he told me below.
Giuseppe Nelva: I was very surprised by how open the level in Madagascar is. Naughty Dog has actually been rather retrained in describing this in the past, mentioning that some level were a little bit more open, but this is actually very open. Are there many areas like this in the game?
Ricky Cambier: This kind of exploration is now something that we can use in certain times as a gameplay style, and when it fits right for the pacing within the story. So we get to a time in which the characters have just found these clues that brought them here, and now they don’t really know exactly where to go, so they are at the place where they are just gonna explore.
So you get to feel that same sense of exploration. So we’ve got the Jeep and we use that a couple of times, and then we’ve also shown a little hint in the trailer that you’re going to be able to drive a boat. So it’s just gonna be a few times when we allow you to really get that sense of being like to explore as a treasure hunter.
GN: Do you have any sense of how big this level is in square miles or kilometers?
RC: Oh, no I don’t. Everything is in meters for us, but I don’t have a sense of how big it is. All I do know is that this, and this whole game, are bigger than anything we’ve done before. Even the amount of real estate we drove past in the E3 demo when you go driving down the busy market streets, that’s something that we’ve only been able to do because of the PlayStation 4. To be able to have that much level [size] at that level of detail.
GN: there’s a lot of mud in the level, but I’ve seen that most of it seems to be very carefully placed to create almost some puzzle-platforming minigames with the Jeep. Was all of it hand-placed by a developer with this purpose?
RC: Oh yeah, and that’s just the start of the detail in the stuff that we do. Yeah, of course. It’s all very intentionally placed by designers, and there’s even a variety of how slippery mud is. Yeah, we’re very detail-oriened in this regard for sure.
GN: Some of the conversations I noticed during gameplay seemed scripted, but many seemed to be triggered by elements not immediately apparent. Did you guys implement some emergent gameplay situations, or it’s mostly scripted?
RC: With exploration this kind of conversations can kind of occur in different places and at different times and we also kind of want to reward you with that. If you go and explore, Sam might start talking about something that maybe he sees or reminds him of something, and you two can have this conversation, and we really kind of learned how engaging that can be for the players, to be both exploring and getting that level of detail within the story.
You can kind of go anywhere you want, so you get this overlay of exploration and storytelling.
GN: Was it challenging to fit something this big and expansive at this level of detail within the capabilities of the current hardware?
RC: Right off the bat, that was kind of our first question. Like, how much do we want? How much do we need? How much is gonna feel good? And then what technology do we need to support for artists to be able to populate those areas, and make them feel really good, so it was challenging, because we’re gonna push the limits of what we know how to do with the PlayStation 4.
And then figuring out how to keep all that in memory, and at that level of detail… Yeah, I don’t think there’s really any area of this game that was necessarily easy.
GN: This kind of open exploration levels… Were they something you wanted right from the start, or maybe you saw the general gaming landscape leaning towards open world games, and you took that as a challenge to do something that you didn’t before?
RC: Going back through the years, with the different games, there have always been ideas that surfaced: driving vehicles has been around as something we thought would work well, and the rope fits into that treasure hunting trope and adventure. But it just kinda comes down to what’s important for the story, for this adventure.
You know, Uncharted 3 really focused on melee, and on some brawling techniques, so we kind of simplified that again to be more similar to the second one… But because of the PS4, since we wanted to do vehicles, we could really do this at the level of detail that we wanted. So I think it’s kind of a nice coming together of technology and ideas and time that really made sense for us.
GN: Was it a challenge to transition to the new tools that you used to create the game natively on PS4?
RC: On the design side it’s a lot of similar tools, but with little adjustments so that they can now work with the PS4. Even our iteration time has gotten a lot faster even on the PS4, which is great for us, to the point that we were even doing some real-time adjustments from the computer into the PlayStation, which is great for design.
But yeah, each department had to kind of figure out “what can we do now?” and give requests to programmers like: “Oh can we do this?” “And how about this?” “I always wanted to do this.” …Which I think just makes it exciting.
GN: If you had to identify the biggest challenge that you guys faced during development, what would it be?
RC: We spent a lot of time just trying to find out what’s the full culmination of interesting spaces for combat, because it’s so critical to Uncharted. Knowing that we were going to have this variety of setups where you have some tight spaces, and you have those little cool combat situations with maybe some shotgun guys, and some armored guys, and make you really feel the pressure.
That took us a little while to find, and the demo that we had in the jungle was just like “what gets you excited to come into this world again?” And you see those spires that you can like climb around and go, and jump, and then swing…
The whole demo we showed of the jungle space, that was a lot of work on our end to just figure out what feels good in Uncharted, how do you use that grappling hook in combat, what combat spaces trigger the imagination that you’re in these exotic places, and make you feel like you have choice. Even just wanting the basic layouts to be on par with graphical evolution that’s happening on the PlayStation.
GN: We aren’t that far from the beginning of the generation, but it seems that you managed to really squeezed an amazing level of detail from the PS4. How much room for further improvement would you say there is within the current PS4 hardware? We have heard rumors about a possible hardware evolution, but I know you wouldn’t be able to talk about it even if you knew, so let’s talk about the current one for now.
RC: (laughs) There are definitely areas that I can see that we will be able to do better things already, after this. You know, we have some really smart programmers at Naughty Dog, and I’m always pretty surprised at what they can do.
I think it was easier to get things up and at a certain level here, and we have some ideas that we’ll work on in the future.
I have a hard time seeing that it will take the same evolutionary jump as you know… the difference between the first Uncharted versus The Last of Us is enormous. But there is no doubt that the next thing we do, we’re gonna get even more out of that PlayStation.
GN: Is there any element that you’re excited for the fans to put their hands on? Something that you really want them to experience and that you think will surprise them?
RC: Just at these events, people have been telling us how great it is to drive the Jeep, and how satisfying. And that’s something that people spent a lot of time at Naughty Dog getting it right. And how much people respond to that, how important it is to people that vehicles feel good… I look forward to people being able to do that.
And then I look forward for people to get into the story. We’ve only been able to just hint at things, and because this really is an important character to us, it’s no small undertaking that we’re gonna decide that we’re gonna tell his last adventure. I look forward to all that stuff coming together and people having these wow moments, and these exploration moments, all the while you’re going into the story with him and getting into the details of it.
GN: I was surprised by how good the Jeep’s physics feel, even because Naughty Dog never worked on this kind of gameplay before. Did you actually hire someone new to work specifically on that?
RC: No. The whole world of Uncharted is kind of a stylized realism right? So for the Jeep each tire has its own grip, and slides on its own, and applies the RPMs of the vehicle… All of that is based on real models, and I don’t even know the full detail of what little bits they adjusted.
But over the years they tuned it, even to where just a little bit before gold they adjusted how the camera moves just a little bit so that it feels just perfect.
We didn’t hire anybody [for it]. I always find it kind of funny that people think “Wow, you don’t normally do vehicles, how did you do them so well?” Well, there are a lot of things that we haven’t done before, but we just always try new things, and we’re gonna give it that same level of attention and detail. And we’re not gonna stop until we think that it’s great. We do that with everything.
We’ve been fortunate so far that our sense of what is good and of what is great has seemed to resonate with the community as well. So we kind of just keep going with that.