Gaming Today Interviews Sam Thompson, Producer for Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune

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At this year’s PAX, one of the games that seemed to constantly have a long line of anxious gamers waiting to play it was the upcoming PS3-exclusive, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. Luckily, while I was there, I got a chance to talk with Sam Thompson, one of the producers for the game. He discussed how the highly-advanced animation system in Uncharted differs from most video games, and how the complex story will unfold throughout the game. You can check out my impression of the demo they had on display here (to summarize: it’s really really good), and read the full interview below.

GT: So what’s different with the demo you have here at PAX from the demos you’ve shown at past events?

Basically what we do is we continue to show the same levels to show the growth of the product. We want to give people a benchmark to compare it to; to see this is where it was two months ago, and this is where it is now. For a lot of titles we see demos where they show different levels and different experiences, but you don’t really get an idea or barometer of what the experience is overall or how far it’s gone. So we think it’s pretty important to give some of that barometer and show them the level that we showed last time, and then we’ll put an extra level or two in just to kind of give them a look into the world of Uncharted. Generally we’ve found its a pretty successful solution to getting the word out there, letting people see the progress of this game.

GT: What can you just tell me about the game in general? How did you approach it?

Well, Uncharted was definitely a diversion for the Naughty Dog team, because they’re used to a very stylized character base, like Jak and Daxter and Crash Bandicoot. So when they sat down to make Uncharted, they wanted to make an incredible realistic environment with a lifelike, living experience. So they looked at the animation of the character as a key point to really capitalize on it. They said, ‘Well let’s start with something new and exciting. Let’s do a layered animation system that allows us to put over 62 animations on top of one another and render them procedurally in real time.’ So what we’re able to do is — rather than conventional animation methods where you have key frames that have start and stop periods — through the use of the cell processor, we’re able to calculate all these in real time. So if I’m reloading my gun, while I’m ducking under cover, while I’m running and getting shot at and wincing and pulling something out of my pack; I can do all those things, and it’ll calculate them on top of one another, versus a bunch of animations playing in conjunction.

GT: So everything looks more fluid altogether?

More fluid, more lifelike. And the other thing is, because it’s procedurally calculated, it doesn’t calculate it the same way every time. So if I take a jump shorter, he’s going to hit the jump [midway] and have to pull himself up. If I take the jump late, he’s actually going to clear over it and stumble. So we did a lot of mo-cap, where we looked at human movement and saw that every time I run around a corner, my arm is a little bit different, my posture’s a little bit different. So that’s kind of the method we applied to Uncharted: we wanted it to be as lifelike and realistic as possible. The one thing that everyone forgets to calculate is that animation is about fallible heroes; it’s about non-sequential movement that’s calculated the same way every time. So each time I do something, I’m going to do something completely different, just a little bit. Like every time I talk about the game, I’m going to say something just a little bit differently or I’m going to move my hands differently. It just adds to realism of the environment and the experience.

GT: What made you guys settle on a tropical, jungle environment? Did it just work more with the animation system?

The game is based on the story of Sir Francis Drake’s demise. What we’re doing is taking some historical elements and running with it. We’re saying that Sir Francis Drake didn’t die of dysentery, he didn’t actually get buried anonymously off the coast of Panama, he wasn’t completely disavowed by Queen Elizabeth. his men were sworn to secrecy, but there’s something around this. Because Sir Francis Drake asked to be buried in England, and yet Queen Elizabeth buried him anonymously at sea, and nobody knows why.

Much like Resistance: Fall of Man, we’re looking at taking historical fact and spinning it a little bit. What we’re saying is that Sir Francis Drake didn’t die; he actually faked his death and went on to hunt for the treasure of El Dorado. But what we’re saying is El Dorado was never a golden city; it was actually a golden man. There’s a lot of mystery surrounding why this treasure disappeared, why Sir Francis Drake disappeared. Basically, at the start of the game, [the main character, Nathan Drake] uncovers Sir Francis Drake’s sarcophagus off the coast of Panama to find it empty. Inside the sarcophagus is a journal, basically detailing Sir Francis Drake’s journey; but some of the pages are missing, so he goes on a hunt to find it.

The other really cool thing is that Nathan is actually an illegitimate heir to Sir Francis Drake. He has this ring around his neck that has coordinates inside of it that gave him the location of the sarcophagus at the start of the game. So you start off in the jungle, but as you uncover clues it takes you to different locations and into a far deeper mystery than what you see here. So the jungle is only just an approach level; it’s the story unravelling. If you think of the story in terms of like The Mummy, National Treasure, Tomb Raider, or Indiana Jones, where the antiquities that you find unravel a bigger mystery. You’re kind of spiraling down the rabbit hole to get to a final conclusion. It’s written in a very Hollywood style. There’s a lot big action sequences, a lot of vibrant characters, a very rich story: all those things come together to make it a very movie-like experience on the PS3.

Something else to talk about is the facial animation system they set up. They’ve actually got one of the most advanced facial animation rigs right now in the business. They looked at the way The Lord of the Rings did Gollum, the tools behind it, and they recreated those tools in Naughty Dog. There’s 22 articulation points on the face right now that we have complete control over, so we can go in and hand-key and reference all of the facial animations. If you look at our characters, you can actually see the character [Nathan's] speaking to reflected in his eye. We have to count how many eyelashes are on a character now; there’s so many things going into the development of next-gen gaming that it’s really changed the way we make games. I think that all builds into why Naughty Dog chose a realistic character and a realistic time period in a relevant environment.

GT: Is that high-level of animation the reason you went with the PS3 as the system for the game?

Well, to be honest with you, Naughty Dog is wholly owned by Sony, so the only games that would come out from Naughty Dog would be for the Playstation 3. But certainly, Naughty Dog historically has always been a technology-driven development company. They program on the leading edge of what is currently possible in gaming. For better or for worse, those guys are some of the best at what they do in the industry. The only platform where they could really continue to grow is on the Playstation 3. That’s the only platform that has the power to support what they’re doing these days.

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