Interview: Arne Meyer of Naughty Dog talks Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and reflects on the gaming franchise

It’s not everyday you get to pick the brains of someone who is a part of one of the biggest video game franchises of all time. Naughty Dog’s Community Manager Arne Meyer was down in Australia earlier this month to promote the launch of Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection and provide more insight to the hugely anticipated Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. The AU Review had the opportunity to catch some one-on-one time with Meyer following his talk at PAX, discussing with him the approach to both solo and multiplayer gameplay in Uncharted 4, putting together the set pieces of Uncharted, and just how the hell Naughty Dog are going to top the previous three games. Check the transcript below.

I wanted to get some to some post-PAX talk. How was your overall experience of an Australian game expo?

It was really great, I think PAX does a really good job at making it feel like PAX regardless of where it is. In terms of the audience they draw, the enthusiastic gamers are really happy to be there, and are really grateful to be able to play the games and meet the people. I had a great experience. It’s a shame that it’s kind of difficult as a U.S company to always be in Australia, but I wish we could find a way to have a presence here more often.

I saw on Twitter a few people were, for lack of a better word, disappointed that there was no solo gameplay shown. What was the decision behind just focusing solely on multiplayer?

A lot of it was the fact that multiplayer was brought in to the stand, so that was the focus for PAX Australia as well. The thing too is that we showed it to press the previous week but we had never really talked to our community directly about it. We were letting the press have that filter. So we were just thinking that this was a great opportunity to be like “hey, here’s everything we told the press, but we’re telling you directly what it is so there’s no filter behind everything.” We don’t get that opportunity often.

At the panel you mentioned that the aim of Uncharted 4’s multiplayer is to have staying power and to have a service. Are you able to talk about Naughty Dogs’ current and post-launch plans for the multiplayer? Is this what most eventual DLC will focus on?

We can’t talk too much into a lot of detail, but the way we approach DLC is all meant to increase the longevity of the multiplayer portion of the game. [At the panel] I was trying to directly address the fact that we were getting a lot of fan feedback about the lack of dedicated servers, which some games have introduced but we have never had before. For us, some of the reasons why we go to peer-to-peer is that overall it has low cost and it allows us to continue having multiplayer for a long time, you don’t have to make this hard decision about viability. With peer-to-peer we were able to keep it going, that’s one of the big reasons Uncharted 2 and 3 multiplayer still exists. We can keep that infrastructure going for the community.

Getting to the community of Uncharted. What are some of the most surprising things you have seen from fans of Uncharted?

On the multiplayer side, people really like making a lot of videos and animated gifs from the games. They tend to be pretty outrageous and really take things beyond our expectations, so they are always funny to see. A lot of the things that fans create in tribute or to thank us for things are incredible. In our studio we have cases that have licensed merchandise or awards we have won, or things that we’ve created; in one of them we have…a fan completely recreated the journal that Nathan Drake has. They made it look weathered, it’s all hand-drawn to match our in-game art, and they didn’t have access to the actual art either, we could have sent them the images, but they re-created it all by hand. They spent all this time to do this…like I said they weathered it, they made it stained…you look at it and think “this journal has been through hell” but really that’s all artificial weathering. They take all of this time and then send it to us like “we like you’re game so much we want you to have this”…the amount of time people will spend on things like that is incredible!

The inclination for fans to be so inspired and make gifs…stuff going viral. Has any of that influenced how you guys are approaching the multiplayer and what you are pouring into it?

Not directly. Like we don’t try to do something that is going to have that effect. A lot of that stuff that we put, whether it’s taunts or even just gameplay features, comes directly from fan feedback, if they want it then that’s something we’ll look into. Although I have joked that we should put Drake’s “Hotline Bling” dance in there because I think that’d be really awesome! We do have some stuff in there that’s making pop culture reference; I think that’s the great thing with multiplayer you are able to put stuff out there that might be relevant or that people might find funny. There’s always a bit of humour in the Uncharted games.

Let’s talk a bit about transposing the Uncharted series onto the Playstation 4. You guys released Last of Us on PS4 last year, did that help in this transition?

Yeah quite a bit. So we’ve talked pretty openly about how difficult the transition was between PS2 and PS3 because we were trying to create an engine, technology, AND the game at the same time. What’s really difficult when you’re doing that is that you don’t know what the game is supposed to look like or how it is supposed to work. So when something breaks, when you are developing the underlying tools or technology behind it, you’re having difficulties sort of iterating on that loop and fixing everything.

With The Last of Us what really helped was that we had this completed game, so we knew what it was supposed look like, we knew how it was supposed to function, we knew how everything was supposed to work together. So when we were updating Uncharted for the PS4 and when something broke, we knew what the end result was supposed to look like. That really gave us a leg up and made the transition a lot less painful.

I feel like what you guys did recently with the Uncharted Collection is smooth out all the mechanics and made them consistent across all three games. And small, frustrating mechanics like the grenade arch were fixed. You guys listened to all the feedback. In terms of fixing up all those mechanics what was the process taking aboard outside feedback like?

There was a couple of things. So what happened in the end was that there was this very long e-mail with bullet points that combined community feedback, that combined kind of our studio wish list – like game designers thinking we could have done this or that better. Our team is notorious for feedback, and we solicited all the feedback and ended up with this huge bullet-point e-mail that we took a few passes at. We removed what was impossible, highlighted some stuff that was high up on the priority list, and then it all turned into a spreadsheet to see how we could address it.

I don’t envy Bluepoint Games…they had this herculean task of having this massive list of feedback to sort through!

Getting to the general gameplay. The thing I find most memorable about Uncharted is the maps and how densely layered the action sequences are…you guys seem almost sadistic in the sense that you like throwing Drake into these impossible situations, making them even harder, and letting the player watch in awe as it all works out. I wanted to kind of talk about what kind of sources of inspiration the team uses when putting together these elaborate scenes. And how the hell will you top sequences like the train from Uncharted 2 and the cruise ship from Uncharted 3?

Well a lot of those big set pieces come from very informal free-flowing brainstorming sessions. Depending on the game, for example with Uncharted 3 the game designers sent an e-mail out, and we had a meeting where a lot of us got together and discussed: “okay, like what kind of interesting situations can we put Drake in”, and using that as a foundation.

With Uncharted 2, with the train sequence, that type of stuff and what we were doing with the buildings was driven by the PS3. We realised what the technology could do for us, and we were saying “okay, we really want to be able to tackle physics in a new direction that no one else has been able to tackle up until that point”. So those sequences came directly out of a need to try and push technology. So there are different ways it comes up.

What happens is we end up creating the foundation – the smaller idea – and iterating on it, and people start going “okay, what if we add this layer to it, or this other layer” and it just kind of grows organically into something a lot bigger than originally thought. In Uncharted 3, the plane sequence was basically like: “okay, what if we put Drake on a plane and we could find a way to shift the playing field over time…what does it take…now we’re going to move everything back and forth..and he’s on a plane so he needs a way to get off”…so you’re creating all these aspects to this really simple idea.

For Uncharted 4, I think a lot of people are wondering just how we are going to top some of the things that we have done. The way we’ve been approaching it is that we are able to layer a lot of the interesting gameplay mechanics that we previously could not – we were limited somewhat by technology and were only able to do things by themselves…now we were able to layer them on top of each other so that you’ve got more things happening at the same time.

Our E3 demo is a great vertical slice of everything we are trying to do with the action portions of Uncharted 4. Just that one little bit where Drake is in the mud and he ends up climbing on top of a truck, if you look at it: he’s on a rope, he’s doing gun combat on a rope, and that rope is attached to a truck that is an independent physics object. If you look at the previous Uncharted games we’ve never been able to do even two of those things at the same time. Those were always individual things, so now we can put them all together. So I think, from that, you can see the vision we have of trying to create variety in the gameplay and set pieces.

In terms of story. You guys are introducing Sam, Drake’s brother, and with talk of this being the last game in the series I assume the narrative has a lot of room to move around. Has the possibility of this eventually, somehow being made into a film influenced narrative choices?

No we’ve kept all of that independent, mostly because the creation of a film, and what makes a good film, is different to what makes a good game. We aren’t experts on what makes a good film so we’ve had to stick to what we know best and keep all of that independent. Though if you look at the previous Uncharted games, the way that the story moves has kind of been set up that [cinematic] way, even though we never did that on purpose.

What was the idea behind making an island the main setting of the game?

A lot of it just comes from the research we do for every Uncharted game, where we are trying to find this historical mystery as the factual foundation to the adventure that Drake goes on. It just came from a lot of research and thinking what is something interesting and has enough unknowns behind it, so we can introduce a fictional element. We usually come up with a bunch of different ideas but we kept coming back to Henry Every having this massive treasure that no one could find, and this idea that all of these pirates have this collaborative space that they were in, that no one has discovered yet. We kept coming back to that so it felt natural to base the story around that.

Getting back to the multiplayer. I assume you guys will be having a lot of fun with the content, the mystics, and the NPCs etc. How crazy have the ideas gotten and is there a limit you guys are playing with?

There’s definitely a limit. A lot of what we are trying to do with multiplayer is encourage team work and make it feel grounded in the Uncharted universe. So we’re really trying to translate a lot of the single player experience and the mechanics to the multiplayer, plus whatever comes with multiplayer and teamwork, competitive gameplay and that sort of thing. A lot of our philosophy is that we are just trying to marry single player with multiplayer and also encourage teamwork and co-op play within a competitive environment.

How big of a role was nostalgia in developing Uncharted 4?

It was interesting how it came about. We were trying to find ways to provide variety in gameplay and the thing that we’ve noticed is that gamers have particular play styles; so we were thinking “how do we encourage that?”. We played around with it before with load-outs but we didn’t really create strong divisions between load-outs. So we were trying to figure out how to create or encourage different roles.

Some of the thinking too was that…all of our multiplayer is very grounded in realism but Uncharted games have always had some of these supernatural elements, so we thought that could be fun to play around with, like an untapped resource from the previous three games.

Uncharted 3 was universally acclaimed but on average it scored a bit less than Uncharted 2. Did that factor in at all in development for Uncharted 4?

Not really. We always try to set up the best game we can possibly make. We look at reviews but more in a qualitative sense, and we see what kind of feedback is in there, using that to maybe address or inform some things that we are trying to do. We are pretty harsh critics on our own, and we just want to make the best Uncharted game that is out there.

We’re also conscious that Uncharted 2 is very special in that all of these things came together at the right time, and it’s really hard to sort of have that spark. You can’t manufacture that spark. We’re very conscious of that. But we are always just working as hard as we can to make the best Uncharted game we can possibly make.

What is the refinement process like from now until release date?

So we’re actually at the point where the entire game is playable. Maybe not all the art is in, but you can actually go through and there’s no tech or gameplay things that get in the way. You can actually get a good scope of the game, so for us a lot of the work that’s left is to put in all of the art that we want to do, and to really get the pacing and the beats down. There’s still a lot of work to do but the foundation, the most important part is there.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End will be released exclusively for Playstation 4 on 18th March 2016. You can pre-order it from JB-Hi Fi HERE or EB Games HERE