It was another late night in the Santa Monica office of Naughty Dog Studios, where employees, nearly all of them male and sporting stubble from repeated 18-hour workdays, were striving for perfection but battling chaos.
In less than four days the company’s newest game, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, would be previewed before an estimated 45,000 industry luminaries, retail buyers and journalists at the annual E3 (formerly called the Electronic Entertainment Expo) in downtown Los Angeles. A good reaction to the sequences shown off is imperative to the future sales of games like Uncharted 3, which typically cost nearly $100 million to develop and market and can be undone by a sneering review by a blogger or a wan reaction from buyers at E3, which begins Tuesday.
But when the “dogs,” as Naughty Dog employees are known, gathered at their cubicles to see the latest version of their E3 demo, they discovered it was broken. As adventurer Nathan Drake, Uncharted’s protagonist, walked to the edge of a capsizing cruise ship, there was no water. Rather than floating on the ocean, the ship appeared to be suspended in midair.
“Is this a joke?” snapped Justin Richmond, the game’s exasperated director, as he sat with four other developers to analyze the missing water and other problems including disappearing crates and pitch black corridors. “We gotta fix all that.”
Anything short of a spectacular showing at E3 can be devastating for big-budget video games like Uncharted 3. As a result, the weeks leading to E3 are critical for the people who make video games. Designers, programmers and artists -- like the 90 devoted to Uncharted 3 -- must pause their work on the full game to make sure the sections that will be displayed work flawlessly. Given the thousands of moving parts in a modern video game, from physics simulations to motion-captured actors to graphics that rival a Pixar movie, it’s a high-intensity balancing act.
“We have to make sure that the part of the game people at E3 see looks polished and finished, even though it might be propped up by bubble gum and toothpicks,” said Evan Wells, co-president of Naughty Dog.
2009’s Uncharted 2 sold 4.8 million units and won more than 30 game of the year awards for its interactive re-creation of a globe-hopping 1930s adventure serial. To prove Uncharted 3 can top its predecessor, Naughty Dog is showing up at E3 with the cruise ship sequence, another in which Drake jumps from a jeep to a moving plane, and a two-minute cinematic trailer.
Upon first glance Thursday, Naughty Dog’s headquarters on the third floor of a sleek office park hardly seemed like a pressure cooker. Dogs rolled between cubicles on scooters, strummed guitars and watched the Dallas Mavericks beat the Miami Heat during a catered dinner.
But a closer look at the haggard faces of people who say they’re “going home early” when they leave before midnight indicated the toll E3 was taking. Coming off a night with no sleep, creative director Amy Hennig wasn’t sure whether it was still a.m. or p.m. “I’m either really tired or really drunk, and I haven’t been drinking,” she said with a laugh.
The missing ocean was restored in about 15 minutes, but as the sun set over artificial lakes outside Naughty Dog’s offices, a mountain of glitches, bugs and imperfections remained. “Gremlins, gremlins, gremlins, can’t catch all the gremlins,” lead multi-player designer Robert Cogburn sang to no one in particular.
From the sound designer creating the clanks of a truck sliding out of an airplane to the lighting artist adjusting the color palette of an underwater sequence, few were left without daunting tasks by Friday. “We’re cutting it closer than we ever have,” Wells admitted.
In their own cramped room, a dozen quality assurance testers were busy with a “soak test,” in which they play the 20-minute demo over and over to make sure it can withstand the pounding it will receive at E3 from thousands eager to find flaws. “They make ‘em, we break ‘em,” said QA leader Andrew Odella.
Bug hunting requires a peculiar dedication. Lead tester Trevor Stevens spent several minutes blowing up his character repeatedly to spell-check the “game over” messages that flash when Drake dies.
Every flaw is addressed by a designer or artist, who send their fixes to lead programmers Christian Gyrling and Travis McIntosh, the only people with access to the computer code that makes Uncharted 3’s E3 demo run. Because any alteration to the lattice-like code can cause unforeseen problems -- like the disappearing water -- some changes deemed unimportant for the moment were rejected. A request to fix the tip of a gun that disappeared into the ground for a single frame was among those left unfulfilled.
Still, perfectionist developers filled the programmers’ inboxes with requests for exceptions. When Gyrling did one such favor before an earlier deadline, he was rewarded with a cake decorated with the words, “Thanks for the functionality.”
Travis Kurosawa was one of the few dogs who didn’t need permission to make changes. As the man in charge of the trailer, he spent days fretting over how wide the angle should be on an airplane shot and whether Drake’s teeth in a close-up befitted his “heroic” image. “The difference between a nice demo and one that is incredible comes down to all these tiny imperfections,” he said.
Without the looming press conference that will mark the game’s debut, co-president Christophe Balestra said, Naughty Dog might never feel ready to show its work. “People here need a concrete deadline to make difficult decisions,” he said.
Ultimately, Naughty Dog slammed right into that deadline. The team finished its work at 7:30 a.m. on Monday after working all weekend and pulling one final all-nighter.
But still, as Balestra and Wells took the stage at the Los Angeles Sports Arena at 5:15 p.m., Richmond’s hand covered his mouth in fear. During two hours of rehearsals that afternoon, Wells had discovered an unfixed flaw that could cause stray images to pop up on screen.
But Drake fought his way through the boat without a (visible) glitch. “Thank God,” Richmond muttered, seemingly exhaling for the first time in more than five minutes.
After the show, dizzy from only two hours of sleep and his hands covered in nervous sweat, Wells summed up his on-stage crucible: “Disaster can strike at any moment. It’s a circus act, and you’re without a net.”
After showing off the demos to E3 attendees all week, the team will receive a rare day off Friday. But as designer Jacob Minkoff, who conceived the cruise ship level in December 2009, knows well, it’s less than five months until the complete Uncharted 3 must be on store shelves.
“We’ll be pulling insane hours and skipping weekends,” he said, “all the way to the end.”