I.Eat.Games.

Interview: Nate Wells

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"The environment really becomes a mirror to humanity. Humanity has decayed and become infected, so has their world. It’s decayed and it’s now being overrun and reclaimed by nature in the same way their bodies are. It makes a great analog, but it also makes these incredibility beautiful moments that you’re not likely to see".

-Nate Wells on The Last of Us

 

Mark DeSanto: Hi Nate, how’s it going? Anything catch your eye on the E3 showroom floor?
Nate Wells:  Yeah I took a quick look at Destiny, which looks gorgeous, and ironically I actually went to high school—I grew up in Vermont—and went to high school with Chris Barrett who’s the Art Director. So randomly these two Art Directors went to the same high School. I was friends with his brother; he was a little younger than me.

We worked for a very small company that made special education 2D games and I filled his spot as he left to go come out and work for Bungie. Years would pass and I would go through Looking Glass and then Irrational and then eventually end up here at Naughty Dog.



For the unaware, would you mind a brief rundown of your career up to The Last of Us?
Well I started as a level artist, a basic rank and file artist on Thief 1. Looking Glass was sort of an amazing place because it was very…actually it’s very similar to Naughty Dog in that generalism was encouraged in addition to specialization.

So I started there and one of the first things I did was work with Dan Thron, the Art Director, in painting those moving backgrounds for the Thief cutscenes. If you’ll remember then they were 2D…



I’m a huge fan of the Thief series and I’ve always loved the way those particular cutscenes are animated. They’re beautiful.
Yeah, it’s a tremendous amount of work. I was doing background plates for that, and I would support him and those animations. I rolled off that and I was modeling objects, you know like statues and things like that.

From there I got put on levels, and I ended up building three or four levels on Thief 1. So, you know, that was really fun. That was my first experience in the industry, which was like 96 or 97.



That’s a hell of a game to cut your teeth on.
Well at that time Irrational Games and Looking Glass were actually in the same space. Ken had started Irrational Games and rather than go to another space they basically cleared out a large office within Looking Glass, behind a door, and behind that office door was Irrational Games.

I met Ken there, and he approached me to work on System Shock 2. Looking Glass wasn’t entirely excited about it, so they ended up sub-contracting me. So while Irrational made System Shock 2, I was actually not working for them. I was working for Looking Glass as an artist.

So I built the first level, the tenth level…I ended up building like three or four levels as well as concepting all the robot enemies, concepting the crewmen suits—a lot of concepting, a lot of building.Those were the days where you built your own levels, made your own textures, made your own decor and did your own lighting all at one desk.



Now you just have one person making textures for a few years right?
Yeah, yeah. Now you just have one person doing lights, or just modeling characters.

So I also modeled characters. Back in the wild west sort of days—the first days of 3D—it was pretty fast and loose with who did what, who was responsible for what and how things got done.

Let’s see, so that’s System Shock 2 <thinks>…




"It ended up with me leaving [BioShock Infinite] at sort of an inopportune time, but it had just been extended 6 months and so I kind of thought I was on the timeline for when it was supposed to be finished, then I would be making the transition. It turned out to go on for 6 months after that. Which, you know, leaving those guys in the lurch didn’t feel great, and obviously I had built a lot of close relationships. Not the least which was with Ken, who I worked with for 13 years. So it was a big choice."

-Nate Wells on leaving Irrational Games





Thief 2?
Actually, no, at that point I left Looking Glass and was then hired and began as an Irrational employee in ‘99.

We then immediately started a project which got canceled for the PlayStation 2 called The Lost. We were very small back then, maybe 14 people—the whole company. We didn’t have development kits in hand, we only had press releases from Sony and we started developing this game. We found we were way in over our head to some degree. We didn’t understand the console, we were a young studio and this would be our first piece of console development. And then as now, console development—at least through to this generation—is really its own sort of beast, and the PC continues to be probably the easiest way to develop. But we weren’t developing to what they call “to the metal”, or to the architecture of the console. And so we just had to keep cutting and cutting and cutting until there was nothing left in the game.



What exactly was cut?
We were cutting features, total amount of polygons on screen; everything was cutting into our performance. It was a really tough process.



Why not just release The Lost on the PC?
I think there was a strategic choice probably made by us that the console was going to be the future. You know, they were making these powerful console and we wanted in! Our publisher at the time wanted in too. It just didn’t work out. The game ended up getting canceled and there was some bad blood.

The game was eventually—it was a fully playable game at the end—and was sold to an Indian start-up. They were very interested in learning how to make games and they thought this was a great opportunity. Here they had a complete game where they could see how the sausage was made by reverse engineering it. So they got all the code and they ended up recasting the main character Amanda as this apparently hot Bollywood star and it became a game called Agni



Wait, it got published?!
Yeah it got published!



Did you play it?
Noooooo I didn’t play it! <smiles>

I don’t think there’s an English version so you have to listen to the whole thing in Hindi. Or maybe there are subtitles? I don’t remember, but if you try to track it down you can probably find it.

So from The Lost we immediately started work on what we decided was be a spiritual successor to System Shock 2, which was still owned by Electronic Arts. Since we couldn’t do System Shock 3, effectively, we started a prototype—which I built and worked with Ken on—with a short narrative.

It was a super-futuristic world, undersea, with a lot of glass tubes. Ultimately a very sort of Ridley Scott kind of vibe, but in no uncertain terms was a space station underwater.

 

 

"When you go into the President’s office you’ll notice he has an Elephant’s foot umbrella stand. There’s this theme of just raping Africa in it. Like, it has no place in a tactical shooter, but we wanted to do it. We wanted everything to play out like "This place is really horrible!"

- Nate Wells on SWAT 4





…but in the same spirit right?
Right!

We actually wanted to deal with themes of using the environment to change gameplay. So, you could increase or decrease the pressure in certain areas which would have varying effects on different enemies and stuff like that. Or, say, if you lowered the pressure all the water would evaporate and cause fog, and then the sound would change as well. All kinds of things like that.


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I think we hit our first internal gameplay milestone, the Big Daddies—which I designed, they were one of the first I did and they existed very early—and the Little sisters at the time were these slugs that crawled around on the ground. The Splicers were these hybrids, huge very monstrous monsters. So the aesthetic was starting to take shape.

I don’t know when it happened exactly but it was a combination Scott Sinclair, myself and Ken [Levine]—we had this idea that it SHOULD HAVE been beautiful. Otherwise we’re just in an abandoned submarine station, and it wouldn’t have felt right. The materials were changing and it was getting less and less modern. Then something else was happening, it was starting to get stylish, and it was baby steps to that art Deco thing.  Eventually the decision was sort of made that we were going to go whole hog into this thing.

Ken took a trip to Rockefeller Center and snapped all these pictures in that main lobby, which is this absolute Art Deco masterpiece. He came back with a bunch of photos and it became clear that that’s what we were going to do. That changed everything. It changed our approach to architecture, color, how dirty things were or were not. All this stuff came in, you know, Ken started to tap into the political feelings of the 1940s, and then the Ayn Rand stuff came in with Objectivism, which is how things worked at Irrational. We’d start with the seed of the idea, get to a point and Ken would lock into it and then the narrative would take shape and that would affect the art and the two would move forward together.




You were the Art Director on the original BioShock correct?
Yeah, Technical Art Director.



Regarding the art direction and concepts with Bioshock Infinite, I’m curious if you guys knew what you wanted originally, more so than BioShock 1?
To some degree.

We talked in other areas about how we started with a European look, and it was very much a European city. Again the same thing happened, the American Exceptionalism narrative came in and then we basically shifted over.



This might be a touchy subject but I’ve got ask: Some people were shocked when they watched the credits roll on Bioshock Infinite and saw you credited under Additional Art and not as Art Director. You spent 5 years as Art Director on BioShock Infinite and to fans it appears sort of unfair to not credit you for the work.
Look with the credits thing, that’s industry standard and that’s what you do. The last 6 months are really really important. That’s when a lot of things happen, and a lot of decisions get made. To acknowledge a single person as responsible for Infinite and for Columbia is sort of ridiculous, right?

There are things coming from Junior Artist up, things coming from Ken down, and there’s all this interplay between me and Scott Sinclair. Scott was the Lead Environment Artist and then when I left he took over as Art Director. There are so many conversations, concepts, on-the-fly decisions, happy accidents that all help contribute to make that world.

Although the industry really wants to put a face to a creation—and I understand that—you can’t really. It’s in some ways it’s unfair to all the people who contribute so much. I know it’s simpler and easier to be able to point at that person and be like “That person is a fucking genius!”, whoever that may be. Pick your industry stand-out name. It’s easier to do that for the press, it’s easier to do that for the fans. They want their Michael Jordan of games, and the truth is the Michael Jordan of games is made up of 300 people behind him/her. So I understand the need and the facility of hanging creations off of a single person. There’s probably no industry, except maybe for film, where it couldn’t be less true.



Right. Steven Spielberg has a very massive, creative team behind him.
Right! Right! Those are all the “little people” you thank at the Oscars—but they’re not that little. They have a HUGE effect on the course and quality of all of Spielberg’s products. 



I know you’re incredibly proud of both the original BioShock and BioShock Infinite, but if you had to choose one that speaks to who Nate Wells is as an Art Director, which would you choose? I know this is a bit of a Sophie’s Choice
…ugh that’s a tough one. I mean, the architecture of Infinite, the building architecture that’s where my true love lies in this industry and I was able to continue to express that in The Last of Us….<pauses, thinks>

You know I forgot to mention Swat 4 which came between The Lost and BioShock, of which I was Art Director. That actually was one of my prouder games! It was an on-the-nose  tactical police shooter, you know, clearing and flash—banging rooms.

We made a decision very early on in development—lest we be completely bored to death—that we were not going to make the “real world”. We actually inherited that game from Sierra/Vivendi. They sent us a bunch of levels that were incomplete and a narrative that was incomplete. We ended up first trying to adapt, and then we were like “Nah, let’s just start over, it’s easier”

In starting over we wanted to create a world that you hadn’t seen before in a tactical shooter, which is supposed to be on-the-nose reality. You know bank robberies and jewelry store heists—which we ended up doing—BUT the approach we took was that we wanted to show how actually terrible the places that SWAT goes really are. They don’t always get to go into these glamorous places. Sometimes the people aren’t worth saving. There’s an ambiguity to it.

So we conceived the world as an East coast city—but it’s not an East Coast city—it’s an East Coast city through the lens of David Fincher. It’s like Seven. It’s always dark, it’s always rainy and things are always unbelievably grim.

One of the very first missions you go to this Chinese restaurant which is under an overpass, it’s like it’s in Queens. It’s this horrible little restaurant and upstairs is an apartment which is being leased to the person you’re trying to find. You get to the apartment and it’s dirty, there’re clothes and beer bottles everywhere, a game console, and then you go into the bedroom and see that there’s this little child’s playpen. So you know there’s this horrible, dysfunctional, probably abusive family living here. The guy you’re looking for is in there, and depending on your tactic you either arrest or kill him—and that’s it. That’s it! It’s just this ugly, ugly, ugly place to be!

We took that through every area we did. We had one area that was based on Silence of the Lambs where a student was being held in his basement. Even when we did the Diamond store I created all these fake sort of De Beers signs—you know how De Beers executives can’t leave South Africa because they’ll immediately be arrested—I used the other South African name Du Plessis and created all these really cynical posters based on the sort of “Diamonds Are Forever” thing.

When you go into the President’s office you’ll notice he has an Elephant’s foot umbrella stand. There’s this theme of just raping Africa in it. Like, it has no place in a tactical shooter, but we wanted to do it. We wanted everything to play out like “This place is really horrible!”

So yeah it was really fun, and I really like the direction we took with it.



When I began playing BioShock Infinite, after arriving in Columbia and going through the birthing canal, I reached a point where I had to take a second to gather myself before returning to the game. It was odd. I actually had to stop playing the game, and I think it was just due to a sort of sensory overload. I think it was a combination of the gorgeous art direction, the architecture, the music, the dialog, the gaemplay—it was like Irrational perfectly plucked my emotional strings to make me to feel overwhelmed. Is that something you guys set out to do?
Actually I don’t know if I’m…can we transition this conversation? Because I don’t want to this to go out there and be 75% BioShock, because it’s probably going to ruffle feathers over there and, you know, honestly these are questions you should ask Scott Sinclair—not me.

I don’t want to go back and be taking credit for… I’m fine to talk about System Shock 2 and Bioshock 1. With BioShock Infinite there’s a lot in that game that I did do, but there’s a lot I’m not responsible for—a lot of the polish and important parts. So yeah I don’t feel 100% comfortable with that.



That’s fair, and I can respect that. Let’s move on to the transition you made from Irrational Games to Naughty Dog. Were you just ready to move on? I was talking to (Naughty Dog Community Manager) Eric Monacelli and he said he jokingly sent you a private message on Facebook saying “Hey we have a position opening over here at Naughty Dog, are you interested?” and you simply replied “Yes.” Is that what got the ball rolling?
<Laughs> Yeah, well he actually sent me a message saying “Hey we have an opening for an Art Director over here at Naughty Dog, do you know anyone who would be interested?” and my response was “Yeah, me!”

So yes the ball started rolling immediately. It ended up with me leaving [BioShock Infinite] at sort of an inopportune time, but it had just been extended 6 months and so I kind of thought I was on the timeline for when it was supposed to be finished, then I would be making the transition. It turned out to go on for 6 months after that. Which, you know, leaving those guys in the lurch didn’t feel great, and obviously I had built a lot of close relationships. Not the least which was with Ken, who I worked with for 13 years. So it was a big choice.

I didn’t have any plans until…if I was going to leave for another studio it would have to be a place I respected as much as Irrational. I’m not making any judgments about anybody else but my short list was Valve, Naughty Dog, Bethesda and Bungie. Valve’s interview process is SO intimidating that I don’t even know if I would attempt it. I was thinking about all these places I would consider going, and so this falls on my lap and I had to make a decision. I had to ask myself “Are you ready to live in a city you said you would never live in? Move all the way across the country leaving all friends and family behind?” I was weighing it.

What’s interesting is at the Spike 2011 VGA awards I was seated at a table with our Marketing person from Irrational, and the rest were all Naughty Dogs. We were showing our first introduction trailer for BioShock Infinite and they were showing their introduction trailer for The Last of Us.

So I’m sitting there with those guys about to watch this thing and Troy Baker runs over to me and he’s like “Dude you’ve got to watch this! You’ve got to watch this!” and then I realize “Oh he’s playing this guy too!”

So that game was very much in my mind. I was like “Oh wow, I’d really like to work on that.” And sure enough, just a handful of months later <points to Eric Monacelli> this guy reaches out to me. <laughs>




As I was preparing for this interview I listened to an old Game Informer podcast were they sat down with some folks from Irrational Games. You were on it mentioning urban spelunking, and said “One day, I don’t know how, but it’s going to affect my work”. So now, here you are working on The Last of Us. Is this your dream project?
Oh I think it’s very much the dream project.

There’s a book that came out a few years back by a photographer name Robert Polidori called Zones of Exclusion. He went in about 20 years ago to the day into the Chernobyl site and photographed the town of Pripyat and Chernobyl. It was an inspiration during Bioshock 1, and when I came over to Naughty Dog there were 3 copies! Don’t try to get it because it’s like $400 because it’s out of print. This photographer also did Detroit and a smattering of other abandoned urban spaces. There’re also a bunch of great photographers on line too.

Those are all huge resources for us with The Last of Us, especially for lighting and the degree of decay and overgrowth. All those things. When you play the game you’ll notice those themes keep coming up.

The environment really becomes a mirror to humanity. Humanity has decayed and become infected, so has their world. It’s decayed and it’s now being overrun and reclaimed by nature in the same way their bodies are. It makes a great analog, but it also makes these incredibility beautiful moments that you’re not likely to see. To go into a beautiful hotel and see the ceiling caved in and now vines are reaching through the skylight, or to be in a space where the ceilings collapsed, seeds have fallen through and a tree has had 20 years to grow all inside a store. Those are the sort of things and the sorts of moments you want, and it’s the juxtaposition that’s so fun.

Also, with the exception of a handful of levels, the utter dependence on natural light is incredibly challenging. As soon as you go indoors— if there are no windows around—you’re in pure blackness. So you’re always thinking and making decisions based on lights, and based on how that light is going to feel.

Bruce (Straley), in his pre-production work, did a lot with ‘What is the shape of the light?  If light comes in at strange angles, what kind of emotion does that generate? Does it make you feel uneasy? If the colors have a pretty balance does it allow you to relax some?’

Also what about tonal variations? All that was thought out for each scene so the approach to lighting and it’s color palette were balanced with the emotional content of each level.



You started working at Naughty Dog in October of 2012?
Yeah I worked on the game for 10 months, which is an amazing time to jump in. It was pre-alpha at the time, so some levels looked pretty good and some were strictly built out of grey boxes where buildings would be, cover would be or where a fallen pipe would be, but it was literally built out of untextured grey polygons. That’s how you build. You build that level first and that gives you an idea of size, pacing and where combat will occur, and where it won’t.

And that’s true of every game. The last year is when things really happen because you’ve got to make these decisions. You’ve got a ship date and you can’t waffle anymore. You have to decide what that white block is going to be and how it’s going to be beautiful, how it’s going to work with design and all those things. It’s the best time to come on because you see hard decisions, final decisions being made every day. This is the same process everywhere you go. Sometimes you have to get almost to the very end, almost to the point of shipping quality before you can say “Well this is not working. We have to rework this moment.”

Actually one of my first tasks I was put on was directing The Outskirts demo, and that level was waaaay out [from completion]. There were a lot of bare bones. One of the things I wanted to achieve there was to get this overgrowth that goes halfway up a skyscraper—and you’ll see it in there—and that’s very challenging to do technically.

Game consoles don’t like to render tons and tons of leaves. They hate it! It’s what they hate the most. So there was this technical challenge. There was also a very specific look I worked on with the concept artist, and we eventually hit it. The inside of the building didn’t have character so we went in there to give it character, you know, a place in Boston. But that demo had to get to shipping-quality months and months earlier because it had to be done and playable, so it was on a super-crunchy timeline. But we did it. We pulled it off.

The rest of the game I jumped around quite a bit. I took about half of the levels and directed those and worked directly with the people on them.

Also I directed the concept and the execution of the title screen, with the window. I’d done this quick concept almost my second day at work, I was like “Neil here’s what I think the title screen should look like: No music, just the wind blowing, plants coming in and just the curtains going. I think it’s so “our world!”, and he was like <gruff voice> “Weeeell we’ll think about it.”

He comes back maybe with a month to ship and he’s like, “Do you still have that concept with the window? We’re doing that.” So we had to rush, rush, rush to get it done. It was actually far more difficult than I thought it was going to be.  We had this concept, Bruce was in love with it and hitting that in-engine took all these people working all this time to completely match it.

In the end I love it because it’s one of the most understated title screens ever.

 


So you really hit the ground running! I mean, you arrived and there was just a plethora of stuff to do?
Yeah, well…yeah. But you know, it’s really hard when a well-established company hires you for a senior position.



Because you’re the new boss, right?
No…well in some cases, but it’s like “What’re we going to have him do? Where does he fit in?” So it took a couple months to sort of juggle that around and then I settled into the space where I was doing the most good. But yeah I jumped around quite a bit.


So considering your love and interests in abandoned urban spaces, the transition to Naughty Dog and working on The Last of Us; it sounds like you’re exactly where you want to be?
Yeah, it’s right where I wanted to be. In fact I wish I could’ve been here earlier, but I got to put in a lot of good work in, I think.

But you need that time to form relationships with your artists so you understand their strengths and weaknesses. Are they fast or slow? Are they better at natural terrain or hard surfaces? Everybody has sort of a special skill set and different levels of technical proficiencies. It’s all over the board so you really need to know the individual Level Builder, individual Texture Artist, and individual Lighting Artist to understand their work before you can effectively direct them. So it should’ve taken me a couple months to settle in because I had to learn those things.

At times it was frustrating because I know the industry. There’re so many shocking differences to Irrational and so many shocking similarities. I’ve been in this industry for 15 years and the technology has changed significantly, the industry has changed, the amount the industry rakes in each year has changed significantly, but what hasn’t changed are the relationships.

I had conversations on The Last of Us that I had on Thief 1 fifteen years ago. It’s still human beings making these games. You know, it’s the classic struggle: Design wants you to do this and be fairly conservative, Art wants to be very liberal and get in as much art as they can, and then programming has to say “Neither of you can actually get what you want.” I’m joking but that’s sort of the dynamic. It doesn’t matter where you go or what studio you go to. You’ll see the same sort of dynamics develop. But, there are marked differences as well.

I think one of the incredible things about the Naughty Dog ethos is this idea of checking in [game content] and asking questions later. So if you want to try something, put it in the game and we’ll see if it works! What we won’t do is have meetings and meetings and meetings about whether we think it’ll work or not.

 


Because it’s a waste of time, right?
Right, and it’s very grass roots. An individual designer who may be brand new with an idea can take it to Bruce and he’ll say “Lets try it!” That philosophy is incredible and very different from what I’m used to which is a lot of pre-planning and a little more trepidation about just trying something and seeing if it works. That is mirrored by the technology that is at Naughty Dog, which is very interesting and very scary to when you first join.

So if you’re working at your desk checking out a piece of the game, you can make changes to it. But to see those changes you have to build the game, which essentially is to recompile the code. When you do that it, it changes for everybody. There’s one game and it’s constantly being worked on, and all changes are seen by all people. If you fuck up, everyone knows it immediately. When they run it on their development kit they see your change, so there’s this sense of “The Game” and it’s changing every day.

Try something crazy, then build it. Hey let’s try it. Does it work?  I don’t know. If it doesn’t work we can either roll it back to a previous version or change it again.

There’s this constantly evolving product, and it’s that exact thing that makes it to disk eventually. It’s where the bugs are fixed. It’s almost this “stone soup” where everybody is contributing and it’s all going to this central thing where everyone can see its evolution in real time. Everything from interface, to the way enemies behave to how many bullets you have. You’re seeing those changes as Design is trying new things.

So, you can hop on your scooter— the office is huge—and scoot over to the designer and be like “Here’s how I feel about what you did.”  I’m an artist, but everyone is encouraged to chime in and contribute even outside of their own discipline. That’s never discouraged. There’s still the final word by the Creative Director and the Game Director, but by and large it’s incredibly democratic.

The other thing is, in the twilight hours of finishing The Last of Us there were a bunch of tiny things that needed to be done. One of them was the pop-up training screens. You know, with graphics and text to explain to you how to use a new object or tactic. You read it quickly, they’re very short and you click through and now you know how to use a Molotov Cocktail, or whatever. The last week before we went gold I was doing the text on those training screens and—Game Director, Bruce—he was actually going in and hand-arranging all the text on the training screens.

I have never seen that! I have never even heard of a Game Director doing that! That’s like…an intern task. That would be an Art Intern thing, that’s what you give them…



But it’s such a prominent thing to the player, it smacks us in the face.
Right! And it’s important it be right, and he wanted it to be pretty and clearly communicated. And he’s the director of the entire game! But because he’s a former artist and a former developer, he knows when it gets down to the wire he just has to grab a mop and start mopping. If you got time to lean you got time to clean!

That spirit, that willingness to not have an ego, not to take that work and delegate that to someone else—because there is no one else, everyone else is too busy—to just take that work, that spirit of…I don’t know if you want to call Esprit de Corps, or leading from the front? It’s really the defining feature for me of Naughty Dog.



Let’s talk about hitting a technical wall with current gen consoles. Earlier you said sometimes the programmers have to step in and bring everyone back down to Earth in terms of expectations. Concessions are made by all. As an artist I imagine you want to see your work appear in a video game at its highest fidelity. The PlayStation 4 is on the horizon and developers are now transitioning from 512MB RAM to 8GBs of RAM. As an Art Lead, what are the benefits? Are you excited? Is it intimidating?
It can be.

Here’s the one problem—I’m not a gear-head about computer architecture. So in a lot of way I depend on our highly technical artists like Teagan Morrison and Tate Mosesian— and others too—to really come back and say “Hey here’s what we’re going to gain and here’s what we’re going to lose.” There’s always a tradeoff with all kinds of new technology for dealing with getting better texture quality and getting better graphical fidelity, all these different things. In some ways I’m just learning from them as they’re learning and investigating.

Remember we haven’t really had a chance to get into the guts on the new console. That’s what we’re going now. Your most technical people will dig deeply into performance and learn what we can do as far as texture, polygons, transparency, foliage, and then they’ll come back to us with guidelines.

My focus is definitely more on visual composition and narrative composition of the art. You always have to have at least a working technical suaveness to make that all work effectively.



What’s impressed you most with the Naughty Dog art team?
I think the skill level is absolutely unbelievable, the commitment is unbelievable, and the technical suaveness of the team is really amazing. It’s just really a remarkable, very self-driven group of people.

I’m use to—from an Art Direction standpoint—being a baby carrier in front of you when you’re an artist and trying to direct thing down to the tiniest detail. I’ve had to step back from that a bit, but it’s amazing when you can step back and see people doing brilliant things and you can give a long-arc guidance. These people are incredibly driven and proficient at what they do, and they take what they do very seriously. It’s still a really fun place and they’re a fun group of people. I’m impressed everyday by someone doing something, and just sort of being blown away by it.

 


Did you have any assumptions of the Naughty Dog art team before joining?
What sort of struck me about Naughty Dog is the arrangement of the company. Irrational has a lot of artists who are very good generalists, and Naughty Dog is a studio with a lot of specialists with a lot of technical knowledge. They also have generalist inclinations but the Lighters, the Texture Artist, the Level Builders, the Level Designers, the Animators, the Character Modelers—they’re all separate.

You’re going to see this in The Last of Us. They’re able to drill down into their specialty, but then also be able to constantly move around to other people’s desk constantly communicating their needs. Everyone is in the loop. All decisions made in isolation are going to have an effect on someone else. It’s a combination of that technical proficiency in a very specialized field and the ability to communicate that to other team members in other disciplines.

That’s probably, l would say, what I learned is the requirement to be a Naughty Dog.



As an Art Lead, when you look out at the industry or even here at E3, what’s impressed you? Is there any Art Direction out there that’s amazed you?
<thinks> It’s been a lot to take in these last couple days…

 

Some of the big ones are TitanFall, The Witcher 3…
I’ve not had a chance to see either of those. Like I said I think Destiny looks reaaally pretty. I’m really excited about that!

I’d like to see some of the things that are happening on the art front on some of the smaller games, like Transistor. I think it has a beautiful style. They took what they did with Bastion and really extended it into this very new, beautiful space. The game Contrast has a really interesting aesthetic. On the more realistic side—Battlefield 4.



Wow really?
Oh yeah, I’m a HUUUUGE fan! I’ve been playing Battlefield multiplayer since 1942 and I’m a diehard, diehard player, so of course I’m really excited for that.

Also the PS4 game called Rain. It’s this interesting, dark sort of puzzle game about an invisible boy who can only be seen when he steps out from an overhang into the rain, so it becomes this mechanic, it’s very interesting.

You know, with the biggest games you know what you’re going to get. You’re getting more, you’re getting it bigger and you’re getting it louder, brighter and flashier—which is great! That’s a lot of what people want out there and I think that’s fantastic, so it’s actually kind of weird to be on the floor this year with our very quiet, book of a game. It’s more quietly told. It’s more quietly shown, but I don’t think you can deny its emotional impact.

I’ll be at a store opening at 11PM tonight to sign copies, so it’ll be great to actually see the game into the hands of fans.



Nate, thanks so much for sitting down with me. It was a pleasure to finally meet you!
Thanks Mark, it was nice meeting you too.



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    Great, great interview
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