Uncharted Success: Naughty Dog celebrates 25 years

Thursday, 22 December 2011 14:53 GMT By Johnny Cullen

As 2011 comes to an end, so too will an unknown celebration. Johnny Cullen charts Naughty Dog’s 25-year journey from school-days to super studio.

Naughty Dog

Founded as JAM Software in 1986 by Andy Gavin and Jason Rubin in high school.

Its first title, Ski Crazed, released in 1987 for Apple II.

Gavin and Rubin have since left the company, with Evan Wells and Christophe Balestra now heading the studio as co-presidents.

Was independent until January 2001, when bought by Sony.

Saw major success with Crash Bandicoot and Jak & Daxter, but struck gold with Uncharted. A second team has now been established to develop a brand new IP, The Last of Us.

There’s been a few anniversaries in the gaming world this past year: Ubisoft’s 25th, Blizzard’s 20th. But it seems there may have been one that slipped under the radar, which is a big surprise considering this studio is now perhaps one of the most widely-recognised on the triple-A scene.

Naughty Dog is 25 years old this year.

Then again, it’s been a busy year for the studio. Along with the surprise announcement of a new IP, it released a third core entry in the Uncharted series and worked alongside Sony Bend on development of Uncharted: Golden Abyss for the Vita’s launch.

But all things have an origin.

Jamming, man

In 1986, high school students Andy Gavin and Jason Rubin joined forces to found what was then known as Jam Software. The pair had been experimenting with computer programming, tooling around with C++, before combining their talents.

The following year, despite a major upset in which the original version of Jam’s first game was wiped while accidentally copying bootleg games, the pair released Ski Crazed, a skiing title for Apple II.

A year later, Jam would launch Dream Zone on Apple IIGS – later ported to PC, Amiga and Atari ST – an adventure wherein the player would need to escape a dream and return to reality.

But it was in 1989 that the first seeds of the company as we know it today were sown. Making a new beginning, Jam Software was renamed Naughty Dog, with EA-published RPG Keel The Thief for Apple IIGS, Amiga and PC the first release under the new moniker. Its next effort, Rings of Power for the Genesis or Mega Drive, arrived in 1991 – another RPG published by EA.

And in 1994, Naughty Dog developed a 3DO fighting title for the now defunct Universal Interactive Studios (better known in recent years as Vivendi Games) called Way of the Warrior, with both single-play and multiplayer.

Based on Way of the Warrior’s success, Mark Cerny, then head of Universal Interactive Studios, agreed to back the company’s next games. What came afterwards signalled the beginning of Naughty Dog’s true success.

“Whoa!”

In 1996, with a distribution deal secured, Naughty Dog released a unique platformer called Crash Bandicoot. It was published by the fresh-faced Sony Computer Entertainment, which had released its debut console, the PlayStation, over 1994 and 1995.

In this game, we accompanied Crash in the first of many battles against Dr Cortex, as he attempted to save love interest Tawna from the mad doctor’s experiments.

Almost overnight, Crash became one of the faces of PlayStation; the simply-designed marsupial was such an icon that he reached unofficial Sony mascot status. The game was considered on of the platform’s first killer apps, selling 6.3 million units in its first six years.

Crash Bandicoot’s first level. Great scenes.

Within two years, Crash received two sequels, Cortex Strikes Back and Warped, before changing direction for what would turn out to be Naughty Dog’s final Crash game. Crash Team Racing, released in 1999, had the bandicoot and his colourful cast of 14 friends set out to stop the villainous Nitros Oxide through the medium of kart racing.

With Crash Team Racing, Naughty Dog signed off in style, both from the IP and from its relationship with Universal Interactive Studios. It was time for something new. In the same year CTR launched, a small part of the studio was working on a brand new IP for then fledgling PlayStation 2.

“Say goodnight, Jak!”

Both the beginning and end of 2001 would prove to be an exciting time for Naughty Dog. In January, free from its Universal Interactive Studios ties, the developer was purchased by Sony Computer Entertainment for an undisclosed amount.

By the end of the year, the first installment in its next IP would release. Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy launched in December 2001, maintaining the same platformng ethos as Crash Bandicoot. Telling the story of two friends, one of which became something known as an “outsel” – half otter, half weasel – the game followed the pair as they tried and change Daxter back to his original human form. The title would go on to sell 1 million units.

Jak and Daxter. Queens of the Stone Age.
Winner.

Free from the yearly development cycles of Crash Bandicoot, Naughty Dog spent a full two years on Jak II, releasing the sequel in October 2003. Jak 3 appeared in November 2004, and would be the last traditional Jak and Daxter game Naughty Dog would produce – but there was still another to come.

One feature of Jak X: Combat Racing would surprise: it featured online multiplayer, and was the first Naughty Dog game to do so.

Despite numerous requests over the years, Naughty Dog has not since revisited Jak and Daxter, but there have been other titles from other studios, such as Daxter from Ready at Dawn and The Lost Frontier on PSP from High Impact Games. A HD collection of the three main PS2 canon games will release for PlayStation 3 in February next year.

After work finished on Jak X: Combat racing, the team began work on its next new IP for PlayStation 3 under the codename “Big.” Perhaps it realised even then that there was to be a literal interpretation of that stand-in title.

“All men dream, but not equally”

The third franchise IP in the company’s history was produced under the guidance of new co-presidents Evan Wells and Christophe Balestra, as both Rubin and Gavin had left the developer.

Under the directorship of Amy Hennig, previously a director and writer on The Legacy of Kain series, Big would debut at Sony’s infamous E3 2006 press conference – although it would be a year before we learned the game’s title and protagonist’s name.

Just before E3 2007 – the scaled-down event held in a Santa Monica air hangar – Sony named the project as Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. Releasing in November that same year, almost a year behind the PS3’s US launch, Drake’s Fortune cast players as Nathan Drake, on the hunt for El Dorado, supported by reporter Elena Fisher and mentor Victor ‘Sully’ Sullivan.

The game drew huge critical praise, won several end of year awards and sold strongly, with 3.5 million copies sold as of June 2009. A sequel was guaranteed, but few guessed that Uncharted 2: Among Thieves would be the studio’s defining moment.

How to Make a Trailer 101: Uncharted 2’s
gamescom 2009 video.

Released in 2009, Among Thieves had Drake team up with ex-love interest Chloe, as well as returning characters Elena and Sully, against war criminal Lazarevic in a race to the Chintamani Stone, with locations including Borneo, Istanbul and Tibet. Sales as of October 2011 reached 4.9 million units.

While Among Thieves added multiplayer to the series and pushed the PlayStation 3’s visuals further than ever, it was perhaps the game’s story which earned it multiple perfect reviews. The second game won game of the year awards from the likes of Eurogamer, the Spike VGAs, Destructoid, Joystiq, IGN, Kotaku and the VG247 community.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves promoted Naughty Dog to the top of Sony’s WorldWide Studios family, making it the company’s flagship studio.

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception released last month, focussing on the relationship between Drake and Sully. While Drake’s Deception wasn’t quite the critical breakout of Among Thieves, it sold massively. First day sales numbers were 3.8 million units, with the series as a whole reaching 13 million units as a result.

Building on the franchise’s success, Naughty Dog has also been lending a hand to Sony Bend on development of Uncharted: Golden Abyss for PlayStation Vita. The collaboration between both studios saw Naughty Dog deliver unto Bend “a whole bible in terms of providing them with the full background of the Uncharted universe and all of the characters,” studio comms boss Arne Meyer told me at gamescom.

“Amy [Hennig] has had a really great working relationship with everybody up there. They ask her questions all the time, they’re on the phone all the time. Everyone understands that not only is Naughty Dog sort of the keepers of Uncharted, but it’s all in Amy’s head. So she’s always been very available to them for all of that.”

The Vita launch title has already proved itself, becoming one of Japan’s two most popular releases for the new handheld console.

With three core games and a spin-off all proving to be major successes, surely Uncharted 4 is a given, right? Easy to assume, could certainly happen, and would probably sell big – but the studio has now split its energies, at least temporarily, to work on a new IP. If the team providing post-launch support for Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception isn’t merged back into this second group, it’ll be the first time in the developer’s history that it’s had two games in the works side-by-side.

“It never lets up”

Just this month, Sony began teasing a massive PS3 exclusive, known only as The Last of Us. Remarkably, the PR lockdown remained watertight; no one knew what it would be, and no one knew who was making it.

Teasers appeared all over the internet, but nobody made the connection. Even after the discovery of a teaser in Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, we shrugged it off as nothing more than a tiny collaboration between Naughty Dog and whoever was behind the new game. After all, Naughty Dog only does one a game at a time; or so we thought.

The Last of Us. Expect big things from this.

At the VGAS, all was revealed. Naughty Dog, in secret, had been pulling together a secret second team to build its fourth IP. The Last of Us, then, is the first time the studio will introduce two new properties in the same generation.

Details are scant at the moment, but we know that the game is set in a post-apocalyptic world. Lead characters Joel and Ellie are together in what Naughty Dog calls a non-romantic “love story”, aiming to survive in a world which is filled with what seem to be creepy ant-human hybrid creatures.

It’s been a long 25 years for Naughty Dog, growing from the largely-forgotten Ski Crazed to the potentially massive The Last of Us. The studio seems to have shrugged off the cutesy looks of Crash or Jak and Daxter, instead opting for the serious route with Uncharted and The Last of Us.

However, one thing that has remained the same after a quarter of a century: the quality of Naughty Dog’s games has never let up. With The Last of Us inbound, that trait looks like it will continue.

Here’s to another 25 years.

Latest