Naughty Dog is currently one of the most notable game developers around, riding high on the success of The Last Of Us and its Uncharted series. We were lucky enough to catch up with original founder Andy Gavin, who, along with childhood friend Jason Rubin, introduced gamers to Crash Bandicoot, Jak & Daxter and Nathan Drake.
Whatever you were up to in school at age 12, it most likely didn’t lay down your career path for the next 20 years. Naughty Dog co-founder Andy Gavin met his future creative partner Jason Rubin at this age in 1982 and, united by their fascination with programming on the Apple II+, the two learned how to make games through experimentation and collaboration. Naughty Dog is today renowned for its showstopping blend of cinematic storytelling with sharp gameplay mechanics, and the dizzying ambition of its two young co-founders led to those core principles.
“The first game I ever programmed was a crude RPG called VE2 that I wrote first on my school Heathkit and then on my Apple II+,” explains Andy. “It had you wander around a fantasy world and randomly encounter orcs, kobolds and the like. It wasn’t so different than a single-player text Dark Tower.”
When they met, Jason’s games looked superior, yet they frequently crashed; Andy’s, on the other hand, were better programmed, yet lacked a certain visual flair. These complementary skills encapsulated their creative dynamic. “Fundamentally we shared a very similar vision for game making (make it cool!) and brought overlapping but different skills to the table,” says Andy. “I was more technical and he was more artistic, but we were both very motivated and energetic. We used to joke years later that it would be difficult for any would-be third partner to keep up, even if only on account of our intensity.”
Andy and Jason finished their first commercial Apple II title, Ski Stud, when they were both 15 (they’d completed another unpublished title, Math Jam, a year before). The duo struck a publishing deal with Baudville worth $250 for Ski Stud – renamed Ski Crazed for political correctness’ sake. Their chosen moniker at the time was JAM Software, which they kept until 1989.
Ski Crazed was Andy and Jason’s first game, a fun,
if basic action game for the Apple II.
Greater success followed with adventure title Dream Zone on the Amiga, Atari ST and Apple II, which sold 10,000 copies and marked their final game to be published by Baudville. “The guys at Baudville were very nice and supportive,” Andy explains. “But the company had poor distribution, minor league resources, and a laid-back approach. There was a lot of ‘woah, duuuude.’ Jason and I were far too ambitious to stick around in that environment.”
While selling well, Dream Zone was still short of a smash for the pair. “Big hit isn’t the word I would use, but it was much more ‘real’ and substantial than Ski Crazed. Signing with EA (right after Dream Zone) was a big confidence boost and we had to really take things up a notch (although there were many, many more notches until Crash Bandicoot!).”
Remarkably, cold-calling an EA hotline led to their next gig, Keef The Thief, again for the Amiga and Apple II. “We just cold-called EA after Dream Zone. They asked for our games. We Fedexed them. They called back and offered us a deal! EA in those days was a lot of fun. Occasionally it was a hair bureaucratic, but Trip Hawkins was a very charismatic leader and an extremely fair guy. The whole company had an open and welcoming California feel.”
EA was pleased with the success of Keef The Thief, landing the duo a deal for it to publish Rings Of Power on the Mega Drive. At this point, however, Andy and Jason were living in different parts of the country as they attended college, so it took three difficult years to get Rings Of Power to market. “A big problem with Rings was that it was designed as a PC RPG with an odd graphical gimmick (the three-quarter perspective) and then migrated to the Genesis. Really, we should have redone the graphics at that point as a tile-based scrolling world (like Phantasy Star). Plus, the sheer scope of the project and the lacklustre treatment from marketing left us a little burnt.” EA chose not to reprint Rings Of Power, which disappointed the pair, leading to a brief hiatus for the nascent studio.
Andy (left) and Jason proudly posing with Crash Bandicoot.
Yet it was Trip Hawkins and the promise of the 3DO that reignited their interest. Trip approached the pair, who were given free dev kits, which led to the creation of their self-funded beat-’em-up Way Of The Warrior. “We changed our whole philosophy with Way. Instead of doing the game we most wanted to make, we looked for an intersection between cool, manageable and popular. Fighting games were really hot in 1992-4 and when we started, no one seemed to be doing them on the 3DO. It seemed a perfect match.
“Way was a blast to develop. Jason and I lived together in this shitty apartment and worked on it 18 hours a day – but we had a lot of fun. The campy nature of both the kung fu genre and our take on it made the whole thing hilarious. I think that shows in the finished product.” This change in development philosophy governed the success of what followed for the studio. Universal Interactive published Way Of The Warrior, and the duo were then signed up by Universal in 1994 to produce games on its LA lot, under the guidance of Mark Cerny. “The Universal relationship was a complicated but critical step in our evolution,” Andy says. “In 1994-5 they really brought a lot to the table, particularly in the personification of Mark Cerny and in making a minimalist and relatively supportive environment. We learned how to scale to more than two developers and how to take every element of the production seriously.”
On their extended car journey to Los Angeles, Jason and Andy conceived the idea of a 3D character-driven action game, informally named ‘Sonic’s ass’, where the player would view the protagonist from behind while manoeuvring through the environment. This was the basis for Crash Bandicoot’s creation. We ask Andy if he felt he and Jason had generated an idea that was ahead of its time. “Actually, yes. Even as an idea, it seemed to offer a solution to the ‘how to do platforming in 3D’ dilemma. In practice, there were a lot of details to work out.” As relayed on Andy’s website, Naughty Dog was worried about the player’s depth perception, the potential for dizziness and camera quality. No precedent had really been set, here – yet Universal was as keen on the ‘Sonic’s ass’ idea as Andy and Jason themselves. Plus, Mario 64 didn’t exist yet, either.
The choice of format was easy. In a hardware market burdened by big failures and fragmented efforts from Sega, Sony offered a fresher start with the PlayStation. “It was really the best choice. The hardware was better. Sony seemed organised and perhaps most importantly, didn’t have a pre‑existing ‘mascot’ character. Sega had Sonic and Nintendo Mario, but Sony? We hoped to jump into that slot.”
Why don’t we get games with names like Keef The Thief anymore?
Jason and Andy toyed with the idea of a character called Willie The Wombat before settling on a bandicoot. A Warner Bros animation influence hung over the art direction and style of Crash Bandicoot, and Mark Cerny employed talented cartoonist Charles Zembillas to do character designs for Crash’s cast (Zembillas also created Spyro The Dragon for Insomniac, based on the Universal lot with Naughty Dog).
Released just three months after Super Mario 64 in 1996, Crash Bandicoot was a sales smash. “Fundamentally, Crash offered a number of things,” Andy says, when we ask about the key to its massive success. “First of all, the character and his world are great, and totally approachable. You can understand him at a glance, and he is highly inclusive. His combination of goofy positivity is very endearing. The world was also very appealing and consistently designed. Second, the gameplay is very fast and furious – if a little hard in Crash 1. It has a measured pace and rewards perseverance. When you get on a roll, it’s pretty damn satisfying.”
Crash Bandicoot may have conceptually stemmed from the phrase ‘Sonic’s ass’, but Naughty Dog’s character became an icon in his own right just as the blue hedgehog’s best days were ending. While Mario 64 became a milestone of action adventure games set in a 3D space, Crash offered an edgier counterpoint, encapsulating the cooler attitude that made the original PlayStation such a massive cultural event. There was something fresher in Crash and, like the Warner characters it was inspired by, you got the sense that its creators were speaking as much to adults as they were to kids. Naughty Dog had signed a three-game deal with Universal in 1994, covering the next two releases: Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back in 1997 and Crash Bandicoot: Warped in 1998.
Another unusual part of Crash Bandicoot’s commercial performance was its extraordinary sales in Japan, which were unusual for a Western-developed title. It truly was an international phenomenon – and the duo’s confidence paid off. “We hoped for it, but I was still surprised it actually happened,” Andy reflects on the success. “Enormously pleased though.”
“We each had to step into the role of mentoring and advising an ever growing crew of developers,” Andy explains about how his and Jason’s roles changed as the studio expanded. “Fortunately, we hired really talented people so we also learned a lot from them, but we had to do a lot more producing and managing. On a technical level, Dave and I (the Crash 1 programmers) combined some of our MIT engineering rigour with game practicality to do some really ambitious engineering on the level with other great (even non-game) software companies. This gave our games a leg up that, when combined with great design and awesome graphics, made them really stand out. A one-two-three punch.”
The subsequent titles performed equally well thanks to this combination of qualities and allowed the Naughty Dog team to push the PlayStation hardware’s visual capabilities further. “I wouldn’t call it a new engine, but we basically stripped out and rewrote every major system in the engine one by one,” explains Andy, when we ask him to discuss Crash’s first sequel. “Crash 2 shares the same architecture, but everything was overhauled and improved!”
Andy Gavin has been writing novels since leaving Naughty Dog. Find out more at his website.
The series won more plaudits over the next two instalments, with critics praising the more varied level design, increased fidelity of the animation and the ambition that demonstrated healthy signs of Naughty Dog’s maturity as a studio. “Crash 3 wasn’t so much a technical risk like Crash 2, it was just a death sprint. We did the whole game in nine months and built so much content. The engine itself got a few upgrades, particularly the tech for various kinds of water and the flying, but mostly it was levels, levels, levels and more levels!”
By this point, Sony was funding and publishing the Crash titles, and the two co‑founders questioned the worth of Universal Interactive’s input. As a result of choosing not to renew the latter’s publishing deal, Naughty Dog apparently had to make Crash 3 in the corridors at Universal. For its final Crash title, the high-quality karting spin-off Crash Team Racing, Sony negotiated the rights to use the licence since Naughty Dog was no longer on brilliant terms with its previous publisher.
“Mark Cerny was there the entire time we worked with them and we had a great relationship with him,” recalls Andy. “Our relationship with the 1997-1999 management was actually cordial, but we didn’t always think they brought a lot to the table. Around the time we were separating, the whole management changed over there again (Jim Wilson came in) and we never really got to know that crew. The company did have a pretty flawed corporate culture, one that didn’t always encourage fair play. They stopped paying us… we had to sue them (we eventually won everything).”
After Universal, Naughty Dog set up shop in Santa Monica, and by this point its relationship with Sony was exceptionally strong. In fact it would be a partnership that would shape both companies for years to come…
Notable Naughty Dog Games
To read the whole feature you can download issue 117 from GreatDigitalMags.com
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