It was a dangerous climb for Naughty Dog in its initial ascent of the Uncharted mountain.
Once Jak 3 was safely in the market, Naughty Dog turned their attentions to a new, more untucked future. Bringing together their best talent, the development team began working on Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, using the codename Big to maintain secrecy of the company’s new direction. Instead of taking the easy option and making another Jak and Daxter title, Naughty Dog wanted to take full advantage of the PS3’s technical offerings and develop realistic human characters in brand new IP. Drawing inspiration from action movies, the team sought to romanticise the adventure of distant lands and treasure hunting. After two years of full production and a previous year of preliminary work, Drake’s Fortune was unveiled at E3 2006.
However the initial ideas for the game are arguably very different from the final product. Former Naughty Dog employee Don Poole, for example, has come out and stated that in its early forms, the game very much resembled a fantasy experience. An environment modeller, Poole told NowGamer that “one [location] was a forest world where the antagonists lived underground. It had elements of Tolkien in for sure”. That all changed when Sony reiterated its push for more realistic games on its PS3 console to Naughty Dog execs. It was a movement from stylised cartoons to photo-realism that was rebuked by certain members of the team, hired in the days of Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Daxter. This would almost prove disastrous for the dev team later in the game’s development.
Before this staff split however, the first year of development saw the themes and main concept of the game form. Remaining flexible with initial plans, developers were highly critical of what worked and what didn’t, at time being ruthless with content and ideas. The notion of a vibrant and bright island setting consistently prevailed however, in attempts to contrast the common trope of bleak darkness used in games of the time. A light and charming tone was established, and core mechanics decided upon. However nothing was safe in this development, if ideas weren’t working they weren’t exempt from the scrap heap. For example, when the combat mechanics weren’t gelling in the way developers had hoped for, they scrapped an auto-lock aim for a free one. A good few months had been invested in this mechanic, however when push came to shove a well functioning title was more important. Much of the game’s development was experimental, as ruthless as that could be at times.
This was all a long time coming though. Initial plans were slow to come together, with different ideas floating around the table and an inability to prototype each kind of experience. Different members of the team were on different pages with regards to the themes and story of the game, and those who had been hired in the earlier days of cartoon games found themselves in a very different development studio all of a sudden.
In discussion with Gamesradar, lead animator Jeremy Yates described the ‘dark period’ experienced by the studio after the release of the first trailer. Before Uncharted, Naughty Dog had been a tight knit studio rarely seeing developers leave. However when the game direction suddenly shifted from the cartoon days of Jak and into the photorealism of Uncharted, new talent was hired and cartoon-specialised developers found themselves in a difficult position. In production year two, many of these older devs had enough of the studio’s new direction, resulting in a mass exodus of talent. Over two months at least thirty people left the studio, a big jump from the previous average of one a year. The team became split between the disillusioned, who believed they were in over their heads, and the visionaries, who saw the potential in the new venture.
Nevertheless the visionaries prevailed, and in 2007 the world was introduced to the game series that would steal top chart spots, awards, and sales in each of its release years.