Four appears to be the magic number for Sony's Naughty Dog studio.
It made four Crash Bandicoot games on the first PlayStation, before walking away from the smash hit series.
It created four Jak and Daxter titles on PS2, and then waved goodbye to those characters.
And now it says it's about to do the same with Uncharted.
We like to keep growing,” says Ricky Cambier, lead designer at the Santa Monica studio. But to truly wrap up a series, and say from the outset that this is this guy's last story... It's never been done quite like that.”
At least not with a series as commercially successful as this one. With 21m games sold, Uncharted is one of Sony's most popular franchises.
Yet Naughty Dog is a studio that has never paid much attention to sales figures. Back in 2011, in the wake of Uncharted 3 and with the action adventure series at its all-time peak, Naughty Dog decided to step away to create an ambitious, big-budget story-driven horror game called The Last of Us.
MCV joked with Cambier that Sony executives must find the studio's dogged refusal to follow the money quite infuriating.
Yeah: ‘Hey Sony, by the way, we are going to make this really dark game called The Last of Us,'” he laughs. ‘Oh, Sony, by the way, we are now just going to finish Uncharted off.'”
Of course, Sony knows that it can trust Naughty Dog - this is a studio that has launched four multi-million selling franchises, after all. So if it wants to stop making Uncharted games, then so be it.
We are fortunate that we have a pretty good relationship with Sony, where we are not super beholden to expectations,” says Cambier. We can push that envelope where we can.”
There's no point weeping about Uncharted's goodbye just yet because there is, after all, one last epic adventure to go on.
Uncharted 4 looks visually stunning, but Naughty Dog insists the move to PS4 has allowed them to do more than just improve the graphics.
The studio has introduced a number of new gameplay elements, including the ability to drive a jeep and swing on ropes. The combat spaces also feature more verticality – the game's hero Nathan Drake will need to keep an eye above and below – while there has been an increased focus on stealth.
Naughty Dog has also created larger spaces to explore.
There have been games before that have done pretty big spaces,” acknowledges Cambier. We wanted to do it at a certain visual quality that wouldn't have ever been possible except on the PS4. We are able to give you this much room to explore and still offer that level of detail.
Also, one of the things we are doing for the first time is that there are no pre-rendered cut scenes. In the past, we always went over to a black frame and we switch over into a movie. We don't do that anymore. That was a limitation we sort of accepted back then. The impact of removing that has been kind of profound. You just seamlessly go into these cut scenes and then come out of them – that whole transition goes away.”
"We are very relieved and it's nice to be done. But it's also quite significant to end a franchise like Uncharted."
Ricky Cambier, Naughty Dog
A lot has changed in the action adventure genre since the last Uncharted game. There was Naughty Dog's own dark apocalyptic story The Last of Us, which pushed the boundaries in terms of telling stories in video games. There was also the reboot of Tomb Raider, which was a wonderful, if harrowing, Lara Croft origin story.
Naughty Dog says that obviously things have moved on in the world of Uncharted, but fans shouldn't expect a drastic shift in tone.
I've played the first Tomb Raider, but the second one isn't yet available on PlayStation, so I've not had the chance to play that,” says Cambier of its rival. I like the things that Tomb Raider has done. I saw some of the stuff they did for E3 [for Rise of the Tomb Raider] and going into much more of that survival-type game, which actually seems to borrow more from The Last of Us than Uncharted.
From the start, we knew that we didn't want to reboot Uncharted. We wanted to add driveable vehicles and the rope and stuff like that, we didn't want to introduce weapon upgrades or try to skill up. We want to keep it as the Uncharted you know and now see what that means when we take that to PlayStation 4.”
Right now, Uncharted – along with Gran Turismo – is PlayStation's most popular franchise. Indeed, Uncharted 4 is probably the biggest platform exclusive to launch on the PS4 since the machine launched.
Does that expectation create much pressure for the team?
There is no shortage of pressure at Naughty Dog anyways,” says Cambier.
From the very start, the studio has done things differently and pushed the PlayStation hardware. We continue to develop these high expectations just internally, and then we put that on ourselves. Before fans, before Sony, it is us that's setting this bar. And with each new game we set that bar higher. Every time we do [a game], we create a long list of stuff we know we can do better, or things we want to explore. Even now we will start working on what's next, and we have a list.”
Whatever it is that comes next, it won't be Uncharted. So looking back at almost ten years of the series, is there anything Cambier regrets?
I can't think of any creative project that I have ever worked on where, as soon as it is done, I'm not like: ‘Yeah, I could do that a little bit better.' If we go to make Uncharted 4 again, it would be different. But there is nothing I regret in this at all. This is the game we wanted to make and, I think, it's the best Uncharted yet.”
There's little doubt that Uncharted 4 will be a big seller, even in an unusually congested May. Sony has already invested heavily in the game's marketing and anticipation for the title is high ahead of its May 10th release.
It's been a long journey, too. The game was announced in 2013 and underwent a number of changes on the way to release – it's even suffered a series of delays.
We are very relieved and it's very nice to be done and get back to our friends and families and those things we weren't able to give much attention to over the last few months,” Cambier says about the game's completion.
But it's also quite significant to end a franchise like Uncharted and say goodbye to Nathan Drake.”
Naughty Dog has walked away from franchises before – it's never made another Crash Bandicoot or Jak and Daxter – yet this is the first time it announced it was doing so. Has that made the game's finale few months of development a bittersweet experience?
That kind of varies throughout the studio,” concludes Cambier. For me, I met Nathan Drake on Uncharted 1 and 2 as a fan, and then I came in on 3. I then worked on The Last of Us and now Uncharted 4. So for me it's an honour to be part of the creative team that is sending this guy off. To me, it is actually a bit of a celebration.
But for other people that have been with him since the inception, there is a lot of sadness. There is a lot of being with him for ten years, and the way they have changed and their family dynamics have been changed... all of this stuff are things they start to reflect on.
Speaking to Bruce Staley, the game director w