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The Story of Naughty Dog: A Studio Odyssey | LeMagduCine

After looking at the video game saga Harry potter, Gaëtan Boulanger is interested this time in the studio Naughty Dog, of which he narrates, with didacticism, the genesis, the creations and the continuous expansion.

The first Jak and Daxter saw the light of day on the PlayStation 2 in 2001. For Naughty Dog, it was a pivotal moment. Since 1996, the saga Crash Bandicoot was the heyday of the famous studio. The creative team, built around founding members Jason Rubin and Andy Gavin, then not only domesticated the PlayStation by harnessing its full power, but above all offered Sony a globally admired mascot, whose franchise was several million copies sold. With Jak and Daxter Great expectations arise: taming a new console, free exploration, a dynamic day / night cycle, better graphic use thanks to the explosion in the number of polygons, a wide variety of backgrounds, a more elaborate scenario , very diverse cinematics, a depth of field pushed to its paroxysm, a fluid and discreet 3D camera, barely noticeable loading times… Jason Rubin and Andy Gavin invest colossal personal funds – 4 million dollars at first and a budget that will ultimately exceed 10 million. For the occasion, Naughty Dog sets up a real animation department and recruits specialized artists such as Mark Koerner. Despite a critical and commercial success to make the competition green with envy, the “Dogs” are disappointed, almost depressed. Accustomed to the fanfare of episodes of Crash Bandicoot, they cautiously welcome the sales figures of Jak and Daxter. For many, this is not a fold: it will be necessary to design a sequel more in line with adult games such as Grand Theft Auto.

The distance traveled is nevertheless gigantic. And the task, truly Herculean. The story carefully recounted by Gaëtan Boulanger begins in the early 1980s, with two teenagers barely thirteen years old tweaking their first games on an Apple II whose design and backup capabilities are practically nil. Jason Rubin is good at drawing. Andy Gavin, for programming. They learn the intricacies of video games by groping. The two friends are still in their infancy: they notably lose two games by accidentally erasing them. But a first outcome is not long in coming: they divert Pinball Construction Set to design a game called Ski Stud and which will soon be marketed under the name of Ski Crazed following a partnership signed with Baudville. They are 17 years old and they then know their first national distribution. Will follow Dream Zone and his inventive universe populated by cartoony characters, then Keef the Thief, but above all Rings of Power, published by Electronic Arts. The experience is painful for the two young designers: the writing of the scripts is time-consuming, the reviews are mixed and even if the stock of games is entirely sold, EA refuses to produce new cartridges, which are too expensive, and prefers to devote themselves to new, more profitable games, in particular John Madden Football.

Never mind, the story of Naughty Dog will be sewn together. Gaëtan Boulanger recounts the most significant episodes and the most notable developments based on exclusive interviews with 35 people closely linked to the studio’s history. We thus find the two original members, the future co-president Stephen White, the founder of Electronic Arts Trip Hawkins, the first employee Dave Baggett, the independent animator Charles Zembillas, the essential programmer Greg Omi, Gavin James, the man who will take care of the physics of Crash Team Racing or Hirokazu Yasuhara, eminence of the video game and one of the first members of the Sonic Team. The research work is patient, scrupulous, transversal. And one of the greatest qualities of the book, beyond its completeness, is its work of cultural mediation. You don’t have to be an enthusiast or connoisseur of video games to properly grasp the ins and outs of Naughty Dog’s creations. Gaëtan Boulanger writes the studio’s story like a novel, in great detail, but also a lot of pedagogy. His book would probably read all at once, without a hint of weariness, if one ignored its thickness.

Over time, Jason Rubin and Andy Gavin surrounded themselves with more and more employees, until they reached 35 “Dogs” at the time of Jak and Daxter, then around 50 thereafter (remember that Gaëtan Boulanger’s story runs until 2005). Naughty Dog has gradually grown, hybridized and professionalized. The studio has linked up with Electronic Arts, Universal Interactive Studios and finally, more idyllically, with Sony. Its members have experienced periods of emulation and glory, but also of crunch (even Jason Rubin will be close to the burnout) and conflicts (Charles Zembillas, for example, complained that he did not get the recognition he deserved). Above all, from 1984 to 2005, Naughty Dog never ceased to take up the technical challenges that were imposed on him: 3D and his camera with Crash Bandicoot, polygon management on the PlayStation (up to 1500 polygons per image on Crash Bandicoot, with 532 for Crash alone), occlusion, replayability, backup systems, the four Japanese alphabets and their pixel consumption, 80% engine rewrite and collision system reprogramming for the second Crash, free exploration and new powers in the third opus, the more mature and violent SF universe in Jak II, etc. These questions, and many others, form the body of Gaëtan Boulanger’s text. And make you want to explore Naughty Dog video games again.

Bonus: an additional comment from the author

“I think Naughty Dog’s games resonate particularly with players of my generation, because they’ve grown, matured, evolved along with us. They went from the cartoon universe of Crash Bandicoot to the rebellious and adolescent of Jak, to then continue their journey to the more Hollywood lands of Uncharted and those, darker, more visceral and poignant, of the characters of The Last of Us. Many had this feeling of seeing this studio adapt to their age group, their interests and, quite simply, accompany them from childhood to adulthood. As the owner of PlayStation consoles for over twenty years, I have always admired Naughty Dog. Writing about their journey was above all a chance. And speaking with the members who made the history of the studio was an honor. The Story of Naughty Dog was on a list of potential topics that I sent to my editor, and when he told me it was this story that interested him the most, I first took a huge sip of anxiety . It was far from being a subject to be taken lightly! Nor an easy topic: Naughty Dog is as well known for its great games as it is for its questionable working conditions. We would have to paint the picture as accurately as possible. Not easy, but I felt I was able to take this investigation as far as possible, and I didn’t want it to end up in someone else’s Word document! It was almost a little selfish, but once this opportunity was in my hands, I just couldn’t pass it up. And when I saw one by one the members of Naughty Dog agree to answer me, share the details of their daily life with me, when I found myself for hours, on Skype, talking with Andy Gavin, I couldn’t believe it just not what I was going through. This story is a great story, but also a complex story. It has its ups and downs. Its joys and its sorrows. Like all the best adventures. I loved telling it, I hope you will love reading it. “

The Story of Naughty Dog, Gaëtan Boulanger
Pix’N Love, January 2021, 550 pages

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