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Naughty Dog, New Tricks: An Interview With Jason Rubin

Naughty Dog co-founder Jason Rubin may have largely left the game biz, but the co-creator of the Crash Bandicoot and Jak & Daxter series still has plenty to say about the industry - and his new projects Flektor and Iron & The Maiden - in this exclusive in-depth Gamasutra interview.

You might know Jason Rubin for his co-founding role at Los Angeles developer Naughty Dog, creator of the Crash Bandicoot and Jak & Daxter series, but the developer, who largely left the industry after amicably departing Naughty Dog a couple of years back, is currently involved in a number of new projects.

These include his Web 2.0-styled slideshow/transition-enabling website Flektor (which was created with his Naughty Dog co-founder Andy Gavin, and has just been acquired by MySpace) and his new IP, comic book and reported 'multimedia project' Iron and the Maiden.

Gamasutra spoke with him at Comic Con in San Diego about his new projects, his future game interest, and his old ideas. Herein, we discussed the design sensibility of Crash Bandicoot versus Mario 64 and Nights, Naughty Dog's proposed Metallica game, the possibility of Iron and the Maiden as a game property, and the current state of Crash Bandicoot and the industry at large.

You're here at Comic Con primarily for Iron and the Maiden...Is it out now?

JR: Yes, the official launch of book one is next week, but we have a special exclusive Comicon cover today.

Oh okay. I actually saw some of the press pre-release thing of it. And it looks you ramp up the character arc real fast, because the main character goes from "I've worked for these guys forever" to on page 4: “oh no, they betrayed me!” It’s a little quick.

JR: Well, yes. But this is my first comic book writing. So, I have to say I have a huge amount of respect for comic book writers, because they get it all done in 22 or 23 pages – I took 28. So I took a lot more space and still, to get everything you want into every issue is very hard.

michaelironconcept.png I didn’t want to have the entire Issue One, the first one that people see, the one people see today, be: “he works for the mob – but where’s this going?” I wanted it to go somewhere.

So it’s a very big challenge writing for comics, I have to say.

So I wonder then, why go with the traditional format, instead of a graphic novel, or a manga format, where you can get 100 pages, or more?

JR: Well, in the long run, this is going to be released one way or the other as a graphic novel. And personally, I like reading comics when they come out as bound editions, because you can read the whole story and you’re not left hanging for a month.

Two things I did. One: I guaranteed that this book was gonna come out on time every month, which, for the comic book industry, is a little different. We have all of the books done, as we sit here today as the first one’s launching. So I won’t leave people hanging. And I also wanted a complete arc. So I did go and do a full arc; there is a conclusion, whereas some comic books, you’re kind of left hanging after a few episodes, and you’re like, “this is not ended, and the artist has gone on and now he’s working on Spiderman”

So I did want to do the complete book, but eventually this will come out as a graphic novel. I kind of wanted to do the monthlys as well.

Yeah, I personally haven’t read a monthly in a long time.

JR: Well the comic industry’s changed so much.

It has.

JR: And you know, the thicker books, the compilations, are selling in bookstores. Much more of the world buys their books at bookstores or online at amazon.com than they do in comic book stores. So this is a very different market, you know? You have very unique covers; you’re holding one of the covers.

There’s only one thousand of them out there. You have a signed one of them, so you know, it’s a different market than somebody who’s going to go into a book store and say, “I want the whole thing, bound once. Don’t care about the separate covers, but give them to me in the back because I want to see them. And I’m not a collector and I want to read.” So those two markets – it’s great, because they’re both served now by the different aspects of the bound book and the monthlys.

And you’ve mentioned that this might be an IP that you’d want to extend further. Could you consider going into games with it again?

JR: Absolutely. I would love to make it into a game. In fact, someone who read the first script for the four comic books said, “you realize, of course, that you’ve created the perfect video game world: you have minions, you have bosses, you have sub-bosses. You don’t need that in the comics realm.” And I’m like, “I can’t help it.”

Twenty years of making games, I think that way, right? Make lots of minions! You don’t just want one because there’s no game there! And I didn’t even think about it, but I’ve created a world that’s really well-suited to games, and hopefully I’ve spent a little more time on story and backstory and relationship than you would in a game, so hopefully I have something that might also make it to movie or TV.

 


In the first two pages or so he punches someone’s jaw off. So that’s something you could do in a video game pretty well.

JR: Yes, absolutely. It’s a little different than the last eight or nine years of my video game realm, but if you go back and think about Way of the Warrior, which is the game we did before Crash Bandicoot: that was mentioned on the floor of Congress as a game not to buy for children. Which, it was also not a game meant for children. But, we’ve done violent.

(Congress) forgot that it was possible to make games for “not children.”

JR: And these days, if you look at the statistics, mostly “not children” are buying them. So it’s not even that you “can” make them for non-children; that’s actually most of the market.

And a lot of it is, all of these kids playing GTA and stuff – that’s really parents buying it for their kids.

JR: There’s no question. I mean, there’s a responsibility the industry has not to market to children, but at the end of the day, it’s going to sit in a store, and somebody has to prevent the children from getting something that’s clearly marked with an “M” on it, and it’s not for them. And I’ve stood in line at Best Buy, behind a family, with two – they looked like a 9 and 11 year old – buying Grand Theft Auto, and you know, at the end of the day, there’s really not that much you can about that. They could be buying a lot of things that are unsuitable for the kids outside of videogames.

ww16.jpg

3D0 fighter Way of the Warrior

It’s interesting – I know a lot of game developers who have kids, and, for some reason, I would expect them to say, “ah, it’s alright, my kid’s mature. He can play this game”. But I’ve actually never met anyone that says that that works in game development. Theyall say, “no, they’re not playing this till they’re seventeen.”

JR: Right, and I think the same is true in movies. I have a lot of director friends that have children, and since they know what they’re putting in the movie, because they’re the writer or the director, and they know where they were going with it, they’re extra careful not to let their children see it. It’s great entertainment.

If you’re an adult, and you’re responsible, it’s great. But it’s definitely something that they don’t want their kids to see. And as responsible parents, they keep their kids often from their own work.

Yeah, I wish people would pay a little more attention to that. I feel like some of these congress people have the perception that “yes, these people are trying to wound our children. They hate kids. They want them all to shoot each other.” Which is insane. Nobody wants that.

JR: And interestingly enough, nobody plays more videogames than videogame developers, and, as a group, I’ve never met a more gentle, more kind, more benign group of individuals on the planet. And you know, I’ve been playing since I was about seven years old, which is about as old as games go, and I’ve played everything, and I’ve never been arrested.

Yeah. Well, they haven’t caught you yet.

JR: (laughs) Well that’s true. Okay. That’s a good point. “Arrested”’s not a good gauge.

 


Why did you choose to leave the games industry when you did? I know it’s maybe not permanent, but why, at least, take a break?

JR: Well, there are a lot of reasons. One of the biggest reasons is that, again. Going back to my friends who are directors: they work their tails off at directing. But at the end of a movie they say “I’d love to do that next film. I can start in two or three months”, and they take two or three months and kind of regain their creative energy, regain their brainpower. They spend a little time.

You don’t do that in the games industry. There’s always a Christmas coming up, unfortunately. I would love to have Christmas every two years. Saint Nick won’t do it, we asked him. Wouldn’t do it for the game companies. Toy companies, you know, their lobby was against that. And you’re always behind schedule. Huge teams. Usually you’ve started your next project as you’re ending your current project.

I needed a break. And it was good for me to step back and look at other mediums. Got excited about comics, loved movies again, played on the internet, ended up starting an internet company as you know, flektor.com.

flektor.gif So I just looked at a lot of other mediums. I’ve certainly thought about getting back into games after a short break, and I got caught up in the internet site, love doing that, got caught up in the comic book, love doing that. Would love to get back into games. You know, I’m a gamer heart. That’s what I’ve done my entire life, give or take the last two years.

But I still have things going on in the games industry here or there. I really like casual games. I think that’s a great expansion of the game industry. I’ve been working a little bit with the Oberon guys, which is one of the bigger casual game [developers].

I didn’t know that.

JR: Just kind of talking to them, advising them, kind of paying attention to that. So, I’m doing stuff in games. And I would love to get back into it at some time. But the vacation was needed. And if I go back into games, I feel like I’d make better games, because I’ve had time to look at the rest of the world, and rest.

Well, you’ve also been able to dabble in some other… well, “dabble” is too light of a word. But, you’ve been able to try your hand at other media at well, which could, I would imagine, have a good effect on your creativity.

JR: Absolutely. I’ve never thought so much about story, character relationships, things like that before, because it just wasn’t necessary in games. So to go back into a game at this point, with that background, would be really helpful for me, because I would do the work, regardless of whether it showed up in the game or not, and I think it would help the property and help the game that I make.

And I’ll think I’ll stay doing comics. I really like the writing. You know, there are certain aspects of not having to worry about the interactivity that are good. And I would like to continue to do both.

Yeah, you can really direct the reader through a story that way, because they can’t just spend the whole time making the character crouch in front of a toilet.

JR: Correct. There’s no bugs in comics, which is nice. It’s the first time I’ve done something where it won’t crash halfway through the comic. And that’s nice.

Typos, though. You’ve got typos. Closest thing.

JR: There are typos. And actually, there is one logical inconsistency in the book that I did find already. So nothing’s perfect. None of my games are perfect, none of my comics will ever be perfect. But yeah, it’s nice to be able to take the character exactly where you want, show the angle you want, without regard to whether or not someone would be able to control the character in that scene.

Now that you’ve done these other things, and they’ve been lucrative for you, do you think you would be able to be in a stage, when you got back in to games, where you could just wait until a game was “done” to put it out?

JR: To put the game out?

What I mean is, if you were back into games, are you now in a position where you can be like, “alright, we’re gonna work on this game until it’s done. We’re not necessarily gonna worry about Christmas. We’re just gonna make this game, until it’s the game that it needs to be.”

JR: Well, I don’t want to give the impression that Christmas was a negative, necessarily. We did the games that could be done in the amount of time they could be done. And I’m sure there’s a game that could take 20 years that would be greater than all other games ever made.

But from a practical level, that doesn’t make sense. I’ve always believed that when you’re making entertainment, you need to keep in mind who’s gonna see it, when they’re gonna see it. Movies are made that way: are you a summer release? Are you a winter release? I think the problem I had was that, after hitting Christmas, I never had a break to get my mind to rest.

But I don’t have a problem with deadlines. I have a problem with deadlines, followed by additional deadlines, followed by additional deadlines. And Sony was very good as a publisher about letting us do the game we needed to do.

 


So what’s it going to take for you to get back into doing games? Is it just a matter of time, or…?

JR: There’s nothing really holding me away from it. I have opportunities. I’m not waiting for someone to come and give me something or offer me something. It’s more a question of seeing where things go. I’m very focused on flektor.com right now and I’m having a great amount of fun with that. We’ll see. If the right opportunity with the right property and right people to work with, I think, comes together, then I’ll be there.

What do you feel about the current crop of consoles? Where do you feel this current generation is going? It’s a unique one, I think.

JR: It is. I gave a speech in 2004 called “Great Graphics: Who Cares?” And I built Naughty Dog on graphics – Crash looked better than most other games at the time, and that’s what made people look at it – but it’s more about gameplay now. And I think the console manufacturers, as a whole, with the possible exception of Nintendo, have gotten caught up in the technology, and the prices have gotten a little bit out of hand for the end user, and that hampers the launches.

And I would much rather have a console that’s 30% weaker and have three times as many of them in the first year sold, so your game reaches a broader audience, and you can be a little bit more aggressive with your budgets up front and things like that. I don’t think it’s about technology. It’s about entertainment. No one that came to this show today came here to see the next technological advancement.

They came to see the characters, the art, the style, and, if they’re in the game area, the gameplay they love. And I think as an industry we need to realize that we’re now fully entertainment, we’re not technology.

Yeah. I wonder who it is that the console manufacturers are listening to that makes them think it’s all about technology. Because a lot of the success stories that you see are things like Nintendo’s games, or like World of Warcraft. World of Warcraft is one of the lower-end graphical (3D) MMOs out there.

JR: Sure. So is Grand Theft Auto. It was never the best looking game. And Guitar Hero, which is taking the world over –

It doesn’t even look that good.

JR: It’s not that good at all! From a visual, technological standpoint. From a gameplay standpoint? Fabulous. And great for the industry. And look at the Wii. People are playing games without a joystick with 20 buttons it. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think that’s a good thing. I think that makes the industry broader and entertains more people. And that’s what we’re supposed to be doing. We’re entertainers.

uncharted.jpg
Naughty Dog's Uncharted: Drake's Fortune

Right. Do you have any opinion on Naughty Dog’s current status?

JR: Uncharted looks great. I mean, I played it for awhile (at comic con). I haven’t sat down long enough that I’ve really gotten a good feel for the gameplay, but it looks fabulous, and I think they’ve got a hit on their hands. I think it’s amazing. It kind of makes me feel like I should’ve stayed. They’re some of the most talented people in the industry, beyond a shadow of a doubt. And I just congratulate them on such a great game.

You know I thought the lead character looked a little bit like you.

JR: Yeah, I’ve been answering this question for months now.

seperated_at_birth.gif
Seperated at birth?

Have you?

JR: Honestly, I don’t see the resemblance. I’d point you to Evan Wells (Google him); he runs Naughty Dog now. I think it looks a little more like him, but of course I’m just trying to change the focus to be on him. I guess it’s supposed to be the average man, so I look like the average man, and that’s a good thing, right? I don’t have any odd features. (laughs)

 


And Crash Bandicoot has kind of become rather spread thin, it seems to me, as a franchise. Do you have any feelings about that?

JR: No, I mean... We really, at Naughty Dog – and I think this is still the case – they’re doing one project at a time, they’re focusing on it, and they’re making it the best game that they can make it. That was our focus with Crash Bandicoot. We didn’t do as many toys as we could’ve done. We didn’t do as many ancillary products as we could’ve done. They need to focus on the games. That would be the only thing I would say. Crash was a gameplay phenomenon. People liked it. And they need to get back to that core. That’s what made Crash special. And I think he has fallen a little from those days.

One thing that was interesting to me about the initial design of it, was… This was before Mario 64, as far as I recall…

JR: Correct. We had never seen or heard of Mario 64, or Nights, which was the other competitor. Sega had Nights in 3D. We did Crash, and that ended up as the Playstation 3D platformer launch kind of metric, and then there was Mario 64. And we didn’t see Mario 64 until we were very close to alpha, which meant we had a fully playable Crash Bandicoot.

It was a pretty unique kind of mechanic you had going which really worked well, because it was the precise platforming of sort of 2D, but it was in 3D. I don’t think it’s really been replicated.

JR: Right.

240pxcrashbandicoot.jpg Do you think that that kind of mechanic could be evolved more than it was? Because Crash sort of went more fully 3D after that point.

JR: Well, it’s an interesting question. What basically happened is – Yuji Naka, who was the designer of Sonic – or not the designer, he was the creator; the designer actually works at Naughty Dog now.

Right, Hirokazu Yasuhara.

JR: Yasuhara, yes. So Naka-san was working on Nights. Miyamoto-san was working on the next Mario. And we were working on the PlayStation. And we all had the same question that we wanted to answer for ourselves: how do you take a 2D platformer, and make it 3D? Nights was kind of a – it was all from the side, so they didn’t – it was a 2D game that kinda looked 3D. So he went the least far into 3D.

And Miyamoto went the farthest and said, “let’s just open this up and make it 3D.” What we did – and this was Andy and I driving across the country to start working on Crash – is we turned the 2D game 90 degrees into the screen, but basically kept it a 2D game just played from behind. And we called that theory “Sonic’s ass”. Because you’re looking, effectively, at Sonic’s ass. And everyone said we were derivative of Miyamoto’s Mario games. We were actually most derivative of Donkey Kong Country. That was the game that we really looked at. And if you look at the way the levels were structured and stuff.

We took that, we turned it in 3D, and we thought, we gotta make this guy have a spikey head and spots on his back, cause you’re gonna be looking at his back most of the time, let’s have some running into the screen levels, because you’ve gotta see his face some time, and we gotta have some sidescrolling stuff, because otherwise you’re literally looking at his ass the entire time. And based on that, we created the Crash engine. I think the validity of that engine is still there. The problem we had is that we got caught up in the technology race, and the technology race moved into free-roaming full 3D. So that’s why Jak and the later Crash games – not under our guidance, but Jak was – moved to open 3D. And Crash was just jump-spin. That’s all we had.

jakdax.jpg By the end of Crash, we’d used every button on the PS one. By the end of Jak, we had modes of controller. Where the ten buttons, 12 buttons, I don’t even know how many buttons were on there, two analog sticks, one digital stick, everything did something – and then there were other modes. And I think the validity of the Crash simplicity is still there. And I think that’s Guitar Hero, you see it, and some of the Wii games. I think people really do still value the simplicity – and online, again: casual games. So I do think somebody could do a Crash like Crash, and I think it’s still valid. So, long answer, but that’s…

No it totally makes sense. And I think a lot of people are going too far with all the modes. And I’m hearing a lot of backlash against it now. Like, you know, Penny Arcade did a comic about it, which was pretty funny: “press in the analog stick to engage hyper mode. Hold to serve a sandwich.”

JR: Well, we would sit around with the marketing staff, every time we did another Jak or Crash game, and say, “let’s add some features. What are the features we’re going to add? Well now he crawls, well now he slides, well now…” Every one of those features added a button. And, you start with too many on Jak, I think, for the average player, and you end with this nightmare of button control that only serves the most hardcore gamer. They love it. But if we keep serving only the hardcore gamer, we’re going to marginalize ourselves as the industry. And that’s why I think that things like Guitar Hero, that are simple, with simple controllers, that move away from the joypad, are so, so valuable.

 


I’m also seeing people doing more context sensitive type stuff. Like in Gears of War, for instance, they have the context sensitive cover button, so it’s like you dash into cover. You hit one button to do a whole bunch of stuff. Then there's BlackSite, which Harvey Smith is doing, and he has context sensitive team mechanics. Since you have a sight on your gun, it’s first person, you press the “team” button, and it’s like okay, they go over there, or if you hit a door, it says “open that door”, or if there’s an enemy, they attack the enemy…

JR: Well absolutely. Simplifying for the end user is great. But that can get complicated too. When you’re slightly off the targeting, and you end up shooting someone in the shoulder, you know what I mean.

On the programming side?

JR: Not on the programming side so much as it can get complicated for the user if the same button does different things unexpectedly, I guess.

metallica_narrowweb_300x3760.jpg There's another silly thing I wanted to talk you about - your cancelled Metallica game some.

JR: Okay (laughs). We pitched a Metallica game that went straight to their management. I don’t know if they actually ever spoke to Metallica itself, but we definitely got to their real management, you know, the people who needed to do it, we got to with it.

And you had some design documents, right?

JR: At some point. I don’t have them anymore.

What was it going to be like, though? Gameplay-wise?

JR: That was before we started thinking 3D. So it was going to be more 3D/2D. It was going to be more like Nights, or the Crash levels that were sidescrolling. You were going to play as any one of the four band members at that time. And all of the levels were going to be based on their songs.

Was Cliff still alive?

JR: Cliff was not alive, no. It would’ve be Jason Newsted, would’ve been the bassist, I guess. So it would’ve been a sidescroller, and I hope it wouldn’t have ended up like a Shaq-Fu or something, where it had great potential and fell on its face, but… That was the idea we had. We were young, and naïve, and I loved Metallica, and still love Metallica. But yeah.

Well it was a great idea… with the song titles as basis for levels.

JR: Right. For Whom the Bell Tolls would’ve been in a bell tower, and The Thing That Should Not Be was the final boss.

Right, yeah. And as I mentioned, you really should have Dave Mustaine as some kind of renegade character in that.

JR: Exactly, he’d be the secret unlockable character that runs twice as fast.

Yes, because he was always on speed.

JR: Yes, exactly.

And in the end, he gets religion. I don’t know if you know he did that.

JR: I did. I knew that.

And then he stopped making good music. Oh well. It happens!

JR: No comment on his music, but, it is too bad.

Yeah it’s a shame. Is there anything else you want to mention about Iron and the Maiden?

JR: No. I just had a great amount of fun doing this. It’s been really rewarding for me. And uh, I think, people who even if they don’t pick up comic books: this is not your average superhero kind of comic book, and they ought to take a look at it. And they can go to http://www.ironandthemaiden.com/ for a lot of preview material and the like.

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