My Uncharted Journey

This post is part of My Career Series.

Here is the Chinese translation of this post.
本文之中文翻譯在此

Note: This post was written before Uncharted 4 went gold, so it might contain tones or implications that Uncharted 4 hasn’t gone gold yet. Sorry for the confusion.

I started working on Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End almost two years ago, and here we are, less than two months before release. This would be my first shipped title as a full-time game programmer (I shipped Planetary Annihilation during a summer internship). Looking back now, I realized that I’ve really come a long way since I first wanted to make games more than a decade ago. I would like to take this opportunity to write down this journey to share with you and as a note for myself.

I Wanted to Work at A Game Store

My first contact with video games was when my dad got me an original Game Boy as a present while I was in kindergarten. My only two games were Super Mario Land and Tetris. That’s when I got hooked on video games. Later, I saw my cousins getting a Super Nintendo (SNES) when I was in 2nd grade. I went over and played with them pretty frequently, but we had to take turns as the SNES only has two controllers. After bugging my parents, I finally got my own SNES to play with. My favorite games were the Super Bomberman series. I even went and got all of the Bomberman games on the Game Boy.

In 4th grade, one of my friends brought over his Nintendo 64 (N64) and Super Mario 64; that was my first time playing a 3D game and it blew my mind. My friend and I made a deal where I would buy games slightly more frequently than he would, and we took turns owning the N64 and the games every couple months.

Around this time, when asked what I wanted to do in the future, I would say that I wanted to work at a game store so that “I could play video games all-day during work.” This all changed when, in 5th grade, my homeroom teacher brought a PlayStation (PS1) to school to let us play while we waited for our parents to pick us up after school. One day, as we watched in awe as he showed off how good he was at playing games, he said:

“You know what’s more impressive than being good at playing games? Making games.”

That, was when I decided that I wanted to make video games.

My Pre-Programming Phase

Back then, I knew of almost no resources on how to make video games. The best thing I was able to do was make very basic animations that reacted to mouse clicks in Macromedia Flash 3, which I learned in computer classes. In middle school, I picked up a 3D modeling software called TrueSpace and started experimenting with building simple character models, which I hoped would be someday used in a game (of course this didn’t happen).

When I started high school, I joined the Computer Research Club, in hopes of finally learning the technology behind making video games. On the first club lecture, I discovered that I did not like programming and preferred making game art; programming seemed daunting to me and not as visually attractive as art back then. So, I was detached from the programming aspect of game development for a while and focused on learning Photoshop and 3ds Max.

I was introduced to deviantART by a friend of mine in Canada. I started making and submitting art work to deviantART (both 2D & 3D) quite frequently; also, I picked up a lot of spoken English and internet slang along the way. After noticing some Flash games uploaded to deviantART, my interest in making games with Flash re-kindled; I gave another try at programming, and once I got through the steep initial learning curve, it didn’t seem as daunting as it had before. I started using Swift3D to render 3D models into Flash vector format to put in games. My most complete project was a bunny dancing game called “R-Squared de Dance!” which, unfortunately, was never fully finished and was lost. I did submit to deviantART a Valentine’s Day wallpaper with all 4 characters, though.

My First Contact with A Naughty Dog Game

One of my friends visited me and brought his PlayStation 2 (PS2) from the US, along with a copy of Jak and Daxter. The PS2 games sold in Taiwan were mostly Japanese titles; this was my first time seeing a PS2 title from the US. I only heard about Crash Bandicoot back in the PS1 days and didn’t know that it was developed by the same studio that made Jak and Daxter. Shortly after, during my sophomore year in high school, I got a PS2 because I couldn’t resist the temptation after hearing all of my friends talking about their PS2 games during lunch breaks.

During a summer break, my family went to visit some friends in California. I saw that their kids also had a PS2, with a whole collection of US games I’d never seen before. Intrigued, I asked them to bring me to a local game store. They brought me to a GameStop, and on the shelves I spotted a copy of Jak X: Combat Racing. That “weird-looking green-haired guy with an orange giant squirrel-like sidekick” instantly reminded me of my first sight of the original Jak and Daxter. I thought it looked interesting and decided to give it a try, so I picked up the game.

Jak X brought me a cinematic gaming sensation I had never experienced before. That was when Naughty Dog made a mark on me. I started having crazy thoughts about how amazing it would be if I could work at Naughty Dog. So there I was, staring at Naughty Dog’s website, clicking the tempting hyperlink that read “Want to join us? Click here!” A question popped up: “Are you still a student?” After clicking “yes”, I landed on a page that basically told me that Naughty Dog did not have opening for interns and “If you want to join us after graduation, you should pay more attention in math classes.” This, was the pivotal moment that made me adjust my attitudes towards math classes. Math became my favorite subject in high school, and I put a lot of effort in mastering vectors, matrices, geometry, statistics, combinatorics, and probability.

Fun fact: I tried programming a solver for linear systems of two variables in ActionScript, so that I could use it to do my math homework. I did not handle divions-by-zero, and when the computer told me the answers were NaN’s, I thought it was mocking me for being a noob, which has similar pronunciation in Chinese to NaN.

In my last high school semester, our Chinese teacher asked us to write a mock-up letter addressed to our dream company, be it real or fictional, and describe “why they should hire you.” I was the only person writing a letter to a foreign company which, of course, was Naughty Dog. Back then in Taiwan, working for a game company was generally frowned upon by parents and teachers, as video games were “what made kids bad.” However, I did have good grades, so my teacher did not give me a hard time for wanting to work at a game company.

And there came the nation-wide joint college entrance exam.

Addiction to Naughty Dog Games

I did pretty well in the exam, so I basically got to choose whichever college and whatever major I wanted. Determined to make games and becoming interested in programming again, I told my parents that I wanted to major in Computer Science. My dad, however, advised against that and suggested that I major in Electrical Engineering. He said that, as a pediatrician, he spent seven years in medical school learning everything besides pediatrics, and focused on pediatrics after becoming a medical intern; his argument was that I should not hop directly into focusing on what I was most interested in with tunnel vision, and should learn other related disciplines first, so that I could have a broader view.

My dad was pretty convincing, so I agreed; I chose Electrical Engineering and focused on hardware stuff, including electronics and integrated circuit design. Meanwhile, I still took some classes from the Computer Science department. Having a low-level understanding of hardware did make it easier for me to learn programming and computer architecture. For instance, I learned how to build computer memory from logic gates, and that helped me understand how memory access works. I also got to learn the gate-level design of full-adders and multipliers, hence their differences and why one is more computationally expensive than the other.

After my parents sent my sister to attend high school in the US, I remembered the fun I had with Jak X, so I asked my sister to send me copies of the Jak trilogy. As I went through the three games, witnessing the incredible work put into the game design and storytelling, I admired Naughty Dog even more and officially became addicted to their games. I went to Naughty Dog’s website once more, and saw the reveal trailer of their secret PlayStation 3 (PS3) project, later known to be Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. I wasn’t very into shooters, “but it’s Naughty Dog, it’s got to be good.” So I picked up a copy of Uncharted when I visited my sister in the US during a summer break; knowing that the PS3 was not region-locked, I waited until I returned to Taiwan to get a PS3.

I played Uncharted. It was fun and technically impressive; I mean, look at the WATER on Drake’s pants! However, it didn’t give me the same charm as the Jak trilogy. To me, it felt like just another visually impressive action shooter with endless waves of enemies for target practice. So Naughty Dog dropped off my radar for a while.

Two years later (junior year), I saw the E3 live demo of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. It completely blew me away. Did Drake just slide down and jump out of a COLLAPSING BUILDING, while IN-GAME? That sealed the deal. I got the game on release and powered through it; it was such an incredible game: stunning visuals, fun gameplay, awesome storytelling, and lovable characters. This was when I re-gained interest in Naughty Dog.

Then, I graduated from college.

Going Abroad & Joining The Kennel

Before I started my one-year mandatory military service, I applied for the undergrad program at a college focused on game development, called DigiPen Institute of Technology. I’ve already written about my story at DigiPen, so I’ll fast-forward a little bit. Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception came out during my second semester at DigiPen. In spite of a few flaws in storytelling, I still thought the game was fantastic, just when I thought I couldn’t like Naughty Dog more.

Soon after, Naughty Dog released the reveal trailer for The Last of Us. This game completely caught me by surprise; a serious post-apocalyptic survival game is quite different from Uncharted’s lighthearted adventures. I thought it was a nice change of mood and appreciated that Naughty Dog was willing to try something different. At PAX Prime 2012, I went to Naughty Dog’s booth that showed a live demo of The Last of Us. The interior of the demo room was set up to look like the rundown hotel where Joel and Ellie fought the hunters. The demo itself was an impressive demonstration of hardcore gameplay, where Joel and Ellie fought for survival while out-numbered and out-gunned. Such harsh circumstances and pressure imposed on the player was a first among Naughty Dog games. After the demo, I got an Ellie T-shirt and lined up to get an autographed poster by Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley.

I got a copy of the The Last of Us right upon release. Being able to emotionally connect to game characters is such a rare and beautiful experience. Ellie felt like a real companion, not just some emotionless sidekick controlled by AI. The rich interactions between Joel and Ellie made the story feel so alive; they fought together, they cared for each other, they shared jokes, and they experienced the same emotions together. Not many games had reached such level of compelling storytelling. I gave Naughty Dog my deepest admiration and respect, again.

When studying at DigiPen, I always had the slightest hope that some day I might end up working at Naughty Dog. After successfully landing an internship at Uber Entertainment and attending various career workshops at DigiPen, I was confident that I could get a job straight out of college. I had all these plans in my head: getting a job around the Seattle area where DigiPen is (perhaps Wargaming, ArenaNet, or Sucker Punch), working in the industry for a few years, applying for job at Naughty Dog, and then finally working there if I was lucky.

Little did I know that destiny would speed up this plan a little bit for me, where I came straight to Naughty Dog after graduating from DigiPen. You can read this story in detail here.

So here I am, working at my favorite studio, making Uncharted 4. As a huge Naughty Dog fan, I feel so honored to be working on the closing chapter of Nathan Drake’s adventure.

This has really been an uncharted journey.

After Uncharted 4 is released, I will write about what I have been working on since I started at Naughty Dog. Stay tuned. 🙂

About Allen Chou

Physics / Graphics / Procedural Animation / Visuals
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