PlayStation Studios Spotlight: Naughty Dog

By Kes Eylers-Stephenson,

Update Log:
03/09/21 — Added huge hiring spree to Next Project and Uncharted PC Collection "leak" to ND in 2021
24/09/21 — Uncharted: Legacy of Thieves Collection confirmed, added to ND in 2021.

Naughty Dog overview

uncharted carousel

Naughty Dog has been around for a long, long time. When Sony bought the Santa Monica-based developer in 2001, it already had 17 years of industry experience. A few years before the team were bought, the technological lord and saviour Mark Cerny suggested that the studio begin creating a character platformer. That was the moment the team began blowing socks off. The game becomes a 3D mascot platformer with a sense of cheeky fun, and the series that followed would become a phenomenon. The four Crash Bandicoot games operated using the PlayStation’s capability for rendering 3D space quite unlike anything else on the market. Crash Bandicoot hit the market in 1996 to commercial acclaim and a surprisingly mixed reaction, primarily for its linearity. The sequel — Cortex Strikes Back — replicated the huge commercial success with a much better critical reception only a year after the first game and dropped the stringent linearity for more modern Naughty Dog qualities: high-quality graphics, audio, and fantastic level design. There were still some hang-ups, particularly as the difficulty increased and the signposting for the platforming sections became minimal.

Around this period came the infamous PlayStation advert that featured Crash rocking up to Nintendo headquarters and advertising his wares; a simple but effective way of indicating the cultural prevalence of the character. The third game was called Warped and came out in 1997 and arguably perfected the Crash formula, which was reflected in a fully unified commercial and critical success for the first time. The games have all been updated to PS4 level quality and hold up more substantially than one would have thought. Indeed, they are some of the best modern platformers as well as retro. Somehow, Naughty Dog followed a legendary trilogy with one of the best kart racers of all time in Crash Team Racing, a game recently restored to full glory in a remaster.

Jak - Concept art

Since Universal Interactive owned the rights to the Crash IP and Naughty Dog had become Sony-focused over the run of games, the team was brought up by the Japanese company and became a core member of the first-party PlayStation makeup. Naughty Dog then made three Jak & Daxter platformers and a kart racer. Like Crash Bandicoot before it, Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy kicked off the PS2 generation in 2001 and ended up being an era-defining platformer. As another 3D puzzle-platformer with a definite stronger leaning towards combat, young boy Jak saves a loud-mouth Ottsel — an otter crossed with a weasel — called Daxter. So, the adventure to save Eco begins. Received very well and praised for the trademark Naughty Dog qualities — technical brilliance, superb graphics, a surprisingly deep story — it was a marker for a generation that few surpassed.

Arguably, Jak II (Renegade in Europe and Oceania) managed just that in 2003. With a darker tone and bigger guns, the game opened out a little to increase player freedom. The game wasn't a step forward to everyone's taste — perhaps a hint at the future — but it certainly kept Naughty Dog at the forefront of games development. 2004 saw the release of the final game in the main trilogy, Jak III. A definite refinement of the series, the game had a much quieter launch than the previous two entries. The gameplay was honed and the story came to a conclusion, marking the end of Naughty Dog's time with Jak and Daxter. Another really rather good kart racer capped the trilogy, called Jak X: Combat Racing. Perhaps the game did not quite hit the heights of Crash Team Racing, but it was undoubtedly a fun swansong.

Uncharted Concept Art

With the PS3, Naughty Dog evolved the mascot platformer, 2007 brought about the Uncharted era. The first game, Drake's Fortune, was a solid first effort at making an Indiana Jones-esque action-adventure with platforming, puzzles, and an amoral sharp-tongued protagonist in Nathan Drake. On reflection, the game was very much a work-in-progress. It nails the characters — sidekick Sully and reporter Elena are fantastic even with formative character development — and the single island environment, but it is a little simple and occasionally clunky. The second game, Among Thieves, played a crucial part in getting the PS3 back on track after some miserable opening years for the console. Amy Hennig wrote a script filled to the brim with life and raw smirk-inducing moments. From Istanbul to Nepal to Shambala, Drake & Co follow the trail of Marco Polo while set-pieces chained everything together in a way that made it truly capture not just what the PS3 could do, but what gaming could be. With an expanded roster of characters — Chloe Fraser is a dream — it remains a firm favourite for many PlayStation fans and brought Naughty Dog into the limelight as one of the best working developers of the modern era. When you follow that up with a game as good as 2010s Drake's Deception, it is hard to deny that Naughty Dog was (and still is) operating on a different level. For this entry, we delved into Nathan Drake's past, journeyed through deserts, and developed long-standing fears of ships sinking. But why would Naughty Dog leave the PS3 era there?

Neil Druckman helped the transition of Naughty Dog from mascot platformer into a story-telling powerhouse with the 2013 release of The Last of Us: a now-legendary PlayStation IP that absolutely banged. The story of Ellie and Joel in the quarantine zones of a dilapidated America will live long in the memory of everyone who played it. No doubt, there was a maturity here that transitioned solid platforming, story and graphics into something darker and more brutal. To say it worked would be an understatement.

The Last of Us Part 1 Concept Art

To put Naughty Dog on top of the first-party pile, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and The Last of Us: Part II reached new levels for the team during the PS4 era. The cinematic quality and storytelling hit new heights, while the gameplay became refined to an unthinkable level for the action-adventure genre. A Thief's End brought a closing chapter to Drake's story with a slightly less-chipper tone — Druckmann took over the project after Hennig departed — though it was still a joyous time. Featuring pirates, long-lost brothers, and some extraordinary climbing and puzzling sections, this game is a TT favourite. A perfect end to the tale of Drake spelt a new beginning for the hard-edged treasure hunter Chloe Fraser in the spin-off The Lost Legacy. The game might be shorter than its brethren, but it is no slouch. In fact, one could argue that the high-quality set-pieces and environments, dense story, in-and-out by 12 hours gameplay was the direction Uncharted should begin taking in the future. The game is so perfectly shaped, it should be a must-play. Naughty Dog ended the PS4 generation with The Last of Us: Part II, a high-quality continuation of the beloved original. It shocked and angered — for some, a little too much — but it was of no doubt that the development team had produced something special to continue their heritage of excellence.

Naughty Dog's previous project: The Last of Us: Part II

THE LAST OF US US PART ii

In our review for the game, Oscar said that “Naughty Dog has crafted a supremely affecting narrative and proven its mettle once again as an industry-leading storyteller.” For many, this was a narrative experience unlike any other, tied together with some of the best environments ever seen. There is no getting out of the way of the fact this game caused controversy and was not liked by everyone for perceived issues in story, politics, and gameplay. Indeed, the user reviews on Metacritic are all over the place. Generally, though, for most critics the game was considered to be on another planet - the 93 critical response on Metacritic and our own review prove that - and it is worth playing yourself before getting into the heated melee surrounding the game.

Naughty Dog's current project: The Last of Us: Factions

uncharted 4 drake jump

So, for a project that we know is in development and that has got out of hand a little since its inception, there is surprisingly little information available. There was a job listing for an economy specialist, intimating that there will be varying currencies and perhaps a free-to-play/premium system. Likewise, a huge hiring spree revealed that the multiplayer will be a cinematic experience that probably isn't coming soon. Hermen Hulst, head of PlayStation Studios, stated that “who says that multiplayer experience cannot have great stories, right?” It is possible that this could be one of the experiences he was referring to, so keep your eyes on this one!

Naughty Dog in 2021

crash bandicoot

As always, anything said or done around Naughty Dog drums up news. Druckman has confirmed that his writing partner Halley Gross has an outline for The Last of Us: Part III on the Script Apart podcast. The team were caught up in the Bend Studio fiasco, where Naughty Dog reclaimed an Uncharted remake project and/or another Last of Us remake for PS5 to help keep cogs turning during down-time between The Last of Us: Part II and the next ‘main’ game. An Uncharted PC Collection, featuring the five Naughty Dog-developed titles was also "leaked" as being in the works by Nixxes. That wasn't the case, but Uncharted: A Legacy of Thieves Collection was announced at The PlayStation Showcase 2021, featuring A Thief's End and Lost Legacy remasters for PS5 and PC.

Neil Druckmann is also writing a Last of Us TV show featuring Bella Ramsey as Ellie and Pedro Pascal as Joel that is coming out on HBO. An Uncharted movie featuring Mark Wahlberg as Sully and Tom Holland as Drake has yet to come out.

Where does Naughty Dog rank?

We all knew it, didn’t we? Naughty Dog has been at the top of its game for a long long time. Even behind the scenes, ICE (Initiative for the Common Engine) works out the Santa Monica-based group looking to get all of the studios operating on the same game-engine technology. Naughty Dog is not only a competent game-maker, then, but a forefront for techy developments, too. Crash, J&D, Uncharted, and The Last of Us are fan-favourite IPs. Even if The Last of Us: Part II and Uncharted 4 weren't your bag, one can recognize that this is maybe one of the most talented studios on the planet right now. Cinematics, story, environmental design, set-pieces, characters, and gameplay are always at the very least solid and in a majority of categories a best-in-class contender. ‘Greatness Awaits’ is a PlayStation slogan best personified by Naughty Dog and the team deserve nothing less than the highest honour in the world of PlayStation.

Platinum
Platinum

A studio that has achieved it all in game development to the highest tier possible

Kes Eylers-Stephenson
Written by Kes Eylers-Stephenson
Hey, I'm Kes! I'm a Staff Writer, and I've been here since 2021. What do I like? The Outer Wilds is top notch. The Witcher 3 blew my mind over the course of five years completing it. I want Burnout back — I really miss crunching mechanical wonders into walls to the sound of Guns N' Roses. Cool, now we are acquainted, I'll see you around.