Exclusive Interview with Naughty Dog Co-Founder Jason Rubin

VG: Please describe the aftermath of your speech and departure from the industry. Was it gamers, team members, or Sony Computer Entertainment America itself that gave you the strongest response? What were your emotions during that time of your life, and is there anything you regret about the experience and the way things played out?

JR: Clearly there were those that agreed and those that disagreed.  I don’t mind controversy, and I believed in what I said, so none of the criticism bothered me.

VG: Game creators like David Jaffe and Cliff Blezsinski have made a name for themselves as celebrities among gamers and peers. Meanwhile, Naughty Dog’s own Amy Hennig is a critically-acclaimed storyteller who is drawing attention to writers in the business. In your opinion, how has the industry grown in terms of developer recognition? Have your concerns with publishers and the public image of gaming been resolved, or do we still have a long way to go?

JR: As I said above, I think things have resolved themselves within the industry.  I think there are no industry barriers to developers getting public recognition.  I do believe that more can and should be done to feature our artists, but if it doesn’t happen it is now because those involved don’t seek it, or do a poor job, not because they are actively prevented from doing so.  The three people you named are all incredibly talented.  I am especially proud of Amy, who I had the pleasure to work with on at least a few titles before leaving the industry.  I’m glad I could give her a place at Naughty Dog to shine.  And shine she has.

VG: In your eyes, how have games grown as experiences? Do you think the increasing focus on cinematic thrills and compelling narratives has sullied the pursuit and advancement of gameplay?

JR: Game makers today have a far greater palette to choose from when creating their titles.  And because of that, the games are getting better and better.  Gamers desire varied experiences. Ultimately the market should work out the correct balance between cinematics and gameplay.  I think the quality of gameplay has kept progressing, so I don’t see there being a problem.  If a problem arises, then gamers will let themselves be heard and it should right itself.

VG: Speaking of compelling narratives, the third title in Naughty Dog’s critically-acclaimed Uncharted series – Drake’s Deception – hit store shelves recently. As a co-founder of Naughty Dog, how does it feel to see the team you created accomplish tremendous things in legitimizing video games as art and storytelling powerhouses?

JR: It feels great.  I’m a little jealous sometimes that I wasn’t there to be a part of it, but I get to play the resulting work, so it’s fine.

VG: Uncharted 3 features Facebook and YouTube integration, allowing players to match up with their Facebook friends for multiplayer gaming and upload gameplay clips to YouTube. What kind of implications could social networks have on games, and vice versa? Do you have any ideas or visions for such functionality?

JR: I think social gaming is an incredibly powerful force for improving games.  If Farmville can entertain based on social integration and achievements alone, then clearly a game like Call of Duty can benefit greatly by integrating these forces into the mix.  The future is clearly an integration of some of these incredibly strong motivators into console and PC games.

VG: In past interviews, you’ve described yourself as a gamer first and foremost. What games are you currently playing or have enjoyed recently? Which games do you think have had the most influence on the rest of the medium in recent years?

JR: I finished MW3 and BF3 in the last month. Then Skyrim sucked my life away. Damn good game. Only holiday travel stopped me from staging an occupy Xbox Christmas . . . I’m still mostly a single player gamer though.  I also absolutely loved Red Dead.  I know it seems like forever ago, but that game leaps directly to mind as a favorite.

VG: As a gamer and industry aficionado, how do you feel about our current console generation? Is there plenty of life left with the tech we’re using now, or will “the next big thing” in gaming only come with new hardware?

JR: I have never been a huge believer in generations of console hardware as THE major driving force in game innovation.  Certainly major upheavals like touch screens and motion control (like Kinect) radically change gameplay, and of course we can’t stick with the current generation of hardware forever, but I believe game designer creativity drives most innovation.  Minecraft is a perfect example of a new idea that didn’t need new hardware to exist.  Even if the current generation of console stuck around for another 5 years I don’t think console games would become stale.

VG: Before we wrap up our conversation, let’s talk about two of the biggest issues in gaming right now: downloadable content and digital rights management. Many gamers are becoming frustrated with the former. More often than not, developers seem to release day-one DLC in the form of codes that unlock content which already exists on the disc. Similarly, multiplayer map packs and other releases are often cited as being too pricey or lacking replay value. What are your feelings on the current DLC market? Where could the industry use improvement, and what works well already?

JR: The industry is in a state of change right now.  It is moving, unstoppably, towards incremental release of content and digital distribution.  I believe, strongly, that this is ultimately good for the gamer and the industry.  Unfortunately the transition will neither be rapid or smooth.  And thus, during the transition period there will be missteps by the industry, and misunderstandings by the gamer.  I think the frustrations you point out in the question are a little bit of both.

Games of the future will probably be distributed more like World of Warcraft (I am not talking about subscription, just distribution).  There will be a big initial chunk launched, and then continual incremental release of content of various sizes.  There is no reason that a separate walled title, with a different name or number, must or should be created with each major release.  Because of WOW’s distribution methodology it is completely unclear when the content is created.  It is also irrelevant.  If some hat or spell or dungeon or whatever was created before the latest major launch, but released later, nobody knows, and nobody cares.  Do gamers think they have the right to everything on Blizzard’s servers the day a release is launched?  The disc is an inconvenient distribution medium that forces what seems like an unfair walling off of content.  When the disc goes away, so will these issues and confusions.

Whether any given DLC is worth its cost is another matter entirely.  Developers have an obligation to make gamers happy.  If they are charging too much for too little, then gamers have a right to complain.  I don’t disagree that this may be happening.  In some cases this may be simple misjudgment of the new marketplace.  I believe that the price to quality equation will get better over time as both game makers and game players get used to the new market.

And some of the blame for the issues you bring up lies in the transition itself.  Game makers are still expected to get “everything” in the box and yet add to that with DLC.  There is an inherent contradiction in that.  In the long run, I believe this will work itself out.

VG: Digital rights management, or DRM, is a large collection of techniques used by developers and publishers to combat piracy. Many gamers believe that DRM is too intrusive, establishing a digital presence on their PC or requiring an inconvenient software activation on consoles. Did piracy shape the development of Crash and Jak and Daxter in any way? Do you feel that the techniques being deployed today are an effective way to combat bootleggers, or is the industry missing the point?

JR: Piracy is a big issue, and I don’t condone it.  Naughty Dog lost millions of dollars to piracy while I was there.  I remember buying a $1 CD with all three Crash games at a bazaar in Bangkok, and I probably could have negotiated the price down if I had tried.  However, I think time will solve this problem for the industry.  Intrusive DRM is not the solution.  It didn’t work for the music industry, it didn’t work for the movie industry, and it won’t work for the game industry.  Luckily, it doesn’t have to.  In the long run, digital distribution, servers, and cloud storage of data solve this problem.  World of Warcraft has an extremely small piracy rate.  There is no reason, in the long run, that games like CoD can’t be the same.

VG: Have you ever thought about returning to the industry? Can you see a future where you’re working on big-budget games for a mainstream audience again?

JR: I have thought about it.  Who knows!

Vivid Gamer would like to sincerely thank Mr. Rubin for this interview, and we wish him the best of luck in his future endeavors.

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