You know that corny cliché plot line in cheesy Hollywood movies where the struggling main characters have cobbled something together from virtually nothing, laid it all on the line for that one shot at the big time and it pays off, scoring them the shiny big deal of their dreams, and showers them in gold? Well, this happened for reals for two 22 year old childhood school friends the day they brashly handed over a raw and dirty, comedy-driven Mortal Kombat clone for publishing to Universal Interactive Studios in 1994.
Way of the Warrior (WotW) was the game, and the names behind it were none other than the then young and pimply Naughty Dog founders, Andy Gavin and Jason Rubin. A year earlier, the guys had self-funded the development of WotW themselves on the smell of an oily rag. Warrior was created for the then new and now infamous 3DO console, and the two friends took their finished product to the ’94 CES (Consumer Electronics Show) to see if they could entice a publisher – any publisher – to pick it up and push it out to the world. At the time, Universal were new to the game of, well, games, and they’d won a bidding war for WotW at the show, making it the media giant’s first step into the gaming industry. Self-funding a whole game specifically for a console that hadn’t even hit the market yet was a large risk, and an even larger technical leap for the Naughty Dog pair, but one that would ultimately launch the trajectory of one of the best and most respected game development studios of all time. But more on that shortly.
WotW wasn’t the Dog duo’s first game, however. Way before they were even naughty pups, a mutual love for making basic games on their Commodore 64’s and Apple II’s was what initially glued the pair together in grade school. At age twelve, Andy and Jason successfully reverse-engineered Nintendo’s Punch-Out!!, making a virtual pixel for pixel copy, with code they’d written themselves from scratch. For obvious reasons, this game could never see the light of day, but this joint project was infinitely bigger than anything either of them had ever achieved alone. The proverbial penny dropped. It worked, they’d made it together themselves, but most significantly of all, this motivated them to start making their own games from scratch, and put them out there for the world to play. What were you doing when you were twelve?
In the 80’s, under the name Jam Software and operating out of Andy’s family basement, the wonder kids released a string of games independently for the DOS, Apple II and Amiga PC gaming platforms; starting out with the educational Math Jam in 1985, at age fourteen. In 1988, with 3 small scale independent game releases tucked away, the now seventeen year olds boldly cold-called Electronic Arts out of the blue, to see if the juggernaut would be interested in putting them on as game makers. Just like that! EA looked at the friend’s past work, liked what they saw, and signed the boys up on the spot. Not bad for a couple of kids still in school. Once the deal was signed and their first assignment was under way, the boys knew they would need a new, catchier name for their development company. The mighty Naughty Dog name was born, and cemented into video gaming history for all eternity.
Released in 1989, their first work with EA was a keyboard based role playing game called Keef The Thief. What the pair weren’t prepared for though was EA taking over full control of the direction of the game, as they’d been used to creating their own worlds from nothing, and fleshing them out however they saw fit without restriction. This would eventually leave them with a game they were both happy and uneasy about, as they saw their creative vision become sanitised and warped by managers before final release. They made one more game for EA – Rings of Power for Sega Genesis – but with the taste of creative property being mangled beyond repair fresh in their mouth, and the fact that EA was getting even more heavily into sporting games at the time, Andy and Jason decided to call it quits and leave the game building giant behind. In fact, jaded from the experience, they even left the game industry as a whole behind, and carried on with their schooling. Good bye Naughty Dog…
And this brings us back to Way of the Warrior. Fast forward a few years to 1993; Andy was busy earning his Ph.D in robotics at MIT in Boston and Jason was gearing up for a career in 3D graphic FX for the movie industry in LA – neither of them were making games at the time. Out of the blue, they receive an excited call from 3DO mastermind, Trip Hawkins (their former EA boss), asking them if they’d like to be part of the literally game changing CD-based console’s assault on the tried and true cartridge industry. This leap in technology was extremely attractive to the Naughty Dog boys, and got them excited for the possibilities. They dusted off the old coding fingers, accepted the development kit, and got to work. However, based on their previous creative vacuum experience with EA, the guys made the risky decision to self-fund the project, using the meager earnings from their earlier games. They knew it would be hard, but this meant that they could return to the comfort zone of having complete creative control of the project, with nobody looking over their shoulders, demanding how it should or shouldn’t be. A decision that would prove to be both a blessing, and a curse.
With next to no money to create a game that could potentially reach a worldwide audience, some “creative” methods had to be employed in order to get the project over the line. Now, the guys didn’t have anything flash like an actual studio or anything, so to save money, they ended up developing WotW in a shared apartment in Boston. Yes, an apartment. And to shoot the live action sequences for the character animations, there was no fancy green screen, no hint of motion capture devices – just the largest hardware store drop sheet they could find at the time. And then there was the logistics of shooting the actual footage. As the budget apartment was so tiny, there was not enough physical room to have the camera far enough away from the action to capture it correctly. The solution was simple: Open the apartment door and shoot the whole thing from the hallway. Brilliant! Mind you though, it did have the neighbours thinking they were shooting some kind of strange fetish film of the adult variety. Allo guvna!
The live action character actors weren’t high end paid talent either; rather, they were a thrown together collection of family, friends and colleagues from Andy’s college campus. One of the characters from the game (a liquor spitting Australian Outback Kung Fu master named Shaky Jake) was actually world famous Australian born robotics professor, Rod Brooks; who was Andy’s mentor at MIT. Campus jocks, law students and molecular biologists made up the roster of WotW, all with costumes jammed together using found objects in and around the guy’s apartment. Bed sheets for turbans, broken down kid’s happy meal toys and rented suits; all woven crudely and lovingly into the costumes of the playable characters. This was fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants game development at it’s best, and it pushed the guys to their limit both technically and personally. The Dogs were quite literally down to their last few dollars by the time the game was finished and ready to go to CES. Everything was against them and it was all on the line.
Well, as history shows, the risk paid off big time! Universal bought the game, slapped a White Zombie soundtrack on it, and shipped it out to 3DO owners the world around in 1995. It sold fairly well for what it was, but more importantly, Universal signed the Naughty Dog team up to a further three game contract as part of the deal. Full creative control, their own studio space in the back lot of Universal Studios and paid staff they could help share the workload with. The whole enchilada! A worthy reward for all those late nights coding and processing, all those stodgy ramen noodle meals and the effects of voluntary economic evaporation – the Dogs had made it. The big show! Andy immediately dropped out of college, Jason gave up his FX job, and they moved the operation to California to live the dream, without any idea about where this would lead and what they would actually do.
Whilst driving from Boston to LA for the big move, Andy and Jason were spit-balling ideas for what they could or would develop for their first game in the big league. The Universal three game deal obviously allowed for way bigger budgets, larger scale ideas and new technical innovations for the Naughty boys. It was this pumped-up environment that would eventually lead to Naughty Dogs developing one of the most beloved series of all time – up there with the likes of Mario and Sonic – the groundbreaking, Crash Bandicoot on PlayStation. What started out hazily as “Willy the Wombat” in the car on the drive over to LA, slowly turned into a 3D platformer like none that had come before it. Mario 64 was just coming out at the time, and the guys wanted to make something along those lines, as the ability to create immersive 3D environments started to become a reality when processing power in consoles began to accelerate. Jason’s previous work in the 3D movie gfx industry would provide a solid base for the technical challenges that lay ahead. Of course, the guys rose to the occasion and produced an innovative game that would live on in the hearts of gamers the world over.
When Sony first launched the PlayStation, they had no flagship mascot like Nintendo or Sega did; in fact, they weren’t even looking for a mascot – it simply wasn’t part of the plan – but when Universal took the finished Crash to Sony to see what they thought of it, Sony immediately struck a deal for the game, trashed everything they had planned for the upcoming E3 and made Crash the star of the show, pitting him head-to-head against everybody’s favourite Italian plumber, Mario. The plan worked, Crash became a household name within weeks and the three game deal Naughty Dogs had signed with Universal now had a guaranteed worldwide audience via the goliath Sony Computer Entertainment. The icing on the cake? Crash Bandicoot became the first ever western developed IP to be commercially successful in Sony’s native Japan. This was absolutely huge!
Crash 1, Crash 2, Crash 3 and Crash Team Racing kept the Naughty Dog team busy up until the end of 1999. The success of the franchise spoke for itself; the second highest selling PlayStation series of all time, just below Gran Turismo. A combined 50 million plus copies for the Crash series made the Naughty Dog team both very successful and very busy. At the height of their success, and as work on their next blockbuster – the cinematic Jak and Daxter – started to wrap up in early 2001, Sony Computer Entertainment bought out the entire Naughty Dog studio to utilise directly as their main western development house. It was a cash cow of biblical proportions! This would surely have been way beyond anything two geeky grade school friends, making funny little games in a basement in the 80’s, could ever have dreamt of! Andy and Jason left the studio in 2004 to pursue personal interests; but the grit, innovation and push to make fun games that drove the pair together in the first place, has laid down a legacy that lives on today in modern Naughty Dog games such as Uncharted and Last of Us.
So the moral to the cheesy Hollywood story is simple: If you have a little talent, a few bed sheets, a collection of crappy plastic toys and some very helpful friends, you too can build an empire that reaches to the stars and back again!
Naughty Dog have left an indelible mark on the gaming industry, playing with the space between what is cinema and what is game. And we thank them.