Drake's Deception
Issue: Volume 35 Issue 2: (Feb/Mar 2012)

Drake's Deception

When Naughty Dog created the first Uncharted game, Drake’s Fortune, in 2007, the crew knew they had something special, and the industry knew it as well, citing the title’s technical achievements and its high production values that many compared to those of a feature film. The successful follow-up in 2009, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, continued to reap accolades and awards with its stunning visuals and complex animations. In late 2011, Naughty Dog released Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, and continued its trend of receiving acclaim and awards, with critics citing the title’s stunning graphics and cinematic quality, among other game features.

“We are not trying to re-create reality in our games, but rather a stylized heightened sense of reality,” says Keith Guerrette, lead visual effects artist.

With each release, the team always seems to have a wish list that carries over to the next project. For Uncharted 3, published by Sony Computer Entertainment, this meant integrating new anti-aliasing that enabled the artists to use their processing power for more extensive shadows. Also, they made a fully-fledged water system for simulated ocean, and set up a dynamic illumination system that supported many lights that could be rendered efficiently. “A lot of the improvements are things we could have done in Uncharted 2 but couldn’t do efficiently enough to get a lot of it into the game,” explains Teagan Morrison, lead technical artist. “We could have put it in, but it wouldn’t have run at frame rate. A lot of the improvements we made let us achieve that in Uncharted 3.”

Other technical innovations in the game center around smoke, fire, water, and environmental effects. One of the more impressive feats the artists accomplished for the game is an ocean-simulation system “that wasn’t done just for the sake of looking pretty,” notes Josh Scherr, lead cinematic animator. “We actually used the ocean to drive the motion of the ships in the cruise ship level and the dry-dock level that precedes it. We could have faked the motion of the cruise ship just by rotating up and down on an animation curve, but [the boat] actually cruises with the ocean and feels more real as a result of our simulation system.”

Meet the Characters

Uncharted 3 is an action-adventure game played from a third-person perspective, with the player in control of the main character, Nathan Drake, a sort of roguish fortune hunter who is a supposed descendent of Sir Francis Drake. In this title, Drake is searching for Iram of the Pillars, the Atlantis of the Sands, and the adventure takes him from England to France, to Syria, to Yemen, where he searches ancient crypts and is attacked by flesh-eating spiders. He escapes captivity by pirates and eventually washes up on shore after the cruise ship he boarded while searching for his captive friend Sully blows up. He also takes to the air, stowing away in a cargo plane while trying to rescue Sully (who was not on the ship but on the back of a truck headed into the desert). He gets sucked out of the plane but lands safely in the desert after grabbing a parachute—all the while coming under attack by the beautiful but sinister Katherine Marlowe and her henchmen.

After wondering the desert, Salim the Bedouin leader rescues Drake, and together they rescue Sully. During a conversation, Salim tells Drake about an ancient deserted city called Ubar—the Atlantis of the Sands. Drake and Sully stumble across it during a sandstorm and learn the true mission of Sir Francis Drake so many years before: to locate a fountain filled with a powerful hallucinogenic resulting when King Solomon tossed a brass vessel into the depths of the city. And that is what the villainous Marlowe is also seeking. At the climax, Marlowe is close to claiming her prize, but the heroes destroy the winch she is using to retrieve the vessel, setting off a chain reaction of explosions that destroy the city.

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception contains complex imagery and effects.
The mounds of sand contain baked sims created in Houdini.

In addition to Drake, Sully, Marlowe, and Salim, other main characters include Drake’s recently separated wife, Elena Fisher; an old friend, Charlie Cutter; Marlowe’s man Talbot; the pirate leader Rameses; and Chloe Frazer, who assists the heroes in their quest.  

Most of these characters are returning cast from the series (Drake, Elena, Chloe, and Sully). Making her debut in Uncharted 3 is Marlowe, who, contends Sze Jones, lead character artist, was the most challenging to create. “Marlowe is an older antagonist, and the challenge was to make her appear strong, regal, and beautiful, with a twist of evilness behind her,” she adds. “And to bring her into the story and make her the new character that stands out with all these other legendary game characters was challenging.”

The returning characters, while not new, required some work as well. “You don’t want to make any changes that take them away from what they looked like before in the previous games, but you also want to take advantage of new techniques like shaders, hair, that sort of thing,” says Scherr. Sully, on the other hand, required a more extensive overhaul—because he had little screen time in Uncharted 2, the group used the original model from Uncharted 1 in that release. For Uncharted 3, they resculpted his face and body, taking care to maintain his general appearance from the previous titles.

“We did a lot of polishing on the skin details and the pores,” says Jones. “We also repainted most of the hair.”

While there were only a few characters in the main cast, the artists still had their hands full. Each of the lead virtual actors had a number of variations—Drake had more than 15 alone that encompassed his different looks (from his business wear to his desert attire), and as the levels progressed, the character becomes more worse for wear, which is reflected in the model. The artists also created young versions of Drake, Sully, and Marlowe for a flashback scene. “I think we had more character models in this game than in any of the two previous games combined,” says Morrison.

Additionally, the game contains numerous non-player characters. “The variety of NPCs are five to six times that of Uncharted 2,” Morrison adds.

To build the models, the artists used Auto­desk’s Maya for incrementing the models into the game, Pixologic’s ZBrush for the skin detail and general shape of the body and clothing, and Autodesk’s Mudbox for texturing. They also used Autodesk’s 3ds Max for retopologizing and poly modeling, as well as for xNormals to extract normal maps.

Animating the Characters

The game contains a great deal of motion-captured data, which was used as a starting base for almost all the in-game and cinematic character animation. The facial animation, however, was keyframed. “The cinematics start with mocap and are edited like you would a standard feature film,” says Scherr. For the gameplay, though, the group starts with mocap data, but because the real-time animation has to be precisely tuned to work within the parameters of the design, it gets tweaked and changed, and sometimes completely thrown out. “But it is always a good starting base,” he adds.

In particular, actions such as the hand-to-hand melee and fighting moves are largely cleaned-up mocap, but most of the base motion, such as running and sliding, tends to start as mocapped data and then is changed significantly or becomes straight-up keyframe animation. The team also uses an animation layering system for the gameplay that enables them to add, or layer, animations (a flinch during a run, for instance) to incorporate more personality into the character. “Likewise, we have a base cover move and hundreds of different poses that we can then add on top that allows [Nathan] Drake to take cover in 100 different ways without us having to save 100 different animations,” says Scherr. “It’s an incredibly complex system that has worked well for us.”

 A New Dimension

As if Uncharted 3 weren’t filled with cutting-edge CG technology already, the team decided to take things even further by crafting the game in stereo to run on 3D televisions. “That was a big change for us and posed an interesting challenge for all the departments concerned,” says Keith Guerrette, lead visual effects artist. 

One big concern was producing two rendered views of the scenes. “We questioned what we would have to sacrifice in order to maintain frame rates over 30 fps for both a left- and right-eye renders,” Guerrette says. The programmers came up with solutions and optimizations so that certain images were processed just once rather than multiple times. For instance, each eye view was rendered at only half-resolution, so the same number of pixels were present but on screen there was double the number of polygons.

Also, the artists were selective about what would appear in 3D, and they used a lower level of detail for some characters and objects. “We automatically did that for foreground objects, so you had low-resolution meshes being rendered to achieve the 3D effect in frame rate,” says Guerrette.
The artists admit there was a learning curve in setting the cameras for the 3D environments. To help eliminate the eye-strain complaint that plagues many stereo projects, the crew for the most part had the programmers use Drake’s back as the convergence point for the left and right eyes, so anything in front of Drake was in the screen at all times. “As a general solution, that worked pretty well. Occasionally you would have some stuff sticking out of the screen and some unpleasant clipping, but because everything is moving quickly in the game, that is not something that would necessarily cause eye strain in the long term,” adds Josh Scherr, lead cinematic animator.
And where they could, the artists would change the camera parameters to emphasize certain 3D moments. “We didn’t want to make the 3D gimmicky; we wanted it to enhance the story,” Scherr says.

While the developers did not have to concern themselves with compositing issues due to the stereo, they did have to change the way they created some of the effects, particularly particles, which are basically 2D cards floating in space (it becomes especially noticeable that they are flat within 3D). “For the fog, we traditionally do one bit particle with a cool material on it. We had to cut back and do some more layering due to the 3D,” says Guerrette. “We were scared when we were first approached about doing 3D with particles because of that, but when we started to do tests and threw in fire and stuff like that, it looked pretty good. We were able to build the element and layer it with enough different elements that it was hard to tell we used 2D cards. That was a huge relief.”

Nevertheless, the artists had a lot of happy 3D moments in the game that they swear happened by pure accident. For instance, the group points to scene in the chateau sequence during which a building falls down around Drake, and the hero must hang onto a wall as items fall around him. “We created that level before we actually got the 3D implemented, and when we turned on [the 3D], it was just so cool,” says Guerrette.

“Things created in 2D became more awesome in 3D,” adds Teagan Morrison, lead technical artist. “Yet, we didn’t deliberately attempt to make things look cool in 3D. We just tried to make things look cool. 3DTVs are still gaining market share slowly, and we didn’t want to spent too much time on something was only going to be a appreciated by a small percentage of the audience.”
Oh, but how 3D really took some scenes to the next level. Take the one where Drake is hanging out of the plane, for example. “When we played it in 3D for the first time, it blew my mind because there is so much depth to the plane itself,” says Morrison. “All this depth and dynamics suddenly popped. It couldn’t have turned out better if we had planned those scenes in 3D from the start.”

Others agree. In fact, Naughty Dog received an International 3D Society Award for best 3D video game due to its effects in Uncharted 3. –Karen Moltenbrey

The Naughty Dog team uses a 15- by 12-foot motion-capture stage on the Culver Studios lot that contains approximately 80 to 90 Vicon cameras. The stage was built with the help of Sony, though Naughty Dog had full input into the design. The mocap was processed by Sony San Diego using Vicon’s tool set and pieced together in Autodesk’s MotionBuilder and delivered to Naughty Dog as a Maya file.

At the mocap stage, the crew sometimes captures six or so actors at once, acquiring character interactions resulting from complex choreography or sets, or a combination of the two. For the sets, the group uses a simple modular system of gray platforms and risers that can be configured to be almost anything—steps to an ancient temple or the interior of a bar in Cartagena, Columbia. “We will bring the level geometry with us to the mocap stage and, using markers on the set, will line up everything to match the game level,” explains Scherr.

The most complicated mocap work for Uncharted 3 involved stunt work on wires for the scene in which Drake is dangling from the back of a cargo plane. “We hired a stunt performer and did a bunch of stuff on wires so we could get that zero-gravity feel as he is climbing up the supports of the truck and grabbing on for dear life,” explains Scherr. “That was probably one of the most difficult shoots we had in terms of just setting up.”
Unlike some studios that have separate voice and physical actors, at Naughty Dog, the physical actors are the voice actors, with the team recording the voice/dialog at the same time as the motion capture. “We have been doing that since the very beginning,” says Guerrette.

Level Building

The artists also used Maya and ZBrush to construct the game’s environments, which, in Naughty Dog style, are brimming with interesting objects and set pieces. The artists used ZBrush to create surfaces and surface textures in 3D, paint them, and bake them down to low-res 2D textures, using the 3D models to complement the 2D textures when applicable. “Our texture artists are sculptors at this point,” says Morrison. “More and more they are doing textures in 3D, and it is saving us a bunch of time and making the images look really good at the same time.”

The artists also used Maya to build their game levels. Unlike many developers that use proprietary level editors, the Naughty Dog group uses Maya for that task, noting that the tool gives them more flexibility because there is a lot of lower-level scripting that they as artists are able to do in the software. “And it does not cost us any time since we are not building an editor,” says Morrison. “We are focused on the final product, not on making tools for other companies to use.”

The studio does, however, have an editor of sorts that the designers use mostly for setting up events and scripts in the game—“higher level stuff,” Morrison adds.

Despite the flexibility and ease of use that Maya offers the artists in this regard, it is not without limitations. “All our real-time lights in Maya are tricky to do, and seeing our shaders represented properly is also difficult,” says Guerrette. “Lighting and rendering are probably the biggest impediments [to using Maya to build levels].”

For the first time in the Uncharted series, the artists were able to add high-res Maya spotlights to scenes, which gave the team the ability to create high-res shadows. The artists also made a lot of improvements in terms of general spherical harmonics to better situate the player character into the game environments.

Simulations, Effects

According to Guerrette, the game contains numerous simulated effects—some far more complex than others. In fact, Uncharted 3 is the first game wherein Naughty Dog had implemented cloth dynamics, achieved with Havok’s Physics for various clothing, such as Marlowe’s long jacket, as well as for the characters’ hair and even torch fire. As Jones explains, the low-poly cloth mesh is simulated, and the mesh drives a joint system. The game geometries are then skinned to the joints and transferred into the game. As a result, the artists are able to run the sims at 100 percent or weight it using the joints in the scene, so if they encountered cloth penetration issues, the artists could work around them more easily.

In addition to the cloth sims, the game also contains particle simulations, rigid-body simulations, advanced 2D fluid simulations, and more. When the sims would have to behave consistently within the game, the team would often prebake them in Maya and save them out as animations. For smaller, incidental objects in the levels, the group would use dynamics.

For flooding in the hallways of the cruise ship level, where Drake searches for the kidnapped Sully, the group used a Next Limit Real­Flow simulation that was run through Side Effects’ Houdini. The resulting mesh was then imported back into Maya for skinning before it was incorporated into the game.

Like in the previous titles, the artists were able to manipulate the shaders to make the characters appear wet for certain sequences. For Uncharted 3, they utilized the same technology to cover Drake with sand; a dynamic process involving particles forced the sand to flake off gradually. The giant mounds of sand in the desert environments have their own baked simulations created within Houdini using a similar process as the flooding on the ship but without the use of RealFlow. The footprints in the sand, however, were accomplished with particles and render buffers that were projected onto various surfaces.

Uncharted 3 features a new character, the villain Marlowe, shown here with the umbrella. The artists spent a great deal of time on the skin details and pores of the characters, and repainted the hair on the returning cast. Mocap was used at the base of all the animation, but it was always tweaked by hand to some degree.

“The desert was the first time we had a level that was not that busy, and we had to make it look good without overwhelming the player with lots of detail and emotion,” says Morrison. “We have miles and miles of sand,” says Guerrette. A precursor to this level was the train sequence in Uncharted 2.

“We knew early on we were going to do the desert, so we spent a lot of time examining what makes a desert fun to look at without being boring,” Guerrette says. “A desert itself doesn’t have movement. There are just dunes, no shrubs. The sea of dunes makes it compelling.”

To get a real-life reference for the level, some members of the team drove out to the Imperial Dunes near Yuma, where, says Guerrette, they discovered that even when it is stifling hot and seemingly stagnant, there is always some slight trickling of the sand. “It has a very fluid, liquid feel, almost like mercury running down hill, or a slight breeze pulling some sand off the surface,” he adds. “So when you look, there was always some cool movement, and we decided to play that up in the game so it wouldn’t feel like a dead level.”

There are two especially unique sequences in the game that, as Guerrette notes, are “the most densely packed section of smoke and mirrors” in terms of effects. The first involves one of the more unusual set environments that the group has ever done: for the scene in which Drake is dangling from the cargo plane. The environment had to change from a static background into one that is fully dynamic, with its own visibility system. It was parented to a foreground object that was animated, so the entire piece of background moves in one large chunk.

The challenge was the timing—theoretically, the player could hang out of the plane and watch the sand dunes on the ground go by forever, points out Morrison. “The environment looks like it is moving but wasn’t; the background was,” he explains. “That is a traditional trick used by game developers, and we had avoided it, but in this case, making the environment a looping one was the best option. It was a timed 3D model, and the edges were hidden by a skirt of alpha fog around the outside, so you couldn’t see when it finished and popped. It was sort of like a crazy illusion of a horizon line.”

The other sequence involves quite a moving scene as well. In fact, it is the cruise ship and dry-dock levels, which are entirely physics-based. Both levels are attached to a simulated dynamic ocean, which was built with mathematical curves and particle simulations atop the mesh. “We spent about a year making this ocean work and had to figure out how to attach a level to it; the designers were then bound by the mood of this dynamic ocean and all the crazy things it was doing,” says Guerrette. “The rest of the team had to build the environments [before the ocean was complete] without knowing what it would mean for them.”

New Course in Game Graphics

It would seem that Uncharted 3, like the previous games in the series, was done with filmmaking in mind. But as the crew at Naughty Dog points out, while they move in a similar direction as a feature film, they are just trying to make the most compelling experience possible in terms of gameplay. “Books, films, games, they all have different challenges, but in some ways are solving a lot of the same problems. It is important for us to look at other mediums to see what we can learn from them or see what they are doing wrong and learn from that,” says Scherr.

And while the studio has similar departments as an animation facility, that is where the similarities end, says Scherr. “We still have to get our project to run at 30 fps, so there is this entire technical challenge that we have that films do not. And it’s a game, so all the stuff we are doing probably won’t mean anything unless the game is fun,” he says. “So a lot of the decisions we make and the paths we go down will sometimes be altered or reversed depending on whether it is actually working as a game experience or not. Sometimes that will be a big, broad-stroke type of thing or something more subtle, like changing the textures in the environment so the player can spot them more easily.”

Without question, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception is a high-production value title that dares to inch close to the line separating games and films, and at times even stepping slightly across into movie territory. But make no mistake, Uncharted 3 foremost is all about interactivity and gameplay. The cutting-edge graphics are just an added bonus.
Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of Computer Graphics World.