The other Naughty Dog: co-founder of the Uncharted studio chats next-gen, The Last Of Us, and how he’d fix Crash Bandicoot

Without Andrew Gavin, there’s a chance Nathan Drake, Sully, Joel and Ellie would never have found a   home on PS3. Even though he left Naughty Dog just before the studio made the first Uncharted, Gavin was instrumental in getting the company off the ground, co-founding the Santa Monica-based developer in 1986 with Jason Rubin. We recently caught up with him for an exclusive chat, where he talked about saving the bandicoot, his love of writing novels and what he thinks Naughty Dog is capable of on next-gen.

OPM How did you go about setting up Naughty Dog with Jason Rubin?

Andrew Gavin At the age of 12, I met Jason in class (we were both bored and loved games). Seeing as I was a great programmer and Jason a great artist, an instant partnership was formed. We sold our first title professionally in 1985, at 15. Our company, first called Jam Software, was renamed Naughty Dog by 1989. We made six games before the original Crash Bandicoot.

OPM Crash Bandicoot seems to have lost his marsupial magic over the years. Do you think his games can be revitalised?

AG Crash needs a total reboot. There’s an opportunity to reset the history, and go back to his creation story and the original conflict with Cortex. In that context, you could reprise classic Crash 1 and 2’s settings and villains. It would make sense to use a more modern, free-roaming style. I would concentrate on Looney Tunes-esque animation and really addictive action. That’s what we did with the original Crash, and there’s no reason it couldn’t be done today. Given the current Crash games, people forget that he was once cool. Our Crash had a certain whimsical edge to him. Sure, it was goofy – but it wasn’t dumb.

OPM What do you make of Crash today? Are you sad that he’s gone from PlayStation icon to yesterday’s mascot?

AG I don’t pay much attention to recent Crash games. For me, he’s like the hot high-school girlfriend who put on 50 pounds. I just can’t look. His post-Naughty Dog games fall down not only in being too goofy, but in gameplay and balance. We tried very hard to make every level evenly paced, addictive and engaging. Crash was about being frantic, but at the same time relatively free of frustration – although some of the levels in the original were too hard.

In 1994, Sony didn’t have a mascot. So
we set about creating one on the theory
that maybe we might be able to slide into
that opening. I’m still surprised it worked

OPM What was it about PS1 and Sony that made you feel it was the perfect partner?

AG In 1994, Sony didn’t have a mascot character. So we set about creating one on the theory that maybe we might be able to slide into that opening. I’m still surprised it worked. Ultimately, the relationship with Sony was a really great partnership. Sony is a quality-driven company, and we were a quality-driven studio. We believed in mass-market pulp that through sheer quality rose above its commercial pulp sentiment. This jived well with Sony’s culture, which was driven by high-quality products with the broadest appeal.

OPM What do you think of Uncharted and The Last Of Us?

AG Uncharted is in every way a Naughty Dog series. It follows from, and improves upon, the things we were working on with Crash and Jak And Daxter – it takes them to the next level. For a long time, Naughty Dog games have been about integrating narrative and gameplay. We wanted to draw people into the world and give them a rich story without detracting from a game’s most important quality: fun. Uncharted took this to the next level with storytelling that’s better than a lot of movies, while retaining intense playability. I’m also really excited for The Last of Us, as apocalypses and teen girls who fight are two of my favourite things (in fiction).

OPM What do you think Naughty Dog is capable of on next-gen hardware?

AG I think the studio will just keep taking it to the next level. Uncharted 3 and The Last Of Us already look so good it’s hard to imagine where there is to go. I expect not only will things look even more real, but the machines will have the power to include more enemies on-screen.

OPM You’ve started writing novels. What’s that like?

AG As a serial creator it was interesting how similar writing a novel was to making a game. They’re both very iterative and detail-oriented. My latest novel, Untimed, is about a boy named Charlie, who falls through holes in time. It’s very much in the same broad, fun spirit that characterised Naughty Dog games. Creating the world was very similar to what you do with a game. I had to balance the pros and cons of time travel for my heroes. Novels are about character and dramatic tension, but the fundamental creative process is similar.