From Crash to Drake: The History of Naughty Dog

From Crash to Drake: The History of Naughty Dog
Matthew Hadick
Games
Games

Naughty Dog, the developers behind Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, out today for PlayStation 4, have a very interesting history that begins many years before players were introduced to Nathan Drake in 2007. From their modest beginnings developing games in a garage as JAM Software to the eventual development of blockbusters like Uncharted and The Last of Us, Naughty Dog’s progression is worth a deep dive.

Modest Beginnings

Naughty Dog was born as JAM (“Jason and Andy’s Magic”) Software in 1984. High School students Jason Rubin and Andy Gavin put together a skiing game, called Ski Crazed, for the Apple II in their garage after school. Gavin, it turns out, accidentally deleted the code by overwriting the disks with some bootleg games, so Rubin had to recreate all of Ski Crazed over a single weekend, with Gavin providing various tweaks to make the game run faster. Old school publisher Baudville bought the rights to the game for a mere $250.

JAM Software then worked on a game called Dream Zone, an adventure game for the Apple II that was eventually ported to the Amiga and Atari ST. In Dream Zone, the player becomes trapped in their dreams, trudging through castles, airships, and a variety of dreamscapes to try and escape. The game was well-received, selling upwards of 10,000 copies, and Jam Software was put on the map as a strange little studio run by a pair of high school juniors.

Renaming Conventions

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JAM Software’s aspirations went well beyond the small-distribution world of Baudeville. They developed an RPG called Keef the Thief for Electronic Arts. To differentiate themselves from JAM Software and dissolve their relationship with Baudeville, they renamed themselves to Naughty Dog. Afterward, they created Rings of Power for the Sega Genesis, also published by Electronic Arts. The isometric role-playing game was not well received; Rubin and Gavin, in college at the time, were bankrupt.

Universal Praise

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After the failure of Rings of Power, Naughty Dog began working on Way of the Warrior for the 3DO Interactive Multiplayer. They presented an early build of the game to Mark Cerny of Universal Interactive Studios who was so impressed that he signed the developer on for three additional games. Though the final version of Way of the Warrior ended up being another flop, it seems like Rubin and Gavin finally had the security they needed to comfortably work on a game that would come to define them.

Cerny, who had worked on Sonic the Hedgehog 2 for the Sega Genesis, recommended the pair focus on making a character-driven platformer. They ended up decided to do something in 3D, working on a project they jokingly codenamed “Sonic’s Ass Game,” a reference to the fact that the player had to stare at the main character’s posterior during gameplay. Charles Zembillas and Joe Pearson, a pair of professional cartoonists, were hired on to create the main character.

Crash Bandicoot!

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Zambillas and Pearson drew up a wacky looking Bandicoot — a gangly marsupial native to Australia and New Guinea — with orange fur, wearing a pair of jeans and sneakers. The teamed named him Crash and the game we now know as Crash Bandicoot began to take shape. Naughty Dog presented an unfinished version of the game to Sony Computer Entertainment of America, who signed on to publish it. The game hit the PlayStation in the fall of 1996 and went on to sell a whopping 6.8 million copies. It was clear: Naughty Dog had a hit on their hands. Crash Bandicoot received high praise for its inventive platforming, sense of humor, and vibrant graphics.

Naughty Dog went on to make three additional Crash Bandicoot games. Cortext Strikes Back released the following year, expanding greatly on many of the ideas introduced in its predecessor. Crash Bandicoot: Warped, released in 1998, sold an incredible 7.13 million copies and is considered by many to be the best in the series. The last Crash Bandicoot game Naughty Dog developed before handing the series off to Traveller’s Tales was the Mario Kart-like Crash Team Racing, released in 1999.

Jak and Daxter

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With the release of the PlayStation 2 just around the corner, Naughty Dog wanted to develop games for Sony without being under Universal Interactive Studio’s thumb. Sony ended up buying the studio outright in 2001. Because Universal Interactive owned the rights to Crash Bandicoot, Naughty Dog had to come up with a brand new property. This is where the platforming duo of Jak and Daxter come into play.

Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy, the first game in the series, was a simple platforming game with heavy exploration, and upgrade system, and collectables. The team introduced shooting to the series in Jak II, and that element more or less defined Jak 3 . The series got progressively grittier with each installment and, like with Crash Bandicoot, was eventually handed off to a different developer — this time High Impact Games — so Naughty Dog could focus on another new IP.

Uncharted Territory

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Naughty Dog left the world of cartoon slapstick behind entirely with the release of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune in 2007. The game, which followed the exploits of Nathan Drake, a fast-talking treasure hunter, beautifully married story and gameplay, providing gamers with an incredibly well-polished experience.

Looking back, Uncharted’s pedigree seems obvious. Its seamless blend of platforming and shooting is the direct result of their experience with Jak 3 and, to a lesser extent, Crash Bandicoot, which featured a number of sequences where the controls change suddenly due to the on-screen circumstances. While the story has always been an important part of Naughty Dog’s games, the depth of character in Uncharted was unprecedented. The team only expanded on these qualities in subsequent games, and Uncharted 2 and Uncharted 3 both surpassed the high bar set by the first game. The trilogy was released for the PlayStation 4 in 2015 as Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection, and all three games have aged remarkably well and are still well worth playing.

The Last of Us

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Traditionally focused on a single game at a time, Naughty Dog announced The Last of Us in a surprise move in Dec. 2011. The post-apocalyptic survival horror game followed  Joel, a hardened survivor, as he ventured across the country with a young girl named Ellie. The game received ample praise for its story, level design, and gunplay. While The Last of Us features a number of environmental puzzles, it is definitively more of a combat-oriented experience than Uncharted, requiring the strategic use of its weapons and cover system.

Naughty Dog has teased, but not yet confirmed, a sequel.

Uncharted 4 and Beyond

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Now that Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is finally available, who knows what’s next for Naughty Dog? As the name implies — and based on comments from lead voice actor Nolan North — the game is likely the last Uncharted game Naughty Dog will develop. Perhaps they will use this time to work on a sequel to The Last of Us; maybe they’ll develop an entirely new IP. Only time will tell, but one thing is certain: we’re excited for whatever adventure the intrepid designers at Naughty Dog decide to embark on next.

Matthew Hadick
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