We’re all – more or less – familiar with several of the classic Naughty Dog titles: perhaps the original Crash Bandicoot or, years later, Uncharted or even The Last of Us. But, chances are, not everyone is aware of the software house being around years before their smash hit on PlayStation even came out. But what led up to Naughty Dog getting their big break?
Jason Rubin and Andy Gavin met as kids, brought together by their common love of computers and video games; as little more than teenagers, they had already been programming for a while. In the 80s, the biggest obstacle to becoming an experienced programmer was information availability. While there were some books available, not only were they expensive, but usually they were of little help for solving specific doubts and problems. As a slight shortcut to becoming better programmers, Jason and Andy decided to start copying other games, among them Nintendo classics like Punch-out. Pretty soon, the duo decided to move on to their first original title, an educational math software, developed with what, considering the hardships they had conquered, felt like magic. Hence, the original name of their software house: Jam Software (Jason and Andy’s Magic). This was 1984.
After their first title, they felt the time was right to start working on video games. It was actually by hacking Electronic Arts’ Pinball Construction Set on Apple II that the two young kids made significant progress in their programming abilities and, for their next project, they were ready for something bigger and better. Their first video game was Ski Stud, a skiing simulation with a comedic theme, that they pitched to small publisher Baudville. After changing the title to the slightly more palatable Ski Crazed, the publisher released it for Apple II. While not making much of an impact sales-wise (1500 copies were sold), for Jason and Andy it was the first step in the direction they wanted.
Their second game, still developed for Baudville, ended up being the semi-textual adventure Dream Zone, released on both Apple II and Amiga. The narrative was built around the idea of a surreal journey into one’s own dreams, with a graphical Wizard of Oz shift from black and white digitized photos to color, upon entering the aforementioned dream zone. The game was met with mostly positive praise by the press, except for Zzap! Magazine that called it “mediocre and uninteresting”, going on to sell slightly better than its predecessor, in the realm of 10k copies. Still, that wasn’t enough for the two sixteen-year-olds of Jam Software: they had dreams of being bigger, of wanting to be the best. A small local publisher couldn’t really get them any closer to making that dream into reality.
In the end, Jason and Andy decided to phone Electronic Arts. For as much bravado as the two showed with taking that chance, it was a bet that paid off: CEO Trip Hawkins ended up signing them up almost immediately as soon as he saw their work on Dream Zone. Indeed, it was while working for EA that Jam software morphed into Naughty Dog, even though the two don’t remember why they chose that name: legend says it was inspired by Morgan, Jason’s dog.
Their third title, RPG Keef the Thief, was released for Amiga, Apple II and MS-DOS in 1989, registering decent sale numbers, while also being met with pretty much unanimous positive praise. Despite using an interface pretty similar to that of Dream Zone, Andy and Jason added several new systems, among them an interesting, if not a bit baroque, first-person real-time battle system.
But soon after release, Gavin and Rubin realized they were losing creative control of their projects. EA was hell-bent on making sure the writing of Keef the Thief was going to be funny, so much so that a comedian was hired to write the dialogue, which both Rubin and Gavin recall being “an odd kind of humor”. After the release, the publisher admitted that the comedic tone was a bad idea, which the duo remember feeling quite frustrated about. Nevertheless, the two pitched to EA another project, which was going to be their biggest and most expensive to develop yet (150.000 $ budget): an open-world RPG, codenamed Bucaneer.
Bucaneer, which would eventually see life as Rings of Power, was a crucial step in Naughty Dog’s overall history, along with influencing their later ethos. The two were now in college and had to work remotely, which at the time meant transferring files over painfully slow modem transfer rates. Development first started on PC, which made sense for Rings’ overall scope and open-world nature but was finally released in 1991 for Sega Genesis/Mega Drive.
To EA’s insistence, they shifted development to the 16bit Sega console, since that – according to the publisher – seemed to ensure better sales than home computers. For Andy and Jason, this meant crunching a pretty big open-world RPG into a rather small 8 Meg cartridge, which caused Rings of Power to run comparatively slow to the few other RPGs on the Sega console. The two recall working for six months alone on the map, designing one block at a time and, without a doubt, such care is evident in the finished product.
Rings of Power ended up, also, being the breaking point with Electronic Arts: the publisher told Naughty Dog that, even though RPG was sold out, there wasn’t going to be a reprint. Apparently, the first John Madden Football was selling slightly better than Naughty Dog’s game, while also being cheaper to produce, since the cartridge didn’t need to save RAM. After another disappointing conclusion to a successful release, the two decided to take a short break from game development.
Even though Rings of Power wasn’t positively received by critics, being released together with EA’s Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday RPG surely did it no favors, the title has since gone on to earn something of a cult status and has a solid base of fans (myself included). Jason Rubin would go on saying “Rings of Power was probably our last pure game. After Rings, we tried to make the broadest number of people happy, rather than focusing on what we wanted to play ourselves.”
Years later, after Rubin started working on the new 3D technology, they get a call from Trip Hawkins looking for developers interested to work on CD games for his new 3DO console. After being burned by the problems related to the cartridge-based consoles, the two felt that CDs paved the way for the future. They were tired of having to go through an approval process for everything they did and wrote, thus started working on a self-financed fighting game.
There are many incredible stories about the development of the Mortal Kombat-inspired Way of the Warrior, among them that Jason and Andy burned through the money they made in the past, being forced to sell most of their personal properties in order to avoid starving. The characters digitized in the game were actually their family and friends, since the two could not even afford to pay anyone to act in front of a green screen. In the end, they miraculously managed to complete development and got a publishing deal from Universal.
Way of the Warrior was the first title developed by Naughty Dog to be met with mostly mediocre reviews and poor sales, then again the 3DO was on its last legs at the time. Luckily – Jason mentions – the two decided to not lend themselves exclusively for Trip Hawkins’ company but instead agreed to stay on with Universal and work on a follow-up project with full creative freedom. After a long drive to reach California, the two had already planned the idea that would, eventually, turn out to be the start of an all-new career and the first title in the Crash Bandicoot franchise.
Naughty Dog’s early career history is still quite an interesting tale, in that not only involves a couple of games that have aged curiously well, among them Rings of Power, but also showed the incredible dedication the two had in improving their craft and pushing the limits of technology every step of the way. Perhaps showing a bit of arrogance in their early years, but the duo soon managed to show the world that such bravado was totally justified. Even after leaving Naughty Dog in 2004, Jason Rubin and Andy Gavin’s ethos and way of working still seem to drive the software house forward to even bigger and better things.