Each person who worked on 2009's Uncharted 2: Among Thieves had their own path to the game. Some had been at Naughty Dog for years, while others were hired mid-development. In the decade since the PlayStation 3 game’s release, people have continued to move around. Some are still at Naughty Dog working on new games, others have gone indie, and others are making Netflix shows.
Uncharted 2 was, in a word, groundbreaking. The environments were detailed to an unprecedented degree, the scope was massive, and it was just generally a fun game to play. Nathan Drake’s search for Shambhala brought him around the world, visiting locales like a palace in Istanbul, a mossy jungle in Borneo, and crowded streets in Nepal. Uncharted 2 was greeted by near-universal praise upon its release, and today its influence can still be seen in almost every triple-A action-adventure.
It was a reestablishment of strength for Naughty Dog, which had just gone through a large amount of changes. Many long-time developers, including founders Jason Rubin and Andy Gavin, had left the company in the years prior. This, combined with the increasingly difficult nature of game creation, meant that Naughty Dog needed a lot of new people. Of the 135 people I researched for this article, over 80 joined between 2006, the year the PlayStation 3 launched, and the release of Uncharted 2.
One of these new hires was Kurt Margenau, who joined as a game designer in 2008 shortly after the release of the first Uncharted. Margenau first started making games as a high school student around 2000. While messing around with Flash games starring his teachers and friends, Margenau realised he liked creating games. He decided to study at Georgia Tech, and there he got an internship working at Electronic Arts on NASCAR 08. Once he graduated, he thought he was ready to do anything.
“I was maybe more cocky than than I should’ve been with how little experience I had,” he said. “I thought I could get a job anywhere, because I had this one internship, and I just heard nothing back from any place.” Eventually he got a job as a web designer, but a few months later was laid off. It was then that a former roommate helped Margenau get a job at the Texas-based game developer Red Fly Studios, working on games like Ghostbusters for the Wii.
Art was the biggest department for Uncharted 2, with 52 people working as some type of artist. The ICE Team works on technology that’s shared with other developers.
A year later, Margenau was recruited by Naughty Dog. He decided to join, and in September 2008 moved to Santa Monica, California. The structure of Naughty Dog is more flat and unstructured than that of most companies, which meant Margenau was very quickly thrown into working on major parts of Uncharted 2. He designed and implemented major setpieces in the game like a collapsing building fight in Nepal.
“It was really awesome to work at this place where so much responsibility was immediately put on me,” he said. Margenau was the first dedicated scripter ever hired at Naughty Dog, but a few months later he was joined by Anthony Newman. After Uncharted 2 released, Margenau continued to work on major moments in Naughty Dog games, including the cargo-plane fight in Uncharted 3 and the prologue of The Last of Us. He became a lead on Uncharted 4 and co-directed the follow-up Uncharted: The Lost Legacy. Currently, he works as director of The Last of Us Part II, sharing the title with Newman.
Another person who joined Naughty Dog in the PS3 era was programmer John “Cowboy” Bellomy. He doesn’t herd cattle, but he is good at wrangling efficient code. He got the nickname in college, which was also when Bellomy got an internship at game developer Spark Unlimited.
Once he graduated, Bellomy roamed around at a few companies. While working at game developer Climax in 2006, Bellomy was encouraged by his friend Marshall Robin, who he worked with at Spark, to apply at Naughty Dog. After going through a series of “nerve-wracking” tests, he got an offer to join—just in the nick of time, as it turned out. “The office of Climax was about a block away from Naughty Dog at the time,” Bellomy said. “I walked over, accepted the offer, walked back to my desk and told them ‘Hey, this is my 2 weeks.’ The very next morning, Climax announced they were laying off that studio.”
Bellomy worked on the first Uncharted, a game he said didn’t reach its full technical potential. It was the first game Naughty Dog developed for the PS3, a notoriously complex console to program, and many ideas weren’t used in optimal ways. When work began on the sequel, Bellomy had a greater understanding of what to do and the groundwork was already done. A hundred palm trees could now animate in the wind without putting too much stress on the system. “We really could start to achieve the world density that makes the environment feel like a lived-in, breathing space,” he said. Since Uncharted 2, Bellomy has continued to work as a programmer at Naughty Dog, and on the side does things like write USB drivers allowing PS3 fight sticks to be used on PS4.
While Bellomy and Margenau have stayed at Naughty Dog, some have left and come back. Mike Hourihan, who worked as a dialogue writer on Uncharted 2, knew he wanted to work on games from a young age, but had no idea what part he wanted to play in their creation. Early on, he tried being an artist, an animator, and a coder before eventually getting into music and sound design.
After going to school to study audio, Hourihan had trouble finding a job. With looming student loans, he decided to go into quality assurance and over the next few years worked with Sony, Naughty Dog, and Insomniac testing games. On the first Uncharted, Hourihan worked as a QA lead, where he got to work closely with various project leads like Amy Hennig and Bruce Swanson. Once he finished his contract, Hourihan decided to go back to school. During that time, he also worked as a composer for a Ubisoft fitness game called Gold’s Gym: Cardio Workout. A year into his studies, he got a call saying Naughty Dog was interested in bringing him in for a newly-created role.
Dialogue for a game can be tricky. Besides voicing the script of the story, characters also have to verbally react to the player’s actions in real time. It was Hourihan’s job to make sure the narrative and the systemic dialogue worked together in a way where neither contradicted each other. One of the first levels Hourihan worked on featured Nathan Drake and Tenzin, a Tibetan man who didn’t speak English. “Building a narrative and a relationship with two people that can’t understand each other was such a cool experience,” he said.
Once his work was done, Hourihan left Naughty Dog, heading to Sony Santa Monica to work on God of War III before returning to Naughty Dog soon after that game shipped. He has worked consistently at Naughty Dog since 2012 as part of the dialogue team. When he’s not working, Hourihan re-edits audio for trailers and composes music for fun. “It’s really cathartic a lot of the time,” he said. “There’s something about music. You can express an emotional state in music that you couldn’t express with words.”
People who left Naughty Dog have spread out over the industry, which means there’s a pretty large drop-off after the first 5 games on this list. Most of the games are other first-party Sony games that use technology developed at Naughty Dog.
Erick Pangilinan, who was one of Uncharted 2's art directors, is old-school Naughty Dog. Pangilinan had studied 3D modelling with a goal of joining somewhere like Pixar, but as game consoles shifted to 3D in the mid-90s, he saw an opportunity. After working at Sega of America on a cancelled Sonic The Hedgehog game, he joined Naughty Dog in 1997 when it only employed slightly over a dozen people. As one of the only artists there at the time, Pangilinan helped create much of the art for the later Crash Bandicoot games.
Over the years, Pangilinan moved from being an artist to being a lead, which meant more influence and responsibility on Naughty Dog’s games. The first Uncharted was a shift away from the more cartoony art style that Naughty Dog was known for, which was hard for Pangilinan and others. “We didn’t expect to make a realistic game,” he said. “There were a lot of pitches going around. We were still in denial, so shipping Uncharted 1 was very difficult. I think in Uncharted 2 that was when we got our stride and identity. We basically doubled down on it, and everyone was on board.” Uncharted 2 was also a shift for Pangilinan personally, as he became one of the art directors on that game. While the other director, Robh Ruppel, focused with concept art, Pangilinan primarily worked on the modelling and production side.
While Pangilinan is still with Naughty Dog, Ruppel left in 2016, and since has worked on films like Spider-Man Into The Spider-Verse. In all, around 60 percent of Uncharted 2’s team have since left the company.
Some just needed a break. Working at a video game developer, especially one the size of Naughty Dog, can be very time-intensive. Game director Bruce Straley went on sabbatical after finishing Uncharted 4 before deciding to permanently leave. Game Designer Junki Saita also left Naughty Dog around that time, and said on Twitter, “Every now and then I have moments where I miss the day to day of #gamedev and #design...but then in the next moment I find myself in a park watching, as my daughter giggles as she makes new friends and remember, all that other stuff can wait.”
Others, like lighting artist Omar Gatica, joined nearby big studios. Like Erick Pangilinan, Gatica had started out wanting to work on films. The first few years of his career, Gatica bounced around a bit, working on everything from commercials to cinematics at companies like NCSoft and Activision. In 2007 he was recruited by Naughty Dog, and after getting a good offer, decided to join. Naughty Dog was “one of the first studios that actually had dedicated lighters,” Gatica said. “A lot of studios, even to this day, have that kind of ambiguous role where they have some artists who are good at lighting and they do double duty.”
A few years into working at Naughty Dog, Gatica found out that game developer Neversoft was starting a lighting department for Call of Duty, and joined them in 2011. He liked the more “rock and roll” style at Neversoft, but in 2014 it closed and merged with Infinity Ward. “I feel very fortunate I was able to have that experience and be a part of that studio, even if it was for the last few years,” he said. Gatica still works at Infinity Ward, where Uncharted 2 editor Taylor Kurosaki (now narrative director) and game designer Jacob Minkoff (now designer director) also work.
Multiple people have also gone to Riot Games, which at one point was across the street from Naughty Dog. When Hong Ly joined Naughty Dog in 2008, he already had a fairly long history in games, working at companies including THQ, NCSoft, and Spark Unlimited. On Uncharted 2, Ly worked on designing characters including the Shambala guardians in Nepal. After a year of working on Uncharted 4, Ly moved to Riot, wanting something different after “six years of designing jeans and T-shirts.” Besides working on games, Ly also teaches and runs a model reference website.
While Uncharted 2 lead character technical director Judd Simantov also does work with Riot, he is officially an independent contractor. Born and raised in South Africa, Simantov got his start working at a small effects company with no intention of working on games. An open-source muscle system for animation he started in 2004 attracted the attention of Naughty Dog, who wanted to make more realistically-moving characters. Simantov decided to join, and moved across the world to California that year.
Once he got to Naughty Dog, Simintov got to work designing pipelines for development on the first Uncharted. He continued to work as a character TD until 2011 when he moved back to South Africa. “I missed home,” he said. After moving back, he continued to work on The Last of Us, and since then has worked as an indepedent contractor for companies like Valve, Epic, and Blizzard. Simantov now works primarily with Riot. Besides occasional trips to Riot’s office in Los Angeles, he works entirely from home. With two children, Simantov wants to be able to spend the most time with his family. “When you’re an independent contractor you basically do the work, you deliver it, and then the rest of the time is yours. That part of it for me massively outweighs anything else,” he said.
Keith Guerrette, who was a particle artist on Uncharted 2, also decided to go freelance. Raised as an army brat who frequently moved around, video games were important to a young Guerrette. Not only were they a way to entertain himself on long rides, they were also a way to connect with new people. After starting to learn computer art, he fell in love with creating beauty under technical challenges. “You’re not just painting. You also have to figure out how to make it work,” he said.
Guerrette studied and taught visual effects at Full Sail University before joining High Moon Studios in 2006, working on games like The Bourne Conspiracy In 2008, he started looking for another job, and Naughty Dog was in need of his talents. “The effects department from Uncharted 1 was very scattered and spread out across a lot of different people,” he said. “The old effects artist who had worked on Uncharted 1 had left just left the company, so they didn’t have anybody there.”
After working on Uncharted 2, Guerrette became the lead on visual effects for Uncharted 3. After a few years he wanted to explore more of the industry, and in 2014 left to go freelance. Guerrette founded Beyond FX in 2017 with people including Uncharted 2 particle artist Mike Dudley. Beyond has worked with companies including Naughty Dog, Visceral, and Giant Sparrow with the goal of spreading technical knowledge around the industry.
While most of Uncharted 2’s staff continue to work on big games, others like game designer Lucas Pope moved to smaller, more personal games. Pope started working on Quake mods making more experimental games before joining small studios. Making games like Gearhead Garage, a car repair game, Pope learned how to do a lot, working on design, programming, audio, art, and more.
When he joined Naughty Dog in 2007, he used those skills to make various tools that made development easier. “It was common to have this really difficult thing and just give it to the artist or the designers and just have them figure it out themselves,” he said. “They would always do it, but I thought, this is the kind of job a computer is perfect for, so I’ll just build this in.” The level design tool he made, Charter, is still in use today at Naughty Dog, he said.
Most of the Uncharted 2 team members that left the games industry are working on films. Some are at tech companies like Google, Apple, and Tesla. A few have even worked as illustrators for children’s books.
After Uncharted 2 shipped, Pope decided to go back to making the experimental games he got started with. He moved to Japan, closer to the family of his wife, fellow developer Keiko Ishizaka. In 2013, Pope released the critically-acclaimed Papers, Please. He has continued to make small games, and in 2018 put out Return of the Obra Dinn, which won grand prize at the Independent Game Festival Awards.
A few Uncharted 2 staffers, like lead environmental artist Teagan Morrison, have left the games industry completely. Morrison, born in the UK, got his start making websites before moving to making 3D art and selling it online. Naughty Dog was a “dream job” for Morrison but he couldn’t legally work in the United States yet. The day his family got a green card, he sent in an application. After working constantly for two weeks on an environment test and going through interviews in which he was “sweating buckets,” Morrison was hired in 2006.
After working as an environment artist on the first Uncharted, Morrison was made a lead for the sequel. He later became a lead technical artist, where he helped manage the vast amount of artists at Naughty Dog. Once Uncharted 4 released, Morrison decided to leave and help start Sky Castle Studios, which makes products like Hero Forge, a custom miniature service.
Film and television have also attracted multiple people from Naughty Dog. Justin Richmond, game designer for Uncharted 2 and director of 3, co-founded the multi-media company Wonderstorm and co-created the Netflix show The Dragon Prince. Another person to go into film was concept artist Andrew Kim. Kim got his start working at game developer Pandemic in 2002, but jumped between films and games over the next few years. Near the end of his work as a concept artist on God of War 3, Kim’s friend Hong Ly told him Naughty Dog was hiring, and in 2008 he joined.
After a few years, towards the end of development of Uncharted 3, another friend told him Marvel was looking for concept artists for its movies. “It was one of those opportunities I couldn’t resist,” he said. Kim worked as a senior concept artist for almost 3 years. After having a fourth child in 2014, Kim left and went freelance. Since then he has worked on various projects, including working as a freelancer on Uncharted 4, and on television shows like Star Trek: Discovery.
While this article focused on Uncharted 2, these kinds of stories can be seen across the games industry. Thousands and thousands of people work hard to make the games we play, and every one has their own story.
Forest Lassman is a writer from Kansas. He didn’t learn to tie his shoes until high school.
Featured image: Sony