"When it comes to multiplayer, everyone's opinion is valid," Cogburn says. "I don't like the way this gun feels. Okay, tell me why. I love the way the gun felt. Alright, tell me why. To find that grey is such a black art, and I'm still working on it right now."
With the Uncharted 3 beta now available to the public, there must be an awfully long line forming at this particular Naughty Dog desk. Thanks to a data collection and filtering system, devised by the programmers and company co-president Christophe Balestra, Cogburn and the team can eavesdrop on every match and single out the topics they're most interested in.
"Everything from weapon accuracy, to what type of weapon [players] were killed with, what boosters do they usually use, what combinations of boosters with medal kickbacks did they use," Cogburn explains. Every facet of multiplayer is up for discussion, whether it's the accuracy of an individual weapon, or the special perks enabled by the points-driven progression system that ties every battle to the next.
Here's an example of some of the questions running through Robert's mind: "I'm really interested to see if people pick the 'Endurance' booster, which lets you run longer, over 'Weapon Expert,' which lets you add another mod. Because, if I can run longer, that means I can run to my Uzi and tag you." If you spend a minute mulling over which load-out to take into battle, know that Naughty Dog is just as curious to find out where your preferences land.
I can adjust everything from player run speed, to the wobble of the gun when you shoot, to the zoom that occurs when you go in, to how much damage [you take] -- whether on the feet, the legs or the chest. - Naughty Dog Game Designer Robert Cogburn
Cogburn is looking for "reasonable arguments" from the community to form within the flood of feedback, and can respond through an array of granular adjustments on his side of Uncharted 3. "Oh, man, we have so many knobs. I can adjust everything from player run speed, to the wobble of the gun when you shoot, to the zoom that occurs when you go in, to how much damage [you take] -- whether on the feet, the legs or the chest," he says. "I have all sorts of knobs that I can play with all the time."
A public beta is the beginning of a debate: the game designer who should know best, versus the players who might know better en masse. Naughty Dog is confident that necessary changes unearthed by the community will be minor, and willing to rethink larger mechanisms if the incoming data demands it. It may lack the Hollywood framing and thrills found in the single-player campaign (which now has a larger team dedicated to it than Uncharted 2 had), but the story emerging from the numbers is worth pursuing. There are arguments to be settled, for and against firing rates, reload speeds and recoil. "We'll get those numbers and do what we gotta do," Cogburn says.
That isn't to say there isn't some old-fashioned, Hollywood-style storytelling happening in the game's multiplayer modes. Some maps borrow a few roller coasters from Drake's single-player adventures -- and those are hard enough to get right when it's just one guy. "The cinematic set pieces, yeah," Cogburn says with a smile and shake of his head. "For the record, they're a real bitch to do."
Whereas Uncharted 2 extrapolated its multiplayer offerings from Drake's shoot-and-scurry tactics, Uncharted 3 pulls in the hero's habit of initiating or escaping from preposterous, flagrantly expensive action sequences. "You know, we really wanted to try to bring that adventure feeling into the multiplayer experiences as often as we could," says Cogburn. One of these extravagant mini-stories spreads the online firefight across several vehicles, hurtling across an airport runway in pursuit of an escaping cargo plane. "So, we have a lot of events like that in our maps, as long as it fits within the tone of the map," he says. "You look at Chateau, which is our other competitive map, and it just has a collapsing floor, and it changes up the gameplay space. It's not on par with like a helicopter or a plane coming in to blow shit up, so we do keep the cinematic pieces in tone with the setting."
These aren't going to make Naughty Dog's job of balancing and bug squashing any easier, and they're just one part of the beta's extensive report. Zooming all the way out from what the game feels like moment-to-moment, Cogburn is also considerate of how players navigate the various co-op, deathmatch and objective-based modes. Modern multiplayer games seem intent on fighting for attention on two fronts, and can attempt to enslave with levels and perks rather than engage players on the ground. Is it just a question of balance?
"I think if you can find a game type you enjoy, and be able to understand how you can rank within that game type, getting the medals and such, you don't really become a slave to unlocking stuff, per se, but it's always nice to have that carrot in front of you and know how to get to that carrot," Cogburn says. "Yeah, hopefully people don't become slaves. I don't want that to happen. It'll weigh heavily on my conscience!"
And the man won't be able to sleep if he doesn't get that sniper rifle just right.