The Secret is out – A chat with Secret 6 and the experience of working with Naughty Dog

After a long wait, The Last of Us Part II is finally out. To some, a masterpiece. To others, a follow up that does not do justice to the first. Whichever side of the fence you are on, one thing is for certain, you cannot deny that the latest offering is a technical triumph. From the sound design to the creative direction of the game, everything is carefully crafted by a team of talented individuals that have worked hard to bring you a supremely polished product.

One of these teams is a Philippine based studio that goes by the name of Secret 6. You may have heard of them as the studio behind the upcoming FPS game Project Xandata, but did you know that these guys (and gals) have worked on some very well known titles like Shadow of the Tomb Raider and Uncharted: The Lost Legacy? Now, another feather on their cap with The Last of Us Part II.

We got in touch with Almira San Juan, or AJ as she is called by her peers, to talk a bit about the experience of working on a project as prestigious as The Last of Us 2, is she #TeamAbby or #TeamEllie, and other questions that hopefully put her on the spot to maybe spill a few secrets…

Spoiler Warning – A part of the interview will touch on a certain section of the story that may spoil the game for those who haven’t played it yet.

OMG: Hi AJ! Thanks for taking the time to sit down and answer a few questions with us. First of all, congratulations on finally launching The Last of Us Part II! I know it has been tough, but before we get to that, could you introduce yourself and let us know what projects you have worked on and are currently working on at the moment? *wink wink*

AJ: Hello, I’m AJ, a 3D Artist at Secret 6 and I’ll be speaking on behalf of our team. Secret 6 is a game dev studio located in Manila, San Francisco and Madrid. We’ve worked with some of the most recognized international game studios in producing high quality AAA assets. We also provide 2D art and game development services, and we are also currently producing our own FPS game, Project Xandata.

Our team has contributed to a lot of other productions prior to The Last of Us Part II, including Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Just Cause 4, Rage and Sony’s VR game Blood and Truth. And no, we cannot disclose information on current work. Just as our studio name suggests, that’s a Secret.

OMG: It was worth a try. As the studio from the PH tasked to work on The Last of Us Part II, how did it feel that the team got tapped as a resource to work on such a prestigious project? Can you share some of the chatter and excitement within the team when you first heard of the news?

AJ: Our team felt very honored because we knew this was a highly anticipated game, not to mention the fact that we get to work with Naughty Dog again. We were excited to learn new pipelines, given that Naughty Dog will be pushing for new heights in terms of visual quality, and of course we were curious to play Part II.

OMG: It must have felt intimidating to say the least! Did you ever get to interact with any of the other Naughty Dog employees like Neil Druckmann, Anthony Newmann, Haley Gross, and others?

AJ: Since we focus mainly on art assets, our communications and connections are just with Erick and his team.

OMG: Speaking of Erick Pangilinan, who is the creative director of the project, how was it working with Erick? Did he visit regularly to check up on work and motivate the team? Was he a very hands on leader?

AJ: Erick normally visits once the game is finished and is accompanied by key Naughty Dog leads who worked with us during production. The purpose of these visits are to discuss certain production points with our team, and highlight key assets we contributed to. He also likes to meet the artists face-to-face and is known to individually commend an artist’s work. He also brings the team some game merchandise goodies, which everyone loves. Erick is very hands on and regularly communicates with us during the development of key assets, providing further insight on the artistic vision to be achieved. It’s very much his drive and attention to detail that continues to push the quality art bar that Naughty Dog games are renowned for.

OMG: Are you allowed to say which parts of the game you worked on and how long did you guys take to work on it? How tough and challenging was it, seeing as the game looks really, really good?

AJ: Our team worked mainly on the environment of the game: props, buildings, some of which you will be able to interact with in game. Our work on TLOU2 started around the end of 2016, so you can expect how much work we did in the span of nearly 4 years! It is challenging to match the benchmark Naughty Dog is expecting of us, but that’s what makes it more worth it. We get to do high quality work and learn a lot from their feedback, so it was definitely a good learning experience for the whole team.

OMG: Learning from one of the best in the industry is definitely good motivation! Working on the game is pretty tricky, since you might know details about the story beforehand. Did any of you know or have any background about the game while you were working on it? Like did you know how the story would flow or what would happen?

AJ: We were not that privy regarding the flow of the story or how chapter 2 will unfold. We don’t want spoilers ourselves until we see the whole game. We just made some guesses based on the assets we’re making, but as a whole, we want to wait till the game is released. Naughty Dog just instructs us if we were working on cinematic pieces or hero assets but generally and rightly so, the story is a very well guarded secret.

OMG: Can you share a particularly funny story that you and the rest of the team encountered during production, like maybe pushing a wrong asset into the game or something like that?

AJ: Well, we’re not really allowed to push a wrong asset into the game.

We have quite a number of funny moments though. For example, when certain artists’ assets keep on coming back for revisions and then finally gets approved, we tease the person “Naka-graduate ka na din sa wakas!”

Another one is that we have this statue prop for the theatre scene, looks a bit like an Oscar statuette but bigger. When we got the feedback from Tim Williams, one of the people who checks our work, his message reads “…and the Oscar goes to” when he sent the asset to the next person in charge.

We also had this incident when we were working on a big head prop again for the theatre scene and the theatre level then was running a little bit late. So Tim Williams said in his feedback, “I know the level is a little bit behind, but here’s your chance to get a head” in reference to the asset. It’s a small thing, but great to know that the Naughty Dog peeps have a nice sense of humor which helps brighten up our day.

And you should see the concept team when they come up with funny expressions or silly faces for the humans in the game!

OMG: Have you played the game already? What were your initial thoughts and impressions upon seeing the hard work that the team did for the game?

AJ: I’m already done playing the game! I’m actually planning another run on hard mode this time. Of course, I went asset hunting immediately during my playthrough, exploring every nook and cranny of the environment. It’s actually very exciting to see where our assets were placed, and I think that all of our efforts are worth it and I’m very grateful that we’ve been a part of this.

OMG: Speaking of asset hunting, were you allowed to place any easter eggs in the game? Like maybe a poster in the background with a Secret6 logo or something to that effect? Also, do you go around telling your friends “Hey look I was the one who did that!”?

AJ: Yes! We can’t say which ones specifically though, but it involved some caricatures of artists from our team, their pets, and a baby! And the feeling of having these immortalized in the game is priceless.

OMG: Since you’ve played the game, I have to ask… #TeamAbby or #TeamEllie? Also can you share with us your favorite scene or event in the game? The space shuttle flashback, maybe? Also, did you shed a tear or two while playing?

AJ: #TeamEllie! My favorite was the Museum chapter, a little bit of flashback when Ellie was a bit younger. Also I got to see Joel again. It was so sweet of him to bring Ellie somewhere she wished to go and she got to go there during her birthday, of all days! That scene reminded me of how of a father figure Joel is – He pushes her in the water to help her overcome her fear, he brings her to some special place during a special event in her life and he teaches her how to appreciate things during the space shuttle scene.

There are a lot of sad scenes in this game, shedding a tear does not even bring it justice. I also like that there’s an Abby campaign to the game. It puts the player to the shoes of the person on the other side of the story, helping them understand why she did what she had to do.

OMG: You’ve obviously worked on a lot of games in your career, some bigger than others. Is there any dream project you’d like to work on?

AJ: When I applied to Secret 6, during my interview, I told my boss that I’m very interested in Tomb Raider. Little did I know that Shadow of the Tomb Raider would be the first project I got to work on when I was hired, so yeah that was quite the pleasant surprise!

OMG: To any aspiring artists or even game dev hopefuls out there, what can you say to them to support their dreams of joining the industry?

AJ: Many of my teammates, including me, have played ND games throughout our college days and to us, getting to work on these titles seemed just like a dream. In that context, it’s satisfying for our dreams to become a reality and have our names appear in the credits.

The game dev industry in the Philippines is still growing and we are a tight knit community so if any aspiring artist wants to join, we can easily help each other. You can start building your portfolio at Art Station or look for inspiration there. You can also join Ten Thousand Hours on Facebook, as there are a lot of artists who post WIPs and final outputs of their works.

Most of what I’ve learned about being a 3D artist in game dev, I learned when I was already in the industry. I did a lot of self study. If anything, I wished that I had a proper mentor when I was still in college, which is why I decided to give back and be a part time faculty member at Benilde, because I want the future generation of artists to have a better shot at entering the industry. If you want to be a 3D artist and don’t know where to start, you can start your journey by being my student and hopefully, we can turn some dreams into reality.

For more information about Secret6 and the work they do, you can check out their website. Special mention to Jam Ancheta and Regina Supapo for making this happen.

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