But Insomniac Games has only one master: itself. And when I went to its office in Burbank, California to speak to the who’s who of the studio, this is something that was impressed upon me. Sure, Insomniac Games owes its popularity and success to a relationship with Sony that has spanned the better part of two decades. But the heads of the studio are looking to a future that isn’t dominated by exclusivity, but rather by controlling their own destiny as the industry continues to rapidly evolve.
Of course, before talking about the future, it’s important to know about the past. And that’s where this history of Insomniac Games – easily the most in-depth ever written – comes in.
With Price, Hastings, Hastings’ brother Brian and a few others, the fledgling developer had its eyes set on its first project, a PSone game that would be known as Disruptor. But it also had to create a literal name for itself, and Insomniac was an afterthought. Three early ideas were Outzone, Planet X and Xtreme Software. In fact, the studio originally incorporated as Xtreme on that fateful February day in 1994. But in 1995, when the crew first went to E3 to show off Disruptor, Price said they ran into what ended up being a serendipitous naming snag.
“We needed a name because we had found out that a database company already had the name Xtreme Software, and they’d sent us a letter, because I guess they had found out about us through, maybe, a name search or something," Price said. "We freaked, because we were on the verge of announcing our very first game. So we had this board where everybody in the company at the time just wrote down lots of different names.”
Hastings elaborated on the situation. “I think I was pushing for something called The Resistance Incorporated, because it had irony in it or something, like an incorporated resistance.” He even remembers that his brother came up with another strange name, Moon Turtle. But for him, anything was better than what they were known as at the time. “We were flying under the label of Xtreme Software for a while, which I wish could be stricken from the record.”
“I mean, it was the early ‘90s. People made mistakes,” Hastings said, laughing.
“We brainstormed a lot of stuff. I think we were all going in different directions. Insomniac was one of Ted’s ideas. Part of it was it was just the first one that cleared legal. It wasn’t really our first choice.”
And thus, Insomniac Games was born.
“Doom was the only inspiration for Disruptor,” Price admitted. “I was a big Doom fan… the roots [of the game] were really in the excitement that all of us had experienced the first time we played Doom. For a lot of us, it’s hard to remember back that far, but when Doom came out, it was a mind-blowing game. It was incredible how [id Software] transformed the industry with that game.” Insomniac hoped to leverage that excitement – and the excitement the gaming community as a whole felt regarding Doom – with a Doom clone, the likes of which flooded the market at the time.
“We didn’t know what we were doing,” Hastings told me bluntly. “None of us had any experience. We happened to come in at a good time in the industry when a lot of people didn’t know what they were doing. Going to 3D. It was the end of the 8-bit platforms and the start of something new. Nobody really had a firm grasp on it at that point. I think we were pretty lucky to parachute in at that particular time. But yeah, doing a sort of Doom clone, it felt doable.”
Hastings told me more. “We started on 3DO, because… I guess when we were starting, it was before anybody like us could get our hands on a Sony dev kit. I don’t even know if they were out or not. But the 3DO, they were pushing it to anyone who wanted it. At the time, I think a lot of people thought it might succeed. I don’t think we were alone in our naiveté. But pretty soon, maybe halfway through [development], it became clear that 3DO was just never going to be viable. It was about that same time that Sony and SEGA were putting out the alternatives,” in the form of PlayStation and Saturn, respectively.
The final impetus to move off of 3DO and onto PlayStation came at the behest of a man named Mark Cerny, a name you hear over and over again when talking to the old guard at Insomniac. Cerny is a prolific designer and producer in the industry with roots in both the SEGA and PlayStation camps. And while he worked on classic Genesis games like Sonic 2, Cerny is probably best known for his relationships with Naughty Dog and Insomniac, working on major franchises like Spyro, Crash Bandicoot, Jak & Daxter and Ratchet & Clank. Disruptor was the first of many PlayStation exclusives he would help cultivate and bring to fruition.
At the time of Disruptor, Cerny was the Executive Producer of Universal Interactive Studios. In fact, when Price and Hastings were shopping their Doom clone to various publishers, Cerny was the one who saw the potential not only in their game, but in their studio. “Universal was the last place that we visited. It was kind of our last shot,” Price said. “Ironically, or interestingly, I believe we were there the same day that the Naughty Dog guys were” showing off Way of the Warrior.
Cerny picked up Disruptor on behalf of Universal, and his exceptionally important relationship with Insomniac was set. “Mark is a really hands-on guy,” Price continued later. “He gave us a lot of fantastic advice on production and how it works. He also did a lot of the level designs for our early games. Just jumped in and was actually doing maps. I feel like he is a mentor. He’s been a mentor for me, in terms of teaching me what good game design is.” Cerny worked on and advised virtually every Insomniac project from that point forward, stopping with Resistance 2, which launched on PlayStation 3 in 2008.
With 3DO failing, Universal – with Cerny at the fore – told Insomniac that they were “a little worried about the sales for [Disruptor] if it’s on 3DO. We’d recommend that you switch over to PlayStation. And Al, in a matter of a month, completely converted our engine to run on PlayStation. It was brilliant. That was it. That was our big switch,” Price said.
Disruptor ended up launching on the PlayStation in November of 1996, just in time for the holiday season. And the legacy of the game internally at Insomniac is mixed, looked at more as a teaching tool than anything else. “I think, for us, it was our training wheels,” Price said, reflecting on his first game. “We’re fortunate to have a game like Disruptor, where we learned a lot of hard lessons about production early. We learned about good level design from guys like Mark Cerny and Michael John… We learned a lot more about what turns us on as developers.”
The reception of the game amongst other developers was positive. Price recounted an episode at GDC that’s still embedded in his mind to this day. Insomniac was recruiting for new employees at the show after having released Disruptor. And the game was at their booth. Doom co-creator John Romero visited Insomniac’s booth that day with some of his friends, and he saw Disruptor playing on a nearby TV. “Hey, that looks pretty cool,” Romero exclaimed. “Alright! Validation!” Price remarked, recounting the story with a smile on his face.
Hastings has his own thoughts on Disruptor. “I guess I’m a little bit proud [of the game], just because I know what we were starting from and how little we knew about what we were doing with it. I think it held up pretty well at the time. I’ve played it recently. I mean, the worst thing about it at the time and the best thing about it in the long term is how bad the [full motion video] was. This was one of the early times when there was talk of video games and Hollywood coming together and creating synergy… When we went to make some movie footage to tell the story in the game, it was just the most low-budget, terrible thing.”
But the most interesting thing about some of Disruptor’s real-time movie sequences? Catherine Hardwicke, the now-famous director of Twilight, was in charge of production design.
Al Hastings concurred. “When [Disruptor] was done, there was no way we were going back to that. It didn’t seem to have any legs. And we really wanted to do something more lighthearted. It was just one of those pendulum swings, all the way in the other direction, to do Spyro.” The idea of the development “pendulum swing” – of going from one game to another totally unrelated game -- is at the core of Insomniac Games, and something alluded to by most of the people I spoke to.
Mark Cerny decided to push Insomniac in the different direction the minds at the studio were looking for. “You know, there’s a big vacuum in the market right now. Nintendo owns the family market. Nothing on PlayStation comes close to the Nintendo titles. You guys should consider going after a different market. Think about what you might do,” Price recollects Cerny telling him.
Insomniac’s Chief Operating Officer, John Fiorito, told a similar story. He came to the company in 1997, during the development of the original Spyro. After studying architecture and painting, Fiorito settled first at Disney Software and later tried to get a job at Naughty Dog (he never heard back from them) before applying at Insomniac. The first game he worked on there was Spyro, and his recollection of the advent of the franchise is much the same as Price’s.
It was one of Disruptor’s environment artists, Craig Stitt, that hit on the idea that, after some retooling, would ultimately become the PSone’s second most beloved mascot, Spyro. As Fiorito noted, the take on Spyro was initially much more serious than he’d end up, but it quickly took a turn with a more whimsical slant.
Ted Price elaborated. “We discussed the opportunity to create more of a fairy tale world with an anthropomorphic dragon, and at the same time Al [Hastings] was working on a brand-new engine for the PlayStation. Its strength was open worlds, where you could see great distances. That really worked well with this idea that we could have a dragon that flew around or glided. It worked well for a game which would support vistas. Big, open views. That was, at the time, an anomaly. You didn’t see a lot of games on the PlayStation that really took advantage of the hardware in that way.”
Hastings agreed that his engine pushed Insomniac towards making a more open game like Spyro, including its “pastoral, medieval setting.” But for him, it appears that the pursuit of a mascot was only part of the tale. “Just thinking about how to animate a dragon back in those days, how to simulate that. We gotta make this thing basically behave like a little circle, a little sphere, or it’s just going to be a disaster. That was part of the impetus for just sort of cute-ifying it and making it a little baby dragon,” as opposed to something bigger and more menacing.
The team – which was still very small at the time – worked past the concept phase and got a demo of the game up and running. “I remember, in a few cases, we just had a basic plane, a big polygonal plane, Spyro running around, and a couple of simple enemies, where we practiced Spyro’s charge and glide and his flame attacks,” Price recounted. He recalls the team “referencing Mario 64” when making Spyro, “because Mario had such a fluid and responsive move system.”
“The third one is usually where you start doing crazy stuff,” he concluded. “It becomes more of a blur at that point.”
That third game in the series would end up being Insomniac’s last go at Spyro. Year of the Dragon launched right around the time PlayStation 2 came out in the west, in October of 2000. It represented the last of four games Insomniac would publish with Universal, and its swan song on Sony’s original hardware. It also represented the first time Insomniac wouldn’t own the rights to a trilogy of games of considerable significance – due to its relationship with Universal -- even though it designed the character, the world, the lore and more. This – along with future examples of not retaining IP -- would end up resonating with the studio’s leadership in the years to come.
But there was still an appetite to work on more Spyro after Year of the Dragon, at least for some. Creative Director Brian Allgeier, the visionary behind the Ratchet & Clank series who is currently toiling away on his newest creation, Fuse, explained that he wanted to do another Spyro but understood later why others didn’t. “[Year of the Dragon] was really my first big Spyro title,” he said, “so I could have done a few more. It was just a really exciting time. I think, though, a lot of people at the studio, it was their game. Now, after I’ve worked on my third Ratchet game, I know how people felt. You need a change of pace, or you need a change of environment. I think that’s what people were looking for.” And as you’ll find out, their next two projects – both aborted PS2 games – are the direct result of that feeling.
But before moving on to Insomniac’s considerable PlayStation 2 legacy, I had to ask the heads of the company how they felt about Spyro’s newfound popularity by way of Skylanders, a new take on the series created by developer Toys For Bob. The Legend of Spyro trilogy that preceded Skylanders is largely considered a miss, and Spyro seemed long dead. But Toys For Bob revived it for an entirely new generation that never experienced the originals. Does this make the guys at Insomniac happy? Mad? Maybe a little jealous?
Ted Price thinks “It’s cool,” noting that “it’s great that something [Insomniac] created has such staying power. And kudos to Activision for figuring out how to breathe new life into it.”
But it’s John Fiorito that has the most interesting take on Skylanders. “If you’d asked me [how I felt about other developers working on the game] a year ago, I’d probably say something like, ‘Well, look what happened to this stupid franchise. It turned into garbage.’ But clearly someone did something really brilliant with it. I think, doing three games in three years, it was just non-stop. It felt really good to do something different. It’s interesting, because looking back, if they had done the fourth one and they had done this hugely successful game that blew us away, I might feel kind of bad about that. It was pretty easy to leave it behind.”
With that said, Fiorito recounted that he’s been regaled with stories of how much fun people had with Spyro in the past, even between grandparents and their grandkids. So with Skylanders, he admits that he “wish[es] I could have been part of something like it. It’s such a cool idea.” But he admits that “It wouldn’t have worked when we were making Spyro. It’s like the right place at the right time.”
Insomniac's first attempt at a PS2 game was an idea known as Monster Knight. It hailed from 1999, the year Ripto’s Rage was released, but it never got off the ground. The ideas remained on paper, and not even a demo of the game was created. If anything, it was a promising nugget that spoke well to the games dominating the late ‘90s by way of Nintendo: Pokemon and Zelda.
But it’s the latter game – Zelda – that inspired Insomniac’s first true attempt at a PlayStation 2 game, one that they had up and running in demo form before ultimately scrapping it. Ted Price explains how Insomniac approached the new console from a business perspective at the time. “After Spyro, we made the decision to move away from Universal and work directly with Sony. We were in a three-party deal where Universal was the licensor for the creation that we had built, we were the developer, and Sony was the publisher. We felt that things would be a lot smoother, more efficient, with a two-party deal, and more financially beneficial for everybody involved.” Insomniac therefore cut the middle man and its relationship with Sony was thereafter solidified.
Hastings concurs, noting that Girl With A Stick “was an attempt to be a little more serious. It was something kind of Zelda-esque, was I think the theme. The sort of note we were trying to hit.”
Fresh off of the third Spyro game, Brian Allgeier got to work on getting the game together. “I designed a number of prototypes that we did initially. There was one that was fairly successful. We did about four or five prototypes. The one that I worked on that was pretty cool was a massive stone giant that was chasing this girl around. She had a spear. And so she could run to these key power-up spots and then that gave her the ability to throw her spear. She could throw it into weak spots along the giant.”
Allgeier explained that he “designed full maps” for the game and that they’d “worked out a lot of the fiction” for Girl With A Stick, a project Allgeier himself describes as “a cross between Tomb Raider and Zelda.” He explained that “there’s a design bible that’s three inches thick” that still exists for the game. He even recalled initial feedback from Sony regarding the project as extremely positive. But it didn’t remain so for long.
“At a certain point, you could feel the writing was on the wall,” Allgeier said. “This project wasn’t going to survive. I remember doing a lot of minute adjustments on a map and putting the final touches on it, thinking ‘this is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. This is pointless.’”
Ted Price explained, at length, the rise and fall of Girl With A Stick. “We came up, after a lot of brainstorming, with this concept of a girl who has a magical staff and performs katas, martial-arts moves, to generate magic spells. Also, the core gameplay involved just basic combat with the staff. As far as I recall, that was the main thrust, the core mechanics. There wasn’t a whole lot else. We had beast riding and we had giant creatures that you would take down with magic and other abilities that you’d learn. But it was fairly one-dimensional when it came to the mechanics that we were discussing. We were more focused on the world and the characters and the story, which ended up being a mistake.”
“I felt like this was a chance. We really had to push this. It wasn’t because I was particularly passionate about the idea. It’s more that I was passionate about branching out as a company and doing something different. Everything came to a head during the presentation we had with Sony, after months of working on it, where Sony [and] our producers said, ‘We will support what you’re doing. We believe in your guys’ abilities. We believe that you will find your way with this title. However, as it stands now, we’re not sure if it has much of a market. We recommend that you play to your strengths. Maybe consider what you’ve done in the past.’”
Price admits that this was “a big wake-up call” for him, “Because everybody else in the company had been telling me essentially the same thing. I just hadn’t been listening. But hearing it from our producers at Sony was sort of the sledgehammer to the head that I needed. We all huddled and decided to deep-six the game and move on to something else. Within a couple of weeks, Brian Hastings had come up with the core idea, the kernel, for Ratchet [& Clank].”
Brian Allgeier remembers the end of Girl With A Stick well. “At the time [of Girl With A Stick’s demise], I think [Ted Price] would try to sugarcoat things and say, ‘oh, yeah, they’re really excited,’ but then he would also give us some of the hard, cold facts. ‘Well, there’s been discussion about this not being too popular. We’re not getting a lot of momentum here.’ I saw a lot more closed doors with him and Mark Cerny. I think also, with the whole team, you could just feel like we weren’t really getting into it. We weren’t as energized as we were. There wasn’t that laughter in the room.”
“All that stuff starts to add up after a while,” Allgeier concluded. “I don’t think there was one key thing, but you could just feel it in the air.”
“Sometimes, if you have a crisis or something like that, that’s when you do your best,” John Fiorito explained. Brainstorming sessions with all of Insomniac’s employees following Girl With A Stick’s demise quickly brought up the idea of what would become Ratchet & Clank, Insomniac’s most famous and most beloved franchise. “I think if you look at Spyro to Ratchet, it’s a pretty logical transition.”
“I’m a believer in fate,” Price told me. “Things happen for a reason.” The cancellation of Girl With A Stick “was a great lesson for me and a lesson for a lot of us at Insomniac.” It forced the studio to look forward and get things done, even if it was difficult, and even if they had just experienced, in a sense, their first failure as a group. Fiorito expanded on this notion. “Through a very intense sort of R&D prototyping period, we got [Ratchet & Clank]. It really came together fast. We had to do something really fast, and that got rid of the distractions.”
The idea behind the character Ratchet was initially inspired by Marvin the Martian, the famous Looney Tunes alien. “After a lot more brainstorming, he evolved into Ratchet, a furry alien creature who uses weapons and has a robot sidekick,” the latter ultimately named Clank, Price explained. “Within a couple of months, we actually had a prototype of the game up and running with our existing technology,” something executed with the help of Al Hastings’ engine, which already worked beautifully at the time Girl With A Stick was in development.
With Sony’s belief in the studio at an all-time high, Ratchet & Clank’s production swung into full gear. Brian Allgeier, one of the major forces behind Ratchet & Clank’s success, remembers this time fondly. “It was super-exciting. It felt like a breath of fresh air. It just felt like a new wind, a new energy was moving through the office. It was great to get back to doing more mascot-based platform-type games, where our imagination could just run wild. Anything could happen.”
Allgeier also spoke a great deal about the evolution of Ratchet and the tricks the development team had to pull off to get a working proof-of-concept and demo done. “We had to quickly mock up a level, and we did every trick in the book. In the foreground we put in the detail. In the background we put simple cards and geometry. We were working with a still-early engine, and that could render something that would kind of approximate what the final game would look like. We call those ‘dioramas’. You could run around this little foreground area, equip various gadgets, and it really sold the promise of what this franchise was about. It really got people excited.” Once again, “A lot of this was driven by Mark Cerny. He knew how to present things to a publisher, how to get games greenlit.”
Through the trials and tribulations false starts like Monster Knight and especially Girl With A Stick provided, Insomniac got Ratchet & Clank out two years after PlayStation 2 launched, in November 2002. And it was a smash hit that demanded the studio dedicate all of its resources to it for the next few years. Going Commando, Up Your Arsenal and Deadlocked – the other three Ratchet games on PS2 – launched in 2003, 2004 and 2005, almost a year apart from one another, another indicative sign that Insomniac knew how to launch high quality best-selling games rapidly.
As a result of the two companies sharing the same building, Insomniac and Naughty Dog “oftentimes would share a lot of knowledge and, at times, tech,” Allgeier explained. “They’ve almost felt like kind of family to us on some level. We used to go to a lot of parties together with them and hang out.”
Al Hastings told me that the relationship between Naughty Dog and Insomniac grew in importance during the PlayStation 2 era. “The PS2 was great at drawing a lot of poly[gon]s,” he said, jumping into the technical minutiae. “Way more than it really should have for the year it came out. But there was a lot of care and feeding required to get that to work. Just the right sort of microcode to run on these little V1 chips. It wasn’t easy to milk the performance out of it. I think with some help from Naughty Dog, we eventually learned how to do it.” Not surprisingly, Mark Cerny was the conduit between the two companies, helping to cultivate them both.
The competitive nature between the two companies didn’t grow out of the Crash Bandicoot/Spyro era, but more out of the Jak & Daxter/Ratchet & Clank era of PS2. “I remember looking at Jak & Daxter, going, ‘oh my God, we gotta make Ratchet more awesome than this,’” Allgeier recalled. “Then we’d have Ratchet at E3. I remember [Naughty Dog’s co-president] Evan Wells playing through Ratchet 1 and saying, ‘man, this is good.’ Then he went on to make Jak II even more awesome. It always felt like we had this healthy competition, where we were trying to raise the bar for each other. Now, I’m just blown away by what they’re doing. They’ve moved in a different direction, focusing on super-deep, engaging single-player story games like Uncharted and The Last of Us.”
Beyond the PlayStation 2 era where Ratchet & Clank was best-known, the series has persisted. The “Future Trilogy” of games, all on PS3 – Tools of Destruction, Quest For Booty and A Crack in Time – helped push the series into the HD era. And doing so was tough. Brian Allgeier explains.
“We had to rewrite Ratchet. We had to rebuild every single character. We had to rebuild the game. I think [for] most people, most developers, the temptation would be, ‘we’re gonna do Ratchet & Clank 3, except it’s going to be on the PlayStation 3. We’re going to do a PlayStation 2 game, all of the features, and now we’re gonna take it to the PlayStation 3.’ What we had to be smart about was actually saying, ‘we’re gonna make a game that’s about the size of Ratchet & Clank 1 for the PlayStation 2, and we’re going to develop that, except it’s going to have a much richer and deeper storyline, and it’s going to have amazing-looking tech. It’s going to be on par with a Pixar experience.’”
The Ratchet & Clank series persists to this day with the likes of All 4 One and the upcoming PS3/Vita cross-play title Full Frontal Assault. Insomniac’s spin-off studio, located in North Carolina, is in charge of those games. And I spoke to Studio Director Chad Dezern and Studio Production Director Shaun McCabe about their off-shoot’s contribution to Ratchet & Clank, as well as to Insomniac’s legacy and still-unwritten future.
Dezern has been at Insomniac longer, starting right after Spyro shipped in 1998. At the time, he was at Dreamworks Interactive, and he recounted going out for lunch the day Spyro launched to purchase it. “We popped it in our PlayStation and I was just floored by the polish, the playability, the fluidity of the game… As fate would have it, I got a call that same week about an open position at Insomniac, and I just jumped all over it.”
Years later, McCabe and Dezern were tasked with developing an offshoot of Insomniac, but they didn’t quite know the vision for it or how it would fit into the grand scheme of things. Dezern explained. “The simple thing is that we just wanted to make more games. We thought about growing the team in Burbank, but we realized that the team there is at a really good size. If it gets much bigger, communication becomes that much more difficult. Burbank is at a great size where everyone understands what’s going on... People know each other really well. It’s still close-knit. I think there’s something about that magic number, where all those things can still happen.”
“The decision was, do we start another studio and keep it close to Burbank, or do we look for a geographically different location?” Dezern rhetorically asked. “We decided to go with the very different type of location, because it gave us an opportunity to get developers from the east coast who we might not have been able to get otherwise. So we started with a small core of people who were interested in making the move out of southern California, and we went from there.”
Their task wasn’t necessarily to work on Ratchet & Clank, but it’s what they ultimately settled on. “When we chose to do All 4 One with the studio, it was something that made sense,” McCabe said. All 4 One ended up launching on PlayStation 3 in late 2011, and it is perhaps the most controversial Ratchet & Clank game in the series’ extensive 10-year history. Its emphasis on co-op and its new take on what made Ratchet so successful didn’t sit well with many fans.
“But at the same time,” Dezern continued, “we need to try new things from time to time. We understand that not everybody is going to go along with us when we do it, but we certainly hope that our fans give everything a chance and understand that we think about them with everything we do.”
Their hope springs eternal when considering their upcoming Ratchet & Clank title, Full Frontal Assault, which is radically unlike any Ratchet game that came before it. It is, in essence, a tower defense game. Shaun McCabe explained how they came up with such a different sort of idea.
“When we were in pre-production, we were kind of looking back at a couple of levels in Up Your Arsenal, and the Krell Canyon level from A Crack in Time. The levels in Up Your Arsenal were all battlefields. They were larger, a little bit more open, and packed full of player choice. Some of the earliest conversations we had were, how do we make a game that’s kind of battlefield-centric? And, again, the players were making more choices per second than in any Ratchet game that had come before. The base defense stuff grew out of that.” While old Ratchet games relied on “landing on a planet and killing a bunch of enemies that are hanging out in bunkers waiting for them, what happens if the bad guys come after you from time to time?” It’s at this point that Ratchet & Clank: Full Frontal Assault was born.
Dezern expanded on the ideas behind Full Frontal Assault. “We talked a lot about making a ‘small’ title. I say that with ‘small’ in quotes. Making a title that you could play over and over. We didn’t want to make a small title with two or three hours of content that you blow through and never go back to. It was our goal from early on with Full Frontal Assault to make something that was a lot more cyclic, that maintained its interest level for a lot longer than a single playthrough.”
But what does the future hold for Ratchet & Clank in particular, especially with Insomniac’s move away from Sony exclusivity? After all, Ratchet & Clank is yet another IP that Sony, and not Insomniac, owns. Then again, as I walked around the studio, Ratchet & Clank was everywhere. Sure, there’s Resistance here and Spyro there andFuse in another place. But Ratchet & Clank in particular seems to dominate the building’s décor. So I asked Ted Price outright, is Ratchet & Clank this studio’s most important franchise?
“Well, it’s hard,” Price responded. “That’s like picking which of your children is your favorite, right? …We love Ratchet. Outright. We love every franchise that we’ve developed at Insomniac or created at Insomniac. What’s great about Ratchet is that because it has no ties to reality, there are no rules. We can pretty much do whatever we want to with Ratchet.”
I also asked him if there will be more Ratchet & Clank beyond Full Frontal Assault, at least out of Insomniac. “People continue to want to work on Ratchet titles,” he later noted.
Chad Dezern had his own ideas about the future of the series, specifically when asked if he wants his studio to do another game to continue the franchise. “That’s a tough one. We always have ideas. There’s never a shortage of ideas around here. I would say there’s a ton of enthusiasm and affection for the Ratchet series. Despite the fact that a lot of people here have worked on a lot of titles, even back to back, over 10 years now, nobody’s really tired of it yet. There’s a lot there to pull from. But in terms of the future, honestly, I can’t say too much about that right now. I can just say that this is a team that loves its Ratchet & Clank.”
Fiorito seemed to have different ideas about Ratchet, though. I asked him if he wishes Insomniac owned the Ratchet & Clank IP outright. “No, I don’t have another one in me, to be honest,” he answered, chuckling. “Maybe there are some people here who would love to keep doing it… I’m a creative person, and we have a highly creative studio. You want to do new things. You don’t want to get stuck in a rut. Think of bands that had that one hit or that one album and they’re still touring and doing that.”
When I pressed him on if Full Frontal Assault would therefore be the final Ratchet game out of Insomniac, Fiorito paused a while. I said “never say never?” to him, to which he answered, laughing again. “Yeah, it’s fair to hope. Who knows what’s gonna happen? If something really cool came up and there was a great opportunity or a great idea. I would say that about Spyro, too. It’d be cool to try it.”
“I think it’s fair to say that doing nine Ratchets in a row, that takes a lot.”
And how about Brian Allgeier, the force behind the series? “I could certainly see working on a Ratchet title again in the future. I think Ratchet’s got a lot of legs. I think it’s going to be around for a long time. I wouldn’t be surprised if I was working on another Ratchet game somewhere down the line.”
“When we came up with Ratchet, that was in response to a platform transition,” Price explained. “We were thinking about the new audience and what we could do that was different. Same thing with Resistance. We were thinking about PlayStation 3 and what early audiences would be most interested in. Our assumption was the early audience would prefer a more mature title than something like Ratchet. Plus, once again, it was an opportunity for us to branch out and do something different than a platformer.”
Given the opportunity to create a hardware launch title for the first time in their history, Insomniac leapt at the chance. “We knew how much the PS3 was going to cost, which was a shitload of money compared to the PS2. We were thinking about who would probably be buying it at launch. So there were some practical reasons [to go in the direction of Resistance]. We knew we should probably do something that appealed to more mature gamers and people that grew up with us, but who wanted to move beyond that.”
I pressed both Price and Fiorito about if doing more Ratchet – perhaps a Ratchet launch title for PS3 – was considered. “We never abandoned the idea of doing Ratchet again,” Fiorito said. “We were trying to go in parallel and do two franchises. It’s not like we abandoned one to switch to the other. We were trying to grow as a studio and have multiple things going on. We kind of went into that naively, I would say, thinking ‘yeah, we’ll do this new thing, it’ll be a launch title, it’ll be on new hardware.’ All of those things are just brutally hard.” Price reiterated later that Sony was cool with creating a new IP for a new console instead of doing more Ratchet, though the studio revisited its quintessential franchise a mere year later.
Price recalled garnering opinions from Insomniac employees at the time. “We’d just finished Deadlocked, or we were in the process of finishing Deadlocked, and I think that a lot of people here were ready to do something different. I remember asking people all over the company, ‘What do you want to do? Do you want to do another PlayStation 2 game?’ I know Ratchet Kart Racing came up as an option, and obviously we didn’t do that. Or did we want to go for it and do something new on PlayStation 3? Something, perhaps, more mature. Something darker. I think most people felt that was the right way to go. Let’s do something new.”
“But that sort of drove the discussion towards what the aliens might be, and how we might do a game, a first-person shooter, where it’s about a lot of enemies. Not Serious Sam-type stuff, but something that’s more grounded and believable. That evolved into an attempt to do a first-person shooter, but with non-traditional first-person shooter elements.”
At first, Insomniac played with the idea of making Resistance a squad-based game. After asking a lot of questions about how such a game would work mechanically and trying a bunch of things to move the project forward, “all those experiments ultimately failed,” Price explained. But then he had what he described as a “Come to Jesus” moment.
“I remember Connie Booth at Sony looking at one of our demos – because we were working with Sony at the time – and she said, ‘I think the problem is, it’s much more fun to shoot humans, or human-like creatures, than these giant lizards” that were the bad guys in the early stages of Resistance’s development. “I remember railing against that mentally, thinking, ‘No! No it’s not! It’s fun to shoot lizards!’ But she was right. So we developed the Chimera, and made more believable, human-like characters.”
With the Chimera created – Resistance’s well-known antagonists -- Insomniac also had to work on and tweak the original setting and plot ideas they had circulating. Initially, Resistance was designed to be a “space opera” predicated on notions of time travel, but it just didn’t work. “I think Mark Cerny, at the time, may have recommended, ‘Hey, why don’t you guys set it in World War I?’ That was cool. I responded really positively to that,” Price admitted.
As Price explains, “Aliens made their presence known around the time that World War II would have happened, maybe even earlier, and prevented World War II from occurring, thus changing the political structure of the world. Ultimately, that resulted in a very different 1950s. That was the world that we ended up creating for Resistance. But it was a long, tortuous path to get there. We tried a lot of things thematically. We tried a lot of things gameplay-wise. We just kind of stumbled our way into what became Resistance.”
Shaun McCabe described the buzz around Insomniac working on something so radically different – and outright riskier – than what they had done before as being exceptionally positive. “When I started at Insomniac, in my interview, nobody mentioned the PlayStation 3 at all. But around the development community, there were rumors that Insomniac was doing this PS3 title… It wasn’t until my first day of work, I logged into my PC and people left and I just asked the guy next to me, ‘Alright, what’s the PS3 game?’ He told me it was a first-person shooter, and I was like ‘Holy shit!’ It was so surprising to me, because I hadn’t associated Insomniac with doing this certain kind of game so incredibly well.”
But there were technical challenges, and getting Resistance: Fall of Man out on time for PlayStation 3’s global release in late 2006 proved arduous. “The PS3 was tough for us,” Al Hastings admitted. “I think in some sense we were ready for it, in that we tried, during the latter part of Ratchet, to anticipate how big of a team you’d need to do PS3. I think we ramped it up pretty smoothly. But also, we were trying to ramp up after the fact. It’s hard to build a cohesive team. I think where we did struggle is that, making a launch title, we just had to go really fast leading up to launch. From the tech side, you can think about the level of tech like a construction analogy. We just slapped this building up really fast. During the part of time where you want to go back and rebuild some stuff to be a little stronger, at the same time, we were trying to shift 90 degrees over to make a very different game for launch a year later,” referencing Ratchet & Clank’s inaugural PS3 title.
But the teams persevered, and Resistance 2came out two years after Fall of Man, in the fall of 2008. And, as far as Resistance titles are concerned, it was the most controversial one (at least until Nihilistic Software’s Vita entry, Burning Skies). It again met with commercial and critical success, but it didn’t hit all of the notes that made Fall of Man the game that it was, at least for many players.
Shaun McCabe worked on the first two Resistance games and admits that “some controversial decisions” were made when creating Resistance 2 in particular. “And those [decisions] were controversial internally at the time,” he admitted. He later recalled “vigorous debate over those specific things. Like in retrospect, the only thing I could say is those are never decisions that we took lightly at all. There were probably months and months of conversation over which direction we went on that kind of thing,” likely referencing regenerating health and the massive expansion of multiplayer.
The studio had the chance to make things right with Resistance 3, and by and large, they did. Resistance 3 is widely considered not only to be the best entry in the series, but one of PlayStation 3’s strongest games, period. “We did our best to address players’ concerns about Resistance 2, and we tried to differentiate Resistance from other shooters by really focusing on that story.”
John Fiorito expanded on Price’s notion. “All the people you’re going to talk to, hopefully, have done a lot of soul-searching on” Resistance 3’s sales, he told me. “I have, for sure. I’m disappointed. That doesn’t mean I’m not proud of the game… We’d always tried to marry a story with a gameplay experience. That’s really hard. I would say that it didn’t always work, but I think Resistance really captured this guy’s suicide journey across this devastated country, and we backed it up with gameplay, and moments of gameplay, to support that.”
Fiorito also blamed Resistance 3’s sales on something else, something that has since become a more recent theme at Insomniac in terms of paying attention to technological trends. “But in the time that we made Resistance 3, when we started, iPads didn’t exist. When we shipped, everyone was playing games on iPad. Things change so quickly that you have to be on top of that. I think we had these assumptions like, ‘oh, this is what a video game is’… It’s not [a] formula as much as it’s a way of doing the game that I think the world started to change during its development and subsequent release. It almost seems a little archaic. That’s from my perspective.”
Likewise, Chad Dezern made his feelings known about Resistance 3. “I feel like it should have been the top-selling game that year. I was just amazed by all the work done on it.” Shaun McCabe agreed. “I was talking to [Resistance’s Creative Director] Marcus Smith about it. When I played, it was right before release, a build really late in the project. I was like ‘Dude, you finally nailed it. And I had nothing to do with it.’ I remember feeling that way, because I’d worked on Resistance and Resistance 2. I’d spent a lot of time on this project. I just thought part three was fantastic.”
Chad Dezern, on the other hand, hopes that there’s more Resistance. “It’s another big world. Just going back to the root of the game, which is alternate history plus alien invasion. There’s so much there. So much material to pull from. You can look at it through so many different lenses. So sure, I think there’s a place for it. I don’t think there’s anything exactly like it out there. Certainly, I’d want to see it keep going.”
The reason for the move? Times are different now than they were then, and Sony’s relationship with Insomniac, while mutually beneficial to both, left Insomniac with nothing to show for it in terms of an intellectual property it owned. Everything it ever created -- from Disruptor and Spyro to Ratchet & Clank and Resistance -- was owned by another company. Insomniac wanted to take charge of its own destiny and start to retain its own ideas.
“I know that EA partners was set up, originally, to work with independent developers who owned their own IP. That was a slam dunk for us, because they liked what we did, they liked our proposal for Fuse, we got along with them well, and their business model matched what we were looking for,” Price said.
Thus, Overstrike – which has recently been reworked and renamed Fuse – was born. And it requires Insomniac, for the very first time in its history, to work on hardware that doesn’t come from Sony. Overstrike itself becoming Fuse is another story entirely, one that began with a pitch to EA about a cooperative game to something that’s been changed from its original vision.
According to the game’s visionary, Brian Allgeier, Overstrike began when “a lot of people were itching to work on more cooperative multiplayer games. Even though we’ve done a ton of multiplayer modes in the past for Resistance and the Ratchet series, this was an opportunity for us to really delve deeply into a co-op experience campaign.” And the spirit of Fuse remains the same as Overstrike’s, even though other parts of the game have since changed completely.
Allgeier later said that “that’s kind of the reason for the delay. It’s like moving the herd of elephants, or turning the ship. Just turning a massive ship into a different direction and charting a new course.”
Naturally, the simple act of working on Xbox 360 has created technical challenges for the likes of Al Hastings to overcome, since as much as a guru as he is, he’d never worked on anything but PlayStation since graduating from Princeton. “Honestly, I feel like having learned the 360 has helped me put the PS3 in perspective. I see [PS3] now like everyone else saw it from the beginning. A simultaneously very cool and very frustrating machine. It has an immense amount of power, it’s just immensely hard to unlock.”
But does Hastings share the common view in the industry that the 360 is the easier platform to develop for? “Yeah. In a lot of ways it’s easier. It comes from so many different places, some of these different things that make it easier. Microsoft is just a hell of a lot better at documenting stuff. They’re a lot better at anticipating problems that developers have and showing you best practices.”
“Part of it may just be that they’re an American company and I’m an American. There’s no language barrier as far as communicating with the mothership. I think it’s partly a language barrier… The philosophy, going all the way back, has been, ‘We’ll make the hardware, you guys figure out the rest.’ As the machine gets more and more complex, that’s not the most practical way to do it. You can’t just leave all of this to developers. There’s too much. It puts too much on the developers.”
I pressed Hastings on if he thinks Sony has learned these sort of lessons that they may bring with them to the next generation. He thinks they have. “I suspect they’ve learned a bunch of lessons from PS3. I think [the next generation will] be very different. I say that without really any knowledge. And Microsoft, too. Microsoft may have been looking to the Wii for learning some lessons, and Sony might be looking at Microsoft to learn some lessons. God knows who Nintendo is looking at,” he concluded, laughing.
Hastings later noted that “for [Insomniac] as a developer, we were on a single platform for so long, and there are some advantages to that. It’s pretty great, so long as the platform you’re developing for has 70 percent of the market. Those days are over, so you’ve gotta embrace the chaos of all these different platforms. I’m excited, or at least trying to get myself excited, about learning. I guess from a technical standpoint, there’s a challenge in being on single platform and just knowing the hardware so inside and out that you can push it just a little bit further. Naughty Dog’s in that position, and that’s a great position to be in.”
I asked Ted Price about the minor backlash Insomniac experienced when it announced it was going multiplatform. “It didn’t surprise me, because over the years I’ve seen, over and over again, that people just assume we’re a Sony studio. So it was flattering to see our fans take such ownership of Insomniac, really, and raise their fists and say ‘Why? Why?’ I get it. I totally understand. But we were very careful to reassure everybody that our dedication to the PlayStation 3 hasn’t wavered at all. Fuse is going to be awesome on the PlayStation 3. We expect that we will deliver the same level of quality to our Sony fans, but then let in Microsoft fans, too.”
Price’s anecdote on why they’re now multi-platform and attempting to control their own IP goes back to the Spyro era in the late ‘90s. “When we started experiencing success on Spyro, and we had actually tried to promote Spyro as a movie franchise, we were somewhat thwarted by the Universal bureaucracy. Because we didn’t have control over the IP, it made it very difficult to do anything else but talk to Universal [and Sony] folks… It was at that point that I personally thought, ‘Wow, if we owned Spyro, we could do whatever the hell we wanted to with it’ in terms of extending the franchise beyond games. That wasn’t a reality for us at the time, because we were still small. We hadn’t made enough money to begin making our own bets on our games. But that was a goal that became more and more realistic as we experienced more success during the PlayStation 2 and PlayStation 3 era.”
I later asked Price the same question, but he didn’t have much to say about it other than Sony “respected, and still respects, our independence,” noting that Sony continues to treat them very well.
With all of Insomniac’s recent moves – including launching a Facebook game called Outernauts – the future of the company is unclear, yet undoubtedly bright. And along with retaining their own IP for the very first time, which they’ve done with both Fuse and Outernauts, Insomniac’s main goal now is to anticipate the future. “When [Fuse] ships, I wouldn’t be surprised if social games have come and gone, you know?” Fiorito rhetorically asked, later adding, “What games are going to be in a couple years from now, I think, might be very different from what they are now, and all that’s going on as we’re making [Fuse].”
To Chad Dezern, a future of owning what you do is integral. “To me it just means that our babies, these things that we make that we all put our hearts and souls into, are controlled by us throughout. We can really seize any opportunities that we have with these properties. That’s huge for us. Like we mentioned earlier, we always have more ideas than we know what to do with. It’s great to have a nice clear path for executing on those ideas, now and in the future, for all of our games.”
In reflecting on what the future holds, John Fiorito joked that if he “knew what the future looked like, we’d be up on the 90th floor doing the interview.” But while Insomniac explores the new and unknown, it’s safe to assume they’ll also continue doing what they’re most known for. “The future of Insomniac is that we want to try to make games that affect people and that people love to play. It really doesn’t matter what platform or what genre that is. Now, that being said, obviously we have a ton of experience making games where you shoot things, right? And with triple-A production values on console. So we’re not stupid, either, where we just jump into things,” he explained. “We have this body of knowledge and expertise that we want to use. You can probably connect the dots there. If I was a betting man and thinking, ‘are they ever gonna do another console game?’ I’d place that bet, of course.
Then again, there was a caveat. “Are we going to suddenly drop everything to do DS games? Conceivably, we could, but that seems like a bad bet.”
He later added that “When you come to work every day, if you feel like you have an opportunity to make the game better because of the decisions that you’re making for the part of the game you’re creating, that’s cool. But it’s even cooler if you feel like you can actually speak up about a part of the game that you don’t have any direct influence over. That’s what we encourage here. We want people to say, ‘Hey, even though I’m not working on the art, I have a suggestion for making this character look better. Or a gameplay suggestion that I think will improve the game.’ That happens all the time. Not all the ideas make it in, of course, because it’s a big company with a lot of folks, but I love it. To be surrounded by that kind of creative energy every day keeps me excited about what I do.”
“Sometimes, I have to say, I can’t believe I’m doing this. I can’t believe I’m actually lucky enough to be in a job where everybody is just working on making cool stuff all the time.”
Shaun McCabe shared similar sentiments. “I can’t think of any company I’d rather work for,” he explained. “I’m a big-time Insomniac cheerleader. I really believe in this place. I believe in the stuff that we do. I think that we have an amazing team. Maybe the best in the world. I think the future’s really bright, and I’m glad to be here for it.”
Then again, Al Hastings shared a cautionary tale, and it came up when talking about the PlayStation Vita. “It’s really cool hardware,” he said. “In some ways, it’s really good. Who knows if that’s enough… there was a time when you put out something good and that was all it took. It would work. But now, you put out something good and there’s no market for it. It’s true of games, too.”
But it’s this kind of challenge that Ted Price thrives on.
“We want to fix problems,” he concluded our interview by telling me. “A lot of us are driven by the desire to find creative solutions for what are always intractable problems in development. We know, on every project, we’re going to run into roadblocks. Usually, there are different roadblocks. What actually has become fun, over the years, for a lot of us here is to figure out new ways to blow through those roadblocks.”
He continued. “That is, for me, just as much fun as participating in game design. Because it’s more social design. It’s more figuring out what we all respond to well and what solutions work in such a fluid environment. I think because we’re dedicated to constantly coming up with better ways of doing things, whether they work or not, it does help people here look past the problems that we all encounter on a daily basis in development. And they feel confident that, no matter how stressful it gets, no matter how challenging a particular project is, we’re going to figure out a way to make it work.”
“So far, for almost two decades, we have.”