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Re-Imagining a Classic, Virtual Reality and Remaining Independent – An Insomniac Games Interview

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Re-Imagining a Classic, Virtual Reality and Remaining Independent – An Insomniac Games Interview

Founded in California by Ted Price during the video game boom of the mid-90s, directly before Sony opened the floodgates to third-party developers with its first iteration of the PlayStation, Insomniac Games is among what one might call the “Veterans of Game Development”.

One of the studio’s earliest successes was Spyro the Dragon, which was fairly well-received at the time, but Insomniac is probably best-known for its iconic Ratchet and Clank series. Up until recently, the studio has maintained a very close working relationship with Sony, releasing games almost exclusively for Sony’s gaming platforms. However, in 2014 Insomniac enjoyed success with daring action game Sunset Overdrive, exclusive to the Xbox One, and more recently embraced virtual reality with the development of The Unspoken and Edge of Nowhere for Oculus Rift.

I recently caught up with Insomniac Games’ Chief Brand Officer Ryan Schneider, and after having a little chat about Insomniac’s past, attempted to pry into the studio’s current present projects, vision of the future in a rapidly shifting gaming environment, and how Insomniac has managed to remain independent for so long.

Back in 2009, you explained, at length, that you don’t feel that 60 frames per second was worth investing in, preferring to focus on visual fidelity instead. You followed through as recently as Ratchet and Clank and Sunset Overdrive. Would you like to say a few words on your stance? Particularly how the measure was received internally and how things have changed, if at all? We’d like to hear more about the internal affairs side of things, if possible.

RS: Our stance hasn’t changed all that much – we’ll do what’s best for each individual game though. For VR, for example, that’s 90 frames per second. Overall, when we look at what makes for the best player experience, we believe it’s not necessarily about faster framerate but rather what’s happening on the screen.

In the examples you cited, we’re creating visual spectacles that are hard to rival – and they’re almost entirely hitch-free. Internally, we’re not spending a lot of time debating the framerate topic either. Nor have we in a long time. Of course, we’re always looking to optimize framerate and since we rely on our own proprietary tools and technology, we can constantly evolve our approach and output.

The Unspoken

You reportedly maintain a friendly relationship with your former neighbour, developer Naughty Dog. You spoke before about how you occasionally go as far as to share technology with one another. Does this relationship go beyond the purely professional? Do you ever end up spending time outside of work hours? Go out for drinks, organise joint events?

RS: It is true that technology and insights have been passed back and forth between studios many times, though that occurred more often during the initial stages of our relationship several years ago. We’ll always be friendly with Naughty Dog and have the utmost respect and regard for everyone on the team there. We haven’t collectively pursued joint opportunities professionally or socially in an official capacity, but that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t.

Your enthusiasm in regards to VR technologies is a matter of public record and you seem dedicated to investing time and effort into it going forward despite a rather rocky start for VR devices in 2016. Do you think the technology will become more accessible to the average gamer in the coming years? What is Insomniac’s approach to developing meaningful Virtual Reality experiences, as opposed to the plethora of tech demos we see currently?

RS: VR will definitely become more mainstream in the coming few years, possibly even sooner than people think. It’s great to see so many different players in the space developing hardware and software that collectively elevate the player’s VR experience, making it even more accessible in the process.

Our approach remains to experiment vigorously with VR, which naturally for us means actual game creation. We believe that each of our VR games pushed the medium forward – whether it was in terms of how to think about VR with third-person controls or as the first game where you can cast spells with your bare hands.

Edge of Nowhere

You’ve had a long-standing working relationship with Sony, and for a while developed exclusively for the PlayStation platform. Recently you’ve started working with Microsoft as well, developing for the Xbox 360 and One, and even for PC starting a few years ago. With shifting even further into games for VR platforms can we expect more titles from Insomniac on PC? Did the shift in hardware architecture that came with the current console generation contribute to this?

RS: The short answer is that anything is possible. Though right now our main focus is on Spider-Man with PS4 and The Unspoken for the Oculus Rift.

We like to ask studios about their take on the quasi-nextgen console cycle we’re seeing right now with the PlayStation 4 Pro released and upcoming Project Scorpio, but it’s rare that we get someone that’s already released a title that is “PS Pro-Ready”. Additionally, your upcoming Spider-Man game will also support PS Pro features. We’d love to get your studio’s perspective on the challenges and effort involved in an undertaking such as this.

RS: Our engine team helped ensure that Ratchet & Clank was PS Pro-ready. We did so through our own technique we’re calling Temporal Injection to achieve those better resolutions. Temporal Injection allows us to not only hit a much higher resolution but also to do it with jaggie-eliminating anti-aliasing as well.

The extra resolution and HDR’s ability to display even more of the colorful Solana Galaxy has resulted in the best image quality you’ve ever seen in a Ratchet & Clank game.  We’ll apply what we learned to Spider-Man and hope it will be recognized as a PS4 Pro showpiece the same way Ratchet & Clank is today.

Ratchet & Clank

Speaking of challenges, we’d like to ask about your long-standing commitment to independence. Although nowadays it’s comparatively easy for a studio, particularly a smaller one to stay indie, it’s very rare to see a studio of Insomniac’s calibre and “vintage” so to speak that has managed to write their own story for so long. It can’t have been easy. We’d appreciate any stories, anecdotes, musings on challenges you’ve faced and choices you’ve had to make.

RS: I don’t think there’s anything easy about remaining indie, no matter the studio size or tenure.  The industry is constantly evolving, and we see studios close all too often sometimes because of one misstep, or just plain bad luck. We’ve been very lucky over the years. The tough choices we’ve had to make have largely paid off, like when we shelved “Girl with a Stick” as a game concept and Ratchet & Clank sprang forth shortly thereafter.

We’ve also been able to learn from our mistakes along the journey without losing the studio in the process.  And the risks we’ve taken, like plunging headfirst into VR at its earliest stages, have fundamentally changed the direction of the studio – we think for the better. Today, as a result of those decisions, we’re more diverse in our expertise than at any other time in our history. We’ve never been more excited for the future of our studio and the industry as a whole.

After a great 2016, PlayStation once again has a fantastic line-up of confirmed titles for 2017 with Guerrilla Games latest IP Horizon Zero Dawn, NieR Automata, Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, NiOh and many more titles set to arrive throughout the year. What PS4 Exclusives’ is Insomniac personally looking forward to in 2017? is there anything in particular that stands out? If so, for what reason?

RS: We have so many team members with divergent preferences in games that we’d have to survey the entire studio for a full answer. But the list you’ve started here is definitely one we’d agree with too. PS4 has a very strong future lineup, and we’re proud to be a part of it.

NiOh

This year sees the return of one of the industry’s most iconic characters – Crash Bandicoot, with Naughty Dog’s first 3 developed Crash games receiving a remaster on PS4 in the form of Crash Bandicoot: N-Sane Trilogy. Although you don’t own the IP, would the studio be happy to see its early work receive a similar treatment with a Spyro collection?

RS: We’d be thrilled to see a PS4 remaster of the original Spyro the Dragon collection. I’m sure for the people who worked on those games here at the time it would be great to see Spyro fly again in such a vibrant setting.

What prompted you to reimagine Ratchet and Clank this past year? Can we expect further installments in the series to retread familiar ground, or spin into new territory?

RS: We saw an opportunity to re-tell the Ratchet & Clank origin story in a unique way while helping tie back to the feature film that released last spring. As for future installments, we’re just focused on the present moment. We’re thrilled with how well Ratchet & Clank has been received on PS4. It’s been a critical darling and sales have exceeded our expectations every month.

From the early days after the studio’s inception in 1994 to present day, Insomniac has continued to expand its studio in Burbank, CA considerably, with almost 200 staff members the last time we checked, whilst also being recognised by SHRM in the past for being one of the best places to work in America. How does that figure look currently and what would you say makes Insomniac Games, as a workplace and studio, stand out the most among other companies?

RS: Insomniac spans approximately 230 employees in our Burbank and Durham, North Carolina studio. I’ve been with Insomniac for 13 years now, so it’s hard to say personally what makes us stand out among other companies.

I can share that I have remained at the studio this long because I’m inspired by my teammates, the culture makes me feel valued, and I’m particularly proud that the games we make can be played by all members of the family. That’s a long way of explaining that I’m proud to be an Insomniac, and perhaps that pride is reflected in all the anonymous surveys that are compiled as part of the Best Place to Work award process.

Insomniac Games is currently developing Spider-Man for PS4

We understand that you don’t want to reveal too many details regarding your currently-in-development Spider-Man project for PS4, but would like to know the studio’s feelings when it comes to creating a video game adaptation for one of Stan Lee and comic books’ most iconic and best-loved characters. Do you have a message for fans eagerly awaiting more information on the game?

RS: I think everyone working on Spider-Man feels a huge obligation to honor those who brought Peter Parker to life so many years ago, including of course Stan Lee. Fortunately, we have a very close working relationship with Marvel and collaborate with them regularly on the game’s development – along with Sony Interactive Entertainment.

It’s incredibly exciting that Marvel granted Insomniac the freedom to create our own Spider-Man storyline independent of the forthcoming film and comics canon. We take that great responsibility very seriously. As for our fans who are waiting for more information, the most honest thing I can say is, “Great things will come to those who wait.” We’re passionate about the game we’re creating and we will share a sliver of it when we think it’s the best time to do so. Have faith, True Believers!

I’d like to thank Ryan Schneider of Insomniac Games for taking time out to speak with us.

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Dan has been gaming for nearly 30 years and has survived everything from Nuclear Fallouts to Zombie Outbreaks but his main love is Survival Horror and don't we all know it. Favourite games include Resident Evil and Grand Theft Auto, he can be regularly found cruising the streets of Vice City listening to the classics.

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