Reaction Time: Insomniac Games Reflects On Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack In Time


Posted February 25, 2010 - By pklepek

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Reaction Time: Insomniac Games Reflects On Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack In Time

There are few franchises more beloved at G4 than Ratchet & Clank. As huge character-driven platformer buffs, Adam Sessler and I can gab endlessly about Insomniac Games' series. We've done it on Feedback. We'll do it again when the next Ratchet & Clank is announced. Before that happens, however, I got on the phone with creative director Brian Allgeier and senior writer TJ Fixman. Both of these guys are responsible for the future of Ratchet & Clank. To understand the future, we need to talk about the past. Keep reading for our conversation about Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack In Time.

G4: I'm a huge fan of Lost, so anything that involves time travel, especially during times when Lost is not on, so I'd like to think that A Crack In Time was hugely inspired by Lost to fill that void in my life.

Brian Allgeier: That's why we did it, to fill that void! [laughs] It's certainly a show that has come up often here and you can probably see references here and there over past games. I think in Tools of Destruction we did a little nod to it with the film reel that Cronk and Zephyr and Ratchet watch, revealing the location of Sargasso. We definitely talked about Lost for that particular scene.

Time travel is definitely very tricky. When both TJ and I were trying to map out the flow of the plot, it's a puzzle in and of itself for us to think about, let alone trying to explain it to the players. I think we ended up with a fairly coherent storyline that was very engaging to people.

G4: Even less from a storytelling perspective, it seemed like the time travel allowed a lot of gameplay possibilities and became a lot of the gameplay innovations in the game.

Brian: Yeah, certainly. Actually, that's kind of how we solved the problem that I think most films have issue with in terms of time travel. We just had localized time distortions for a chunk of the game, so it's a little easier to wrap your head around that by just localizing it more. But then we had specific levels where we did do some time travel and that's where things got a little bit more complex but we still kept them to just those levels.

G4: It's been a few months since the game came out. How do you guys feel about it?

Reaction Time: Insomniac Games Reflects On Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack In TimeTJ Fixman: I think the entire team feels extremely proud of what we've been able to put together. I think A Crack In Time was in a lot of ways our love letter to the franchise. Basically, there's been so many Ratchet & Clanks that we really wanted to do one that pays homage to our roots and pays off a lot of the questions that fans have had about the franchise since the beginning. A lot of people have been following Ratchet & Clank since the very first one, they've been asking a lot of questions about the plot and the universe, things like that that have gotten more and more important for us as a studio as the game's progressed, so A Crack In Time was our way of wrapping up a lot of the loose ends that we've left dangling out there and satisfying a lot of fans' questionsa bout the universe.

G4: How quickly did A Crack In Time go into development following Tools of Destruction? I know there was also Quest For Booty happening. Was there overlap there?

Brian: There was definitely a bit of overlap. Throughout Quest For Booty, TJ and I were talking about the storyline for A Crack In Time and the fact that we wanted to bring back Dr. Nefarious. Of course, we had to figure out what the end of Quest For Booty was and we knew that we wanted Dr. Nefarious to certainly come back, so that was a good point to reveal him. We were starting to structure A Crack In Time as we were developing Quest For Booty and some of what we did in Quest For Booty carried over into A Crack In Time, as well. A lot of the gameplay and some of tech that we were developing for Quest For Booty carried over to A Crack In Time. But, yeah, ultimately it took us about six months to complete Quest For Booty and then we had three or four months to do pre-production on A Crack In Time. We used a lot of the knowledge from Quest For Booty and applied it to our pre-production for A Crack In Time.

"A Crack In Time was in a lot of ways our love letter to the franchise"

G4: The design in Quest For Booty felt a little bit different. It felt a lot more challenging, at least from a platforming perspective.

Brian: That's something we wanted to focus more on: less weapons. We wanted to change it up a little bit and try and do a Ratchet game where it wasn't all about using wacky guns and just try to break from the formula. I think we were really proud of what we accomplished; we focused more on Ratchet using the wrench and that's something that we'd done a little bit on in previous games, but by giving him the wrench tether, being able to manipulate objects, he felt a lot more like a mechanic. Also, we had puzzles where you had to pick objects up, like these explosive rocks and those glow bugs, and then we applied some of that gameplay with the battery bots in A Crack In Time.

G4: You've made so many Ratchet & Clanks at this point. Is there ever a sense of "oh, here we go again" when you get around to developing the next one? What do you to find the motivation to make another one without just going through the motions?

TJ: I think for us a big part of it is just kind of talking about what we've done in the past and what we can do differently in the future. How can we keep it fresh? For me, of course, from a story perspective, what hadn't we done with our Ratchet & Clank heroes and villains before and how do we do it differently? I know this time we really wanted there to be a more of a force you were going after -- The Great Clock -- rather than just have an evil villain trying to take over the universe like we've done in previous games. It's really the entire time taking that approach to the entire project and seeing what could we do new and different in the Ratchet & Clank universe.

Brian: Just to add to that, the Ratchet & Clank universe is such a pliable and flexible universe. You can't really ever paint yourself into a corner. There's always lots of new opportunities for new planets, new locations, new villains that we can invent. I've always felt like there's no limit to the amount of gadgets and weapons that we can imagine. With a science fiction theme, you can get away with all that stuff. It just feels limitless in terms of what we can create.

Reaction Time: Insomniac Games Reflects On Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack In Time

G4: It definitely feels like with the time mechanic, and especially with the time weapons, it gave you some options. When you buy a Ratchet & Clank game, you have a certain expectation of what you're going into. This time around, you found a mechanic to almost shift parts of what your traditional expectations for a Ratchet & Clank game are.

TJ: I think over the years we've definitely figured out what the DNA of the franchise is. That's an expression I've learned from Brian. There's certain things people expect from a Ratchet game that if we provide that to them, then there are other things that maybe we can bring to the table. We know that Ratchet & Clank fans will expect Captain Qwark. We take Captain Qwark out of the story and people are sad. People will expect crazy weapons so we always put those in. They expect vibrant levels. Once we have sort of the DNA, the kernels that people expect in the game, then we look at the new things that we can do, like the more cerebral Clank gameplay and the chronoscepter and the kinetic tether, which was a new addition that we talked about for years and finally got in. So it's all about giving fans what we've learned that they can't do without and then giving them things they didn't know they wanted.

Reaction Time: Insomniac Games Reflects On Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack In TimeG4: You guys had actually conceptualized the chronoscepter in a previous game?

TJ: Not the scepter, the kinetic tether. In the past couple pre-production meetings, everybody always talks about what they'd love to do differently with Ratchet's wrench and I know that him picking up objects with the wrench was something we'd talked about for a long time and never managed to get into the game. So when Quest For Booty was in production, that's when we decided that's a great time to test this out and see if people enjoyed it. And people did, it was a phenomenal success.

G4: Ratchet and Clank have been separated before, but quite to the extent they had in A Crack In Time. Had you thought about driving them apart before?

Brian: Well, it naturally came out of the story development process. At the end of Tools of Destruction, we wanted the have the Zoni abduct Clank, for him to go on his own quest, so they were automatically split up. When we started thinking more about the gameplay for A Crack In Time and the fact that we wanted Clank to be his own isolated area where we could do all these really cool time puzzles, that naturally turned into having his own special entity and location where Clank was trapped and, then, to have Ratchet to be on this quest to find his best friend just made a lot of sense. We also really wanted to mix up the pacing of the game and how we told the story and how we went back and forth between the two different perspectives. That's something that we had never done before, so that was kind of a fun opportunity.

G4: I felt like Tools of Destruction went on too long, but because of the dynamic between the Ratchet and Clank levels in A Crack In Time, it felt a lot better this time around.

Brian: Yeah, absolutely, and that was an interesting dilemma for us when we went to the PlayStation 3 initially. We had to rewrite a lot of our technology that we had in he PS2 games. We couldn't have the same level of variety that we'd had before, we actually had to scale back. But with A Crack In Time we could bring a lot of that variety back, and I think that's something in terms of just pacing and just variation that people really love about the Ratchet & Clank series.

"There's certain things people expect from a Ratchet game"

G4: When you were conceptualizing the Clank side, towards the end of the game the puzzles get pretty difficult. How did you find a balance? On the surface, if you looked at Ratchet & Clank, it could be a very kid-oriented series -- or you could at least see the appeal.

Brian: That was a big challenge for us. What we did was a lot of usability testing, a lot of playtesting, to understand what was right level of difficulty for different age ranges. Ratchet & Clank's a game that we've always targeted 12-years-old and up -- we want everyone to play this, so we want it to be challenging for both people are maybe older and have better pre-cognitive skills, whereas some of the younger folks maybe have found it a bit more challenging, but that's the funny thing -- we're often surprised by who gets what. In the end, after lots of playtesting, we kind of found the right level, but then we still wanted to offer some more complex and more difficult games where Sigmund has his own challenges in Clank's subconscious that you can do and then we also gave the option for people to opt-out. We knew that if you went into this game thinking you were just gonna play with the weapons and more of the carnage and less thinking, that wasn't your thing, you could just skip those challenges.

G4: So giving people the option to dodge them was important.

Brian: I think it was definitely a new concept for people but I think it was refreshing as well, it changed the pace and that was the whole purpose of shifting back to Clank. And that's something that with Clank we've always thought about him as being more the brains behind the outfit and he's the one that solves challenges cerebrally, Ratchet likes to use his guns.

Reaction Time: Insomniac Games Reflects On Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack In Time

G4: Definitely for myself, it was a nice breather from the action. Just to have an opportunity to think was very different for the series, but I enjoyed the puzzle's sophistication.

Brian: It was definitely a shift back and forth between your lower and higher brain. [laughs]

G4: I have to admit the Cthulhu weapon was my favorite. What was yours?

TJ: Favorite weapon? Hmm. I'd probably have to go with...I know a lot would probably say the RYNO...I'd still have to go with Mr. Zurkon. He's got a lot of personality, he's a lot of fun. I think he's just a really entertaining weapon to use on the battlefield. Mr. Zurkon for me.

Brian: I actually really like the RYNO in this one and I just like the 1812 Overture music. People instantly laugh when they start to fire that weapon and it's fun. What's really cool about it is we don't think we'd ever top ourselves with every RYNO that we make and that was such a nice surprise when we tried it out, it worked and everybody loved it.

G4: Is that a difficult expectation for you guys? Every time you design a newReaction Time: Insomniac Games Reflects On Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack In TimeRatchet & Clank you're going to get wackier weapons, but they need to have some functionality?

Brian: We are our own worst competition pretty much. We're always trying to figure out how to top the last game and it's nice because it certainly challenges us, it makes us grow. The three tenets of what makes a good weapon is it's gotta be strategic or fantastic or comedic and so we're always balancing those three. The RYNO certainly is fantastic. There's not much strategy in it. There is some comedy to it, with the 1812 music that plays it. We're always trying to find what weapon hits a 10 in one of those three categories.

TJ: The 1812 Overture was thought up and implemented in one day.

G4: [laughs] But it's such a memorable part of it...it's hard to imagine it without it.

TJ: Exactly. As soon as someone suggested it, we played it just on the Internet while actually firing the RYNO and it was so hysterical, that immediately we talked to our audio guys and by the next day it was in the game and playing. We can't imagine it without it now.

G4: Is Ratchet & Clank a series that you can do that very often? Insomniac sticks to a pretty strict schedule. Are you able to iterate in that way all the time?

TJ: I think it's just a case of really picking our battles. In the case of the 1812 Overture, playing something like music in the background while firing a weapon is a relatively minor change and something we can implement and check out and see if it works well and it's not really in danger of breaking too much.

Brian: It's definitely an interesting process. One of the weapons that we were very doubtful about was the rift inducer. When we first starting implementing that weapon it looked like just a shower curtain of tentacles. Basically, a shower curtain of tentacles hanging down, the animations weren't quite working and we just thought this was going to be a disaster. For a while, we were considering bringing back some old weapon like the holoshield from Up Your Arsenal, just to put that in to fill that slot. But then the designers and the programmers and artists were totally behind it and said "we can make it work" and so we just kind of let them loose and after a few weeks, they created this awesome weapon that will yank Agorian warriors up into it and the creatures that they rode in on. It's an awesome weapon. I remember showing it to some folks at PAX and the whole room just erupted with laughter and everyone loved it. At that point, we knew "okay, we've got a huge hit."

TJ: It spits out the bolts, too, which is kind of like the icing on the cake. I can't imagine having the holoshield instead of the rift inducer now.

"One of the weapons that we were very doubtful about was the rift inducer...we thought this was going to be a disaster"

G4: I know you said you had to pick your battles. Is there anything you can point to that you wanted to get in there but just wasn't able to make it in this time around?

TJ: Good question.

Brian: That's a really good question. I'm trying to think...

TJ: The Phoenix Launcher probably for me. It's in the museum right now, so you can still see it, but that was a weapon that had these fiery birds of prey that would descend on enemies and explode, and for whatever reason, we were having difficulties getting it in the game that looked and felt as good as it needed to be. That was one of the darlings we had to kill.

Brian: We had a grav-bubble gadget, as well, that wasn't quite working, where Ratchet would wrap himself up into a bubble and have lighter gravity and hop around the world. Could be a problem. [laughs]

G4: Sounds like a programming nightmare.

Brian: Art and programming. [laughs]

G4: This was the first time you involved the fans in terms of being able to design something that got into the game, right?

Brian: Yeah. What was really interesting about that was I believe when we cut the Phoenix Launcher, we actually had an open slot and we were thinking, well, we could try to come up with ideas to fill that slot or let a fan come up with that idea. And so that just kind of worked out perfectly, so we decided to have this contest called "My Blaster Runs Hot" with Captain Quark promoting it and really worked out well. The Spiral of Death was a fantastic weapon and had all the kind of quirkiness of a Ratchet weapon with firing out this giant buzzsaw yo-yo that could tear through enemies and come back, so it had that toy-like element, had a bit of a comedy, but was also strategic, in that you could take out multiple enemies by firing it at one and as it came back, it would hit another.

Reaction Time: Insomniac Games Reflects On Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack In Time

G4: As a result of that experience, would you do it again?

TJ: I would say absolutely. I think that was our most successful contest we've ever had. Fans absolutely loved it and I still think it's probably one of the coolest contests I've ever heard of us doing at Insomniac.

G4: And it's not just about being in the background of the game or something. One of the big reasons people play Ratchet & Clank is because of the weapons.

TJ: We actually gave him [the winner] a full-scale replica of the weapon. It's cool. It's in the game forever, it's not coming out. When he plays it, he gets to say "hey, I came up with that."

Reaction Time: Insomniac Games Reflects On Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack In TimeG4: Adam Sessler and I are massive fans of the series and as much as we like to see the innovation you guys manage to push in every time, there's something about the series we described as "comfort food." You don't get a lot of these games anymore. You know what you're in for. You know what you're going to get with a new Ratchet & Clank.

Brian: As TJ had mentioned, we're always looking at what the DNA of the Ratchet & Clank universe, what do people expect, but at the same time, how can we change it up? How can we continue to push it forward and make it exciting and feel fresh? It's kind of like...you don't want to break what's already working. We've tried various experiments in the past, with Ratchet: Deadlocked and even Quest For Booty, and while we're very proud of what we accomplished there, at the same time, we got a pretty sizable fan reaction about it was missing all the things they loved about all the other Ratchet & Clank games. That's something we're always very conscious of.

TJ: I know from a creative standpoint, I always try to keep in mind [that] I've heard from several places that Ratchet & Clank reminds them of a Saturday morning cartoon, and I think that's what a lot of people see about the franchise. It's fun characters, there's a camp factor to it, and I try to keep that in mind, even as we're getting more mature in our storytelling. I try to think about, does this have that Saturday morning feel that you're watching a cartoon like you did when you were 10?

Brian: I think with "mature" we mean more sophisticated in the stories we tell, not necessarily the age range.

TJ: Ratchet would never go dark. [laughs]

G4: There's no Batman Begins reboot for Ratchet.

TJ: That would be tragic. [laughs]

G4: What Saturday morning cartoons did you watch when you grew up?

TJ: I watched a lot of Darkwing Duck, I watched a lot of Tale Spin, I watched a lot of Snorks and Smurfs. I'm a 30-year-old guy, so anything that was popular in the early 80s was pretty much my bag. I love that stuff back then.

Brian: I watched Scooby-Doo, Hong-Kong Phooey, Underdog and Shazam, so I'm probably a little bit older. [laughs]

TJ: Of course, I think you can probably tell from a lot of the cut-scenes, too, I was huge into the old Warner Bros. cartoons. The scene where Clank gets knocked out by the box in Tools of Destruction was basically an homage to the Wiley E. Coyote of the old Warner Bros.

Brian: Looney Tunes are brilliant.

"I try to think, does this have that Saturday morning feel like when you were 10?"

G4: How do you balance between what fans expect and what you actually design? Do you ever feel the temptation to completely break out of the traditional Ratchet & Clank mold? Or have the previous experiments, á la Deadlocked, stopped that from happening?

Brian: I think the key is that what we do is we take a lot of the DNA...with A Crack In Time, we took the DNA of the Ratchet stuff and we put a big twist on it. A great example is, in previous games, we would have Clank working with various robots to solve different puzzles, and so we said "Let's use time. How do we put a twist on that, instead of having Zoni or robots that work with Clank? Let's have Clank work with himself." While I still think we're meeting a lot of fan expectations and giving that spirit of what people expect from Ratchet & Clank, it's got a big enough and strong enough twist that makes it feel really fresh.

G4: When I asked some fans what they'd like to ask you, one common thread that popped up was Insomniac Games' pride of hitting 60 frames-per-second every game. After the release, I know you said you were considering moving away from that going forward.

Brian: Well, what we're always doing is looking at the full experience. That means a lot of different things. It could mean the amount of detail on the screen, it could mean the frame rate, it can be the storytelling, expressiveness of the characters, the strategy that you're using -- we weigh all of those factors when we create that experience. Frame rate is certainly very important, it helps especially in a third-person game, having that level of crispness, the camera motion, we want everything to be very fluid. But we have a flexible frame rate, we've always had one, and we had said both in A Crack In Time and Tools of Destruction, it's not always 60 frames-per-second. If you fire the RYNO and you have 20 explosions and 10 Agorian warriors coming at you, the frame rate's gonna dip a little bit. But you know what? It's awesome and people don't seem to really care because they're blowing away Agorians and the screen's filled with explosions. But for the most part, we want the frame rate to be high and crisp and fast, and that's what you tend to get.

Reaction Time: Insomniac Games Reflects On Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack In Time

G4: It tends to be an issue that people like to talk about, but don't really care about as much when they've actually started playing the game.

Brian: Right. There are certain limits. If a frame rate dips below 30, people certainly notice and it does harm the game, so we always want to keep it at 30 or above. For the most part, the game will run between 50 and 60. So, yeah, it's all about the experience in the end.

G4: The space combat sequences have continued to be hit with criticism, but you keep putting them in the game. What's the driving motivation behind that? How do you feel about its implementation in A Crack In Time versus previous Ratchet & Clank games?

Brian: With A Crack In Time, it certainly was something that's part of the fantasy of being a space traveler that goes from planet to planet, and in the past we always had it as a canned sequence or we put you on-rails. I think we found a really good solution for giving people the freedom, but not too much freedom, that they could get lost. One thing that I think we're all really learning with games that I find kind of interesting is that it's all about pacing, and not every single moment in the game is going to be a 10 in terms of intensity. There are different people who have different interest levels in how intense they want their experience to be. There are some people who love just traveling through space, going to every single moon, getting every single Zoni, collecting every thing. Yet, there's other people who probably...that would drive them crazy -- they want the fastest route to the next planet and start blowing stuff up as part of the story quest. We make games for both the hunters and the gatherers, for all the different types of people that are out there. I think space travel in this game was a big success.

Reaction Time: Insomniac Games Reflects On Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack In TimeG4: One of the things that I enjoyed about the space travel was the harder platforming found there. Even though that wasn't in the main quest line, if you wanted it, it was there.

Brian: That's correct. Bill Powers, who's actually credited for coming up with all those crazy moons, he was a designer on the project, and we let him loose. He just, as he saw the other levels progress, he would take bits and parts of those and make these really cool platforming sequences. We want everyone to be able to enjoy the quest, the story and get through the whole game and we never want to make a challenge that's just a total game-stopper. This was an opportunity to have some very tough, very challenging moons that the hardcore gamers could appreciate, for people who really want a tough challenge.

G4: In A Crack In Time, you're giving answers. Do you guys feel any motivation to ever "end" Ratchet & Clank? Do you have an "ending" for the series, if you ever wanted to go there?

TJ: Wow, that's a good question. I think if you're talking about an end in terms of an overall arc for the Future saga, we knew kind of where we wanted to go, [but] how exactly we were gonna get there was something that we looked at on a story-by-story basis, on a game-by-game basis. In Tools of Destruction, we knew that we wanted that one to focus a lot on Ratchet's origins, then in A Crack In Time we would shift to Clank, but then as the story progresses it evolves into its own thing, so that it's just about a lot of iteration between me and Brian and actually trying to find out what the basic themes that we're trying to look at, what are we trying to say about the duo and then just make sure that we're satisfying everything that people expect from the saga. We knew when we took Ratchet to the PS3, the fans were really starting to ask questions about the universe, they were really starting to care about the characters, and they wanted more than just the episodic evil villain trying to take over the galaxy and what Ratchet and Clank do to stop them. So, for us, it's all about what are those questions that they really want to know and can we implement them into the story, and then take it from there.

G4: But do you have an ending ending?

Brian: We will probably never kill off Ratchet and Clank. It's like James Bond. You never kill James Bond, he never dies. Is there ever an ending? What possibly could the ending be? There's always opportunity for a new beginning with this duo. I think an ending is impossible.

TJ: I think Brian said it best.

G4: You said you keep Saturday morning cartoons in mind while writing the game. When I watch the incredible cut-scenes for the games, it's hard not to imagine those guys spinning off into their own animated series or film. Do you have any interest there?

TJ: I think the interest is always there. I definitely think the canon is there, the characters are there, I think you could easily make a cartoon or a movie or a comic book or any of those things out of the Ratchet & Clank universe. It's something we're always looking to go. As for plans? You never know.

"I think you could easily make a cartoon or a movie ... out of the Ratchet & Clank universe"

G4: As we wrap up, what is your biggest takeaway from A Crack In Time for the future?

Brian: I think a lot of it's interesting in that a lot of people have responded positively, like you have, to the pacing of the game and just shifting back and forth between guns blazing and the more aggressive gameplay to the more thoughtful puzzle-solving gameplay is something that really resonates with people. I think having a deeper storyline with interesting pacing is a big lesson that we learned from this game.

TJ: I would agree. I think during the early stages of writing the story for this game, me and Brian were both a tiny bit concerned that because this story was, I don't want to say serious because it wasn't, but it addressed some more serious issues and it was a little bit deeper than stories we'd done in the past. We wondered if people would outright reject it and just kind of say "no, we just want the loose, friendly episodic stories of the PS2 days" but people really responded favorably to it, so my takeaway was that people will have a nice, healthy dose of serious storytelling as long as it comes with fun and friendly characters.

G4: Can we expect you guys might do anything like Quest For Booty with A Crack In Time?

Brian: Uhhh.

TJ: Hmm. [laughs]

Brian: There's a possibility! [laughs]

Reaction Time: Insomniac Games Reflects On Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack In Time


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