The last developer I interviewed at DICE 2010 was someone I hadn't met: Insomniac Games president and CEO Ted Price. I've always enjoyed Insomniac's releases, especially their platformers. There aren't enough of those these days, so I feel obligated to champion them. It's Price's honest attitude towards games that makes him such an interesting character, which is why you'll hopefully find the following interview a great read. Price speaks humbly about the mistakes his company's made over the years, the lessons learned from this missteps, the kind of culture he started and has tried to maintain at Insomniac even as it's gotten bigger, what it means to take influence from other games, and much more.
G4: Looking back at 2009, what was the biggest takeaway? The was the year where the recession seemed to really impact games for the first time.
Ted Price: The biggest takeaway is that is we've all got to be careful about maintaining efficiency in our production practices and we're no longer in a world where, at least in my opinion, you can spend an insane amount of money and get away with it, just because you never know what will happen. The sales might not be there; there may be a global economic crisis, and all of a sudden, if you've made lots of big bets and your sales aren't there, you are going to be screwed.
G4: It seems like something you guys have had as a studio culture before it became a necessity. You guys have something coming out every year and that's how your dev cycle worked. Was that intentional when you started the company?
Price: When I started, Disruptor was our first game and two years later was our first Spyro. And then every year after that we released a Spyro, so Spyro 2, Spyro 3 came immediately. We took one year off and then released Ratchet and then Ratchet 2, 3, 4 and my assumption was that's the way you do it. You release a game every year because it mitigates risk and it keeps us moving. We don't have an opportunity to kind of just go off some awesome weird tangent. We like being focused on production, it's actually the most interesting part of the game development process. The hardest part is pre-production, when you're trying to figure out what you're doing. Once you get into production it's great because you're getting stuff up on screen, you're figuring out whether it works, you're putting the game together, so in the past we always try to get to production as quickly as possible.
G4: It was interesting, I don't know if you caught the Alan Wake talk, but it was interesting watching their process trying to figure out what major elements to cut. Have you ever made a hard call like they did? They pitched Alan Wake as "we're going to do this sandbox game," but down the line they realized "oh crap, we have to throw out nine months of work."
Price: Yeah. We have done that twice and we did that with Ratchet, which started out not as Ratchet. It started out as a game about a girl with a stick running around this Mayan-influenced environment. It was probably going to be rated M if it had ever been released, not because of the girl, but because it was a fairly dark game and we got about six months into that one in terms of pre-production development and very few people in the studio were passionate about it. And I kept pushing it because I felt at the time, "Hey, you have to finish what you started." I hadn't really learned that lesson that "Hey, it's okay to kill your babies," and when we showed it to Sony, who was our publisher, they said "Look, we'll support you with this -- if you guys want to release it, that's cool, but we don't think it's going to do well in the market." That was a real wake-up call for me, and I had to admit that we needed to kill this one and start over.
And so we did, and when we did I think within two weeks we had the initial idea for Ratchet, and it really clicked. I mean, once Brian Hastings, who is our creative officer, came up with the idea of this little alien who has cool guns and flies around in spaceships. And when he said that, everybody said "That's it, that's what we need." And we also at that time realized that we had been straying from our expertise, which at the time was platformers, having done Sypro. So it was a really great experience to bounce back from that initial failure and come up with something that was much better.
G4: It's interesting watching what happened with Borderlands and Gearbox because they made a major art change mid-cycle. You don't see risks like that a lot these days. It seems that it requires a partnership to be able to make those changes mid-way in production.
Price: Sony really is supportive when it comes to making sure that the best ideas are the ones that go into the game, and they've been a wonderful partner for many, many years. I give a lot of credit to Shu Yoshida, Connie Booth, Grady Hunt, Greg Philips, Frank Simon, Scott Rodhe -- all the guys up there who are part of the production team that I think fervently believe that it's the game, the game has to be great, it's not releasing at the end of the quarter or making your shareholders happy with quarterly statements. If you have a great game and you take your time to do it right, then everybody's going to be happy -- your shareholders, your marketing folks, the consumers especially.
G4: The way your development process works, that you are able to get games out what seems like once a year, how does your iterative process work? Are you able to iterate much during the design process, or when you guys have finished pre-production, it's just that until the finish line? Do you have any wiggle room in there when you actually start creating the game?
Price: The pre-production process is relatively unstructured, so that's the time where ostensibly we are trying out new things, seeing what works and what doesn't, and the idea is that when we hit production, everybody is charging towards that final goal of getting a gold disc done. The reality is that our pre-production periods probably aren't as productive as they should be and we end up doing a lot of prototyping during production, which can cause stress because you do end up throwing out finished work. But the thing is the game has to be great, so you just deal with it. I think as a company we're getting much better about figuring out how to do prototyping on the fly more efficiently so that we don't disrupt production if we do prototyping in production, and how to make our pre-production periods more effective.
"I hadn't really learned that lesson that 'hey, it's okay to kill your babies'"
G4: Its sounds like a really difficult problem because pre-production is sort of the idea process, and making it more effective seems challenging.
Price: It is. You kind of have to set a target date on which you will be finished with pre-production and at which point rest of the production team can roll over and start working on it, but, you know, good intentions pave the way to hell or something like that. I think we're getting better and every time we make a new game, we learn more lessons about how to be become a more efficient studio while allowing for more creativity through iteration.
G4: I interviewed some of the Ratchet team for A Crack In Time a little while ago, and they seemed to relish the challenge of having to reinvent themselves even though they're in a defined structure. Every time you make a Ratchet game you can't change too much, or else it won't be a Ratchet game. But finding ways like with A Crack In Time's time mechanics, you got people to play a different kind of game even though they were playing Ratchet.
Price: Well, it has its plusses and minuses. One of the plusses is if the world and the characters are already defined, you have less to worry about. You can just focus on new gameplay mechanics, having new weapons, thinking about what online features might really differentiate this one from the pervious, but it is somewhat restrictive because it's harder to change a core gameplay feature and because if you do, then you risk alienating your hardcore audience. With a new IP, then the plus is the sky is the limit, you can go crazy. The minus is...man, with all those options it's sometimes really hard to find the thing that works, the thing that's going to get the team most excited, the thing that you think is going hit the target audience squarely.
G4: That's what I always find interesting about the Ratchet series. Adam Sessler and I always talk about how the series is like comfort food. It's different, but it's not. In an industry that screams innovation, there's something to be said for something that's the same but different.
Price: Well, we've definitely gone too far when it comes to change with some of our previous games. Deadlocked is a good example. Deadlocked we felt "Okay, let's change things up, let's try to make the game darker, let's take Clank out, let's put Ratchet in an armored suit," and it did not do as well as their predecessors and we felt that was something we shouldn't try again. Let's not make changes that are so radical. Ironically, in Resistance 2, we made a lot of core changes -- we changed from our weapon wheel system to a two-weapon system, we changed the health mechanic and we got negative feedback about that. So, sequels are always an interesting balancing act.
G4: You're a company that very much encourages feedback, you guys like to hear from your fans. How do you balance between what you're hearing from your fans and then, as creative types, wanting to do different things? Is the solution a new IP because there is no expectation?
Price: I think a lot of the feedback we get isn't focused on adding new stuff to the game, it's more complaints about things that are broken in the existing game. But we do get feedback about things that people would like to see and we discuss them, and in many cases we integrate them. A good example is on Resistance 2. It was pretty clear that people were pissed about not having online co-op, and so we took that feedback and we said to ourselves "Okay, it's pretty obvious that people want online co-op, right?" We heard that before the game was released with Resistance 1, so what can we do to not just satisfy them but to exceed their expectations. And that was a challenge, so we did the eight-player online co-op mode with the multiple classes and we really tried to go well and beyond what people wanted. And that's our goal, because I believe that when people want something, it's what they want today. That's what they see in other games and so that can be very helpful, as long as we keep in mind that the game we're releasing is two years down the pipe -- or whatever the schedule happens to be -- and as long as we understand that the consumer's expectation will change in those two years, we better now be ambitious about what we're trying.
G4: Is the intent there to be a little more ambitious than you know the game will end up being because you're trying to take into account player expectation change? Especially with shooters, where there are so many of them and they're so iterative and they're all playing off each other. While developing Resistance, was there a moment some other game came out and you realize "Oh man, this has completely changed the landscape, we need to think about how we are going to incorporate to our game."
Price: Yeah. With Resistance 2, we changed our lighting model in the middle. I remembered, I think I really upset Mike Acton, who is our core director, and I said "Look, I know I said we weren't going to change the technology anymore, but we really need to change it because a couple of games that came out look awesome."
G4: I was talking to Randy Pitchford earlier this week and one of the things he talked about was that he said "I can't wait for companies to rip off Borderlands so they can do what we did and do it better." Depending on the designer you talk to, some want to do something completely different or take the best parts of something and build on top of that. Do you guys like to take elements from other games or is the intention to do something different?
Price: We absolutely reverse engineer other games to see and to learn how they do their auto-aiming, how they have created their controls, so we're constantly finding inspiration from other games in many genres and that's gone on from the very beginning. I thought it was interesting today [at DICE] that the guys at Vigil, who made the talk about Darksiders, said that Ratchet was an influence. In fact, they told me that before. [We were] hanging out two nights ago and they said that they had taken Ratchet and they had analyzed its jump heights and its run speeds and I said "That's really cool, because we did the same thing with Maximo way back when when we were doing Ratchet 1." And the way it worked was Mark Cerny brought in Maximo and he said "Hey, let's check this out," and he started analyzing the segment length and looking at how much gameplay they got when in a certain length of their levels. And we actually used that as a template for the first Ratchet. So we all do that in this industry, and I think it's crazy not too.
G4: That's actually come up recently. If you look at Darksiders, one of the huge influences for that was Zelda. They kind of lifted the Zelda template and did their own thing with it. And with Dante's Inferno from EA, they kind of looked at God of War and lifted the template from that. One of the things that I was arguing when I reviewed Dante's Inferno was that just because you say "I'm going to take this and do it in our game," doesn't make it easy. Just accomplishing that is a feat itself.
Price: I think that we've got to be careful not to become copycats. I mean, I don't think any of us in this industry want to put out a clone of somebody's else's game. You can't get much pride as a creator if you do that. But finding out how something worked in another game and actually improving it or repeating it in your game at a core level -- I use auto-aiming because it's something we talked about all the time in Insomniac -- it's really hard, I agree with you. Auto-aiming for us on Resistance...this was our first foray into first-person shooters since 1996 and we kind of lost that understanding of how really good first-person shooter aiming works, so we looked at Halo and we spent a lot of time just taking videos of Halo and slowing things down and figured out how they did it and it helped.
"We're always looking for new ideas. We will have new IP coming out sometime in the future'"
G4: Between Resistance and Ratchet you havet two IPs that you are iterating on and releasing sequels for in a pretty regular fashion. Do you expect that'sgoing to be something you guys want to continue to do, or do you feel any desire to pull out from the cycle that you guys have kind of entered into just so you maybe have a little more time to work on something?
Price: We're always looking for new ideas. I mean, there's just no question about that. That's why Resistance came up in the first place, because as a studio we needed to branch out and not just for business reasons, but just for sanity. You get sick of the same thing all time, then you get burned out on it, so, yeah, for sure we will have new IP coming out sometime in the future.
G4: Is that kind of the motivation when you get around to the talk where you seriously want to do something different? Is it "Okay, we've been doing this, let's find something new that we can branch off too?" It feels like establishing the North Carolina studio is saying "We want to do something new, but we have this core competency in our homebase. Let's set something up somewhere else."
Price: Yeah, we have built more teams at Insomniac, so we have the opportunity to do a lot of games. What I like though about Ratchet and Resistance is those universes are pretty limitless. I think most game franchises are, where you can take them into a lot of different directions, you add to them, you can add to the story, so both of those franchises still have a lot of roads ahead of them. The one game that didn't for us was Sypro. We abandoned Sypro because we felt like the character himself had such limitations that we just couldn't do much. The real reason was he didn't have hands. He couldn't actually stand up and hold anything, so what were we going to do? I mean, we could have changed it so he could have hands, I suppose, but that's why we went to Ratchet. Ratchet has been kind of our infinite land of possibilities.
G4: Once you set something in sci-fi, you can pretty much do anything with it. As a company that found repeated success and you now you've had a chance to open up the North Carolina Studio, do you find that you like to work in constraints? I mean, you could get a lot bigger, you could be working on many more projects than you're probably working on now. Is there something to be said for remaining small and focused, even though you could expand?
Price: Absolutely. I think that the larger we get, the more difficult it is to maintain a company culture that is all about collaboration, communication and making sure everybody feels ownership of the product. And it's too easy if you are big, I think, to get disconnected from what's really important, and that's the games. We've kind of leveled off of where we are, which is a little bit over 200 folks company-wide, and what's great is that there are many people at Insomniac who've been there for over five years and everybody knows each other. We've evolved together as a group, and there are a lot of...because we have an experienced group that's been through the ringer together, I think there are more opportunities to do cool things down the road. If we were to bring another 200 folks then, oh my god, I think it would be a distraction from what we really need to.
G4: It's seems great that we don't have talk about the new hardware that might be coming out. You can design a game now and it's a safe assumption that this piece of hardware will still be in the hands of the consumer in 2 to 3 years. Developers seem really excited about the idea. If new hardware comes around, you spend a third of your budget just getting to work on that damn thing, as opposed to working on the game.
Price: Oh, yeah. As a business person, it's certainly a good thing. As an industry, you spend a lot of money on re-tooling when a new platform comes out, so having a few more years to just focus on this audience, just focus on this hardware is great, and that's something else that's important as well. If we shorten the hardware cycle, then the audience becomes bifurcated and it's really difficult because we are, as developers, looking for the largest possible audience, and it's almost as if the rug gets pulled out from under you with a new piece of hardware. Now, it doesn't mean that you can't stay on the old hardware -- I mean, the games that were being released on PlayStation 2 just a year or two ago were still doing pretty well.
G4: I know the God of War team recently talked about that, too. There was a lot of pressure for them to take God of War 2 to the PS3, but they said "no, we can do it better on PS2" and it was a wild success even on the PS2.
G4: Insomniac's changed a lot since you founded it. Where do you see yourself going? Where, ideally, do you want to be as a developer, where do you want the company to be?
Price: I'd like to see our games up there doing what Uncharted 2 did last night [at the DICE awards], which is sweeping the awards, and I'd like to be able to do that while maintaining our size and maintaining the culture that we have.