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Insomniac Games: From Purple Dragon to Incredible Spidey

In another reality, Extreme Software would be turning 25 Thursday, a game studio made famous by its original creations of purple dragon, of orange interstellar raccoon, of human Resistance. Famous for creating, most recently, the best Spider-Man — some would argue best superhero — video game of all time.

But back in 1994, when Ted Price went to file articles of incorporation for his company he discovered someone else was called Extreme Software.

“Thank god,” Price said recently in an interview with Variety.

Instead of doing something like adding an extra X to the name — “Oh, my god,” Price said when he heard the suggestion — they came up with a new name: Insomniac Games.

And now a quarter of a century later, the studio fiercely maintains its independence as it continues to thrive in an industry that can make a billion dollar studio as quickly as it can snuff out a multi-million dollar one.

“We talk a lot about our culture and how we’ve evolved and how culturally we have remained very consistent,” Price. “I mean our values are the same. Our mission, our vision is the same in terms of wanting to create lasting and positive impacts on players. But our processes have evolved significantly, we’ve grown in terms of size, but how we attack problems collaboratively hasn’t changed.”

Does Whatever a Spider Can
Back in 1994, the game industry was in the midst of a massive seachange. The 3DO had just emerged, bringing with it the use of CD-Roms for console games.

“People forget the fact that that probably was the birth of the modern video game industry because CD-Roms allowed people or groups like Insomniac to get into game development,” Price said. “Prior to that, burning cartridges and ROMS was something that only large developers could really afford to do.”

The 3DO opened the doors to just about anyone, Price said.

The company cut its teeth working on “Disruptor” for the 3DO with Universal Interactive set to publish the game. Before the game’s release, though, the game shifted over to PlayStation. The company’s work with PlayStation kicked off not just the studio’s first big original IP, Spyro, but also a decades-long relationship with PlayStation the birth and success of both the “Ratchet and Clank” franchise as well as the “Resistance” franchise.

In 2013, Insomniac started making games for other platforms, releasing games like “Fuse” and “Sunset Overdrive.”

“We had to get scrappy.”

The studio’s most recent game and biggest success to date was another PlayStation exclusive, this time for the PS4: “Spider-Man.” The overwhelming success of the game has been “pretty incredible,” for the team, Price said.

“Everybody worked incredibly hard on it and like most games, you don’t know how people are truly going to respond once it’s out in the market.  So we were all waiting on pins and needles and when the responses came in from both the press and the fans, we all breathed a sigh of relief and started celebrating.”

One of the keys to the game’s success, Price said, was being able to plumb Spider-Man’s long, long history, many forms, and many stories.

“We had a lot of material to work with to create our own original story,” he said. “As a result, our story felt authentic to fans because they’re used to hearing different Spider-Man approaches and so ours was additive to the Spider-Man universe.”

In terms of sales, “Spider-Man” is Insomniac Game’s biggest hit, but it was also the most ambitious game the studio has ever made in terms of size of the world, the complexity, the length of the game.

“We have had to grow new muscles in terms of how we produce games to actually handle delivering a game of this size,” Price said.

What that meant, he said, was that the studio had to dig into its own production process to work out how they could improve it.

“We had to figure out can we improve to deliver this with a team that is probably not as big as some of the internal teams at larger publishers,” Price said. “We had to get scrappy. We had to communicate consistently. We had to try things that we didn’t think would work and then fix them when they broke. And that was another growth moment in our history.”

What the studio realized was that it needed to improve its pre-production process, making sure they were clearly defining the game they wanted to make. Then to prototyping efficiently and figure out game mechanics before they started to layer on other aspects of the game. Finally, the need to understand what story they want to tell.

“All those things have to be done well at the beginning of any production,” Price said. “And I think we’ve learned a lot about how to do it better during ‘Spider-man.’”

“Spider-Man” represented a lot of firsts, a lot of risks for Insomniac.

“Up until Spider-Man we had never worked on an IP we didn’t create,” Price said. “Jumping into Spider-Man was brand new for us. It was us taking some risks and, and saying, ‘OK, let’s continue to walk to the edge of the cliff and jump off.”

The studio was also building on their experience with open world, story-driven games.

“We made the decision to double down in that area and go for it with New York and with ‘Spider-Man,’” Price said. “So what we’re doing is we’re developing muscles that we already had with a goal of just keep getting better.”

With the game wrapped, Price said the studio hasn’t completely put it behind them.

“What we do is we go back and look at the parts of the production that could have been better and ask what can we change for the future regardless of the IP we’re working on,” he said.

 

Living Stories

While 2018 was the year that games as a service, living games, the loot-box infused games, the battle royale titles all seemed to take center stage, it was also a year of surprisingly nuanced, lushly immersive single-player experiences.

Two of the best games of 2018 were “God of War” and “Spider-Man,” neither of which connected players to anyone other than the story and the characters within it.

Price points that out when asked if Insomniac is worried about game development in a world replete with “Fortnite” and its endless battle royale play-alikes.

“We’re also in the world of ‘God of War’ and ‘Last of Us, right? “ Price said. “Games that have a transformative effect on people because they tell great stories and that’s where we have decided to put our efforts.”

That isn’t to say that Price thinks that narratively-driven, single-player games are the only sort of titles that are important for the game industry and those who play games.

“I think both work,” he said. “Having a strong narrative that affects people on an emotional level is incredibly important. It’s what we look for in all forms of media, from the TV to films and books to comics, to games. And being able to share our experiences as people, not just developers, as people who others and find common ground is really gratifying. But it doesn’t preclude having content that is games as a service, content that continues to live on. As we move ahead, everybody’s trying to untie the knot of how do you combine the two in a way that keeps giving players more of what they love?

“What we challenge ourselves with is just making a good game period.”

Unions, Diversity, CEO Pay
Outwardly, the game industry may seem like a collection of constantly warring factions, of competitive studios — EA versus Activision, of competitive platforms — PlayStation versus Xbox, of competitive approaches — casual versus hardcore. But that’s not really the case, Price notes. Despite its oversized economic footprint and global cultural reach, video games are still in many ways part of a small industry.

That’s something that PlayStation and Microsoft both seem to be highlighting a lot recently in interviews with press and talks to the industry at large. Most recently, chairman of Sony Interactive Entertainment’s worldwide studios Shawn Layden spent his DICE Summit keynote praising the best not just of PlayStation, but of Microsoft, Nintendo and developers everywhere.

That didn’t really surprise Price.

CREDIT: LAURA KINSER/DICE

“What I’ve seen over the 25 years we’ve been around is there are always open conversations happening between developers, between publishers, because we do face the same challenges,” Price said. “Yes, there are certainly battles when it comes to who’s selling the most games, et cetera. But this is also a very small industry where you see people moving from company to company and they bring friendships and strong relationships with them.”

As the industry grows out it also seems to be struggling with growing up in some regard. The past year has marked a massive amount of turmoil surrounding diversity, work conditions, the possibility of unionization, and CEO pay discrepancy.

Price said his company is watching to see what people have to say about unionization and listening to its employees. He said the issue of CEO pay is one that reached beyond the game industry and is a societal, complicated issue.

“The more diverse voices we can get into video games … the better we’re going to be.”

“I will say that what they also have talked about as a group is tackling bigger issues like diversity and inclusion in our industry and making it a better place for women,” Price said. “Making it a better place for those who have been left out. And that’s key for all of us. And I think having leaders take a stand is fantastic. I think it sets our industry apart.”

A lot of this is coming to a head now, Price said because the industry is becoming more self-aware than it has been in the past.

“We are willing to openly discuss the problems that exist in our industry that have to be fixed,” he said. “I think it’s a very different place than it was a decade ago. And I think it’s not just our industry, I think it’s outside of our industry as well.

“The more diverse voices we can get into video games, who are participating in not just the game design process, but in the evolution of our culture, the better we’re going to be.”

Surviving Another 25
There’s a lot of new and old that kind of works together and I think that’s part of how we’ve been able to sort of stick around for 25 years. The other part that’s been pretty consistent is flexibility. This industry is just unpredictable, it just goes through these crazy wild swings and if you’re not ready to turn on a dime and adapt then it’s trouble. So we have a team who is absolutely ready to deal with anything.”

Part of that, Price adds, is being able to deal with the times when their games don’t see the success they predicted.

“We’ve had our lows and I think the first low was tough,” he said. “But we understood why that particular game wasn’t well received. We understand that, we analyze it and then we say, ‘OK, what are we going to do going forward to make sure that the next game addresses whatever issue caused this one to be less well received that we wanted? And that’s just who we are. And I think that’s probably every developer.”

Price said the studio is thrilled that its biggest hit to date is the last game it made because to them it means that the studio, 25 years in, is still relevant.

“It means we’ve been hopefully making good decisions along the way and not being afraid to change and take on new things.”

 

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