Insomniac Games prides itself on being first. At a recent media event attended by Eurogamer at the company's Burbank studio, Insomniac chief creative officer Brian Hastings gloats about how the company's upcoming aquatic adventure Song of the Deep is its "first metroidvania game", starring "the first solo female hero we've ever done" and it's "the first time we've ever released a novel to accompany the release of a game."
"It's also the first project with a brand new partner, with GameStop," he adds.
With the exception of that last bit, none of these things are especially fresh territory in this hyper-competitive industry. But hey, true originality is rare. Pretty much every piece of media is derivative of something else, and Insomniac seems to thrive on the personal challenge of what's new to them. And why wouldn't they? After over a decade of making Ratchet & Clank games and a handful of other shooters, the studio relishes the opportunity to try something different. As such, there's been a huge shift in the studio's structure as of late. For a long time Insomniac would focus on two big-budget titles at a time with maybe a smaller affair somewhere in the wings. But in 2016 it's putting out a staggering five games.
At a distance, most of these games don't look particularly daring. There's the retro platformer (Ratchet & Clank), the metroidvania (Song of the Deep), the brawler (Feral Rites), the linear survival-horror action affair (Edge of Nowhere) and the motion-controlled VR wildcard (The Unspoken). It's a Breakfast Club of video game genres made by developers old enough to remember The Breakfast Club. But dig a little deeper and it's clear that going from a studio focused primarily on triple-A blockbusters to a diverse company developing five smaller titles simultaneously is an audacious leap. Furthermore, every game Insomniac is working on at the moment has at least one spark of genuine inspiration buried beneath the smooth sheen of plasticy, polished Product that's kept the studio afloat for two decades.
Ratchet & Clank is courageous in its gall to resurrect a type of game nearly extinct in today's market. Song of the Deep is probably Insomniac's most conventional project on the docket, yet even it can be commended for its wistful, watery vibe and peculiar publishing arrangement with GameStop. Edge of Nowhere and Feral Rites are tinkering about with how a VR headset could enhance third-person adventures. And The Unspoken - easily Insomniac's boldest departure in ages - has completely re-envisioned an all new combat system.
If there's a strong throughline to the studio's current trajectory it's in its shift to VR as three of these titles are Oculus-exclusives. That's a big change for a studio that's typically muddled in more tried-and-true realms, but this is where CEO Ted Price is most excited, as he likens the impending VR boom to when video games first went 3D and no one knew how to design around that.
"We believe in general that VR is going to gain a foothold this year and grow, and it won't necessarily explode with the force," says Insomniac CEO Ted Price in an interview with Eurogamer. "We and Oculus are realists about VR in that it's going to be a slow burn at first, but at some point it's going to take off. I know we both believe it's here to stay."
Indeed Price's good friend of 22 years, Jason Rubin - the former co-founder of Naughty Dog who is now CEO of Oculus - likens the current climate around VR to how folks were skeptical of 3D gaming back in the day.
"'A character action game could never work in 3D,'" Rubin recalls people saying at the advent of the first PlayStation. "'The precision isn't there. In 2D you can see exactly how far you're jumping. Mario will never work in 3D,' they said."
"As developers we looked at it and said 'No, no no. This is where everything's going. It's going to be 3D. It's going to be bigger and bigger!'" he reminisces. "And it took awhile for the industry, especially consumers, to jump on that ride. And we look back now and it was obvious."
Like Rubin, Price harnesses fond memories of their youth in game development, when they were pioneers at the frontier of the 3D disc-based boom.
"Nobody can tell you how to design a game in VR, because everybody is still experimenting," says Price. "For us these three games all taking a different approach to design has been like going back to school. And it has been fantastic for our teams, because sometimes you can get jaded in this industry where you're in a particular genre or platform and you feel like the tweaks you're making may not create ripples in the industry. But in VR anybody can at this point generate something that nobody has seen before. Ever! And that's a pretty exciting place to be!"
He's not wrong. VR is very different in ways both big and small. By now many have had a chance to try one VR headset or another and can report the unfortunate, nauseating side-effects of playing a traditional first-person shooter with dual analogue sticks, but there are other, smaller issues to negotiate as well. Things like button prompts for a game where the headset inherently obscures your view of the controller is a design challenge Insomniac had to overcome.
Price knows VR presents a lot of challenges, and to him that's the exciting part. That's why all three Oculus titles Insomniac is developing are vastly different. Edge of Nowhere's use of VR adds presence in exchange for the possibility of getting motion sick. Your mileage may vary on whether the end result is a net positive (for me the nausea hit hard, but I seem to be in the minority). It's difficult to determine how much VR will add or detract from the still unplayable Feral Rites, though creative director Marcus Smith made some salient points about the potential of head-tracking to better monitor playtesters. And The Unspoken is one of those experimental motion-controlled games that we saw a lot of in the Kinect and Move days, but would have been rubbish using such tech.
"It's really great to be an early developer in VR and take those lessons that we're learning now and stay ahead. So we're absolutely interested in seeing VR succeed and staying in it," Price says.
But what about the big triple-A titles that made Insomniac so successful that there's a movie based on one of their properties coming to theaters this month co-starring John Goodman, Rosario Dawson, and Sylvester Stallone? (That would be Ratchet & Clank, by the way.)
"Will we continue to make games with small teams? Yeah, I think that's something that for us as a developer that's relatively large these days is attractive to a good portion of our studio, because in some ways it's going back to our roots where we were much smaller and nimble," Price says. "At the same time, we love traditional consoles as well. We love the big, bombastic adventures and we have a lot of people here who came to Insomniac to make those big, sprawling adventures like Ratchet & Clank. So that's what's awesome about being an independent developer is making those choices."
This explains Insomniac's shift to primarily smallish VR games, but why Oculus specifically? Why not PlayStation VR or Vive?
Price says that this is partially a practical consideration as all of Insomniac's current games aside from Song of the Deep use the studio's proprietary engine and adapting it to different hardware would put additional stress on the R&D team. Another reason is because Oculus is allowing Insomniac to keep its IPs. So even though Edge of Nowhere, Feral Rites and The Unspoken are exclusive to Oculus, there's no restriction against Insomniac bringing any potential sequels to PlayStation VR, Vive, or any other competitor.
When asked if Oculus' relatively small install base worries him, Price is realistic about the problem and maintains that Insomniac is playing the long game here. "It's not about the install base; it's about the creative opportunity, getting in early, and doing something that we haven't been able to do before, nor have any other people in this industry," he says. "We walked into this with our eyes open and knew that the install base would be low at first. Our interest was in generating new IP for what we know is an enthusiastic set of early adopters who want something different. "
Insomniac may not be the most avant garde of studios out there, but it's a passionate group thrilled by the advent of emerging tech. Its dedication to stay in vogue through a mix of traditional game genres with experimental hardware offers a sort of quietly rebellious charm, like a suburban dad growing a beard for the first time in their 40s. Insomniac may seemingly play it safe, but through its quietly daring decisions and wide-eyed wonder the studio strikes a peculiar balance where its dorkiness only adds to its charisma. That's a first.