How Insomniac stole the heart of Spider-Man

Game director Ryan Smith on taking your first swing at a comicbook adaptation.

Marvel's Spider-Man is probably the finest licensed game adaptation of the past decade, its lead at once every inch the lycra-clad tumbler you might recall from comics and movies, and a creature only Insomniac could have created. In a panel at Gameslab today, game director Ryan Smith took attendees through the making of the game's traversal and combat systems, explaining how they contribute to the portrayal as much as its cutscenes and writing.

There are many variations and generations of Spider-Men, of course, from eight-limbed Man-Spiders through Spider Monkeys to the deeply confusing Peter Porker. Insomniac's 2018 refresh is no freshly-bitten Maguire but a crime-fighter in his prime, having defended New York for eight years and amassed a sizeable rogue's gallery. This makes for a bolder beginning - the game literally kicks off mid-swing, as Spider-Man chases down a misbehaving Kingpin - but Insomniac was keen that newcomers not feel out of their depth.

"We knew that there was a chance this could be someone's first game - their first experience not only of Spider-Man, but also of gameplay," Smith recalled. "And we wanted to make sure that everyone had that hero experience we envisioned, but then as you kept with it, we wanted you to find ways to master that gameplay."

The most important element to get right was, of course, the swinging. Insomniac prototyped the mechanic early on - the project began life in late 2014, and entered "full production" in 2017 - but nailing the feel took years of revision.

The studio began by creating a physics-based system, with web lines affixing themselves to buildings in the open world rather than sneakily hooking you to the skybox, as in Spider-games of yore. "We knew that it had to feel like swinging, not flying," Smith said.

Subordinating the experience firmly to the laws of physics wasn't enough, however. "We got to the point where you could motor along in the city pretty well. Lines were attaching to buildings, every one of our [initial] boxes was checked, but surprise! It didn't feel fun or heroic. It didn't feel like an experienced Spider-Man. It's probably not super surprising, but 'physically-based' doesn't mean 'fun'. That's not the end of the story. If it was, it would be really simple - we'd just put it into a physics simulator."

For an ostensibly battle-tried web-slinger, the game's Spider-Man seemed uncomfortable on his home turf. Slamming into walls, for example, "was something we thought would feel really impactful" but in practice, felt clumsy for a character with years of web-slinging under his belt, as did stopping dead at building corners. "Why would they hit a wall like that? It doesn't make sense."

"It was super-important to have a believable New York City, so the environment team added fire escapes to a whole bunch of buildings, where they belonged," Smith went on. "But if you ran into them as Spider-Man, that did not feel heroic! And then running along a wall with limited steering - when you first attached to the wall you weren't able to steer in any direction. That was something we had to learn about and change over the course of the game."

While making these adjustments, the developer added smaller actions, such as sling-shotting from chimneys and gables, to break up the big swings and allow for snappy changes of direction. "Whipping over a rooftop, that's something that doesn't really say 'web-swinging', but it was a huge, important part of connecting [with the city]." Insomniac also gave players the ability to leap off each swing at different points in the arc while preserving momentum, and designed an "expressive" camera to accentuate the thrill of swooping and diving.

The game's combat - a mixture of melee combos, web gadgets, environmental interactions and "acrobatic improvisation" - involved its fair share of headaches. Back in 2014, Insomniac was hardly renowned for its third-person fighting systems: even Sunset Overdrive's raucous melee plays second fiddle to its arsenal of silly guns. "We had a lot to learn", Smith acknowledged.

The developer worked on a system for synchronised hit reactions, allowing the timing of kicks and punches to feel predictable even given differences between sets of animations. One of the major breakthroughs was an evasive move prototyped by lead animator Brian Wyser and programmer Brad Fitzgerald, in which Spider-Man slides through an attacker's legs to sucker-punch them from behind. "I remember seeing this in a conference room and saying 'that's going to be it, we have to figure out how that's going in the game," Smith reflected. The developer also found that the character felt most himself fighting off the ground - hence, the inclusion of a move redolent of Devil May Cry that allows you to spring off enemies and continue the pummelling in mid-air.

The game's moves are played out according to a branching animation flow chart, each jab or dodge feeding into another care of some beautiful transitions; there are many possible combinations of actions, but Insomniac's hope is that they all feel equally organic. A sense of pleasing fluidity aside, this reflects the aim to create an accessible hero but one who doesn't feel like he's still learning the ropes.

"As a beginning player, you're probably going to hit punch button a lot, you're probably going to hit dodge a lot," Smith observed. "But if you have this pattern where you hit punch and then dodge and then something cool and unique happens, this speaks to that aim of giving all players that Spider-Man experience, while a more experienced player is going to figure out exactly what they're doing."

Last but not least, the studio wanted this Spider-Man to have the hallmarks of an Insomniac character, a descendant however many times removed of Ratchet & Clank. "There was something missing, where it didn't have that definitive stamp," Smith said. Partly this proved to be a question of gadgetry: as in the Ratchet games, there's a weapon wheel loaded with outlandish tools like the Spider-Bot, which gives you a first-person, grass-level view of the city. "For me as a long-time Insomniac, popping up that weapon wheel felt like coming home." And partly, he went on, it was about adding in "heart and humour and charm".

One of the ways the developer went about this was giving Spider-Man the ability to interact with passersby in the city. In a wholesome reversal, the same inputs that let you club and lasso miscreants allow you to high-five other New Yorkers or fire off a brace of finger-guns. "Those ideas all came in response to this question of how to make it more charming, and more like an Insomniac game," said Ryan.

This article is based on Eurogamer's attendance at Gamelab. Travel and accommodation were covered by the conference.

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Edwin Evans-Thirlwell

Edwin Evans-Thirlwell

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Soporific jaundiced warbler, based in London. Likes poetry, weird fiction, Soulsborne and Overwatch.

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