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Ratchet and Clank dev faces its biggest year yet

22 years after its creation, Insomniac Games is branching into new territories, releasing its most ambitious and diverse lineup to date.

Ted Price spent much of 1994 traveling the highways of California pitching a video game. After a successful meeting with Mark Cerny at Universal Interactive Studios, Price had the green light to create the first-person shooter Disruptor. It would become the first title from Insomniac Games.

On the same day as the meeting at Universal, Price met Jason Rubin, the founder of another game studio called Naughty Dog, Inc. It was the beginning of a long friendship -- the two would go on to develop dozens of games as the medium moved toward the 21st century.

"That was an adventurous time," Price says, smiling. "I remember making some really dumb moves back then. I never really knew what was coming next."

It's 2016, and the pair sits in an air-conditioned conference room at Insomniac Games in Burbank, Calif. Like much of the studio's space, this office is lined with traces of the developer's past. Ratchet and Clank prints adorn the walls, serving as reminders to the company's veterans, and touchstones to those who have recently joined.

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Ratchet and Clank PS4 (2016)

Insomniac Games

Rubin is now head of Oculus Studios, the game development arm of Oculus, which just released its Rift virtual-reality headset to the public. Price is still head of Insomniac. His company is still independent. And now, 22 years after that chance meeting at Universal, he's on the precipice of more change.

Minutes prior, they revealed two new titles for the Rift: Feral Rites and The Unspoken. These games -- along with Edge of Nowhere (also a VR game), Song of the Deep, and the recently released PS4 version of Ratchet and Clank -- compose a five-game release schedule in 2016 alone. This is the busiest Insomniac has ever been.

"It's exciting," Price says. "It's nerve wracking. But we prepared for this for a long time. We have teams that are focused on making sure their game in particular delivers. We work in secret for such a long time, even when we're working on one game. But to be able to finally reveal all of these projects at once -- it's a real emotional boost."

Rubin nods, smiling. Oculus Studios is launching over 20 titles this year, and like Insomniac, the group has its work cut out for it. "It's been absolutely crazy," Rubin says. "It's an insane amount of things to keep track of, to the point that you almost can't remember the names of everything you're releasing.

"If you asked me to name 20 of the titles off the cuff, I would probably reach the high teens."

Leaving aside Song of the Deep -- which Insomniac is developing with the Unity engine -- each of Insomniac's remaining 2016 games is being built on the studio's internal engine. This, Price says, allows for consistency across vastly different titles, letting the teams focus more on the creative aspects of each.

Even so, Insomniac comprises about 230 people, including support staff. That's less than some AAA studios have for just one game. Although Insomniac is working with a staggered 2016 release schedule -- following Ratchet and Clank on PS4, it's releasing games in June, July, early fall, and the holiday season -- this workload begs the question: is Insomniac overextending itself?

"The concern always exists," Price says. "But it's not like we're working on games at separate locations, on separate engines. There's a lot of collaboration here. There's a shared knowledge. All three of the VR teams are sharing design lessons they're learning, and a lot of leap-frogging happens. They discover something useful for gameplay, they talk about it with other studio members, they keep moving forward.

"There's also an effort to avoid an undue amount of stress. We prioritize things for the core engine team to do. We always have a good idea of what needs to be done next."

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Song of the Deep (2016)

Insomniac Games

Leaving aside the number of projects Insomniac has in the near future, 2016 also marks a creative departure for the team. It's leaving behind the whimsy of Ratchet and Clank, the flashiness of Sunset Overdrive, the outlandish artwork of the Resistance trilogy.

Song of the Deep portrays the studio's first female protagonist to date. The Unspoken explores the occult underground of a dark, fantastical Chicago. Feral Rites implants ancient myths in a Zelda-esque open-world with the all-out combat of a God of War. And Edge of Nowhere, the title that sparked Insomniac's obsession with VR in the first place, brings us to the icy climes of Antarctica, where an explorer confronts monsters straight from the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, as well as his own traumatic past.

Edge of Nowhere was built from the ground up for virtual reality. Through Insomniac's relationship with Oculus, it became a Rift exclusive. Brian Allgeier, creative director on Edge of Nowhere, has worked on the Resistance trilogy, Spyro games, Fuse and nearly every Ratchet and Clank title. Few franchises have made their way through the studio without running into Allgeier in some way or another.

"I got turned onto VR around 2014," Allgeier says. "And horror immediately evoked a visceral reaction from me."

He sits in a small conference room deep inside Insomniac's maze of decorated offices. "You close off your ears and your eyes, and it's funny -- this primitive, instinctual part of your brain just clicks on in VR. It's very potent. So while I've always enjoyed dabbling in horror, I wanted to see how it could go a little further."

When Insomniac first began talking with Oculus, a horror game made sense. Despite the former's history with lighthearted sci-fi adventures, it knew how to carry a player along, from planet to planet, set-piece to thrilling set-piece. Allgeier and his team pitched their next project as an Insomniac adventure game laced with elements of horror.

Like many horror fans, Allgeier is quick to disparage jump scares. Although they can elicit a real response from a viewer or player, he says, he's more interested in building tension. As Allgeier tells it, most of Edge of Nowhere's scares will come naturally. Most of them will feel earned.

Thinking back to the first Ratchet and Clank game in 2002, Allgeier recalls its camera. It followed behind Ratchet in order to avoid colliding with enemies and environmental structures. In creating Edge of Nowhere, Allgeier faced similar problems.

Virtual reality lends itself well to a first-person perspective. We see what the characters see, we hear what they hear, we do what they do. But Allgeier wanted something different. In his mind, there was a better way to tell his story. In Edge of Nowhere, we follow along behind the character, always a few feet behind, more voyeur than companion. We may be controlling the protagonist, but his perspective is not our own.

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Edge of Nowhere (2016)

Insomniac Games

"We're thinking about how relatable this hero is, how you can empathize with him," Allgeier says. "And there's something they do in the movies a lot. It has to do with mirror neurons in the brain." These neurons fire when an observer witnesses an action in a counterpart, and performs the action simultaneously. Scientists disagree on this brain function's purpose, though, sometimes citing imitative learning, other times saying it's a necessary physiological response for understanding other beings.

"If I see a spider crawl across someone's arm in a film, I feel that weird, tingly sensation. And you almost get more of that when you have a vulnerable character in front of you. You see them get killed, stabbed, murdered in front of you. You internalize it a little more in this case."

This isn't something Insomniac had to consider with its past titles. There's a lot of science to game design, and as one of the medium's most experienced studios, Insomniac has many aspects of development boiled down to a science. But for Allgeier, 2016 marks a turning point in his career -- he has fewer restraints, more opportunities for research, and more room to branch out creatively.

"We can tell stories with more ambiguity," he says. "We can be more mysterious. We can explore mature themes and adult experiences. And sharing our work with each other, having that element of surprise that comes with seeing each Insomniac team's game -- that's something special."

Allgeier is one of hundreds of developers to pass through Insomniac's halls. The studio created one of video games' most recognizable mascots, bathed in vivid color palettes against whimsical backdrops. Insomniac made first-person shooters, third-person adventures, and four-player co-op games. It survived as an independent studio for more than two decades. And it's still here.

"Back when we started, I didn't know what was around the corner," Price says, as the media event comes to a close. "And right now, I feel like that again. What we are working on now -- it pretty much has an unknowable future."

It was 22 years ago when Price set out to pitch Insomniac's first game. This was before Edge of Nowhere. Before Ratchet and Clank. Before the Unreal engine and virtual reality headsets. He hadn't yet met people like Mark Cerny, Jason Rubin, and Brian Allgeier. The highways of California were winding, and lengthy, and lined with exits to various towns and numerous dead ends. He didn't know where he would end up -- but he kept on driving.

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