Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart devs on the world-jumping future of PS5
Zapping instantly between game environments shows off an advantage to the console's solid-state storage that could be explored even further.
Scott SteinEditor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
ExpertiseVR and AR, gaming, metaverse technologies, wearable tech, tabletsCredentials
Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Insomniac Games' Tech Director Mike Fitzgerald and Game Director Mike Daly spoke to me over Zoom to share what they've seen as the biggest changes in making PS5 games so far, and what that hardware could lead to in games. To them, the solid-state drive's extremely fast-loading graphics has opened up the most interesting possibilities of all.
Besides making Rift Apart, Insomniac Games also created Spider-Man: Miles Morales at the PS5 launch. "Relative to Miles Morales, that extra six months was a bunch of time to let us really, really dig into the SSD and the decompression hardware and everything around it, and what we could get out of it for this game," Fitzgerald says of Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart.
Jump-cuts and teleporting via a fast SSD: Could level design be reinvented?
Rift Apart at times feels like a seamless blend of cinematics and gaming -- the sort of "living film" that game consoles have promised for years. The interesting technique that Insomniac seems to be playing with in Rift Apart is just how quickly new environments can be jump-cut to... or even blended.
"Games and movies are different in a lot of ways that will probably not change," Daly says. "But I think the immersion factor gets a huge leg up by the fact that we can basically cut between scenes wherever we want, whenever we want. And basically just get to where you need to be without having to mask it or find some sort of compromise."
Daly's favorite technical achievement in Rift Apart is how the graphics engine can subtly handle colored glass filtering light onto characters in real-time. For Fitzgerald, it's how wipes in cut-scenes worked by literally having two different worlds rendered at the same time. He sees that as a sign of how Rift Apart's portal-jumping tricks could be blown up even further.
"If we wanted to have an [in-game] cinematic where we cross-cut between characters who are not in the same physical place, you could never do that before, or you'd have to carefully construct some diorama that looked like two different places, even though it was one place, and you know, fix some camera, put motion around it in the right way," Fitzgerald says. "Thinking about tools that moviemakers have in their toolbox or their editing box that we've never had in games, and now we do, is pretty empowering."
Making sense of a lot of DualSense haptics
"We were learning a lot as we went in terms of how to use haptics and triggers," Daly says of Rift Apart's use of the DualSense controller, which is the PS5's standout feature, but not one that's always easy to maximize without feeling gimmicky. Sorting out how the DualSense's haptics could communicate information was a process of layering information and environmental effects, and not losing focus in the noise.
"There's a really deep rabbit hole of how far you can take the technology," Daly says of the immersive possibilities of the DualSense. "Since Ratchet has so much going on, we want to make sure that what you're feeling in your hands is something that you immediately recognize from the scene, rather than just sort of the chaos of a bunch of things mixed in."
Watch this: The PS5's DualSense is a surprising reinvention of the PlayStation controller
Daly says a lot of decisions on immersion using the DualSense's force-feedback and subtle vibrations (and speaker) were about prioritization. "We were kind of torn between, do we send just gameplay signals to tell you when something has changed about the game state? Or, do we try to add depth and texture to the world itself? And we had to basically explore a new area of design where we could accomplish both of those things."
Daly says the Rift Apart development team was inspired by an early internal demo of Sony's pioneering game Astro's Playroom, which served as a guide for how to dream up new ideas for PS5 games. Daly sees Rift Apart as being a similar guidepost to other PS5 developers. "Early on in Rift Apart's development, [Astro's Playroom] made a huge impact on what direction we wanted to take it, and what we thought was possible, what techniques worked and didn't. And we shared Rift Apart internally to other [Sony Interactive Entertainment] studios in hopes of having that same impact on them."
Rift Apart as a model for next-gen PS5 games
The various video and graphics settings in Rift Apart offer a chance to pick a higher frame rate or greater graphical fidelity, a decision that hints at more future customization based on what players are requesting.
Daly and Fitzgerald seem extremely pleased with what their team has accomplished in Rift Apart, but its fast-loading jump-cut style could also be a springboard. With Unreal Engine 5 support on the PS5 coming this year, and a new PlayStation VR headset on the horizon, the possibilities for the PS5 could go a lot further.
"Going forward in the future, I do want to dig deeper into those things that we touched on before, like how do we get an even more textured, nuanced haptics implementation?" Daly asks. "How can we look at game design from a different perspective, that's not constrained by loading and traditional level structure, or even open-world structure? I think there's some exciting possibilities there that I'm looking forward to bringing into our next set of games."