Insomniac Games is responsible for two of the PlayStation 3's most impressive titles in Resistance: Fall of Man and Ratchet & Clank: Tools of Destruction. We caught up with Brian Hastings, Chief Creative Officer at Insomniac, to discuss the studio's games, the power of the PlayStation 3 and new IPs.
VideoGamer.com: Could you give our readers a brief bio, detailing your history in the video games industry.
Brian Hastings: I joined Ted Price and Al Hastings in 1994 when the company was called "Xtreme Software". Back then I was our only gameplay and tools programmer as well as our IT specialist. As our company grew I gradually focused less on programming and more on gameplay, design and story. Ratchet and Clank: Up Your Arsenal was the last game I did programming on, and since then I've focused mainly on the creative direction, design, writing, voice direction and game tuning.
VideoGamer.com: Resistance was pretty much the big PS3 launch title and remained the premier title for many months after launch, especially in the US. Were you under pressure to ship the game whether it was finished or not?
BH: There was tremendous pressure on all developers to hit launch, but I think it's a testament to Sony's long term strategy that they didn't force developers to release their titles for launch if they weren't ready. A lot of Sony's first party titles that have come out this year were originally slated as launch titles, and those developers, along with Sony, made the choice to give the titles the extra time to be great rather than rushing them to launch. If we had been significantly behind schedule or if Resistance wasn't up to our own standards, I think Sony would have agreed to let us release later. But after E3 2006, as we showed Sony the latest builds of Resistance, it began to look like it could be their highest-profile title at launch and that's when the pressure really heated up. We had never been in that position before, where all eyes are on us and every minute detail of the game comes under a microscope. People began holding up Resistance as if it alone had to justify paying for a PS3 on launch day, and any minor flaw in the graphics became fodder for console war arguments about the power of the PS3. So there was definitely enormous pressure on us in that regard, and it was a huge relief when we finally went gold and started getting some really great reviews and great feedback from players.
VideoGamer.com: What didn't make it into the game that you wish you'd have had time for?
BH:In every game there are always lots of things you know you could do better if you had an extra month, or two months, or three months. In Resistance there are lots of little things we could have made better with extra time - things like enemy hit reactions, enemy variety, and certain presentation and pacing issues in the storytelling. I'm by no means disappointed with the final product, but there are always these polish and tuning issues that you could keep doing forever if you didn't have a ship date. If we had somehow had an extra six months of development time, the one major thing I would want to focus on is "wow moment" set pieces. Resistance is a really fun adrenaline ride with great weapon strategy, but we never really created those game-defining moments of spectacle that put you in a situation you've never seen before. That's something we're designing into our games from the beginning now, but there really wasn't time to pull it off in Resistance.
VideoGamer.com: Online play was a key part of the overall Resistance experience. The PS3 is often criticised for not having a service as well built as Xbox LIVE, but certain games on PS3 seem to have benefited from this - Burnout Paradise is certainly a more seamless online experience without the LIVE interface. What are your views on what Sony is offering?
BH: I think that once Sony makes the XMB accessible from within games then a lot of LIVE's advantages go away. I actually like a lot of things about Sony's online strategy and I think they have a couple key advantages over LIVE already. The most important being the fact that they support dedicated servers for their games, which allows us to create a lag-free play experience and avoid host advantage problems. Another factor, as you mentioned, is that the PSN's more open approach to online gives the developer more freedom to design the online experience any way they want. Sometimes this is good and sometimes it's bad, depending on how the code is implemented. Ultimately the actual multiplayer experience in the games comes down more to developer implementation than the overall platform. What makes or breaks a game's community are things like Clan implementation, matchmaking, ladders, stats, parties, tournaments and friends lists. How you implement those in the game, or whether they are there at all, comes down to the developer and not the overall network platform. That said, there are some things I really like about LIVE that I wish Sony did. The standard headset in the Premium Xbox 360 SKU helps build community a lot, for one thing. And I really like Achievements and I wish that was part of all PS3 games. We've actually been doing something similar in the form of Skill Points in all our games since 1999, but it'd be great to have that be part of an overall score and be able to compare your score to other players like you can in LIVE.
VideoGamer.com: Although a launch game, Resistance still stands up well visually today. How pleased are you with the game engine you've created on the PS3?
BH: Our game engine continues to evolve and improve every year and I'm very pleased with where it's at right now. The visuals in Ratchet & Clank: Tools of Destruction are quite a bit better than in Resistance - higher res textures, detail maps, more layered shaders, and much better bloom and specular effects just to give a few examples - and it all runs at double the frame rate of Resistance. The tech and gameplay teams have moved tons of things over to the SPUs that used to run on the PPU. Collision and physics are entirely running on SPUs now, which allows us to put much more on the screen at once than we were able to with Resistance. Moving more and more code to the SPUs is an ongoing process and I think we'll continue to see major benefits from this for several more years.
The tech team has a lot of amazing stuff in the works right now that will improve the engine much farther within the next six months, so as happy as I am with the engine right now I know it's going to be at a whole new level pretty soon. That's one of the big advantages for us, I think, in being a launch title on the PS3. All developers are in a kind of technological arms race this generation to push the limits of the hardware, and the PS3's distributed architecture is complicated but it offers an immense well of power to draw from that keeps giving better results the more time you spend with it. So by being a launch title we kind of got a year head start on a lot of other developers and we're able to have our second generation engine out there competing with a lot of games that are running on first generation tech. That's not meant as a slam on anyone else's products, just that every month of development time and experience on the PS3 pays dividends and we've been really fortunate to get started early.
VideoGamer.com: Moving onto Ratchet & Clank: Tools of Destruction, am I right in thinking you've used an enhanced version of that engine?
BH: Yes. There were many major tech improvements between the two games. In addition to the ones I mentioned earlier, Ratchet & Clank on the PS3 uses texture streaming which allows us to get about 150 MB of extra VRAM in each level. This allows for much higher resolution textures than we used in Resistance, as well as more texture variety. The tech team also created much more advanced shader technology than what we had a year ago, and that has made a huge improvement to the look of our characters and environments. Improvements to lighting technology also helped a lot. Even though we weren't going for ultra-realism, the improved lighting really helps the overall look. There are literally hundreds of tech improvements I'm not listing here, including the massive optimizations that allowed us to run at 60 frames per second. The amount of action we're able to put on the screen at 60 frames per second really dwarfs what we were able to do a year ago at 30 frames per second. What's most exciting is the way things are headed right now I think we'll see just as big a leap from our second generation engine to our third as we did from the first to second.
VideoGamer.com: What did you learn from Resistance that has helped the game engine mature for this new game?
BH: I don't think you can pick any one thing to point to. Any new piece of hardware has strengths and weaknesses and you need to learn how to maximize the strengths and minimize the weaknesses. The more experience you have with the hardware and the more iterations you do on your engine, the better the results. A lot of the things we've learned about taking advantage of the PS3's tech are going straight up on our R&D page at Insomniacgames.com and we're continuing to post more articles there all the time. You can find out a lot there about what we've learned and what choices we've made along the way to get our engine to where it's at now.
VideoGamer.com: At times the game has an almost Pixar quality to it. Given that CG movies take years to create, when did work begin on Tools of Destruction and what kind of budget did it take to bring it from the drawing board to store shelves?
BH: Preproduction work began in early 2006, and production work started around October of 2006. It's probably similar in a lot of ways to how Pixar is able to release a title every year even though each title takes over a year to make. We don't talk about what our budgets are, but I will say that we've never approached a problem by just throwing money at it. We've gotten where we are by steadily improving our techniques and growing a talented and passionate team. Video games aren't like major league baseball where you can buy yourself a World Series winner by picking out all-stars ala carte. Passion, team chemistry and refining your development process will yield better results than simply pumping more money into your budgets.
VideoGamer.com: Weapons always play a major part in the Ratchet & Clank series (and the same is true of Resistance). What are your favourites in the latest game and how do you keep coming up with new ideas?
BH: The Groovitron and Mr. Zurkon are two of my favourites. Both are ideas we had discussed in the past but weren't able to pull off on the PS2. Making every enemy in the game dance was previously impossible due to RAM limitations, and Mr. Zurkon was a little impractical on the PS2 because he needed one-liners for almost every enemy and situation in the game which simply took up too much disc space. It was really great to be able to finally do both of them and they add a lot of humour and personality to the gameplay.
As far as how we come up with weapon ideas, it's a collaborative process that everyone contributes to. We all have our own different brainstorming techniques that bring out our creativity. Personally, whenever I'm working on new weapon ideas I try to approach it from multiple angles at the same time. For instance, I'll imagine every enemy setup I can think of from our previous game and think to myself "what kind of strategy would I have wanted to use there that I didn't have?" The mini-turrets in going commando came about from this approach. Another angle is to think of "what would create a really stunning visual effect?" The Alpha Disruptor concept was initially based on just creating amazing visual spectacle. Another question I ask is "what is an interesting game mechanic that can be created by a weapon?" The suck cannon in the first Ratchet & Clank was something I thought of while trying to find a way to use enemies against each other. And, of course, a great question to ask is "what would be really funny to do in the game?" We've had a lot of memorable weapons come out of just answering that question.
VideoGamer.com: Is it odd to be an independent studio, yet producing some of Sony's key titles for their next-gen system? Do you ever do any work with Sony's studios?
BH: I don't know if it's odd, but it is a really great feeling to know we've been able to deliver two of the PS3's key titles. We're certainly proud of that and I know Sony really appreciates what we've done so far. In terms of inter-studio collaboration, that's something that we're trying to do more all the time. We're trying to create a bit more of an open development community where teams share tech ideas in a way that benefits all parties involved. Our R&D site is one way we do this, and our technology team also collaborates with other studios, sharing techniques and ideas. Our hope is that tech development in general becomes more open and collaborative, which should help improve the quality of games across the industry and also reduce development time.
VideoGamer.com: Do you ever look at rival systems (Wii, Xbox 360, PC) and wonder what you could create for them?
BH: That's something I did a lot more the last two hardware generations. I remember being jealous of the N64's perspective correction and z-buffer, and then in the next generation I envied the Xbox's high end GPU, hard drive and extra memory. But in this generation the PS3 has the most advanced hardware and there isn't really anything in particular I'm all that envious of. The most obvious example would be the Wii controller, I guess, but for the kinds of games that I'm interested in making I honestly prefer the PS3 controller.
VideoGamer.com: Looking ahead, a sequel to Resistance seems a given considering its success. Are there more new IPs to come from Insomniac or are you content with Ratchet and Resistance alternating over the years?
BH: We're always evaluating new ideas for IPs and we want to continue making new games. But it's also a big risk and a big investment any time you do something new, so when you manage to have a hit game, like Ratchet & Clank or Resistance, you want to develop it and explore it. We're definitely going to be making new games, and hopefully we'll do it even more often than we have in the past. But we also want to continue the story arcs of the franchises we've created, so it's a matter of finding the right balance.
VideoGamer.com: Finally, being one of the PlayStation 3's most high profile dev teams, what does the future hold for the system? Ratchet looks stunning, but is there more to come?
BH: We're already seeing a big leap in what people are able to do with the PS3 now compared to a year ago, and we're going to see just as big a leap between now and the end of 2008. The best looking titles will always be the ones that were built from the ground up on the PS3 and take advantage of both its internal architecture and its storage space. There are a lot of games in development right now that were built around the PS3 architecture so we'll be seeing some really amazing stuff over the next year. I think we're going to continue seeing major leaps each year in what people are able to do with the machine for at least three or four more years.
VideoGamer.com: Thanks for your time Brian.