It's not often we get to sit down for a proper chat with game developers - and by proper, we mean for longer than 10 minutes. This time, however, things were different. Last week, to celebrate the upcoming launch of Ratchet & Clank: A Crack in Time on PS3, Sony UK was kind enough to grant us a gargantuan 45 minutes with US developer Insomniac Games, and we grabbed the opportunity like Amy Winehouse nabbing the last tin of Strongbow in Iceland. Here, in part two of Insomniac's most revealing interview yet, writer and editor TJ Fixman, and senior community manager James Stevenson reveal what they really think of Ratchet & Clank and Resistance 2 review scores, talk A Crack in Time DLC, and explain why R&C is the developer's magnum opus. Missed part one? Never fear! Discover the the origins of Ratchet & Clank and learn what the team does to celebrate a game going gold here.
VideoGamer.com: Reviews for A Crack in Time have been published now. Do you guys take any interest in reviews? Do you care?
TJF: [Laughs] We bought an international data plan before we came out here on our iPhones, and we have each used up 90 per cent of our data plans checking.
JS: We were both saving for reviews hitting. We knew when they would start to hit because we knew when the embargo was.
TJF: You get so close to a game over a 15 month production period that when it comes out you want to know what people think. So yeah, we've been checking all of the reviews.
VideoGamer.com: What do you think?
JS: There's more I want to see, but overall I'm seeing what I expected. I'm seeing some people be a little bit harsher. I'm seeing some people I thought were going to be really harsh, be really positive. Stephen Totilo's review was high praise from a guy who values innovation. For a series on its seventh game from us, but ninth game in the series, in seven years, to get high praise from someone with that love of innovation is nice. The IGN review was good. Gametrailers. I even thought the Eurogamer review, despite... you know the tough thing in this industry is we're trained to think seven is a bad score. With Eurogamer, a seven is pretty good, so even their review read well. I could easily see that same review be an eight from them. I try and focus on the text a lot of the time.
VideoGamer.com: If only everyone did.
JS: That's the problem we have as an industry as a whole. You are your Metacritic number. If you read the text there are a lot of positive things. That's where the real valuable feedback comes from for us, because we can get hung up on a few points of score either way. There's definitely a correlation, but I don't think it's a tied down thing, that reviews means sales or sales mean reviews. It helps, but bad reviews cannot hurt you either. It's always interesting to get that feedback. For me, feedback that impacts me even more though is fan feedback, in the long run. Resistance 2 got better reviews than Resistance 1, but the long term fan feedback from that game weighed on me.
VideoGamer.com: How so?
JS: The hardcore fans of Resistance 1 were maybe a little disappointed. Those folks consistently expressing that - especially GAF [NeoGAF].
VideoGamer.com: GAF can be a dangerous place.
JS: It was like your dog turned on you. That's the feeling of it. You had this dog that loved you. You loved the dog, too, but they expressed all this affection for you. And then suddenly the dog bites your hand and it's that feeling of, ooh, ow, that really hurts. That was, despite the reviews - the critics loved Resistance 2. Some people didn't like it, but for the most part... And the Metacritic is higher than Resistance 1. So we got better reviews than Resistance 1, but the overall opinion of it is that it was a failure by fans, that Resistance 2 was a failure, because maybe the expectations were so high for it. But that weighs on you more. We talk to journalists a lot but we deal with our fans every day - and when they are disappointed... Reviewers are playing lots of games. They're supposed to be critical. But the people who put their money down on our game, want to see our game be good, want to invest months of their time into our game, spend months of their time leading up to our game watching videos and reading about it and sending us questions and listening to our podcasts and investing hours and hours and being excited for our game, if they're disappointed then it hurts more than some reviewer being pissy about a game and giving it a seven. Well, okay, whatever. I can move on from that. I can ignore that. But fans that are genuinely disappointed are a lot harder to cope with.
VideoGamer.com: One of the criticisms of A Crack in Time is that the core gameplay is something fans have seen before in previous Ratchet & Clank games. How do you approach that issue?
TJF: It's funny. We see that in a lot of reviews. They say the gameplay hasn't changed so much but the gameplay is really, really good.
VideoGamer.com: That sounds a bit like our review, actually. How do you resolve that conflict?
JS: Well, there are three different ways I can answer this. I understand it. Innovation is important to critics. If you look at why PSN and Xbox LIVE games are almost favoured and discussed a lot, it's because they're these hotbeds of innovation and people try new things, and you don't have to pay full price to try out something new. Basically it's almost like a game critic's favourite thing in the world: only the new stuff compacted into a two to three hour experience for 10 bucks, and they don't even pay for it most of the time anyway. It's driving the industry forward, so it's a good thing. It's driving gameplay forward. People want innovation. You guys play so many games. We play a lot of games too. You don't want to play the same thing over and over again. I can understand that.
It's always hard. Look at the sports games like FIFA and Madden. They can't change their core gameplay so they have to figure out new ways to make it interesting. We are kind of in the same boat. I would almost say there's nothing we can do better. Maybe there is a way we can change things up. We tried with Gladiator. Reviews were not as good, fan reaction definitely not as good- . though there are also the other people on the other side of that. We always focus on the larger group, but there is definitely a significant group that liked it. They thought it was the best shooting and action of the franchise. They thought it was a great step, and they loved it. Those folks probably would love to see another game like it. So there is always that damned if you do, damned if you don't feeling. If you go too far off of your established gameplay, you're not really the next Ratchet & Clank game, you're a side game or something. But on the other hand if you stay too close to it then you get dinged for too much of the same. In some ways I feel like it may also be a matter of frequency. We've had, like I said, if you count the PSP games, nine games in seven years.
VideoGamer.com: Is that too many?
JS: No, it's not - especially considering different platforms and different audiences. The PSP games reach an audience that maybe never played them on PS2, and offered a way for people to play them on the road. The PS2 games were through 2006. That was the start of the franchise in a lot of ways. Every game developed different and new things. The PS3 franchise has opened it to a lot of new players as well. There were not many games out when Tools of Destruction came out - the PS3 was a year old. We wanted to create the Ratchet epic. That was something we wanted to do and now we've completed that trilogy and that epic story we set out to do at the beginning of Ratchet on PS3. I don't think it's too many. We experimented with the PSN game - that was a new thing for us, too. We got to try a lot of things. I know our fans would say it's not too many. They love it. For the average gamer who doesn't care about Ratchet, who doesn't live or die by Ratchet games, it doesn't hurt them to have Ratchet games on the market. As long as we're selling titles and remain profitable and being successful because of our Ratchet games and there are dedicated fans out there that want it, no, it's not too many. Maybe not so much for critics, who are forced to play every game that comes out and feel like, oh god I have to play another Ratchet game. But as long as the audience is happy, critics can say what they want. If we make our fans happy and we make a profit by selling the game, then those are the two critical factors for us to remain long term sustainable as a business.
That said, we also are aware that we can't milk it dry. If we keep milking and going back to the same well, and the well goes dry, that's not good for Insomniac with Ratchet & Clank and it's not good for Sony with Ratchet & Clank. Nothing will go unnoticed that people say. If people think the game is too samey or whatever, those comments don't necessarily fall on deaf ears. All the feedback we get is definitely considered. But at this point I don't think there are too many Ratchet & Clank games.
VideoGamer.com: Bringing it back to A Crack in Time, do you have any downloadable content plans?
JS: Nothing to share in that regard. I don't think we have any plans at this point. It's always so hard with single-player games, especially contained single-player games like this. We don't have that Fallout structure where we could easily add stuff. Quest for Booty proves we're not good at doing small things at Insomniac. We do big stuff really, really well. Even for Resistance 2, the focus for our one expansion pack was to create one big pack of stuff and not do small things. For Resistance 1 our maps languished a little bit because we just dropped these small map packs out there rather than focus on one big drop. So no plans at this point. Nothing to share yet.
VideoGamer.com: Is A Crack in Time closure for the series? How much closure is closure in this case?
JS: Closure is tying up loose ends everywhere. We get tonnes of fan questions. It's like taking that list and check, check, check, check. Where can we put this answer? Where can we put this answer?
TJF: A little bit more nuanced than that I hope!
JS: Well, you know! Honestly it's some of that! What happened with the Lombaxes? What happened to Ratchet's parents?
VideoGamer.com: Like the last half hour of the final Lord of the Rings film?
JS: Well not quite like that!
VideoGamer.com: Not as bad as that?
JS: Not as in your face as that.
TJF: We try to execute the ideas intelligently. We set up a lot of questions in Tools of Destruction and those things were paid off either in Quest for Booty or A Crack in Time. So for a lot of things we did have answers for. Some of the plot lines we opened up in Tools of Destruction that ended up being problematic production wise, like the Max Apogee thread, which at the end of the day was a fantastic story we had for him, but we just didn't have the time to pay it proper attention. We wrap that up in A Crack in Time as well. It's kind of like the love letter to the fans, saying 'here's the plan we had and here's the answers to the questions you've been asking'.
JS: As far as wrapping things up though, it concludes the story arc. After the last two games both ended in cliffhangers, this bookends it nicely. It establishes this as one trilogy, one set of games people will hopefully look back on fondly, or be able to go back and play through all three games in a row and feel like there was one thread. Despite the fact Tools of Destruction still has its own contained story too, like other great episodic entertainment does like Star Wars Episode one, two and three, there's one thread but each one has its own resolution. In Tools of Destruction they defeat Tachyon. In Quest for Booty Ratchet defeats Darkwater. So there's those smaller stories but it's all part of this big, longer thread that will hopefully stay together and I hope will show off how far Insomniac has come in telling a cinematic story in this Ratchet & Clank universe. Hopefully it will be our masterpiece... Not masterpiece but our key Ratchet & Clank storytelling experience.
TJF: The magnum opus.
JS: The magnum opus. There you go! That's what I was looking for. Something like that.
VideoGamer.com: This isn't the end, though, is it? Just because this is the end of this particular story arc, it doesn't mean you're done with Ratchet & Clank. Or are you?
JS: Never say never. We could do another Ratchet & Clank game. I doubt there would be a situation where Ratchet & Clank... You know it's a huge IP, big universe and a lot of stories to tell and I'm sure it's a big property for Sony. Sony owns the IP. So, I'm sure this isn't the end for the characters, but I think players will have to see the end of the game to understand more.
VideoGamer.com: Will there be a bit more time in between the release of A Crack in Time and the next game than we've been used to?
JS: Well that would still imply there would be another game coming. I can't really say.
Ratchet & Clank: A Crack in Time is due out exclusively for the PS3 on November 6. Check back soon for part three of our interview with Insomniac, where James and TJ dish the dirt on the studio's future!