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Video gaming

Spider-Man reboot the latest offering from American video game developer that celebrates the spirit of the underdog

Founded in 1994 by Ted Price, Insomniac Games is best known for early PlayStation favourites Spyro the Dragon, and Ratchet and Clank; this year’s Spider-Man game will be the company’s first Marvel production

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 June, 2018, 8:01pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 June, 2018, 6:19pm

About 25 years ago, long before Insomniac Games took part in bringing the hotter-than-ever Marvel Universe back to video game consoles, founder Ted Price had a vision for changing interactive entertainment. Sort of.

“We didn’t really know what we were doing,” Price, 49, says of the studio’s beginnings in his company’s Burbank headquarters. But at least Insomniac’s first game had a mission: “Think fast. Shoot fast. And kick a**.”

That was the phrase heard early in 1996’s Disruptor, Insomniac’s initial offering and an ambitious effort that tried, sometimes awkwardly, to capitalise on two trends – one that would remain dominant and another that would soon disappear – shooting and full-motion video.

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Yet despite being generally well received for a debut game, the Doom-inspired Disruptor failed to revolutionise either the industry or the company. That is changed.

Though Price in the early 1990s was smitten with the hellish violence of the genre-defining first-person shooter Doom, Insomniac would keep challenging itself to develop beyond the “think fast” and “shoot first” mode of gameplay. The company rose to prominence thanks to the lively, cartoonish and colourful worlds of the lovable Spyro the Dragon and the buddy action series Ratchet & Clank.

This September, however, Insomniac will release its biggest game yet: Spider-Man for Sony’s PlayStation 4. The stakes are high.

Spider-Man is the first Insomniac game based on a concept and characters that weren’t originally developed at the still-independent and generally outspoken firm – last year, for instance, Insomniac released a video that slammed some of President Trump’s immigration policies as “deplorable” and “discriminatory.”

Then there’s the matter of whether the sometimes fickle fan community will take to Insomniac’s vision. Past Spider-Man games have received mixed reviews at best. If Insomniac is successful, it could reboot the franchise in the gaming sphere and inspire the same sort of shared universe that Marvel enjoys on film.

Sony is clearly counting on big things. Spider-Man was one of the major announcements ahead of the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), which brought more than 69,000 to the Los Angeles Convention between June 12 and 14. The gaming giant even constructed a fake Chinatown about three miles from the real Chinatown, complete with theme park-like projections creating mock building facades and areas made to look like New York subways.

[Spider-Man] is a character that sort of reflects the way we see ourselves, as somewhat of an underdog
Ted Price

Price isn’t sweating. In fact, he seems ready to embrace any scepticism. “He is a character that sort of reflects the way we see ourselves, as somewhat of an underdog,” Price says of Spider-Man.

That is no surprise, since Insomniac began as something of a long shot: with US$30,000 from Price’s savings and a partnership with brothers Alex and Brian Hastings, who happened to have backgrounds in programming. Price had been working for his uncle’s medical services business, building databases for market research. He met the Hastings through his mother, who had been telling her friends that his son was starting a video game company.

“I was 23, and I was at the point in my life where I could make some bad choices,” says Brian Hastings, whose slightly younger brother had asked him to join him and Price in making video games, this despite Brian being a rising star in the medical field developing pacemaker technology. “We never made a game before. Al’s out of college. I was a year out of college … We didn’t do risk assessment. It was just like, ‘Hey, we’re making a game!’ It was a kind of a miracle we managed to emerge from that.”

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In recent years, Insomniac, which employs about 300 people, has been on an experimental streak, diving heavily into virtual reality and in 2016 releasing the retro-styled Song of the Deep, a thoughtful, family-focused game that at times felt like a children’s book.

And while the company has at times returned to the more adult-oriented shooter genre – see the Resistance series or 2013’s sci-fi effort Fuse – one of its biggest and most aggressive games was also its most absurd. Sunset Overdrive put a bubblegum-like spin on the overused post-apocalyptic setting. There were plenty of guns, but sometimes instead of bullets they shot stuffed kittens and Teddy Bears.

With Sunset Overdrive, Insomniac was fully embracing its legacy as a creator of boldly colourful and often absurd universes. It’s a lesson the company would return to repeatedly, and one that dates to its first Spyro the Dragon game in 1998: maybe not be so serious. Maybe sometimes the world needs a goofy purple dragon who flies around a brightly pastoral universe.

Of course, when it came to Spyro, there were business motivations as well. Mark Cerny, a long-time supporter and recently the architect of the PlayStation 4, at the time led Universal Interactive and prompted Insomniac to take advantage of the lack of family-friendly games on the first PlayStation.

“Nearing the end of production [on Disruptor], I started asking everyone at Insomniac – and there weren’t that many of us – what people wanted to do. And the answer wasn’t, ‘Let’s do another shooter.’ The answer,” says Price, “was let’s do something different.

“There were very few titles on the PlayStation that spoke to a broader audience. Most of them were targeted at older players. Having just done a dark game – even though Disruptor was kind of campy and unintentionally funny – it had a somewhat darker tone. What if we did try and make something that was more appealing to a family-friendly audience? I think for a lot of us too, we are naturally drawn to the lighter side of gaming.”

When Spyro hit, says Insomniac chief operating officer John Fiorito, a nearly 20-year veteran who started as an artist at the company, games were increasingly going after a more gritty, realistic look to take advantage of graphical enhancements. That encouraged the studio to go brighter and prettier in its tone for Spyro, and “that sort of opened a door for us that we stepped into.”

Insomniac has innovated in other ways as well and helped take a cultural lead with 2014’s Xbox One title Sunset Overdrive. At a time when conversations regarding representation and diversity in games were just gaining momentum, Insomniac chose to let players create a character of any gender and mix and match as many looks as possible.

The player begins the game as a deadbeat janitor already burned out with the daily grind. But once the Armageddon hits Sunset Overdrive turns into a title about embracing one’s inner weirdness. The chaos of the game is definitely destructive, but it carried a slightly political message, arguing that for anyone living paycheck-to-paycheck in modern America, a zombie-like apocalypse would likely be an improvement in quality of life.

There were very few titles on the PlayStation that spoke to a broader audience. Most of them were targeted at older players
Ted Price on Insomniac Games’ development

It’s a game, says Price, that “celebrated being different,” which instantly set it apart from the bevy of blockbuster titles that largely championed being male.

“We definitely throughout the game didn’t hold back in terms of what we allowed players to do and how we allowed them to express themselves – as a guy you can wear girls clothes, as a girl you can wear guy’s clothes,” he says. “In general, it adheres to our vision as a company, which is to make a positive and lasting impact on players’ lives.”

The company didn’t shy away from going political and made a statement last year against Trump’s proposed controversial travel ban from predominantly Muslim countries. “A lot of people throughout the studio were shocked at what was happening in our government,” Price said. “It affected – and we believe it would affect – many of our Insomniacs and people throughout the industry. We felt it was important to take a stand.”

Though Insomniac was deep into making what will be its highest-profile game in Spider-Man, Price didn’t consider it a risk to stick his neck out in such a divisive political and social climate.

“There is no question that in today’s society you are going to get feedback one way or another – it’s going to be positive and negative,” he says. “That is OK. I would much rather get feedback than not have people saying anything.”

Insomniac also broke from what might be expected of a Spider-Man game by presenting a slightly older Peter Parker rather than the teenage superhero shown in the recent films. In playable bits shown at E3, Parker in his 20s is still dorky and carefree – he needs to be since New Yorkers in the game readily mock his suit for making him look like he has a “skin condition.”

There’s much to be revealed about Insomniac’s plot for the game, but Spider-Man already appears to be a title in which the main character is constantly in motion, effortlessly hopping from building to building and easily bursting into a vertical trot up a skyscraper. Indeed one of the developer’s challenges was to create a hero who seamlessly glides among buildings. “To get in the door,” says the game’s creative director Bryan Intihar, “the swinging had to be awesome.”

The game also channels the effervescent art design Insomniac has become known for – even the evening fight scenes are full of colour and luminous shading. New York doesn’t quite feel lifted from the comic books but also isn’t hyper-real, lending the game the inviting feel of a classic cartoon.

By placing Parker in his 20s, the game will have a “more adult sensibility”, Price says, complete with love interest Mary Jane Watson. “He is somebody who’s going through the hardships of being in his early 20s, struggling in his personal life, struggling with his job and having to balance something else. Most of us don’t have to balance being a superhero, but I think we can all relate to the difficult decisions he has to make everyday.”

And while Insomniac is keeping details of the story under wraps for now, Price emphasises that the game will have a heavy focus on what is hoped to be an emotional narrative, one laced, of course, with humour. Marvel, for its part, praised Insomniac’s passion via a statement for “developing rich narratives”.

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But even when Insomniac makes a light-hearted game, the studio takes irreverence seriously. More important, Insomniac views games as high art – and a force for change.

“This sounds sort of corny, but we do believe in trying to make the world a better place,” Price says. “There’s so much negativity out there – it’s insane – and if we can help in some way turn the conversation through the things that we’re saying or the games that we’re making, that is fantastic. It’s easy to forget that we have this amazing platform. Games reach everybody.

“We don’t have to plaster a political message all over our games,” Price adds, “but through stories and characters, we can make a difference.”