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During the Dice Summit, I joined a group of journalists in the offstage winners’ room for the DICE Awards celebrating the best of video games in 2021 at the DICE Summit in Las Vegas. Each group of winners filed through our room and we collectively tossed a bunch of questions at the winners.
Insomniac Games’ Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart led the pack with four wins for Outstanding Achievement in Animation, Outstanding Achievement in Art Direction, Outstanding Technical Achievement, and Family Game of the Year.
We met with Marcus Smith, creative director; Mike Daly, lead designer; Grant Hollis, art director; and Kevin Grow, lead animator. We asked them about their inspirations, creating a showcase game for the PS5, making a family game, the storytelling approach and a variety of other subjects.
Here’s an edited transcript of the press interview.
Question: When you went into this game, you had a lot of ideas about what kind of design direction it would take. What surprised you so much when you looked back and thought–either that was a very good idea when you started out, or that was a really bad idea, and you never want to talk about it?
Marcus Smith: I will say that when we first started doing alternate dimension versions of our characters, our first thought was, “We’ll do polar opposites.” If someone is very adventurous, somebody else has to be very cowardly. The problem is that very quickly we realized our characters are not just one-dimensional characters you can flip-flop. We spent all this time making these overly complex versions of anti-characters that ultimately didn’t work, and only ended up making our characters more flat. In order to have our dynamic characters we went with the idea that even though the characters are different, they’re true to themselves. Their true core character remains the same no matter what.
Mike Daly: This is from a technical perspective, but going into Ratchet, haptics were very early. They weren’t proven. We hadn’t played a production game that used them yet. They were a question mark. To me that was one of the biggest surprising delights of working on the game. It was realizing the potential of that and embedding it so deeply into the design and feedback systems of the game. I never guessed how big a difference it would make.
Question: The rifts were a showcase piece of technology for the PlayStation 5, but in all of our conversations so far with all the Insomniac people that have won all these awards, the alternate reality versions of these characters have been front and center. What came first? Was it the rifts and the alternate dimensions, or was it the desire to create alternate versions of the characters?
Smith: It was actually both, together. We were thinking about ways we could bring–we were about to celebrate our 20th anniversary. We’ve told a lot of stories in the Ratchet and Clank universe. We wanted to evolve our characters and bring in some fresh blood in a way that didn’t require a reboot. We didn’t want to lose all the charm we’d built up over the years.
Then we also heard about the hardware. We knew it would be doing certain things. We started thinking about dimensionality, and that gave us a great opportunity to tell an origin story as seen through the eyes of these totally different characters. So it did all dovetail together to create something from the very start.
Question: From a story perspective, how did you know you were on to something when it came to telling an essential story in the series?
Daly: For me, that moment came when the first cinematics were done. The story–it takes some serious squinting to see how it’s going to end up when it’s on the page. But when we saw the performances and the fidelity and the voice acting and it all brought together with the rendering, the expressiveness of the characters, it all hits you at once. You say, “Whoa. I’m not watching a technical blockout anymore. These are characters and I believe it. It’s moving with what they’re saying.” For me, that was the first batch of cinematics. I’m sure other people saw it way earlier than that.
Smith: For me this was the first Ratchet I ever worked on. I’ve been at Insomniac for 17 years, but this is my first Ratchet. Mike had worked on a few different Ratchets. I just came in as a pure fan. It really was–when it spoke to me it felt right, because it felt like all the rest of the franchise that I’d played as a fan.
Question: How do you think about the twists of the game, like when Kit becomes this massive robot–spoilers, I know. But you’re making this very serious moment in a game that appeals to kids as well. How do you feel about that as you’re designing it?
Daly: That was a tricky moment for sure. There’s a lot going on emotionally for the character. Their dynamic with Ratchet, design-wise–we had to strike this balance between, do you want to idolize this character and their traits that they’re hesitant to express? And how that manifests. We did iterate on that scene a lot. We treated it carefully. I think in the end we were able to strike that balance where Kit was still able to deliver the message of how they felt about themselves and their internal struggle, without glorifying it too much.
Smith: I think it spoke truthfully to the character, and I think we can all relate to it. I know I’ve certainly lost my temper at times where I’ve felt really bad for the people around me. That was a moment where I could be empathetic with what Kit was going through.
Question: Ratchet has been around for quite a long time now, and over the course of that history it’s remained a very consistent game series. It’s had a lot of the same core game elements even as you’ve expanded with things like rifts. As you were making this game, especially early on, was there ever a point where you thought about reinventing the series even more, or did you always want to stick to those core tenets?
Daly: I think for this one it was important to us to innovate in gameplay in ways that were supported by the story and the world-building we were trying to make. The investigation of the Rift Tether and popping between dimensions to us were the first places we started as far as expanding the gameplay. But beyond that we knew that, since we had so much more horsepower than we’d ever had before, it was important to deliver the most impactful weapons we’d ever delivered. That meant cranking up the VFX, cranking up the audio, supplementing that with haptics, and making sure we didn’t retread the same ground in the arsenal we had before. We were bringing all new status effects and tactical considerations to the table.
To me, the things I’m most proud of are adding the Rift Tether, and–we actually expanded the hover boots because of haptics. We wanted a haptic experiment, and that gave us the nudge we needed to get the pumping mechanic in there and get the really high speeds in. And of course the arsenal. It’s practically the main character in the game. We wanted to make sure we got that right and delivered on that.
Question: Can you talk about why winning the family award in particular felt good?
Daly: With Ratchet and Clank 2016 we won the family game award at DICE that year. That got me thinking. That was a big deal to me. It took me by surprise. It wasn’t even really on my radar. So when I started working on Rift Apart, that was always on my mind. If we can achieve a great game that is accessible to the whole family, then that can have a much bigger impact than just delivering a great game. Maybe a bigger impact than a game that’s game of the year. Games that everybody can play–when you’re a kid, that’s the closest we have to real-world magic. It affects you in a way that it can’t affect adults. To me that’s just one of the most impactful things you can do as a game developer, making a game that changes a kid’s heart and gets them excited to play in other worlds.
Question: It’s a challenge for any game to get out the door and be any kind of memorable. What do you think your studio and your team does right when it comes to making things that look iconic and memorable?
Grant Hollis: Well, we start with amazing characters and an amazing team. Just lots of passion. It’s really a passion project for us. It’s a treat to work on this IP and to grow it and continue to evolve it and explore new and exciting worlds. The awesome thing about this last game is we introduced two new heroes in Rivet and Kit.
Question: Rift Apart was such a showcase for the PlayStation 5, and a large part of that was the artwork. What about that art was such a step up from the previous games?
Hollis: The power of the PS5 was part of it. That gave us an opportunity to take what we made on the PS4, which–the goal on the PS4 was to mimic the movie and make that look as cohesive as we could. This one, okay, we mimicked the movie on PS4, and now let’s push it to that Zootopia, Pixar look. That was our direction, working very closely with our tech engine team to get the fur to look amazing, to get the lighting, the reflections. The artists and animators, everyone just working together to create this world. Seeing what we made on the PS4 and saying, “How do we amp that up? How do we make that better?”
Question: Any time you add new characters to a beloved series, that can always be a risk. How to you make sure that they stand and they’re just as memorable as the namesakes?
Hollis: Adding Rivet and Kit was very daunting. People love Ratchet and Clank, and here we’re going to add in basically them, but from another dimension. The creative director, one of his big visions was, I want to have a woman protagonist for my daughter. From the beginning we said, “Okay, we need a new protagonist as heroic and awesome as Ratchet and Clank.”
Question: In the game itself some of the most iconic animations are things like the villains doing funny dances, those moments of levity, like with Emperor Nefarious. Can you talk about some of the inspiration behind those kinds of scenes?
Kevin Grow: We have a pretty iconic character in Dr. Nefarious who’s appeared across a lot of games. Knowing we would introduce the Emperor in the same way we were doing Rivet and Kit, we had to have a character that felt empowered enough that he could rule his dimension, versus our Doctor. But we didn’t want to lose the comedic element that Dr. Nefarious has always brought to the franchise. Being able to balance the Emperor’s power with still being able to loosen up and party when he thought he’d won–a lot of the time some of that inspiration comes from the animators. We try to give everybody a little freedom in what they want to accomplish. Once that got pitched we ran it up the chain and said, “Hey, do you think it would be out of character if he decided to hop up on the table and dance?” Everybody loved it. Whenever we can get a win like that we always have a great time.
Question: You were talking earlier about making the game reflect the film, at least in terms of visuals. It strikes me that right now we’re seeing a moment where suddenly there are a lot of new video game-based movies being announced. You got started on that earlier than some others. What do you make of the fact that now a lot of studios are starting to create movies based on game series? And is Insomniac interested in continuing to explore that side of things?
Grow: I’m not sure any of us are really in a position to speak to whether the studio can make those kinds of things. Obviously as fans it’s exciting to see stuff like–not just movies, but TV series coming from video games. It’s definitely a draw to be in this industry and feel recognized as entertainment broadly, not just video games.
Question: Do you see a world where the assets you create for these games could then be repurposed for film projects? We’ve heard a lot about that lately?
Hollis: I don’t see why not. It’s getting closer and closer to being one-to-one. You look at TV shows like the Mandalorian where the entire virtual set is Unreal. We’re getting there. Every generation we’re closer and closer. Eventually it’ll be to the point where you can’t tell the difference between a game and a movie, especially a CG movie versus a CG game.
Question: Where did you feel most creative on this installment of a familiar IP? Where did you feel like you had the most freedom?
Hollis: Because it’s Sony’s IP and we’re part of Sony, we have a lot of freedom. We’re very open to exploring that. The worlds, the creatures, bringing stuff back, remixing it. The biggest creative thing I think we had this time was having the ability to have the Ratchet universe and then the Rivet universe, having them contrast with each other. Hey, what would so-and-so look like if they were from this universe? That was probably the biggest creative thing. One artist, specifically, was a huge fan of Skidd McMarx. When we did Phantom he was just, “Oh my God, this is amazing!” Because it was his opportunity to create the look for the alternate version of Skidd.
Grow: Being able to give a little extra depth to our characters–with a lot of the early games in the franchise we hit on the humor hard. It’s really exciting as an animator to not just be able to animate the jokes, the Dr. Nefarious stuff, but also the really sensitive moments. Kit and Rivet certainly go through a journey in this game. Being able to touch on that was an extra challenge that was a lot of fun to be able to explore.
Hollis: Especially the part where Rivet–you have the ears, her eyes turn red, and she’s about to cry? That was a moment where we knew we had to do that right. It had to look good so you could feel that emotion.
Question: What do you think you and your colleagues did especially well with this technology to make it so resonant? And not just with players – I keep seeing developers talking about the portals, the visual effects. So many devs love the work you did.
Smith: I think we focused on the strengths and differentiators of the platform. We knew we’d have the fastest I/O system of any piece of hardware out there. We knew we’d have raytracing capabilities. We looked at those things and built a game that could showcase these features. That’s how we approached it. The best things always come from the intersection of technology that’s driven by creativity. I’m proud of what we did with it.
Question: This was one of the first big exclusives for PS5. Did you feel a certain sense of responsibility to be the game that’s the next-gen experience everyone was waiting for?
Smith: You know, I don’t think it was that we felt a responsibility as much as we were just excited to be working on the hardware. It’s always a bucket list item for people who work in games to work with cutting-edge technology. It was a great opportunity for us.
Question: I thought it was always pretty hard to get so many things happening on the screen at the same time, but somehow this is not a problem anymore. Can you talk about how that came to be?
Smith: Some of it is just the horsepower that it has. Some of it is programming wizardry. We have an amazing technical team. That’s what they love to do. They love to raise the bar with everything that they do. They got a chance to do it this time.
Question: You’ve had two male characters in the lead on the franchise for so many years, and now you finally made the move to have a woman in the lead with Rivet. Can you talk about that?
Smith: We’re very cognizant of the fact that we want more representation and diversity. In my case, I have a 12-year-old daughter who was the perfect candidate to playtest the game. It was more important than ever to spread out and have more representation. When we were talking about alternate dimension versions of our characters, it made perfect sense to reflect other genders, races, jobs, everything that we could do that reflected how people are different based on things well out of our hands.
Question: In terms of making a game on the scale you did and accomplishing so much with it, how do you manage to do this in a way that, based on what people have said about working at Insomniac–a way that respects people’s time and ensures that people aren’t crunching or overworking all the time?
Smith: You have to give me a second with this. I think that we don’t know how to do it another way, and we know it’s the right thing to do. We’re proud that we were able to achieve what we achieved. There’s always more work to do, but what you discover is that when you do respect those things, the engagement goes up. The quality of the work goes up. We’re fortunate that it worked for us.