How does Insomniac do it?
It’s a question I’ve encountered a few times in recent years. It refers to the fact the PlayStation studio will have released three major PS5 games in three years, while other AAA developers have yet to manage one.
Of course, Insomniac’s games aren’t exactly 100-hour epic RPGs. And it’s a big studio with multiple teams. Yet even so, 2020’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, 2021’s Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart and the upcoming Spider-Man 2 is an impressive level of output for any developer.
“There are a lot of people who have worked on all of these games,” explains senior creative director Bryan Intihar.
“So we are always evolving and challenging ourselves to get better. Miles Morales had a better production process than Spider-Man 1. Ratchet & Clank had better production process than Miles. We are always evaluating and improving. Have we perfected it? No. But we are always asking how we can make the process better for everybody.
“It is about delivering that epic feel, and that became a lot more achievable with PlayStation 5”
“We are honest with ourselves that we don’t do everything perfect, and that allows us to have that open mind about how we can be better. Not just in terms of making the game better, but also to feel better about coming to work every day. We will be learning a lot from this project as well.”
The project Intihar is talking about is Spider-Man 2, which is the big PlayStation 5 exclusive that launches next month. And unlike other big PS5 games, such as God of War Ragnarok, Gran Turismo 7 and Horizon Forbidden West, this one really is a PlayStation 5 exclusive. There is no PS4 version.
There have been other PS5 exclusives, but this is by far the biggest and will no doubt be watched closely by those looking to evaluate the capabilities of Sony’s console. Is that something the Spider-Man 2 team were conscious of during development?
“I don’t think we were conscious that we were ‘the first’,” Intihar answers. “We knew from the beginning we were going to make Spider-Man 2 for PlayStation 5. And then it’s about what the PlayStation 5 offers that we can take advantage of. We are very lucky to work with Mark Cerny [lead system architect on PS5]. Mark is one of the producers of the game. He is my mentor. I owe a lot to him in terms of who I am today professionally. Working with Mark helped us understand where the console is going. We knew about the SSD. And so that fantasy of players of ‘I want to swing faster and faster and faster’, we knew we could deliver that.
“But also… what is it about the console that allows us to deliver the vision for the game? We wanted our set pieces, our villain moments, to feel bigger. And we wanted to go seamlessly from below ground to above ground, to go from exterior to interior quickly. With the PS5 and the loading, we can do that a lot easier than before.”
At the press preview held in London last week, we saw some of that in action. There are two Spider-Man characters that players can almost instantly switch between, jumping from one part of the city to the other. There’s also the ability to immediately fast travel to anywhere on the map.
But the biggest display of what the PS5 can bring was with a boss fight with the Lizard. The battle begins in the sewers, before bursting into the surface, then there’s a chase through the city, across the water and then up a building… it’s huge, epic, constantly changing, and almost seamless.
“We said it really early… we want to push our boss fights,” Intihar says. “We want it that when you fight a villain, it’s super memorable. It is about delivering that epic feel, and that became a lot more achievable with PlayStation 5.”
It’s been five years since the first Spider-Man from Insomniac, but there has been one in-between. Spider-Man: Miles Morales was a shorter experience released at the birth of PS5 in 2020. It was another critical and commercial hit, and I was eager to hear whether releasing a smaller game in-between the big tentpole titles had any impact on this sequel.
“If anything, it just reassured us that people love Miles. It made us confident in the decision that with Spider-Man 2 we were going to have both Peter and Miles [as playable characters],” Intihar tells us.
“The Miles team did an absolutely amazing job of fulfilling the fantasy of being Miles. Then the next step was… with Spider-Man 2, we have two established Spider heroes. How can we put them together, and make sure we deliver a great Peter story and a great Miles story, that complement each other… but there’s a bigger story going on in the world? It’s been complicated.”
Outside of the game itself, it must be nice to not just work on one big five-year project and have the ability to create something smaller on a shorter schedule. Intihar adds that this has helped in the development of Insomniac’s teams., too.
“What has been really awesome is seeing Insomniacs from Spider-Man 1 to Miles to Spider-Man 2, become leaders. We’ve seen so many people elevate, [who will go on] to be the next leaders of our studio. I can’t speak for whether they like having different opportunities, I am sure they do. That’s one of the great things about Insomniac, we have a lot of games in development. But what’s great for me is we are seeing these new leaders emerge.”
“What has been really awesome is seeing Insomniacs from Spider-Man 1 to Miles to Spider-Man 2, become leaders”
During the playthrough of the Spider-Man 2 demo, I noted that the hallmarks of Insomniac’s games were all present. There are the bright visuals, the comic quips from the heroes (there was a line about honey that made me laugh out loud), and there’s the satisfaction you get from just moving around.
For me, it’s the latter that makes Insomniac’s games so special. With its first Spider-Man, I never once used the fast travel feature, because the act of swinging through the city was just a joy. So how much time and thought are spent on getting that traversal right?
“A lot. It’s the majority of it,” Intihar says. “One of the reasons why we felt that Spider-Man was such a good fit for us, is because of the way he moves, the fluidity, the flow… that is something that we like doing. Then if you combine the gadgets and the powers, it just felt like he fits us.
“Even from the first game, we said we want you to feel like Spider-Man as fast as possible. We don’t want you to struggle to be a superhero. But we obviously want it that the more time you spend with it, the more nuances you’ll find.”
He adds: “When people say, ‘I don’t fast travel in Spider-Man’, that’s a real compliment to me.”
One of the other elements that stood out to me when playing the demo was just how big it felt, and I don’t just mean the scale of the fights. There are two Spider-Man characters to play as, each with their own story, and the city has been expanded, too.
Spider-Man: Miles Morales was a notably shorter experience, but the original Insomniac Spider-Man game was no 100-hour epic, either. And I wondered if the studio had felt pressure to make its games that bit longer.
Yet Intihar says that Spider-Man 2’s length won’t be dissimilar to the first game.
“We don’t ever say ‘oh it’s going to be this long’. What we try to do is set the vision. What is our goal? What are the pillars that support it? And then we start working on it and it organically works out.
“That being said, we knew it was going to be a bigger experience than Miles Morales. But it was about doing what was right for the story we wanted to tell. I would say it is very comparable to Spider-Man 1. It’s not like we’ve doubled the size of the game. We want to do what is right for the vision, the time and attention you need to create that experience, and also take care of our team.
“It’s not a 200-hour game. I would have a lot less hair if it was a 200-hour game.”
There is an abundance of Spider-Man around today There’s the Tom Holland MCU Spider-Man movies, the Spider-Verse animated films… there’s even a kids TV series featuring young Spider-Man heroes. And they’re all telling different stories, ranging from big multiverse epics to Rhino stealing an ice cream. Intihar says Insomniac is mindful of what is going on in the wider franchise, but the team isn’t threatened by it.
“There’s obviously a part of you where you think about it a little bit. But… they’re different mediums,” he explains.
“It’s less about ‘oh they did it, so we’re not going to’. It’s more about… are there elements of the [Spider-Man] DNA that we can do more with. When I get asked if I see them as competition, I go ‘no’. It just reminds me that they’re really popular characters that people want to explore more. Whether it’s Spidey and his Amazing Friends, or Spider-Verse, or our games… people love Spider heroes.”
There’s been a lot of change for Insomniac since that first Spider-Man, and I don’t just mean the switch from PS4 to PS5. For one, the developer has moved from being an independent to a fully owned PlayStation studio.
“If anything, it’s just got better [since the acquisition],” Intihar starts. “I forget a lot of the times we are part of PlayStation. We’ve worked with them for so long. We’ve had the same producers for forever. And at the end of the day, they want the same things we do. They want to make great games and take care of people. Our producers Mark Cerny, Grady Hunt, Connie Booth… they care about whether we are happy, and whether we have everything to make the game great.
“When people say, ‘I don’t fast travel in Spider-Man’, that’s a real compliment to me.”
“I can’t owe them enough. Connie and Grady… they just want to give us what we need to make the game great. No questions asked. When you have that kind of support, you want to do it for them, just as much as you want to do it for the players.
“When Ted [Price, Insomniac CEO] pulled me into the office to say we are going to be part of PlayStation, I was extremely happy.”
And the other big change that happened is what the entire world went through, which was COVID-19. Spider-Man 2 is yet another Insomniac game that was partly developed during the pandemic, making that achievement of three games in three years even more impressive.
When I asked Intihar about the impact of COVID, he returns to what has been a theme throughout our interview: namely, how Insomniac looks after its teams.
“When we left for COVID, everybody got sent home, and they asked me ‘when do you want to come back?’ I said ‘the second we can be back in the office’. But today, I work completely remotely. What we learned is that it’s about doing what is right for you. What makes Insomniac such a great place, and PlayStation supports us in this… is that in certain states you can work remotely and be super productive. A lot of this game was made during COVID.”
He concludes: “It’s about that flexibility. Yes we spend a lot of time making games, but we all have friends and family, children to take care of… that’s important. And if you’re happy outside of work, hopefully that should make life inside work better. I’ve been here for over 15 years and there’s a reason why that is. It’s not just because we make great games.”