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Postmortem: Insomniac Games' Ratchet & Clank
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Postmortem: Insomniac Games' Ratchet & Clank


June 13, 2003 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next
 

What Went Right

1. Prototyping. We had been prototyping gameplay since Spyro the Dragon, but never to the extent that we did with Ratchet & Clank. The game featured more than 35 weapons and gadgets, all of which had to be fun to use. The big problem we faced was that every weapon and gadget was woven into the macro design and the story. If we had to pull one out during production, the macro design would collapse, which would be disastrous for the production schedule.

We spent three months building and programming the weapons and gadgets. Many of them didn't survive the prototype phase because even though they sounded good on paper, we just couldn't make them work. A good example was the Revolverator, a weapon featuring a large drill bit which would spin enemies around and fling them away. We discovered that the spinning slowed down gameplay, and that it was difficult to hit enemies, since the collision for the drill bit had to be narrow to be believable. Another good idea on paper was the Mackerel 1000, a fish that would be a replacement for Ratchet's wrench. It sounded funny, but when we put it in the game the humor lasted for about three seconds.


 


We also prototyped enemy layouts and behavior to a much greater extent on this project. The majority of our enemies were well tested and tuned before each level went into production. This process saved us a massive amount of time, since we only built final models and did final coding once we were sure that the enemies would work. Conversely, on the Spyro series we were always ripping things out and starting over during production, since we rarely prototyped gameplay. With Ratchet & Clank, and for all of our future projects, gameplay prototyping has now become an ongoing process.

Finally, to clearly establish the look of the game, we used our I5 engine to prototype two of the game's planned environments before we had the real Ratchet & Clank technology up and running. It was all smoke and mirrors, but it allowed us to show on-screen what we imagined the final game would look like and put to rest a lot of our own fears about whether or not the game would stand out visually.

2. Sharing technology with Naughty Dog. Shortly after we decided to start over, Jason Rubin, Naughty Dog's co-founder, called me and asked if we'd be interested in checking out the technology they developed for Jak & Daxter. He explained that Naughty Dog didn't want anything from us other than a gentlemen's agreement to share with them any improvements we made to whatever we borrowed plus any of our own technology we felt like sharing. In an industry as competitive as ours, things like this just don't happen.

We went over to Naughty Dog's offices and took a look, particularly at their background renderer. They had developed some incredible proprietary techniques to render smoothly transitioning levels of detail and instanced objects very quickly. We brought the code back to our offices, spent some time getting a handle on their techniques, and then we were up and running with a much more powerful environment engine.

Needless to say, Naughty Dog's generosity gave us a huge leg up and allowed us to draw the enormous vistas in the game. In return, we've shared with them any technology in which they were interested, but so far we've been the clear beneficiary of the arrangement.

 


 


3. Setting reasonable design goals. Even though the concept behind Ratchet & Clank was ambitious for us (integrating RPG elements into an action-platformer), we were careful not to cram too much stuff into the initial design.

We had never made a game before where we didn't have to axe one or more levels at some point in the production process because we were out of time. The Ratchet & Clank macro design was more complex, so we couldn't afford to rip out a level at the last moment. Sony had created a tremendous marketing campaign that relied on a specific release date, so missing our delivery dates was not an option. Plus, we were already releasing pretty late in the year, and to miss one week of precious pre-Christmas sales would prove very costly.

For these reasons, we planned the game layout much more carefully than we had on past titles. We had a pretty good idea of how long it would take to build each level, but we also knew that plenty would go wrong during the production process. So even though we had time to do 20 levels, we cut back to 18 at the very beginning.

We also made sure that nothing went into the design unless we were very sure that it was going to work. Early prototyping was key here, but so was an attitude of general restraint. There were a few wild concepts that everyone was excited about, but had we integrated them into the macro, the project probably would have slipped. Ultimately we were able to put about 90 percent of what we planned into the game -- a record for us.

4.Focus testing. Most games go through focus testing at some point. Publishers and developers alike want to see how people react to the game and whether it's too difficult or too easy. Because it's the best way to tune the gameplay, we've focus-tested our games since the first Spyro. But with Ratchet & Clank we went overboard.

We had four major focus tests during production. Each focus test featured another 25 percent of the game until we were testing the full game at alpha. More than 200 consumers got to play the game before release, and the feedback we collected was invaluable. By recording and charting data from the game, we were able to tune item prices, adjust challenge difficulty, and change monetary rewards. Without this exhaustive process the game would probably have been unplayable.

Just as important, though, was the fact that each focus test forced us to get the game working. Along with the other deadlines it sometimes felt that we were always in crunch mode. The gameplay programmers in particular lived a nightmare existence between fixing bugs for the next focus disc and trying to move ahead with the new levels. But the constant burns kept us on track and on schedule. Given Ratchet & Clank's scope and complexity, if we had waited until the end of the project to burn playable discs, the bug list would have been overwhelming and we would have missed our ship date by months.


One of the game's early production design sketches.

5. Collaborative design. Everyone in the company has always been free to contribute creatively to the projects. It's not a requirement, but for those who are interested it's an opportunity to affect the direction our games take. Programmers are encouraged to contribute to story, artists are asked for ideas on design, and so on. During Ratchet & Clank, a large percentage of the team contributed ideas outside of their particular areas of expertise, making the game one of the deepest and most varied titles we've developed.

This does not imply that we design by consensus. There's a solid structure in place to ensure that we adhere to the macro design and remain consistent with the game's "flavor." But adopting an approach that encourages design participation gives us a real wealth of creativity from which to draw while enhancing the sense of ownership everyone feels in our games.


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