The scene: Twenty developers lounging on a sun-drenched porch overlooking Barham Boulevard in Los Angeles, drinks in hand, enjoying the warm breeze and listening to traffic rumble by below. The occasion: Our first post-Spyro brainstorming meeting.
It was late spring 2000, and even though we were still in production for Spyro: Year of the Dragon (our last Spyro), we knew we had to start planning for our first PS2 project. Our problem was twofold: we had decided not to develop any more Spyro games, and we were deciding whether we wanted to stay with the platform-action genre. It's a familiar scenario for game developers: the road is wide open, but figuring out which direction to travel is excruciating.
We had meeting after meeting trying to narrow down the choices -- and with 20 people involved, things got tense and sometimes depressing. I was driving hard to move us away from the platform genre because Al Hastings, our vice president of technology, had very astutely suggested that this was the perfect opportunity not only to expand our abilities but to address other niches in the console market currently overlooked by U.S. developers.
After coming up with and discarding countless ideas, we settled on a concept best described as a dark adventure. We wanted to try a game with a bit more realism and immersion than our previous efforts. This meant moving away from bright environments, cartoony characters, and platform mechanics. This also meant creating a macro design and story that were far deeper than those of the Spyro series.
We called the concept "I5" (for Insomniac game #5), and the main character was a human girl with a staff. She would fight with the staff as well as use it to activate magic with special katas -- martial arts moves performed using directional input. There was a strong Mayan influence to the overall look of the game, and the characters and environments we planned were more realistic than anything we had attempted since our first game, 1996's Disruptor.
We pitched our game idea to SCEA and were fortunate to strike a deal very early in preproduction. Once we had Sony's backing, our preproduction team dove in and began working on PS2 technology, final macro design, and all of the elements that would help us create our first playable.
Within a couple of months, however, it was clear that things weren't going well.
First, we couldn't nail down the main character. She was too cartoony, and then too mundane; the colors we chose ended up looking weird on-screen, and we couldn't get the proportions right. In the past, proportion had never been a problem, since we had always worked with nonhuman characters. But we quickly realized that it's easier to spot flaws in human characters than in nonhuman ones. Even though our main character eventually looked acceptable, she still lacked that je ne sais quoi which would make her stand out.
Then there was the hardware. We were making the jump from PSX to PS2 in very little time, and Al Hastings was shouldering the entire burden with some help from Mark Cerny, who had written the original VU code used on the first-ever PS2 engine. Al and T.J. Bordelon, tools programmer, were, at the time, trying desperately to get the engine and tools to the point where the artists could use them to build and prototype environments and characters. Looking back, I can't believe they actually got everything to work, and work well, in a matter of months. Still, the technology was not yet state-of-the-art, and we all wondered how it would fare against the second generation of PS2 titles.
Some early concept sketches for Ratchet.
But the worst part of the process was the entire team's ambivalence about the project. No one was truly excited about the game or where it was heading. We were making it work through sheer effort. My job was to be the concept's champion, but maintaining a positive demeanor was proving more and more difficult. Morale was at its lowest in Insomniac's nine-year history.
We eventually ground out a first playable, and while it wasn't bad, it wasn't great either. And we wanted something great. Our Sony producers, who were very polite about their reservations, confirmed our feelings. Nonetheless, they had reservations. At one point Connie Booth, our SCEA executive producer, suggested that we might want to rethink the direction we were taking. While being very clear that Sony would support us with whatever we decided, she pointed out that not only would the PS2 adventure category be crowded upon our planned release date, she also believed that we were no longer playing to our team's strengths.
After digesting her words, Al Hastings, Brian Hastings -- Insomniac's vice president of programming -- and I (the three partners in the company) did some soul searching and realized that Connie was right. By pushing on, we could release a solid adventure game, one that might even do well. But slogging through another year of developing a game no one was excited about would kill the team.
So on March 20, 2001, we stopped preproduction of I5 and started over. We would be going back to our forte, action-platforming. This announcement moved the team's mood lever from reverse to overdrive. Everyone was energized and excited about the new prospects.
Within two weeks of this decision, we developed Ratchet & Clank's basic concept. In a matter of days, Dave Guertin, our lead character designer, nailed the two main characters, and soon we were brainstorming on the weapons and gadgets that players would be using.
Once we got started, we never looked back. That isn't to say problems didn't exist during the process, but it was the best and most enjoyable production experience we've had at Insomniac.