Interview: High Impact's Lesley Matheson On New Studios, Tech, And More

By Christian Nutt

[Los Angeles-based High Impact Games are the folks behind Ratchet & Clank: Size Matters for PSP/PS2 - and the upcoming Secret Agent Clank for PSP - and Gamasutra chats in-depth to design director Lesley Matheson on the PSP, game engines, and the LA dev scene.]

Lesley Matheson, design director of High Impact Games, has a background with the Ratchet & Clank series at Insomniac. But she's splashed out from that established studio, along with other experienced developers, to found High Impact Games... which has found her new studio working on... more Ratchet & Clank games.

Is this a happy accident or an inevitability? And how about working on the PSP -- is that an engaging challenge? Coming from Insomniac, does she share the company's preference for total reliance on in-house tech?

And how is it working with Sony -- are first parties better publishers for independent developers? These issues, and more, are covered in this wide-ranging interview.

So how do you feel about developing on the PSP right now? Has everything, do you think, matured to the level where you can actually get like really good console-quality results out of it?

Lesley Matheson: I think we got console-quality results out of, even, Size Matters. I think the PSP always had the potential there; it was just a matter of tapping into it. Fortunately, we have a very veteran, very talented technology staff, so they were able to pretty much pull out the full power of the PSP. I don't know if you played Ratchet & Clank: Size Matters.

I just dabbled with it.

LM: In the giant Clank space sequences, we have like 20,000 particles on the screen at once.

High Impact Games/Sony's Ratchet & Clank: Size Matters

And you said you have a background with the series -- you worked at Insomniac before.

LM: That's right. At Insomniac Games, I was a designer on the Ratchet & Clank PlayStation 2 series, as well as a lead designer and project manager on Resistance.

This is interesting, because it seems Daxter was developed by Ready at Dawn, because they have a previous relationship with Naughty Dog, and you have a previous relationship with Insomniac. I'm assuming that it's not a coincidence.

LM: Well, it's a coincidence between us and Ready at Dawn I think. We had decided -- several of us had decided to form a company, because we were just really excited about doing our own thing.

When this opportunity came up, we just got a number of options with Sony, that they were really anxious to find somebody that could handle this game on PlayStation Portable. And really we were the only team who could take such a complex game and bring it over, so it seemed like a good deal to me.

The PSP is very cool because you can do very high quality, console-like experiences on it, but it's also sort of a weakness in the portable space, to the extent that because it's hard to do the kind of pick-up-and-play games that people can actually play when they're on the go. Do you find that from a design perspective that you have to find a contrast between those two ideals?

LM: I don't know. I mean, I think that the PlayStation Portable holds as much potential to do a pick-up-and-play game as anything else. Anything that we did for the Portable, including the Ratchet games, we wanted them to be something that people could fairly easily play, and come back to without much of a penalty.

I think, basically, it's all about what you design your game for, and if you really realize you're designing it for Portable, you make it more accessible.

I guess my question is in relation to keeping it consistent to the franchise that had its genesis with a more sit-down experience.

LM: That certainly was true with Size Matters; we were really trying to match the exact flavor of the Ratchet games. With Secret Agent Clank we've had the opportunity to diverge a bit -- to keep the Ratchet feel to it, [and preserve] the humor, but at the same time it's really got new and different kinds of gameplay.

So that allowed us to really take it and push it even more in a portable direction. I think -- I would say it's even more accessible than Size Matters in that respect.


How long has High Impact Games been around?

LM: Probably two and a half years now?

How big is your studio now?

LM: We have about 45 people.

And do you have multiple, simultaneous projects?

LM: Yes. I mean, you might have heard that we did Size Matters for the PlayStation 2 as well. And then we also have other things we work on.

It seems like a lot of the high profile PSP games, a lot of them end up trickling to the PlayStation 2 after a while. How do you view that, as a developer who's working on the PSP platform to make a game? I mean, law of averages suggests that eventually it will be a PS2 game.

LM: Well obviously there are economical benefits for doing them on PS2, but beyond that, we actually did receive a lot of requests from people to have that available on the PlayStation 2.

I mean, there are a lot of people who own PSPs, but it's nowhere near compared to the size of the PS2 audience, so there was a lot of demand for it. So I think that it's going to be really popular on both.

High Impact Games/Sony's Secret Agent Clank

It seems like you have a great relationship with Sony, and obviously with Insomniac, so is that your focus right now? PSP and PS2 development? Or...?

LM: We focus on one game at a time. Right now we're finishing Clank, and that's PlayStation Portable, and we just wrapped up a PlayStation 2 game. We'll have to see what the future brings.

And now with this game, it diverges a bit from the formula, because it's a Clank game, not a Ratchet game. So was that a creative direction that had been brewing, or was it just something, when you were brainstorming ways to make a game, that really fit the platform and was a natural outgrowth?

LM: I think it had been brewing for a while. Fans have been demanding a Secret Agent Clank game for many years; especially after he made his first appearance in Ratchet & Clank: Up Your Arsenal. So, it's something that the fans were excited about.

We were also interested in taking the franchise into a new direction that felt really fresh to fans. And by making Clank the main character, we were able to explore some really new styles of gameplay.

This is one of those franchises that has had so many entries in such a quick period of time. Does that creative well dry up, or does the fact that there are so many ideas flying around all the time keep it fresh for you guys?

LM: I think for me, the fact that there are so many ideas flying around keeps it fresh for me. Whenever I think about Ratchet games, I ended up having more ideas. Moving toward Clank as a main character just extended that; I think there's just a lot of rich potential in that universe.


As a studio, is your strategy going to be working on established series, or do you want to strike out with original IP when you get a chance?

LM: We're interested in doing original IP. We have a lot of very veteran and talented people; most of the people we started our studio with have had, easily, ten or twelve years of experience in the industry.

So Ratchet provided a really great base for us to start, and grow, and hire the right people. And now that we're there, we're really excited about doing our own thing, and putting out something really cool.

That's actually funny, because that is almost exactly what David Jaffe said to me about Eat Sleep Play, and Twisted Metal: Head On. They kind of used it as a bootstrap to get the studio up and running, in a sense. Very quickly, they had a project that they were personally invested in, but at the same time it gave them the opportunity to get everything up to speed before they launched into their more ambitious projects.

LM: Yeah. I mean, it makes a lot of sense from a studio model, because when you're starting a new studio there are so many things to work out -- your technology, your production process, all of that -- and if you don't add an additional factor in there by trying to come up with an entirely new game, if you instead are working on an established license where you know what the characters are, you know what the expected gameplay is, then it helps a little bit.

It's one less thing that you're really worried about; you can instead just focus on making the game fun and interesting, and not on proving new mechanics.

Was High Impact founded entirely by ex-Insomniac people, or is it just part of the mix?

LM: No, that was just part of the mix. Actually the original person who founded High Impact was Roberto Rodriguez, who's the president of it. He was the director of gameplay at Insomniac, and I did work there as well, but there were a number of people in the founding team.

One of the partners is Atsuko Kubota, who had previously worked at Spark on the Call of Duty series -- and then a number of other people who came from places as diverse as Luxoflux and Heavy Iron, and so forth. They came from a lot of different backgrounds.

So just sort of the primordial soup of the Los Angeles studio scene, basically.

LM: There are a lot of developers in Los Angeles, yeah.

There really are, and it's interesting because if you talk to people who aren't as familiar with development, they ask, "What's the biggest region for development in the country?" And California, obviously, really dominates.

Do you think there's like a regional difference somehow between the different areas? Austin, you think of PC games, MMOs; Washington's Microsoft and NST, among others. But is there like a SoCal/NorCal difference in your eyes?

LM: I think -- I don't really see so much of a SoCal/NorCal difference -- I worked and lived in NorCal for a while. I can understand why you think of that, with Austin and so forth, but that just has to do more with what was the original studios that got big there, and what did they do.

Because, you know, the Austin scene started off with like Origin, and stuff -- really talented PC guys -- so it was natural that when they grew up, that those people would go and start PC houses, and PC gaming would prosper. I think LA and San Francisco are a bit more mixed, especially since it's so easy to migrate back and forth between the two.

Do you find that people do that a lot? Migrate back and forth between the two?

LM: Yeah, I've found that a lot of people move down from the Bay Area, or move back up from Los Angeles.


It's funny, because when you talk to people culturally, there are people who like LA, and a lot of Northern Californians hate LA, and make a big deal out of it. I think they're a bit melodramatic about it, if you ask me... but it does go back and forth. And I have a friend who works at another LA studio. He wanted to stay in LA so much that he wasn't looking at Northern California studios.

LM: I think when they think about it short-term, they're more inclined to do it; if they have a really good job opportunity in another city, they go, "Oh, I'm going to go up there for a few years and have a great job, and then I'll move back." So even if they have that bias, they will at least do it for a while.

And this might be a personal question, but what drives you to -- without getting into the politics of anything awkward -- to want to leave a studio like Insomniac, that's proven and tested, and move into a new opportunity at a smaller, new startup?

LM: Well that's exactly it, right; you just phrased it right there. I mean, I loved Insomniac; I loved working there. The people there are just excessively competent, amazing people. I loved working with Ted Price.

But, you know, new opportunities are always exciting to people. And the idea of going out and starting up a studio and trying something new is pretty exciting. I felt that at the time, it was time for me to move on and try new things, and see what happened -- but it is certainly no slight on Insomniac or anything for High Impact that I did so, because they're both great studios.

I mean, this is going to sound excessively fawning, especially to people on the internet, who can't understand what I'm trying to say, but I think it would be hard to slight Insomniac.

LM: Well, Insomniac's products put gameplay ahead of anything else, and I think they've done really well with that, so we try to make our gameplay also as polished as we can, because I think that's a great way to go.

When you're working on like a PSP game, coming from a background of doing all those PS2 games, is the technology that you use now basically the same stuff you were using to create the PS2 games, or did you have to develop new technology solutions to make PSP games?

LM: Well, we had to do a different engine. We individually developed a PSP engine and a PS2 engine, but a lot of our internal tools were the same. We use Maya for gameplay placement, and a number of other things. So there was some variation, but mainly on the hardcore technology side.

So you built the original engine for Size Matters. I'm assuming you used it again for Secret Agent Clank?

LM: Yes.

And then when you moved the games to PS2, how did that work?

LM: We had to write an original engine for the PlayStation 2, and then we started moving over our gameplay, and then adjusting anything that needed to be adjusted, to take advantage of the PlayStation 2's advantages.

And see that's kind of funny, because, I guess if you had been under contract with Insomniac and Sony to do a PS2 Ratchet game at the outset, you might have been able to use the main series engine.

LM: Insomniac has amazing engine people; I mean, they've done great stuff, and more importantly, they've poured a great deal of time into their engine, which makes it very attractive. At the same time, we have a really veteran engine team, so they're really excited about their own engine challenges.


Insomniac, of course, is very famous for building very solid engines. At DICE, Mike Acton and Andy Burke talked about how they just do not use third party tool solutions, and -- well, obviously some tools, yes, but not physics plug-ins or anything like that.

LM: And we're on exactly the same page as them. We use all our own tools and technology, short of Maya, and maybe Perforce.

What do you think are advantages of that?

LM: I think there are considerable advantages. If you saw their talk at DICE, it was right on. If you build your own engine, ultimately, you're not only getting the advantages of doing something custom for your game, but you're spending roughly the same amount of time.

I think that people who have weaker engineers tend to go towards third party because they think it will save them time -- and maybe it will, but if you have solid, veteran people, you're always better off building your own engine and tools.

A lot of people use Unreal, obviously, for 360 and PS3 games. It's very choice right now. But I've rarely talked to someone who hasn't talked about having to do extensive modifications to make it suit their purposes, and I guess that there's something a struggle right now -- even a legal struggle right now, in some cases --with the idea that it's being marketed as an off-the-shelf solution.

LM: Well that's the thing; I don't really believe there is, in terms of engines, anything truly that is an off-the-shelf solution. Unless you're making a game that is so uniform, and in line with the original purpose of the engine, you're going to have to adjust it, and repurpose it. That's just the reality.

It's also funny if you play some Unreal engine games, you can see what they nicked from Gears of War, basically. Because when you license the engine, they ship it to you with the source code for Gears of War. Even talking to developers, I've had developers tell me what they borrowed. Or how they studied the maps, and tried to figure out how to effectively use the engine... Some Unreal Engine games don't splash out, and some games, like Mirror's Edge by DICE -- I don't know if you've seen it -- it's totally different. I think once you get to the different side, it probably speaks to the amount of effort that you have to put into it.

LM: Yeah. That's exactly it. It's not that you can't do amazing things with the Unreal Engine; you can, but it's just a question of the amount of effort that you have to put in to get there, and whether that effort wouldn't have been better spent working on your own technology.

EA's Mirror's Edge

So you think it's probably best, for people who have the resources, to really work on their own tech.

LM: Yeah, absolutely. I think that working on your engine is really the best approach. And also, when you're approaching your studio, that's the part of the team that you want to be the most senior: your tools guys, and your engine guys. And that's certainly the case as we have just a lot of really veteran guys, there, talented guys.

What do you think of physics plug-ins? You know, like people might do their own engines, but they still will license Havok or something, because it's robust.

LM: I think it depends on what you're doing with your game. A lot of hoopla is made over physics plug-ins. I think that there are a lot of games that don't actually need physics plug-ins. There are a lot of things you can do with fake physics. It's sort of, with the animation, making something look realer than real.

And we've had people swear up and down with games, that, "Oh my god! Your physics must be great!" But there is no physics engine there; it's just faked. So you really have to sit long and hard and think about, is your game going to take advantage of this or not, before you even concern yourself with whether or not to use an off-the-shelf solution, or code your own.

And at that point, it's a question of what the off-the-shelf solution supports, as compared to what you want in your game.


So when you fake physics, do you do it with animation?

LM: Yeah, you do it with -- well, it's in the code, right? It's the way that they make things fall, and that sort of thing. There isn't a whole physics system controlling it; they just know how to fall at that rate, and bounce, and break.

It's basically a set of parameters, and the possible variations give it the illusion of a more robust physics engine.

LM: Yeah, if you're not making a game that has an important -- if you're not making Half-Life 2... I mean, Half-Life 2 has been a few years now -- you know, you want an amazing physics engine.

But if you're making something like Ratchet & Clank, why would you put in some really deep physics engine? I just don't see the point of that.

Yeah, and it's funny; when you play some of these games where they put in Havok, and really all it does is that guys fall over, and chairs fall over...

LM: I think that, well, this is the thing: people get very excited about features, in any industry, and I think that games is no exception. I think that people need to really sit, and look at their game, and really think about what it really needs.

What's going to make the game the best, right? Not what's going to be a bullet point to their publisher, but what's really going to improve the game they're working on.

Do you get a lot of that freedom, do you think? Especially since you're working with established property, and, you know, a first party publisher? Do you get the freedom to go in the direction that you want?

LM: I think so, because one of the things that's really great about working with first-party publishers, is they are really more concerned with the quality of the game than they are with the bottom line. I mean, what they're looking for is something that really shows off the power of their machine, right?

So at that point, if you're making something that's a great game, and you can show them: "Hey, look! This is going to make my game look better!" Or play better, or whatever, they're really accommodating about that.

 

Working with Insomniac, do they have some oversight into your products? Is there any sort of official oversight process?

LM: There is no official oversight process. I mean, we try to be accommodating with them -- it's based on their scripts, and we send them our scripts, so they know what's going on, and we're not killing off Qwark in one scene, and suddenly they're not writing Qwark into the next.

But beyond that, we do our own independent games, and make sure they don't conflict, and in some cases -- like with Secret Agent Clank, and Tools of Destruction -- we have some codes you can exchange, and stuff, but that's about the extent of it.

And is that because it's a trust relationship? Because of the history of some people at High Impact? Do you think that it facilitates that?

LM: That certainly does facilitate that; I imagine Insomniac would be more concerned if no-one at High Impact had previously worked on the Ratchet series. And part of it, too, is just the talent of the team.

I think that our team is talented enough to have shown that there isn't a lot of worry about checking on the property. There's no fear that we're suddenly going to destroy Ratchet, make him maneuver like a Mack truck, you know.

And they could always drive down the highway and storm the offices if they're unhappy with it.

LM: Well it's true, because we are only about five minutes from each other...

Wow.

LM: So we probably could conduct raids on each other's offices if we wanted to. But that could just only end in sadness and Nerf weapons.

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