It's most likely that you associate Insomniac Games with well-known console franchises like Spyro, Ratchet & Clank and Resistance. Most recently, the studio has been moving out of its comfort zone and trying its luck in the social gaming space, with the Pokemon-inspired spacefaring adventure game Outernauts.
Insomniac has big plans for Outernauts, telling me earlier this year that the game will eventually become a full franchise with multiple titles planned. Before the company can get to that stage, however, it needs to make sure people are actually investing in the current release.
As it turned out, player feedback suggested that some tinkering under the bonnet was in order. Over the course of the last six months, Outernauts' inner workings have been altered dramatically to match the experience that its players are looking for.
Originally, there were parts of the game that would force you to post to a friend's Facebook wall to acquire certain items -- that's now gone. Other areas of the game would require you bug your friends into joining the game, otherwise you'd have to spend real-money to skip that part. That's gone too.
Elsewhere, Insomniac has provided more leniency on the amount of energy that actions use up, while Star Gems (the game's premium virtual currency) is no longer required on many short-term items, as it was previously. Content-wise, the game now also contains co-op dungeons, weekly challenges, and generally a lot more to see and do.
"We wanted to return to our original goals for the project -- to make player experience the number one focus and only to add features if they helped benefit the overall experience," explains Brian Hastings, Insomniac's chief creative officer and the head honcho of the Outernauts team.
"We listened extensively to player feedback, and it was clear that many of the viral features were a drawback to their enjoyment of the game," he continues. "Ultimately we think it's only effective in the short term to use gimmicks and other negatively perceived techniques to increase virality."
Now Insomniac is throwing all its eggs into a different basket, going by the belief that players will naturally encourage their friends to join in if they are genuinely enjoying the game, rather than coaxing them in through necessity. "That's what we're banking on," he adds.
Hastings believes that Outernauts has attracted a more core-gaming crowd than the regular casual Facebook gaming hordes, and as a result the spam-like elements didn't go down so well.
"A lot of them didn't stick with it because of the viral elements that have since been removed," he suggests. "I think much of the negative feedback about the viral stuff was from core gamers or mid-core gamers. It's actually kind of funny because there are a lot of players who play the game for hundreds of hours but refuse to ever pay a dime just in principle because they don't believe in paying money for Facebook games."
He adds, "I think it's just a mindset that some gamers have. No matter how much they play it's a line they refuse to cross for whatever reason."
Despite this, he says that Insomniac has been far from put off in the free-to-play space, stating that his team will "definitely" be sticking around free-to-play for a while yet.
"Not all our games will go that route, of course," he notes, "but I think free-to-play is a good way to build a community around a new IP. Because players don't take any risk in trying it you can get a lot more people to at least give you game a shot."
"It's not something we're talking about for our console games," he warns, "but for the mobile and browser markets I think it's a model that makes a lot of sense."