We sit down with Insomniac Games to talk about its upcoming PlayStation 5 exclusive, and the benefits and challenges that come with developing a true next-gen adventure.
After giving the PlayStation 5 something of a killer launch title in the form of the impressive - yet expansion-sized - Spider-Man Miles Morales, Sony first-party studio Insomniac Games is back with Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart. The latest installment in the long-running series that sees third-person action, shooting, platforming, and sci-fi come together. And now, merge with the additional sci-fi capabilities of PS5 hardware.
Instantaneous loading that leads to dimension hopping in the space of a second, improved world detail that sees ray-traced reflections and high-end animation bring the overall fidelity up to near Pixar levels. Okay, so that’s a sentiment that has been used on more than one occasion before. But hey, it fits. Especially when you add in the rich characters and history of the Ratchet & Clank series.
And so after spending roughly a day with Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart – remotely, thanks covid – we got to pick the brains of Mike Daly, Lead Designer at Insomniac Games. We explored the inside philosophy on the duality of man/Lombaxes. We also confirmed some frankly devastating, end-of-an-era news. Plus, can there be too much detail?
AusGamers: Something has been gnawing at us since the first reveal. In many ways, Captain Copernicus Leslie Qwark has been quite integral to Ratchet and Clank's comedic stylings – he's almost as iconic as your two titular heroes. From everything I've seen, his appearance in Rift Apart seems somewhat token. Are you pulling back a little bit on this character -- is he sort of like a cameo now?
Mike Daly: So in the story of our game, Ratchet and Clank start out in their dimension, where Captain Qwark is a larger than life character and basically impossible to avoid. He sort of leads you through the intro and is present there, but when the dimensional cataclysm occurs, Ratchet and Clank get sucked through while Captain Qwark gets left behind.
“[Captain Qwark]'s not one of the major characters.This freed us up a little bit more with storytelling and cinematics and bandwidth to expand on the new characters you meet in the new dimension.”
That's not the last you see of him in the game, but he's not one of the major characters.This freed us up a little bit more with storytelling and cinematics and bandwidth to expand on the new characters you meet in the new dimension.
AG: Interesting. I also strained my ears to tune into him during our demo session, but the results came back inconclusive. Is that Jim Ward reprising his role as Qwark? I ask because it's recently become public knowledge that he's been quite ill of health.
MD: I can confirm that, unfortunately, Jim Ward has retired, and so he did not reprise his role as Captain Qwark for this game.
AG: With all the power of the new-gen, the speed of SSDs to stream in tons of art assets in and out in the blink of an eye, it seems to me that you're going to be among the first to be faced with some new pitfalls. I never thought I'd say this about graphics -- because I've always wanted more, more, and prettier -- but it seems to me that we'll soon be entering an era where restraint is going to become an important discipline.
Player attention is a valuable currency, and having too much motion and too many things going on can overwhelm or confuse the player. Or maybe just muddy the language of your level design. Have you considered this?
MD: Definitely. If you've played the Ratchet games, we've sort of pressed up against the limit of a player's visual perception. It doesn't necessarily take the 4K resolution and tons of assets to do that, it's all about competition for your attention and lots of different visual factors play into that. We are familiar with this problem and in Ratchet we've solved that to some degree with clear art direction and visual design.
Even though our worlds are super dense and full of life, we know where to focus our attention. Which is to say: identify where contrast needs to happen. For example, the player's path is clearly separated from the walls, or pitfalls, or the distance. We also make sure to draw a clean silhouette in the background and use changes in colour and depth-of-field to separate the foreground from the background. [With the PS5] we have more techniques than we had before to combat visual overload and make sure we draw your attention to the right parts.
That said, it is a struggle and a challenge for a game, especially Ratchet, where we wanted to throw in tons of enemies and really dial the weapons and their visual effects up to 11. Fortunately, I think that as hardware gets more advanced and we're able to add more detail to the worlds, if you use a light touch with your art direction, that detail will be subtle and subconscious. That way, you can appreciate it when the game is quiet and still, but it won't distract when things get intense.
AG: On the topic of making things easier for the player. You guys are going to great lengths to provide accessibility options – the most drastic of which is the ability to slow time in the game to a crawl. I was wondering if you could detail that a bit more. When can I use it? What are its limitations? Does it affect Trophies?
MD: You have the ability to assign shortcuts to the d-pad, pretty much at any time. Among those options is the ability to time slow up to 30, 50 or 70 percent -- so there's some flexibility built in. It's like, whatever speed you need to get through, you pick one of them that best suits you. Put it on a shortcut, and we're very open about this happening during gameplay.
“As hardware gets more advanced and we're able to add more detail to the worlds, if you use a light touch with your art direction, that detail will be subtle and subconscious.”
Interestingly, we use time-slow at a couple of different points in the game where we think everybody could use the extra time to execute a move -- like training or when there's a particularly dramatic special effect happening. In these cases, basically it just blends cinematically to the time-slow and then back to whatever you had set in gameplay when you're done. Time-slow can be toggled -- we don't really restrict it, and then cinematics play out like normal. It does not affect the ability to unlock Trophies or complete the game or anything like that. It's more or less as permissive as it can be. If you want to use this, it's right there for you.
AG: With the two Spider-Man games Insomniac Games was posed with a challenge: how do we make sure these, uh, Spider-Men play similarly, but also differently in the fullness of time. What lessons learned there got applied when designing Ratchet's and Rivet's playstyles?
MD: When we made Miles Morales, we knew that we had less time with the player and that they needed to get familiar with the hero's moveset that much quicker. Miles's moveset is streamlined over Peter's, in that he doesn't have to learn, like, a whole wheel's worth of gadgets. Once you've gotten the basics of his venom powers, it's kind of up to you to take it as far as you want because you have the basic tools you need to get through the game.
“We wanted to throw in tons of enemies and really dial the weapons and their visual effects up to 11.”
We want your progression of learning through the mechanics of the game to be smooth and seamless, with a low sort of mental-load so that we can hit as broad of an audience as possible. For that reason, Ratchet and Rivet play very similarly. They're dimensional counterparts, so they're more or less two sides of the same coin. Every time you learn a mechanic or acquire a gadget for one, that applies to the other just as well. You don't have to mentally juggle which character can do which move or which character has which weapon.
AG: Well, looks like we're out of interview time there, Mike – we're about to be… Rift Apart by the PR handlers. Thanks very much for your insights.
MD: Awesome, thanks a lot!
Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart releases June 11, 2021 exclusively for the PlayStation 5 console.