The Develop Post-Mortem: Insomniac retraces the evolution of Ratchet & Clank

The Develop Post-Mortem: Insomniac retraces the evolution of Ratchet & Clank
Matthew Jarvis

By Matthew Jarvis

June 8th 2016 at 11:40AM

14 years, three generations of hardware and countless innuendos after it first appeared, Insomniac’s lombax-meets-robot series of action platformers has been reborn on the PS4 – with a silver screen debut to boot. Studio head Chad Dezern walks through the franchise’s history

What Donkey Kong is to Disney, or Super Mario 64 is to Pixar, Ratchet and Clank is to Dreamworks.

While the first entry in the 3D platforming series may not have been the very first of its kind, Insomniac’s polished PS2 debut stood apart from many of its peers by pushing the genre in completely unexplored directions, melding traditional platforming with third-person shooter mechanics.

“If you go back and play the 2002 original, it was very much a platformer first and a shooter second,” recalls studio head Chad Dezern, who joined Insomniac as an environment artist in 1998 and has worked on every Ratchet and Clank console entry since.

“In a lot of ways, we didn’t know what we were building with 3D third-person shooter mechanics. Shooting in the game is actually quite a challenge. A lot of the enemies can be defeated with just the wrench. When you do shoot something, it’s pretty low ammo counts – typically just one projectile at a time, so it’s a little slower-paced – and all of the enemy encounters were tuned around that.

“Flash forward almost 15 years and we’ve evolved our approach to shooter mechanics a lot. Now, we have fluid aiming and we use the right stick a lot more for aiming than we used to; we try to make shooting this fluid, fun experience instead of something you’re almost fighting against as you play.”

"For each platform, we try to develop an art style that lets us take advantage of what it can do well."

Chad Dezern, Insomniac

While an increasing appreciation of the right analog stick and player understanding of shooter mechanics has impacted Ratchet and Clank’s gameplay under the hood, there’s been a far more recognisable change on the surface: the way the games look. 

“For each platform, we try to develop an art style that lets us take advantage of what it can do well,” Dezern explains. “If you think back to the beginning of the series on the PS2, it was the first time that we were able to use instanced geometry. It was a really big deal to be able to make a single rock and then duplicate it around to make a cliff face. So that’s used extensively.

"It was also the first time that we were able to make a girder from a piece of alien architecture and duplicate that around to make a structure. Suddenly, we had a lot more detail available than ever. Consequently, everything is encrusted with this detail – we were so giddy to be able to add rivets to things and have actual tufts of grass out in the world that we really made it all about making sure that we had clusters of detail all over the environment to lead your eye around.”

Four further PS2 titles – Going Commando, Up Your Arsenal, Deadlocked and Size Matters – followed in the next five years, before Ratchet and Clank made their leap to Sony’s next big console, kicking off the ‘Future’ series in 2007 with Tools of Destruction.

“On the PlayStation 3, for the first time, we could make surfaces that had believable properties,” Dezern says of the technical improvement.

“Whereas in the PS2 era, if we wanted to make something shiny we had to put a big fake highlight on a texture, now we could make that highlight something that was derived from the real light reflecting just like real highlights in the real world. Pushing into natural lighting was kind of the leap forward we were able to make with the PS3.”

2016 has brought with it another rebirth for the franchise, as Insomniac’s self-titled inaugural PS4 entry works to retell the story of the very first 2002 game – but with the power of vastly superior hardware behind it.

“On the PlayStation 4, it’s been a lot about film-like post effects,” Dezern details. “We can really control the density and the dynamic range of the final rendered frame.

"That’s coupled with really grounded natural lighting, which we have now – the lighting is derived from the skybox, which is how it works in the real world. Plus, shaders that are extensively layered so that they respond to everything in the world the way you expect them to.

“Suddenly, we have a look that can get a lot closer to a feature film than we’ve ever been able to in the past. That’s all in addition to the natural progression – there are more polygons on screen every time, things look smoother because we’re able to add more facets to every model.”

 

While visual comparisons with feature films is a well-worn games industry trope by now, Dezern’s proclamation is more than mere buzzwords.

Days after Ratchet and Clank landed on TV screens via the PS4, its eponymous cinematic counterpart was being projected in theatres around the globe.

“We were able to work really closely with Rainmaker, the film production company,” Dezern reveals. “That means that the game and film started out virtually at the same time.

“We were able to take a look at the very early scripts, even when they were in draft form. The writer for the game and the film is the same person – TJ Fixman – so that was a big advantage; we were able to understand where the film was headed really early on. We had access to models and, in fact, in many cases we would send our model libraries to film production and get them back later ready to be dropped into a PS4 title.

“We did some optimisation here and there and made sure the shaders would work in our engine, things like that, but, ultimately, the model that you see in the film is pretty much the model that you see in the game, especially for major characters like Ratchet, Clank and Captain Qwark.

“In some cases it was a surreal experience where we would create concept art for a location, send it off to the film production company, see the final render in the film and then reproduce that back in the game. It was this really fluid back and forth that was all about trying to keep them as close together as possible, because we really did want the visuals to sync up. We wanted the game and film to tell the same story. We think of it as the ultimate version of Ratchet and Clank’s origins. To do that, we needed to match as closely as possible.”

"On the PS4, it’s been a lot about film-like post effects. We have a look closer to a feature film than ever before."

Chad Dezern, Insomniac

Including handheld spin-offs developed by third-party studios, there has been a new Ratchet and Clank game almost every year since the franchise began 14 years ago.

Insomniac has still found time to develop outside of the franchise, creating three PS3 entries in the Resistance series, co-op shooter Fuse and its first Xbox One exclusive, 2014’s open-world Sunset Overdrive – with VR effort Edge of Nowhere and the GameStop-published Song of the Deep on the horizon.

While the titles differ massively – ranging from gritty alt-history first-person shooters to a subnautical 2D ‘Metroidvania’ – they all embody elements that first emerged with Ratchet and Clank, all those years ago. Chiefly, an obsession with providing players with some of the most extravagant weapon armouries ever seen in any medium.

“Sometimes we discover that our ideas will break the engine after we’ve already dug in and begun to execute them,” Drezen says of the studio’s ‘bigger is better’ approach to virtual armaments. “That’s just a part of the process.

“We begin with big brainstorming sessions where we fill up whiteboards with everybody’s ideas for dream weaponry. Some of these things maybe somebody’s been thinking about over a couple of months or maybe they had an idea driving into work a year ago and now’s the time to talk about it.

“Then we narrow down our list of weapons by applying several criteria to those early thumbnail sketches. We ask ourselves: ‘Does this weapon have a strategic place in the arsenal?’ ‘Is it unique?’ ‘Is it something that we’ve never seen before – either in our game or in somebody else’s?’ We ask ourselves about the spectacle factor – is this something that’s going to look really cool on-screen and just feel really great to execute? When we narrow down our list to the weapons that have those attributes, then we start to prototype some. We make rough models, we do the bare minimum to see if the weapon is going to play out and actually be fun in the game. We bring it up to the point of being able to actually add ammo and shoot the thing and see how it feels.

“We can figure out which weapons really are going to be practical for us to execute. Sometimes with a push – we’ve had weapons over the years that require extensive effort. The Groovitron means that we need to make unique dance animations for every single enemy, so it takes every animator doing extra work to get it in the game. But, the result is good enough to warrant that, and the fact is animators love making dance animations – it’s some of the most fun and creative work that we get to do – so we think of that type of weapon as a really good use of our effort. We tend to have several of those every game.

“Similarly, the Pixelizer, which is new from Ratchet and Clank on the PS4: that’s a weapon we never could’ve done previously, because it’s converting the render buffer into voxels, and then when you hit or shoot them the physics engine takes over and suddenly you see these colourful pixel-like voxels flying all over the screen. This is very PS4 stuff here, and we certainly didn’t know that we’d be able to pull it off when we started. We just had a general idea of: ‘It would be really cool to convert your enemies into 8-bit pixels and hear the accompanying sound effect.’ From there, it kind of evolved into something that was way more than what we expected when we started out.”

 

With five games planned for release this year, spanning PS4 and Xbox One, PC and the Oculus Rift VR headset, 2016 is set to be Insomniac’s biggest year to date. 

Yet, it’s clear that the developer is keen to honour its heritage in the franchise that served as the genesis of its modern output.

“Every game we make is an opportunity to stretch our legs, especially in terms of visual fidelity and the amount of activity we can get on screen,” Dezern observes. “It’s required a lot of development from our tools and technology. Now, we can do a lot of things faster that we flat-out couldn’t do back in the PS2 days.

“Tonally these games are all very different and for different audiences, but they’re all things that we love. We’re big science-fiction fans, we like a broad range of media, and we’ve been able to bring things like the density of the world and approaching the game with a colour arc that matches what’s happening emotionally in the game story from Ratchet and Clank to other titles.

“All of these things we delved into for the first time with Ratchet and Clank. It really has shaped our studio in many ways, because it was the first time we figured out a lot of things that go into making every game we make now.”