At PAX Prime, Insomniac Games told the story of how it brought a real game to Facebook with Outernauts.
Insomniac Games is a studio known for console games. Since it was founded in 1994, the studio has made a name for itself with console mainstays Spyro the Dragon, Resistance, and Ratchet & Clank franchises. But about two and a half years ago, Brian Hastings, Insomniac's chief creative officer, who had, among other things, dreamed up the Ratchet & Clank games, realized that there was opportunity to bring a "real game" to Facebook.
At PAX Prime 2012, Insomniac held a panel to tell attendees how they came from idea to concept, what they learned, and what the future holds.
He was enticed by the prospect of hundred of millions of connected users, but he had no love for the games. He began to play everything that was available, and though the FarmVilles didn't impress him, he saw opportunity to do something special in what he disliked. If they did it right, Insomniac could create a real game just as it always had, but one that also happened to be on Facebook.
Hastings enlisted the help of Rowan Belden-Clifford, an intern Insomniac had recently hired, to serve as the game's lead designer, and they set out to bridge the gap between hardcore and casual gamers with a game that had the qualities of the Pokemon series. As he began to work on the game, Hastings noticed that his young son was immersed in the latest Pokemon installment, and he realized that those games encompassed what he referred to as the "holy grail" — a game that's simple to get into, but hard to master.
Outernauts began as a game called Cosmos, and its premise began without much story and with sparse, circular levels to roam. When Insomniac partnered with Electronic Arts for publishing, EA's input on things like character design was often frustrating to the team, but the final result was worth it, Hastings said.
The biggest challenges for the team centered around the game's user interface. On consoles, players have buttons. On traditional PC games, players have a combination of the mouse and the keyboard. Facebook's ecosystem created games that can't count on anything other than the mouse, and the UI became a balancing act between giving players enough information to succeed without bombarding them without sacrificing the limited screen real estate.
From the beginning, Hastings had insisted that Outernauts be free of the "standard Facebook social mechanics" that define the platform, but EA had a different approach. During development, the team had "long, heated arguments" with EA about what they were willing to put into the game, but as publisher EA ultimately won out because without the social hooks, there'd be no alpha and no game.
"Where we ended up was a good mix," Hastings said of the balance between social mechanics and his original vision.
Insomniac's associate community manager Brandon Winfrey is responsible for maintaining those social hooks, and he explained that their ongoing endeavor is to find the right balance. Insomniac is serving two masters — those who don't social video games and those who would if the Facebook experience offered something more akin to traditional video games.
It's about straddling the line between those who'd play Facebook games to endlessly pop bubbles and the hardcore gamers who don't have Facebook accounts. And though Insomniac is still learning, the team is happy with the success the game has seen thus far. They have plans to continually unveil new content. And Outernauts may serve as a template for other endeavors. After all, Hasings said, they haven't even started working in the mobile space yet.