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Spider-Man on the PS4 is a great example of AAA development working at its best

When a big team has time and money to make something they care about

Spider-Man PS4 - Spidey in Iron Spider suit Insomniac Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment

One of the more telling details of the new Spider-Man game on the PlayStation 4 is the fact that Spider-Man’s dialog during phone calls was recorded twice. Once for when the character is standing still and sounds calms, and another pass for when you’re in combat or you’re swinging around. The vocal track even shifts mid-conversation if you go from standing still to moving quickly.

Who has the kind of time and money to pull off that sort of thing? Who would even think of that sort of detail?

The answer is, of course, Insomniac Games. The developers there had that time and money. They thought of that sort of detail. Because Spider-Man is a game that shows off the power of veteran developers who were given a lot of time and money to work on a game set in a universe that fans know and love. Spider-Man is one of the best examples of what AAA development does well, when that term is sometimes used in critical circles as a pejorative.

It’s the sort of game that can’t be made quickly.

“So we’ve been in development basically since the end of Sunset Overdrive,” Insomniac’s James Stevenson told Red Bull. “And [Spider-Man uses] the same engine we used for that game, and then Ratchet afterwards on PS4, plus all our VR games too .... So we have all of that greatness coming to Spider-Man.”

That’s around four years, working with an engine they created and iterated upon across many games. And of course they had a lot of bodies to throw at it.

One of the words a co-worker and I used to describe Spider-Man is “thorough,” and more than one has remarked that this is a “AAA-ass video game.” It wasn’t meant to be a slight; we were talking about how absolutely dense this world is with details and Easter eggs and bits of lore. Spider-Man seems to know the sort of things you want in a Spider-Man game, and it just keeps giving them to you.

This doesn’t feel like overkill or gratuity, because a great Spider-Man game really does need an untold number of swinging animations to feel this good, and Spider-Man is set in one of the most recognizable cities in the world. You can’t fake it.

Here’s a bit of advice from a member of the Spider-Man team:

There was a writer that wrote a funny line for the game in which Spider-Man complains about only having three chest hairs, and of course it turns out that is a factual detail about the game. Spider-Man only has three chest hairs. Because everything in the game has been thought about and fussed over by a remarkable number of people, and every joke is taken to its natural conclusion. Collecting backpacks may feel like busywork, but the game actually presents an in-universe reason that Peter Parker has a lifetime supply of backpacks.

A rule I’ve learned about game development after covering this industry for more than a decade is that if something seems easy to do in a game, it’s really frickin’ hard. If something just works to the point where you can forget about it and enjoy the game? It was nearly impossible.

The complexity of Spider-Man’s swinging systems and animations is invisible if you just want to enjoy the game, but somewhat awe-inspiring if you can even make an educated guess at how much work went into it.

The size of this effort is remarkable even to those who worked on it.

“We have a giant team of animators, the biggest team I’ve ever worked on,“ animation director Bobby Coddington said in a promotional video. “People specializing in hand key animation to film, motion capture actors ... Just, I’ve never had so many resources come together to try to tell an emotional story in a video game before.”

This isn’t to say that you can brute force your way through game development; Spider-Man combines too many elements that work well together to say that it was just a huge number of people clocking in and out making it work. Large teams with large budgets can also get unwieldy, making elegance even more impressive when it makes it to the end product having gone through so many hands.

One of my favorite things about looking up members of the Spider-Man team that are on Twitter is that when they’re praising something, it’s almost always due to someone else being great.

When someone on Twitter praised the vocal work and animation of Spider-Man himself, the voice actor made sure to include the stunt performer in the thread.

It’s a very wholesome trend.

And it’s easy to keep going, but I’ll stop now. You get the idea.

The bigger the team, and the more big companies working on something — say, Disney and Marvel — the less likely it is that the end product will have any kind of voice. The danger is always that the personality gets smoothed down by everyone trying to play it safe. But somehow Spider-Man tells a new story that doesn’t attach directly to the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the comics and it does so with heart and character moments that feel like they matter.

Other big teams makes amazing games, and being gracious in your success isn’t limited to Insomniac — having scale be a thing we just kinda expect in games from well-known teams and franchises while small team sizes are praised in indie efforts can be a blind spot in gaming conversations — but Spider-Man is one of those situations where a big team made a big game with a big character and a big budget and more secrets and fun details than I can count.

There are plenty of amazing games that come out of big, well-supported teams, but Spider-Man’s photo mode and the popularity of the license combined with the number of Easter eggs helps make this a really noticeable example of AAA’s strengths.

There’s a part of me that’s scared to even say this sort of thing, because I’m always nervous that we’re going to have a sort of game development milkshake duck situation where an oral history of the game comes out a decade later and it turns out everyone was miserable, over-worked and argued with each other during the production of a game I love. What’s up, Halo? So I can just say I hope that’s not the case here.

And beside, it’s worth giving a shout out to the things AAA development can do well with this kind of investment and that number of skilled developers, actors and crew. The fact that the game feels like it just popped into being as a cohesive package is proof the magic trick worked, and it takes a lot of people doing a lot of things right for that kind of magic to take place.