How Insomniac struck gold by striking out.
Brian Hastings knew things were changing. A few years ago, he had an existential crisis about the company he'd begun working at almost two decades before. Insomniac Games had kept afloat on a steady stream of popular console games that expanded into franchises like Spyro the Dragon, Ratchet & Clank and Resistance. But when Hastings looked upriver in 2010, things seemed different. The rise of social gaming through outlets like Facebook, smartphones and other devices was at once broadening gaming's appeal and, at least in the aggregate, making games more connected and casual. The course that Insomniac had plotted didn't anticipate the turning tides.
Insomniac had never quite been about making casual games. Its roster wasn't filled with inscrutable or complex titles meant for the most hardcore gamers, but it hadn't churned out massively popular casual games like FarmVille, either. No matter. If the industry Hastings had spent his career working in was changing, he had to figure out how Insomniac could adapt. That's why he and Ted Price, founder and chief executive officer at Insomniac Games, sat down and started to connect the dots to perhaps take the studio in a different direction.
What emerged, after years of self teaching, experimentation and a partnership with a publisher well-versed in the new social sphere, was a game called Outernauts. You can see Insomniac's influences in the quirky character design, the tongue-in-cheek humor, the over-the-top heroes, all of which are bundled alongside deep core gameplay. What you wouldn't be able to see, if you were looking back on Insomniac's history as a console developer, is the platform. Outernauts made its debut in July 2012 on Facebook.
The story of Outernauts, in many ways, spans the recent evolution of Insomniac Games. It begins with an idea about how to do something differently. To become successful by making something unique in an emerging market. To bond with players in a new way, inside of a new medium. Insomniac needed to do all of this while retaining the kind of accessible but deep gaming experience the company was known for. And, perhaps most importantly to its leadership team, it needed to do all of this without toppling the focused but relaxed company culture it had spent decades balancing.
Transformation, Insomniac would learn by building Outernauts, is hard work.
Outernauts began not as a game but as a conversation about the future.
CEO Ted Price and Chief Creative Officer Brian Hastings wanted to play prognosticators, to figure out where the company Price had founded in 1994 needed to go next. They wanted to control their own destiny. To create intellectual properties that they owned and could grow.
They were particularly interested in translating the core experiences of console games to web browsers. They also wanted to learn how to create a game for a broader audience that might be unlike the console audience Insomniac had spent its first two decades developing for.
It was a challenge, in other words. A challenge to make a different kind of game than Insomniac would normally make, for a different kind of audience than Insomniac would typically cater to. But the idea was to make a game in the browser space by leveraging Insomniac's experience. Insomniac didn't want to make the next FarmVille.
"We came to the conclusion after playing a lot [of social games] that the industry was going to change," Price tells Polygon. "That browser-based games were going to evolve. And we wanted to make sure that we were part of that evolution … helping push it forward with our expertise from console games."
Insomniac's self-appointed evolutionary role centers around depth — console-like progression systems, production values and games that focus on meaningful player choice within a community in which they would be active participants. Because this new game was to be a social game, it had to utilize the strengths of the platform: cooperation with friends and a community of like-minded players. The problem was that Insomniac wasn't entirely sure how to do that.
That's why it went to EA.
Partners, Not Partners
About two and a half years ago, Brian Hastings started prototyping what would eventually become Outernauts. For Hastings, it was the tech, as much as anything, that interested him at the beginning; especially the idea of a universe sustained with the connective tissue of cloud saves. Now he just had to learn the language of the web to get him there.
Hastings started development alone, learning the web's programming languages as he created the game. By the end of that first year, he was one of four people at work on the project. That was the nature of Outernauts — steady growth. A "real" game in a browser was uncharted territory, and the more the Outernauts team worked, the more it learned. And the more it learned, the broader the scope became.
"We retain players by making the game good."
The original idea was to develop and publish the game internally, but Insomniac eventually concluded that a partner was an essential component. It's hard to get noticed in the social sphere without one, and EA, with which Insomniac had partnered on the upcoming shooter Fuse, had a social pedigree that could help.
"EA has had a large presence in browser games for a while — in analytics abilities and publishing ability in that area," Price says. "So that's why we started talking to them about Outernauts originally."
Insomniac teamed up with the EA Partners program, which allowed Insomniac to develop the game and retain rights to the Outernauts intellectual property. The plan was to meet in the middle. Insomniac would use its experience to create a game people wanted to play, while EA Partners would offer direction about how the game could incorporate social hooks that took advantage of the kind of viral gaming success that Facebook is known for.
The contract stated that EA wouldn't do anything to hurt player experience, a goal that both Price and Hastings point out often.
"How do we retain players?" Price asks. "Well, the idea is that we retain players by making the game good. And the people who like this kind of game, the people who appreciate this kind of game, will stick with it."
And that's what a team at Insomniac, led by Hastings, set out to do: Make a bona fide game for Facebook. They'd seen the future and wanted to be part of shaping it.
Price and Hastings wanted to make a social game that looked and felt like a console game. The studio drew on its near two decades of development experience to push the boundaries of what was possible in a free-to-play browser game. And it wanted to do it with the help of Electronic Arts, a company that not only had the funds to get Insomniac through development but experience in the uncharted territory of social games.
But things weren't that easy. There was much to learn. And there was disagreement along the way. All the while, as the studio expanded into new territory, the leadership team also had to figure out how to keep things the way they'd always been and not lose a studio culture it had spent decades creating.
Cookies and Milk
At Insomniac, development begins with employees. Insomniac is anything but a factory that churns out games. It's a collaborative environment, designed to hear all voices. And it's designed to work hard while taking care of its own.
This is yet another factor in its success — its desire to take care of its employees. And a large part of that care-taking falls on the shoulders of Carrie Dieterle, Insomniac's chief people officer. It's something of a silly title, she tells Polygon, but it reflects her department's priority as the company's "ambassadors of fun." Not exactly the kind of title that human resources departments are known for.
"I'm trying to teach them all to fish, as opposed to feeding them a fish."
Dieterle has been at Insomniac for about a decade, starting when there were only about 65 employees. She's quick to say that she hates politics and bureaucracy, and it's been her job to stamp both out and keep people happy as the studio has grown to about 200 employees spanning two studios on opposite sides of the country.
"Leadership is very much about walking around here," Dieterle says. And that's often literally what her department does, surprising employees in the midst of a development crunch with impromptu deliveries of cookies and milk or ice cream bars.
She's been around long enough to know that people will work 18-hour days of their own volition. Part of her job is to balance out that work ethic — she wants Insomniac's employees to love work, not to burn out. Hence, the impromptu mini-breaks.
"I'm trying to teach them all to fish, as opposed to feeding them a fish," she says. The Insomniac human resources philosophy is also about putting employees at ease. The last few years have been turbulent in the industry, as long-established studios shuffle management or go broke, like THQ.
"A lot of our leaders have been here for an extended period of time," she says. "They have seen this industry change, and I think it has allowed us the opportunity to weather the storm that has been the last couple of years."
Insomniac has weathered the storm and, as it's shown with Outernauts, intends to continue shifting with the tide to keep the studio relevant. Its leadership hopes that growth helps employees, and it wants employees to participate in the new direction.
Part of the challenge of creating and maintaining a corporate culture is growth, which Dieterle overcomes through constant involvement. The other is location, which became a whole new challenge when Insomniac founded its Durham, N.C., office in 2008.
The idea, according to Chad Dezern, who heads Insomniac's North Carolina studio, was to transplant the corporate culture to a new area. He'd been working at Insomniac since 1996 and moved across the country to help found the new studio, serving as a kind of ambassador to the new hires, many of whom came from California back to their East Coast roots. In fact, Dieterle tells Polygon that the prospect of losing those employees was a major factor in creating a new East Coast studio.
"I don't think anybody here used the words 'tower defense' at any point."
"The reason I'm working for Insomniac — and the reason all of us are — is because we really believe in the culture," Dezern says. "And a lot of that culture is about pushing ourselves, finding ideas internally and making sure that everyone on the team is creatively connected to the game we're making."
The new studio's first big project was Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One, 2011's entry into the long-running franchise. It was a departure not only in geography but in thematic elements, as All 4 One was a multiplayer-focused game. It was, just as Outernauts would become, an experiment of sorts to push the boundaries of what the studio could deliver.
Its next project, the recently released Ratchet & Clank: Full Frontal Assault, continued to redefine what a Ratchet game could be, incorporating elements from tower defense games, which had become popular in the mobile ecosystem. But it all started with internal influences.
Development began with an idea to expand the series' skateboard-like hoverbooting sections. Drawing from the "Krell Canyon" level in 2009's Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack in Time, the North Carolina team began streamlining the mechanics and added a siege mode inspired by 2004's Up Your Arsenal. This is how Insomniac does it — it looks for inspiration and iterates. But in later years, it's become more than just about internal inspiration.
Full Frontal Assault would incorporate tower defense elements that eased their way into the studio from their surge in the browser and mobile ecosystems. But according to Dezern, that was less deliberate and more subliminal. During development, it was just about taking the new mechanics to their logical conclusions.
"At no point did we say to ourselves, 'Let's make a tower defense Ratchet game,'" he says. "In fact, I don't think anybody here used the words 'tower defense' at any point in development. It wasn't until very, very late in the game when were were struggling for language to describe the game to everybody else."
It's a language, like its games, that Insomniac develops internally and spreads externally.
And Then There Was Outernauts
It's all part of a whole. Insomniac exists to make good games. Good games come from happy employees. And if it’s in Insomniac's power to make its employees happy, then it's going to do what needs to be done to serve everyone involved in the process, up to and including founding a new studio.
And then there was Outernauts, the Facebook game. It began as an internal process. But when the studio started working seriously on the project, it needed help. And, while those we spoke to are grateful for the help they received from EA Partners, eventually there was reason to question whether that relationship was worth sustaining.
Obsession with creating good games cuts both ways, both internally and externally. If it's within Insomniac's power to create a good game from within, the studio will do so. If it's within Insomniac's power to prevent a good game from going bad based on outside pressure, Insomniac is prepared to do that, too.
"It was mutually agreed that we would part ways."
The biggest risk in making a social game is figuring out how to make it profitable. There's a standard formula for that, which includes some combination of plastering Facebook walls with notices that friends are playing the game, designing the gameplay to require friends so that players are coerced into spreading the word and using in-app purchases to make progression faster and easier.
EA was an expert in at least the first two and wanted those features in the game. The problem, as Hastings discussed publicly at a PAX Prime panel in September 2012, was that those things made the game worse. And anybody with any knowledge of the situation — anyone who attended that PAX Prime panel, for instance — would have seen that the game's recent updates strayed further and further away from the EA social formula.
From Hastings' perspective, Outernauts was never supposed to be just another Facebook game. Including those standard social hooks blurred the line between the niche the developers were trying to create and the standard operating procedure of Facebook games.
That created tension. In a sense, this is the nature of collaboration. You have ideas. Your partner has ideas. The shipped product is a compromise, containing an amalgam of the two sometimes-divergent visions.
The difference with Outernauts is that it never truly ships. Or it never finishes shipping. Unlike Insomniac's products of old, where the bulk of development ended when the discs were pressed and sent to store shelves, a browser-based game is in constant development. There are always new tweaks, new quests, new characters set to enter the world.
And as the game's never-ending development continued, the gulf between the two companies increased. EA knew how to make money and wanted Insomniac to incorporate its ideas. Insomniac was far more concerned with making the game it had set out to make, and less concerned with imminent profits.
Eventually, the differences became irreconcilable.
"It was mutually agreed that we would part ways," Hastings says.
Outernauts wasn't profitable, and the social hooks that EA wanted to add to turn a profit were anathema to Insomniac. And Insomniac's plans for future content were likely to further sink the bottom line. Whatever tenuous agreement they'd shared about how to maintain Outernauts continued to dissolve. Parting ways made sense to both companies. "They added a lot," says Hastings. "They helped make the game quality really good. That was a good experience. We learned a lot about how the whole thing works. It wasn't like there was bad blood at all. There wasn't. It was more like, we totally see where they're coming from and we're not hitting the targets they want. But at the same time, because of what it was — because it's a core game on Facebook — I think we all came to the same conclusion. You're not going to get the same kind of retention you're going to get on a more casual game."
So what's in store for the future? Insomniac is tight-lipped about that, but the studio is obviously excited. After all, it's seen the future. And its entire existence is designed around letting as many players as possible see it, too.
"It absolutely continues to evolve," CEO Ted Price says of Outernauts. "That's the beauty of being in a live environment like Facebook or Kongregate."
The studio doesn't need it to make money right now. Insomniac is playing a longer game than that.
At every turn, the company keeps applying the lessons that it learned to its new products. It's not that Insomniac doesn't want Outernauts to make money. Far from it. But the studio doesn't need it to make money right now. Insomniac is playing a longer game than that.
First up was Outernauts' transition to Kongregate, the GameStop-owned portal for browser games. That's part of the evolution of the game and the studio. Outernauts is officially Insomniac's first multi-platform game, further proof of the studio's evolutionary directive.
Price's evolutionary talk isn't just theory. It's about growing the brand and the franchise and bringing it wherever it makes sense. Insomniac is working right now to bring Outernauts to iOS.
"Outernauts has had an osmotic effect, for sure," Price says. "[It's] about our approach to the player's experience in games. We believe that, in general, it's getting more and more social. And that's great. I think people outside of the gaming world tend to forget that gamers are very social. It's been tough to break the stereotype that's arisen over the last 20 years about gamers sitting in a dark room playing by themselves for days at a time. That is definitely not the case."
Just as Insomniac has fostered a connection with its employees, it's now trying to foster a deeper connection to its audience through experiments in social games. That begins with identifying trends. It continues through taking risks. And it stays part of the corporate culture as the company plans for its next two decades.
But in the end, it's all about the games, as Hastings tells us.
"I feel like the more we keep improving the game we're making, the more of an audience it will find."