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Why Insomniac bet big on VR and what’s next from the creators of Ratchet & Clank

Is VR the future?

Whether ice-picking your way across a wall of frozen rock and deadly, intelligent plant life, brawling with the inhabitants of a colorful tropical island or using your innate abilities to summon imps and toss junker cars during a duel of magic on a mystical battlefield, Insomniac Games’ creations are among the best in virtual reality today.

And that’s just what they created this year.

While the company’s future won’t be entirely tied to the emerging technology, founder and CEO Ted Price is a virtual reality true believer. He has faith in the technology, its potential and its eventual success.

Edge of Nowhere
Insomniac Games

But he also knows that he and his company have to be patient.

“It’s going to be a slow burn,” Price said. “I think what we are seeing right now is pretty typical for new technology: The initial hype, the disappointment that the hype didn’t live up to reality and then acceptance with a new paradigm in entertainment.”

I sat down with Price last week, a few hours before he took to the stage of Playcrafting’s annual 16 Bit Game Awards in New York City to accept the “Game Changer” award and hand out two “Rising Pixel” awards.

Price told me that he sees VR as something that is changing not just gaming, but all sorts of entertainment and beyond.

“What gives me confidence in VR’s future is that it’s not just games,” he said. “VR has much, much broader applications. Those applications are practical, like virtual tours, 360 degree broadcasts, educational. There are a lot of ways that VR can and will influence our lives that have nothing to do with games.

“That means to me, it has staying power.”

The Unspoken
Insomniac Games

And, he added, there’s also the power of some of the companies helping to back the technology. Big companies like Facebook and Google have made massive commitments, he said.

Of course, Price and Insomniac Games’ perception of VR and its potential for broad, mainstream success comes from an enviable position.

Oculus fully funded the development of Insomniac’s three VR games: Edge of Nowhere, Feral Rites and The Unspoken.

“It eliminated the risk for us,” Price said, adding that he couldn’t go into any more details about the deal other than to say that Insomniac owns all of the IP for the games they created.

“We are reaching an enthusiastic early adopter with an original IP,” he said. “And we are developing an expertise in a new design field. That’s important for any company. Even if the install base is low now, that’s a boon for us.”

Feral Rites
Feral Rites
Insomniac Games

A ten year journey

While Insomniac continues to create new titles for its most popular characters, Ratchet and Clank, it’s obvious the company is working to broaden its horizons and has been for years.

Ten years ago, Insomniac came out of left field (and four years of Ratchet and Clank games) to release a serious, first-person shooter called Resistance: Fall of Man. The game’s success led to two more main titles, book-ended by more Ratchet and Clank titles. Then in 2012, the company tried its hand at mobile games and broke away from its exclusive platform relationship with PlayStation to create a shooter for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. While Fuse wasn’t very well received and Outernauts on iOS limped along for a couple of years before being shut down, it didn’t stop the company from continuing to experiment with different platforms and new sorts of games.

Xbox One exclusive Sunset Overdrive received fairly positive reviews when it hit in 2014 and the company also went on to create four more mobile games.

But this year was, by far, Insomniac’s most experimental.

Song of the Deep
Insomniac Games

Over the course of 2016, the studio released five games including what Price believes is one of its best Ratchet & Clank titles; a metroidvania game entitled Song of the Deep that was funded by retailer GameStop and the three Oculus VR games.

From Price’s perspective, Insomniac’s history is a history of transitions, and those shifts from a singularly-focused studio to one so willing to try new things have left the company in a better position.

“I think we are developing a couple of important expertises, like how to build open world games for Sunset Overdrive and Spider-Man,” he said. “Next, how to apply virtual reality to games.

“It’s been a very interesting journey for us.”

VR Vacuum

Despite the positive reception of Insomniac’s three VR games, Price is aware they face plenty of challenges. Not least of which is finding an audience that is both seemingly small, but also inundated with a lot of games and apps to choose from — many of which aren’t really complete experiences in the traditional sense. The Rift launched with about 30 games and will have about 150 or so by the end of the year. Among those will be about 35 or so titles that support the Oculus’ new Touch controllers.

The games that do land, good or bad, often do so with a thud. There’s little mainstream media coverage, at least compared to the constant flood of gaming news and reviews you’ll find for titles on consoles and non-VR PC games. That’s in part, Price believes, because the market isn’t big enough to create awareness among the media of the games that rise to the top of the heap.

Oculus games

“That challenge of discovery right now is high because there are so many things out there,” he said. “There aren’t enough reviews to drive players to one game or even a subset of games.”

The issue is compounded by VR app and game creators still trying to find their voice in this new medium.

“A lot of games are appropriately experimental,” Price said. “We are still all discovering ways to approach VR. Trying to layer a traditional design on top of a design that really isn’t made for traditional games can be challenging. And when you apply traditional game design to VR games you’re not realizing its full potential.”

VR to AR to MR

Like many of those people deeply involved in virtual reality, Price believes that the medium is going to continue to evolve. The headsets will change, growing smaller and more capable, and augmented reality will eventually become a major player as well. Once that happens, mixed reality and headsets that can deliver all three sorts of experiences, will likely become the sought-after technology of the day.

“I think VR is here to stay, but it will continue to evolve from what we are seeing today,” he said. “The goal for Insomniac has been to develop new muscles, ones we can flex as the VR industry grows.

“And ones that we can apply to future technology, like AR.”

For now, the company is focusing on creating new content for The Unspoken, a game that has players wielding a variety of magic in one-on-one duels against other players online. The game uses the Oculus Touch controllers so players can draw spells in the air, fling fireballs and use their magic to pull wreckage from the earth to toss at other players.

“We have a lot of new content coming for The Unspoken,” Price said. “It lends itself to new content. There’s a lot you can do with it, to reward players diving in.”

Price said he and the teams are excited about getting into VR game creation so early and being able to create not just experimental games, but new sorts of games that are also fully realized experiences.

Concept art for a new Unspoken arena
Insomniac Games

“We made four mobile games and then we stopped,” Price said. “We realized we got in on the tail-end of mobile. We came in so late we weren’t able to develop the expertise we needed. That’s one reason VR is so attractive. It’s exciting to be an early adopter and potentially good for the company.”

But games like The Unspoken, which delivers what little story it has through the environment and the introduction, aren’t necessarily a sign that Insomniac is moving away from the storytelling it has always done so well in games. And the same goes for Insomniac’s increasing interest in creating open-world games.

Price was strident in his defense of the narratively-driven single-player game when I asked him if it is still a viable genre.

“Absolutely, “ he said. “Look at Uncharted 4.

“There are many great stories being told in games. I don’t think the gamers’ enthusiasm is going to wane as long as the content is good and unexpected. But some stories, some mechanics have been beaten to death and that can dampen your enthusiasm for a genre.”

Price said that he has always been “hyper-sensitive to the ennui” that sets in sometimes after gamers have played a certain sort of game a bit.

“There is always room for a mature approach to telling stories,” he said. “You can lose yourself in deep characters as much as you can an open world.

“I think that corner of video game craft will live on because it is becoming more and more refined.”

The future

Price wasn’t willing to talk much about what’s next for Insomniac, though obviously a Spider-Man game is in the works, a game he described as a “unique take” on the superhero, not one tied to a movie or particular comic book run.

“We are not going to be releasing five games next year,” he said. “This year was a special for us, in that sense.”

In part, it sounds like Insomniac’s goal is to continue to redefine how people view the company.

“For us, when people have thought about Insomniac in the past and I ask them what they think of, they said ‘crazy weapons.’ As a company we’re trying to mature, tell unique stories and reach a new audience.”

While the company’s passion for crazy weapons hasn’t waned, Price believes that people are already starting to view his company differently.

“I think today, if we asked people what they think of when they think of Insomniac it would be core mechanics, tight controls; the things we spend a lot of time refining in our games. Humor, hopefully, games with heart, something we internally focus on. We tend to try and make sure the games have meaning to the players.”

Price’s personal goal, he said, is to make sure Insomniac is staying ahead of where the company believes the industry is going.

“And VR is where it’s going.”