Interview: Insomniac Games' Ryan Schneider

Safe to say, now is a good time for independent developer Insomniac Games. Following the playable debut of Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction (PS3) at E3, the internet was awash with glowing impressions--I even named it as my top game of the show in our Best of E3 awards. The company recently released the first set of downloadable content for its PlayStation 3 launch title Resistance: Fall of Man, which is still one of the system's most popular online shooters close to nine months after it debuted. For the third year in a row, the studio was named as one of the top ten small businesses to work for. To find out a bit more about how the studio operates and what it has in the works, I caught up with marketing director Ryan Schneider.

Shack: Now that E3's over, how did the show go?

Ryan Schneider: The response for Insomniac was really great. E3 keeps building off itself, in terms of momentum for the studio. Each time we release a Ratchet & Clank game, the anticipation seems to get a little bit higher for the next one, because people know the quality and care that go into making them. What we did with Resistance, as a launch title, that momentum also carried into Ratchet & Clank Future this year on PS3.

Based on what we read from the media and on the various community boards, gamers are really excited to see what's coming up for [Ratchet & Clank]. They can see the technology leap in terms of graphics, in terms of what we're able to do on-screen, [and] the smoothness at which we're able to do it, in terms of framerate.

The response from other developers was also humbling and gratifying. When you're in a room and other developers come up to you and have nice things to say and pay you all sorts of compliments, it was a great E3. We felt like we came out of the experience being one of the more anticipated PS3 titles and hopefully among the most anticipated games overall going into the holiday season.

Shack: Any chance of the Ratchet & Clank Future E3 demo hitting PlayStation Network soon?

Ryan Schneider: Soon is a broad term. I can confirm that the demo will be downloadable via the PlayStation Store. Only Sony can tell you exactly when that will be though.

Shack: Is it similar to the Heavenly Sword demo situation, where the work is complete and it's just up to Sony to decide when it goes up?

Ryan Schneider: Well, our E3 demo is certainly finished and media have received copies of it for preview coverage. What Sony chooses to do with it, and when, it really is in their hands. The demo is finished--I mean, you saw it [at E3], you played it--and when it comes out, we have a rough idea, but you never know. I think the PlayStation Store is a fluid storefront, and anything can happen.

Shack: Speaking of fluid, the recently released Resistance: Fall of Man map pack underwent a few delays in its journey to the PlayStation Store, originally slated for a May release and eventually arriving at the end of June. How much of that was related to being among the first developers to put premium downloadable content on the service?

Ryan Schneider: Good question. I think you really hit it on the head, it really is about the fact that this stuff is very new. Like you said, we were certainly among the first developers pushing premium map pack content through the PlayStation Store as well as being the first to offer purchasable maps from the game.

There are a lot of challenges that come with that, both anticipated and unanticipated. I think one of the biggest lessons learned from the map pack distribution process was, make sure when you announce a distribution date, it is absolutely the final date..

The bottom line is that Resistance is a PS3 launch title and as a result this is all new for a lot of us, and there are going to be bumps that happen along the way. Fortunately, the fans were actually very patient, even though they were frustrated, and the people who play the maps, love them. We've gotten a lot of great feedback.

Shack: Can you elaborate a bit on those bumps?

Ryan Schneider: I'm trying to think about what I could specify. I mean, was the process ideal? No, it wasn't. There isn't anything specific really to talk about, other than there were dates that were promised and those dates didn't happen at first. There were some last-minute issues with global server coordination, but Sony producer Greg Phillips covered those very well in his PlayStation Blog post. Ultimately, everything worked out.

Like I said before, these things happen from time to time, especially when you are leading the way for this sort of downloadable content. Bumps are bound to happen, it's how you handle those bumps and what happens after the maps are made available. People like the maps, they're good quality maps that were heavily tested here at Insomniac, and I think that we're helping show an effective path for how these sorts of downloads can occur more efficiently in the future.

Shack: Has the map pack sold in line with what Insomniac was expecting?

Ryan Schneider: We typically don't talk about sales, but I can say that we're really happy with the feedback that we're getting from people who are buying the map pack and that's been great. We've seen a lot of positive comments in the forums and from people actually playing them. In fact, every Friday after [we post Insomniac's bi-weekly podcast] the Full Moon Show we have "Resistance Fridays," where we play with our fans, and lately we've been playing in the new maps.

Shack: Is more Resistance content in the works? Maybe more map packs or character skins?

Ryan Schneider: We're always working on enhanced functionality and new content. We actually have some content that hasn't been shared yet, so I think our fans will be happy in the coming months in terms of ongoing support for Resistance. I don't want to go into specifics, but we're not done.

Shack: Speaking of the fans, have they discovered and discussed all of the secrets and easter eggs in Resistance? I remember you were telling me about the morse code messages you had hidden in there.

Ryan Schneider: I think all of the intentional, and even largely unknown, easter eggs have been found in Resistance. The most obscure ones were the garden gnomes.

Shack: Some players have exploited glitches to venture outside of level boundaries in the online mode and use the existence of a lone teddy bear found outside of those boundaries as proof that Insomniac wants gamers to break the game and explore glitches. Is it?

Ryan Schneider: I certainly hope not. I personally have no idea how that teddy bear got there, I really don't. Something we did in our latest multiplayer update was to add a cheater report capability. Using that feature, players can now red flag any glitching or cheating behavior to our moderators who can then immediately jump in, observe, and ban the offender on the spot. I think we probably have one of the strongest and most enforced glitching policies in place [for online matches]. We definitely work hard to discourage glitching, and this new policy is working well for us. We think we may be the first on the console side to include this capability, in fact. So obviously we're trying to innovate in terms of how we keep the in-game online experience as clean, fun and fair as possible.

Shack: Going back to Ratchet for a moment, will Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction support any sort of downloadable content, or is that too early to talk about?

Ryan Schneider: Too early to talk about. We will touch the PlayStation Network somehow with the Ratchet & Clank Future franchise, and we'll be talking about that when the time comes. I can assure you though it won't be something cheesy like nickel and dime weapons upgrades.

Turn the page to learn about the origins of Resistance and the future of Insomniac properties on PSP on PlayStation Network. _PAGE_BREAK_

Shack: A lot of folks were surprised to see Insomniac produce a gritty first-person shooter after nearly a decade of bright and cartoony platformers. However, Insomniac's first title was a first person shooter for the original PlayStation, titled Disruptor. Was Resistance originally pitched as a modern update to Disruptor?

Ryan Schneider: Never. Disruptor is our first game. I know for [chief creative officer] Brian Hastings, [chief technology officer] Al Hastings, [founder and CEO] Ted Price, and [consulant and Cerny Games president] Mark Cerny, it definitely has a special place in their hearts. From the very beginning of Resistance: Fall of Man, back when it was called I-8, it was always meant to be its own franchise and its own universe with its own unique characters. Resistance is not so much a nod to Disruptor, but more of a symbol of how far Insomniac has come as a studio.

Shack: Can you talk about how Resistance evolved during development? At the review event, Ted off-handedly mentioned that it was originally set in the future.

Ryan Schneider: It was more futuristic, it was more of a sci-fi space opera. There were elements of interdimensional travel. It was a very complex universe and story. We wanted to figure out a way to create a more rooted universe that was still foreign and intriguing but somehow familiar and relatable. That's what led us to rooting the Resistance universe on Earth.

Shack: What led to the alternate history angle?

Ryan Schneider: If you look at what the strengths of Insomniac are, especially in terms of weapons design, we wanted to create something that wasn't confined to the technology of the era. We looked at a variety of different eras when creating Resistance, we kind of honed in on post-World War 2 / Korean War, when the Korean War would have been. It just gives us so many more opportunities to mix up the familiar with something you haven't quite seen before.

Shack: Are there plans to revisit Disruptor someday?

Ryan Schneider: I would say it's doubtful. I believe that Universal owns the IP for it, so that would make it very difficult.

Shack: Similar to the situation with Spyro, then?

Ryan Schneider: Yea, exactly. You won't see us making Spyro games again, and I think it's safe to say that you won't see us making Disruptor again.

Shack: Do you know if Universal plans to release either Spyro or Disruptor on the PlayStation store?

Ryan Schneider: I have no idea. We don't actively communicate with Universal/Vivendi on anything, really.

From the very beginning of Resistance: Fall of Man, back when it was called I-8, it was always meant to be its own franchise and its own universe with its own unique characters.

Shack: What was it like to see High Impact Games take on Ratchet and Clank in Ratchet & Clank: Size Matters for PSP?

Ryan Schneider: If anybody's going to work on a Ratchet & Clank game, we want people who have experience creating Ratchet & Clank to do so. The people who are at High Impact, many of them worked on the very earliest versions of Ratchet & Clank. It was cool and amusing to see how the Ratchet & Clank universe would fit into the handheld space. We were kept apprised, on a basic level, [of] what High Impact was up to, and we supported them every step of the way.

Shack: So Insomniac was pretty happy with the way the game turned out?

Ryan Schneider: Absolutely, yea. It seemed like the media was, it seemed like fans were, it seemed like everybody really accepted it into the Ratchet & Clank canon nicely. I think that's because they had a lot of talented people working on it, many of whom, or at least some of whom, had come from Insomniac. It really made for a nice transition.

Shack: Are there plans for any more PSP editions of Insomniac games?

Ryan Schneider: Not at this time.

Shack: Really? I was hoping for another Ratchet & Clank on PSP.

Ryan Schneider: Well, if you're asking me if Insomniac has plans for those, I can say with confidence not at this time. I don't know what High Impact's plans are, there very well may be one. But there isn't going to be an Insomniac handheld game anytime soon.

Shack: I guess I should rephrase the question. Are there any plans for future PSP editions of Insomniac properties?

Ryan Schneider: That's a great way to ask that question. For Ratchet & Clank, you'd have to ask High Impact.

Shack: And for Resistance?

Ryan Schneider: We don't have any plans at this time.

Shack: Insomniac regularly releases one game a year, and that schedule didn't skip a beat when switching between PlayStation 2 and 3. How did the studio handle the challenges of developing Resistance and establishing the technology behind it while sticking to that timeframe?

Ryan Schneider: It's kind of like how we were able to work on Ratchet & Clank Future while working on Resistance, you have different teams working on different things. Over time, we've really been able to perfect our production processes and there's been a lot of trial and error that has gone with that. That's really the short version, there's a lot of trial and error that goes into making games and fine-tuning the process. We're actually at a point now where Ratchet & Clank Future is the smoothest game we've ever made in terms of general production cycle, continuity, and workflow.

It takes a lot of work to get to that point. It really does come down to trial and error, a lot of pre-production planning, being consistent and being disciplined.

Shack: How has the studio setup management adapted to produce that more efficient product cycle?

Ryan Schneider: I think one of the biggest things that Insomniac did over the past few years is introduce and integrate a product management team. They're sort of like our internal producers. They do a great job of keeping the project on-task and fighting the good fight between feature creep and meeting deadlines. That has really helped a lot.

We overhauled our production structure in terms of incorporating project management. We also, through training and development internally, took a hard look at how we made games and figured out where the gaps were and how we could improve upon them.

Shack: With Ratchet & Clank Future out this fall, what's coming next year?

Ryan Schneider: I would love to talk about next year, but I can't. A lot of people are anticipating what we might be doing next. In fact, people are creating fan art already, anticipating what we're doing next, which is really cool, because that shows people are excited about what we may or may not be doing. We can't really talk about exactly what that is just yet.

Shack: Has Insomniac considered developing downloadable PlayStation Network titles?

Ryan Schneider: We're definitely talking about it. We don't have anything to announce right now, but it is something we're interested in. We're watching the PlayStation Network store, we played [Incognito's] Calling All Cars!, we're playing a lot of the downloadable games for that matter. We're still thinking about the best way to maximize the PlayStation Network.

Keep reading for more on Insomniac's design philosophy and the company's involvement with ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. _PAGE_BREAK_

Shack: Independent developers face a lot of challenges in today's game industry, but Insomniac was recently cited as one of the top ten small businesses to work for in America by The Great Place to Work Institute. How has the studio not only stayed afloat all these years, but comfortably successful?

Ryan Schneider: I think that success for Insomniac starts at the top. We're lucky that we have really strong, smart leaders in Ted Price, Al Hastings, [and] Brian Hastings. We've had continuity at the top since Ted founded the company, and I think that goes a long way. In addition, I think that the values that he founded the company with--collaboration, independence, quality, efficiency--are lived every day. There isn't a disconnect between what values are espoused versus how we act. We really walk the talk here.

Everybody really does have a say in how our games are made, regardless of the position that they occupy at the company. As a result, I think a lot of people are motivated to do their best, and when people are motivated to do their best, it becomes evident in the games themselves. I think that's why our games look and play so well, because it's a motivated group of people making them.

There isn't a disconnect between what values are espoused versus how we act. We really walk the talk here.

Shack: Can you speak a bit about how Insomniac is organized and managed? With so many different aspects of a game needing to come together, how do you ensure the different departments meet each other's needs?

Ryan Schneider: Personally, I think that it's a combination of two things. First, the department heads and leads are organized and passionate about what they do, and they talk. We have leads meetings every week. Our project management team is the second component. They help run and manage those meetings. Overall, there are project managers for each title, and there are project managers who handle different aspects of the production process. As a result, there's a strong glue that holds everything together in terms of project management and strong leaders who know how to communicate with each other.

That doesn't mean we don't have our bumps, but we're doing a really good job over the past few years of learning from our mistakes when we make them, and ensuring they don't happen again.

Shack: How does the Insomniac design process differ from that of other developers?

Ryan Schneider: It's hard to say, compared to other developers. You probably know that there are different methodologies for how to make games. For instance, you may have the Agile method or even Mark Cerny's method, among other approaches. In general terms, we focus heavily on pre-production, on making sure that we have a viable proof of concept going into production, and we have very clearly defined milestones during production that our project managers meticulously schedule and diligently manage.

We are trying to do a better job of aligning all the various marketing and PR requests that go along with production to make the process even smoother. That's been a big accomplishment for us during Ratchet & Clank Future. We don't necessarily subscribe to one way of making games, but we do try to focus overall on having a very strong pre-production period, and a very detailed production period. We try to factor some slack into the mix as well as marketing and PR needs.

That's the macro level. It's harder to specify how we're different in terms of going through the actual production cycle. Many departments are inter-dependent on each other, and we break things down by level cycles to manage the workload more effectively. At the same time, it's all within a very strong pre and production process.

Shack: How does playtesting factor into that?

Ryan Schneider: Playtests are heavily integrated and scheduled -- we're very milestone driven at Insomniac. We schedule these playtests diligently throughout the process. Usually they are tied either directly before or directly after important milestones, like a fully playable disc or a certain level cycle being completed. We're developing, then we're testing. We're developing, then we're testing. We're developing and then we're polishing and polishing and polishing.

There's a lot of testing, both internally and with Sony, that goes on to make sure that first and foremost, the game is fun. As part of that effort, we try to nail difficulty tuning, and we iron out potential choke points. Of course, the economy in Ratchet & Clank specifically is very important as well. We spend a lot of time working on that. We even have QA people that are dedicated to testing the bolt and weapons upgrades economy and enhancing it.

Shack: Earlier this year, Insomniac appeared on ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and based a playable character in Ratchet & Clank Future on one of the family members. How did Insomniac's involvement with Extreme Makeover come about? What effect did the new character have on the overall development of the game?

Ryan Schneider: We received a tip from a business partner of Insomniac's, who had a friend working on the show. The show producers were putting out a general call to development studios, looking to support a certain child's wishes as part of the show. As soon as we were tipped off to that, we jumped on the phone. The show producers had an original vision of what was possible, which was unrealistic for anyone. They actually wanted a fully playable game to be created in a week, and unless it's Demonik from the movie Grandma's Boy, that really doesn't happen.

We counter-proposed with the idea of what is [probably] going to be called Captain James, in honor of James Westbrook, the kid who we were doing this for. We were able to make him a playable character. The stars really lined up for where we were at in production. We had just completed the Kerchu City demo for Electronic Gaming Monthly's April cover, so we had a relatively stable level environment. While we certainly had to shift some production resources, we were able to work within the production framework to keep the project managers happy, yet still rally some support from people in their free time to create this playable skin in time to meet the deadline needs for the show. It was a rigorous process, but definitely worthwhile.

I do want to add that we did a month's plus amount of work in the span of ten days.

Shack: I assume that involved many different areas of Insomniac, concept art, animators, and so forth?

Ryan Schneider: Yes, many different areas of Insomniac were involved in creating Captain James. That's a great example where the project managers were key in not only helping push this vision through, but providing the parameters for how we could do it without affecting the game negatively. We wouldn't have been able to do it if we hadn't [stayed on schedule].

The project managers have a really tough job at Insomniac because they're the ones that have to constantly say "no." We're a company that dreams big, we always are asking "what if?" and "how could we?". The project manager's job is not only to think about "how could we?" but what would it take and at what expense will it come. That's a hard job, when our M.O. for our past games is creating crazy outrageous weapons and innovative gameplay. It's hard to tell a group of creative ambitious people no, and they have to do it every day.

Shack: How does Captain James factor into the overall game? Are you forced to play as him? Is he part of an optional mini-game?

Ryan Schneider: We know how Captain James will be incorporated into gameplay, and we're going to be revealing that over the next month or so.

We had certain parameters we needed to meet for Extreme Makeover: Home Edition regarding James' character. In real life, James is confined to a wheelchair right now, and therefore, it would be awkward and perhaps insensitive to show him running around, even with bionic legs, in our universe. That's actually one of the reasons you see James sitting in a saucer, because he can still wreak havoc in the game, but he can do so on his terms.

Turn the page to learn about the role of the fan community in Insomniac's efforts. _PAGE_BREAK_

Shack: What led to the creation of the Resistance-oriented community site MyResistance.net?

Ryan Schneider: MyResistance.net started with a vision that a tiny group of us had for creating the ultimate in-game driven community that could become kind of like a MySpace destination, but for the Resistance universe. We have steadily worked with that vision in mind, and it took us about a year and a half to get it to where it is now. We still have a long, long way to go though.

There was a lot of work that went into building MyResistance.net. We had to figure out how we could borrow resources -- without hurting the project -- from the production team. That was a challenging process, but we were able to do that. Then, we hired a community manager to devote more time specifically to growing and supporting our fan base. That has been integral in helping take the community to another level from a participation standpoint and that's also really helped drive MyResistance's overall success. In addition, we have a lot of mods here from Insomniac and all over who are active on the boards. You have to be dedicated to giving fans what they deserve, and that's the best possible game-enhanced experience.

Overall, it has been a team effort. In addition to the moderators and core MyResistance team members, there have been all sorts of production-side team members who have donated their time to help make the site better.

The philosophy of the website, at least for us, is that the definition of games themselves is changing. While disc content is the key foundation for a console game, we want to extend people's perceptions of the overall game experience. MyResistance is our attempt to expand the game universe into something far bigger. It's going to live on long-term, and this is only the beginning for how we're going to grow it.

Shack: Not to mention the mythology-expanding hints and tidbits.

Ryan Schneider: There's two big sites [for Resistance]. There's the official website, RFoM.com. That had the timeline aspect of the Resistance universe leading up to July 11, 1951, when the game takes place. That was something I was very proud to be involved with. We wanted to give people a universe for the taking. If you want to get more out of the game experience than what's on the disc, then RFoM.com will help you do that and help you understand how the Resistance universe came to be from an alternate history standpoint.

MyResistance.net essentially picks up after you dive into the game. Think of RFoM.com as pre-game and MyResistance.net as in-game and beyond-game. They really are good bookends.

As a developer, it's pretty rare that you've got a three-person team that is devoted, more or less, to building community. We're also devoted to building the Insomniac brand and supporting each title we create through working with Sony on the PR and marketing, but community-building runs through all these facets. Normally, you see that kind of commitment at the publisher level, but we're an independent developer doing that. I think that gamers who really appreciate good games and great game experiences are the ones who really latch on to Insomniac because we're doing something that hardly any other developer out there does, with the exception of some of the biggest names that everyone knows. I think the most vocal fans respond so passionately to what we're doing because they're clamoring to something they don't get to see a lot of or enough of in our industry.

Shack: What inspires Insomniac to to take such an active interest in the online community? Obviously, projects like MyResistance and the Full Moon Show podcast require a substantial amount of effort.

Ryan Schneider: We want to have a relationship with our fans. It feels good to connect with the people who are playing our games, and it's great to hear their stories. It's also great to get their input. It helps us keep in touch with what the gaming community wants. It's nice to be able to have the kind of open, fun, and honest relationship that we have with our fans, and it's cool to see that relationship grow. We just surpassed one million posts on Insomniac's site. We've got almost 80,000 members on MyResistance.net. Our newsletter that we send out for our podcast and monthly updates is growing and growing and into the six figures.

People want this sort of interaction, and we want to give it to them. [With the Full Moon Show podcast,] we are the only developer that has consistently made an effort on an in-house level to consistently update our fans during production. Not only that, but we're taking their input and it's affecting gameplay. That's why there are penguins in the Transmorpher, because of a fan poll. It goes back to our community philosophy, which basically is the closer to our fans, the better.

We want our fans to feel like they're a part of the experience and that they're contributing to gameplay. We have among the most passionate gamers in the industry, I'm sure, and it's our way of rewarding them. The podcast is not a small effort. [Community relations manager] James Stevenson had to learn sound editing on his own, which isn't an easy task. [Systems engineer] Corey Garnett has been instrumental in putting together a real easy-to-access site and updating it with new content.

We take the podcast very seriously. We meet every week basically to talk about Mystery Guests, whom we want to bring on the show. We've recently been debating with each other about whether we want this to be a Sony-centric experience or an industry-wide experience. Based on the fan feedback we get, we've concluded that it's best to have multiple perspectives from multiple platforms. On our most recent podcast, we had the creator of the Resident Evil franchise [Shinji Mikami] as well as Suda51. Past Mystery Guests have included David Jaffe, Mark Cerny, Evan Wells from Naughty Dog, [thatgamecompany president]Kellee [Santiago], Game Head host and journalist Geoff Keighley, and of course we had Lesley Mathieson from High Impact Games on. We also recently had the co-presidents of Bioware join us, and it's to the point where other developers and media are asking us if they can be Mystery Guests. This is just the beginning though. We just want people to keep listening and passing it on to their friends.

It seems like people who are really interested in learning how to make games are really gravitating to this podcast. It's exciting to see. It's a popular show, and it's growing, and we really appreciate the support that we've been getting so far.

Shack: With those "I Want Your Job" segments, I'm not surprised that to hear that aspiring game developers are checking it out.

Ryan Schneider: I think this past segment was especially helpful for people who feel stuck in their careers. We've got a designer here named Drew Murray, who once was a corporate mergers and acquisitions attorney. He quit his job, went to SMU's Guildhall, learned how to design games, and ultimately got a job as a level designer at Insomniac. He was the lead level designer for the Metropolis level featured in the E3 demo. It can happen, and I think that's a message worth repeating with the community. If this is what you want to do, you can do it. It may take a lot of work, and you need to have certain skills to be able to do it, but it is possible. If you're passionate about games, if you have artistic or mathematics or computer skills and the drive to stick with it, then there may be a place for you at Insomniac.