Insomniac is a good example of a company that's not afraid to explore unfamiliar territory, just look at the way games like Spyro the Dragon and Ratchet & Clank pioneered new paths on Sony's early PlayStation systems.
And while it still wants to be a core part of Sony's ecosystem (see: last week's release of their reimagining of Ratchet & Clank on PS4), with the rapidly growing interest in virtual reality gaming (VR), the folks behind Spyro, Resistance and Sunset Overdrive are making a major pivot into the next big phase for the company.
Insomniac has today unveiled two brand-new titles exclusively for the Oculus Rift: Feral Rites and The Unspoken, two games the developer plans on using to help it transition into the next generation of gaming.
At a special hands-on event at the Insomniac Games office in Burbank, California, the developers teamed up with the minds at Oculus to show off three exclusive titles using its online platform and VR technology. I spoke with Insomniac Games CEO Ted Price and Jason Rubin, Head of Studios at Oculus, who talked candidly about their plans to evolve and elevate the playing field for VR.
Bridging the gap
Insomniac took its first major step towards virtual reality at E3 2015 with the announcement of Edge of Nowhere. An Oculus-exclusive game, it's a third-person adventure title that channels Lovecraftian horror and shock to tell an engaging story of a man's survival in the Arctic. This will be the first in a series of titles that the creators view as one of their core games for the platform.
Core, yes, but not exactly identical in design philosophy to the games that are already out there. Price and Rubin see their games as titles that seek to break away from the expectations people have of VR – i.e. brief demos that can't hold your interest for more than 10 minutes at a time.
During the opening presentation, they expressed that the early days of VR has many parallels to the beginning of 3D gaming during the mid '90s. Many publishers and developers initially had no faith or lacked the experience needed to make the jump from 2D to 3D, which resulted in a number of early titles that were largely forgettable, poorly made, or were derivatives of existing titles from an earlier generation.
Price and Rubin view virtual reality in much the same way. They say that developers are just now bridging the gap and that there's an onus on creators to think up different approaches to use the technology. What's different for Insomniac, though, is their status as an independent developer has allowed them to take greater risks, explore new mediums and broaden their scope.
Working closely with the minds at Oculus, Price believes that now is the perfect time to venture into uncharted waters, and see how the company could thrive in a budding field.
"It started with a desire to evolve, to be in early on VR. And that resulted in my call to Jason and him coming down and us discussing our first game," Price said as he elaborated on the company's initial plans to develop for VR. "But we didn't have three games right down from the start."
New IPs for the new age
Much like Edge of Nowhere, the two new titles to take advantage of the Oculus Rift were the results of extensive testing and polish. In the end, they felt happy with the games they were able to develop, which not only take advantage of VR in some interesting ways, but also bring in that familiar style of intensely addictive gameplay Insomniac is known for.
In Feral Rites (seen above), players explore an island swarmed with monsters to uncover the source of the evil that has swept their home, all while collecting loot and completing quests for the local citizens. Taking influences from The Legend of Zelda, God of War, and even Altered Beast (complete with beast transformations) while channeling Insomniac's past work on character action games a la Sunset Overdrive and Ratchet and Clank, the developers aim to craft a title that focuses on their studio's strengths while using their new VR toolset in some interesting ways.
The biggest surprise about the game, however is that like Edge of Nowhere, Feral Rites is also a third-person action title, also coming from the school of thought that VR gaming doesn't necessarily mean a first-person perspective game.
"Feral Rites in particular came about a month after Edge of Nowhere," Price explained. "Marcus Smith (Creative Director on Feral Rites and Sunset Overdrive) had a concept that we knew could work well in VR. "
But the title that got the most play during their event was The Unspoken.
Conceived of as an "Urban Magic Fight Club", players enter the seedy underbelly of contemporary Chicago's occult community and take part in duels with other magic users. With a very deep PVP focus, you'll cast a variety of different spells from summoning golden crows to peck at your opponent, conjuring intense fireballs, and even constructing large golems to turn the tide of battle.
Utilizing the Oculus Touch controls, the creators felt that having players actually make the motions to conjure spells would add a greater element of immersion, which totally worked by the way. Each match felt very intense, and even offered a minor workout.
"The idea for [The Unspoken] had been percolating at Insomniac for a couple years, and we could never figure out how to make it work," Price said. "There was something missing. And it turned it out making this title where you're a wizard in the modern world was a perfect fit for the touch controllers, so we jumped at it."
Going back to the drawing board for VR Gameplay
Over the course of the media event, I got the chance to learn more about each VR title developed by Insomniac, and I was impressed with the variety to be had.
Most impressive was that there seemed to be a conscious effort to move VR gaming away from the first-person perspective, which feels synonymous with the platform. Insomniac spent much time experimenting with what could be done for the change in perspective.
"When Jason visited our studio for the first time, he said 'you know what, guys, you all are experts on third-person action, but there are a lot of people at Oculus who don't think it can work in VR – I bet you all can solve that problem.' So we totally jumped on it," Price said.
"With Edge of Nowhere, our creative director Brian Allgeier experimented with a lot of camera tricks and setups, just to figure out what would work, but most of them were failures. I remember getting very nervous after two months in, because our players would get sick after experiencing the cameras. But eventually we got it, and that was after months of chipping away at the problem."
Insomniac Games have been working very closely with the minds at Oculus, and their partnership has yielded some rather interesting results that use the platform in a unique way. Speaking with Jason Rubin, the Head of World Wide studios for Oculus, he spoke rather honestly about their partnership with Insomniac Games, and also the current state of things in the VR space.
"The response we've had from the public, and to games we're putting our for people, has been very good," he said while discussing the current outlook of the VR market. "So I think we shipped the right product, it's at the right quality, people are responding the way we want them to respond. Over time, the price of that product will come down, people will show their friends – people who don't know VR exists, that's a vast majority of the population, will see it and will want it. We're in a really good position to go forward."
Despite some snags early on, Ted Price and Jason Rubin both feel confident about the future, and Insomniac's ability to evolve, to cater to player's demand and blend both the new and old.
In addition to the recent launch of Ratchet & Clank, which was developed alongside the North Carolina branch, they've also got the Gamestop-published Song of the Deep on the way, which bring classic Metroidvania gameplay to an underwater setting.
"This industry continues to evolve ... and what's nice is that from the player's perspective, the demand for new IP and new game experiences is not diminishing at all," Price said."That's what's been so much fun for us over the last two decades, is that fans push us to continue to reinvent ourselves and to deliver something different each time. And the challenge, and the fun part, is to figure out how to deliver something that will get them excited."
Edge of Nowhere launches on Oculus on June 6, and will be quickly followed by Song of the Deep, which has an expected release date of July 12.