Spider-Man is one of 2018’s most hotly anticipated titles, from the critically acclaimed studio Insomniac. Adam Goodall talks to Insomniac’s community director, James Stevenson, about its latest release and how he hopes to create a healthy online space in the age of GamerGate.
In the months leading up to its PS4 release, the conversation around Spider-Man has been defined by the games that came before it.
Part of that is because its developer, Insomniac Games, brings a certain cultural cachet to the table. Insomniac is best known for the mascot platformers Spyro the Dragon and Ratchet and Clank – and for the mascot shooter Resistance, because there was a time when console mascots were men and aliens with guns because that was ‘adult’ and ‘mature’. Its Spider-Man, though, is following hot on the heels of Sunset Overdrive, a cartoon-punk zombie shooter focused on your constant, fluid movement. It’s hard not to read some elements of Sunset Overdrive – the rail-riding and ziplining around open-ended maps, building momentum and racking up combos – as a proof of concept for this new adventure.
The other part is that it’s been a minute since a Spider-Man game really captured the audience’s imagination. Most of the games released since have their fans, especially 2005’s Ultimate Spider-Man, but none of have stuck in people’s minds quite like 2004’s Spider-Man 2. That game’s open-world New York and the slick web-slinging that got you from place to place is, to many, the definitive Spider-Man experience. It’s the comparison Insomniac can’t shake and the high-achieving big brother that baby Spider-Man is being forced to live up to.
I sat down with James Stevenson, Community Director at Insomniac Games, to ask him about this – starting with Spider-Man 2’s most important feature.
From what I’ve played of Spider-Man, it seems like Peter is not a pizza delivery boy?
He’s not working for Mr Aziz?
Funiculi, Funicula is not playing at any point during the game?
Why is this?
Because it’s not Spider-Man 2.
[James does not.]
I ask because a lot of the conversation in the build-up to your release has been around how Spider-Man compares to Spider-Man games of the past, but particularly Spider-Man 2. How are you dealing with the pressure around that? The pressure to live up to these past examples of ‘good’ Spider-Man games?
From day one, we knew the web-slinging was going to be the most important thing. The signature thing is swinging through the city and it being really fun, really exhilarating when you swing around the city. If you don’t get that right you might as well just pack it up and call it a day because you missed one of the best parts of being Spider-Man. So from day one we were working on it.
Fortunately, we were coming off of an open-world traversal game called Sunset Overdrive, so we had some of the building blocks in place. They’re obviously very different games with very different traversal but still, from the perspective of building a world around traversal… a lot of our philosophies and design and under-the-hood stuff has allowed us to make that transition a lot more easily than we might have had we not made that game previously.
We then very quickly decided webs were going to attach to buildings, swings were going to have a physics-based fulcrum to them. But at the same time, we realised that we wanted players to be able to pick up the controller and feel like they were going to experience Spider-Man right off the bat. We don’t want you slamming into the sides of buildings or fumbling around – we want you to be able to pick this up and feel good, and feel like you can get around the city. So R2 became the ‘go’ button – if you’re holding down R2, Spider-Man is going to try and maintain forward momentum and flow so if you do slam into a building, he’s going to start running up the building or running alongside the building. Or, if you’re on the ground and you’re holding it, he’s going to start vaulting over objects and moving forward.
One of the things we learned from Sunset Overdrive was a lot about fluidity and flow, and bringing that to a Spider-Man game – well, that was maybe a missing ingredient that people hadn’t used before.
In terms the open world in which all of this takes place, I noticed that there are some elements of traditional open world design – well, the traditions of the last ten years or so – towers and moving markers and that kind of thing. How did Insomniac go about designing the open world and what was the philosophy underpinning that?
We want Marvel’s New York City. We want it to feel right. It’s not a 1:1 recreation of New York by any means but we’re trying to get it to feel correct so we spent a lot of time just trying to get the neighbourhoods right, to get the feeling right – especially as you’re swinging around – that you’re in a city. And then the biggest philosophy was that everything you do in the open world should tie in to the story somehow, or give you some bit of the story.
So, the towers thing. I know some people will gnash their teeth, but Spider-Man’s on the rooftops. So: stop at this rooftop to get a panoramic view and sync up. Essentially, he’s helping restore the police’s surveillance network to help fight crime and scan the environment.
The towers do feel more organic to the character – it’s not a Far Cry thing, just one side element.
It’s not like, ‘oh, I’ve gotta climb another tower, I’ve gotta climb this other thing’; it takes twenty seconds to literally land on this rooftop, sync it up to your phone and you’re done and you get a quick panoramic view of the neighbourhood. So we weren’t super-worried, but obviously, towers have interesting connotations now.
But even something like collectables, right? Every open-world game has collectables, but ours are Peter’s backpacks, and they all have a little bit of story that tells you part of his back-story over the last eight years of being Spider-Man. So not only do you get the collectable, which you use to craft suits, but you get a little tidbit about the story and about his past – you see an object and you hear him talk about it. …
Spider-Man allows for some interesting wrinkles in the mainstream image of Peter Parker and the New York around him – I was particularly taken with J Jonah Jameson as a sort of Alex Jones-style talkback host. How did you go about building this story around Spider-Man, especially given you have nearly a century of potential characters and threads and ways of telling his story?
We knew very early on we wanted to create something original. We didn’t want to just adapt another comic story, we didn’t want to adapt another film. It needed to be an original story, original universe. We were making the Spider-Man game we would want to play, and we knew we’d want something original.
We thought about some of our favourite ones. We really love the Ultimate Spider-Man series by Brian Michael Bendis, because that series took the DNA of the franchise and the DNA of the character and respected it, so it feels very much like Spider-Man, but it’s also totally surprising. It puts the characters in different situations that you’ve never seen before and twisted things up a lot.
Early on, the other thing was that we were talking about ‘worlds colliding’: the best Spider-Man stories were when Peter’s and Spider-Man’s worlds collide. Even using Mr Negative is great, because he’s a great new character – people don’t know him if they haven’t read the comics in the last ten years, which is exciting because he’s fresh to a lot of folks – but at the same time he’s the alter-ego of Martin Li, a philanthropist who runs these homeless shelters in New York, and the real kicker is that Aunt May works for him.
So Peter knows this guy, he knows him as who Aunt May works for, he knows him as this philanthropist. And then Spider-Man discovers that the leader of this gang is Martin Li and that Mr Negative is Martin Li and he’s Aunt May’s boss… and you know how that entangles him.
Similarly, we’re twisting MJ’s character – she’s not going to be a nightclub owner, she’s not going to be an actress, she’s an emerging investigative reporter at the Daily Bugle. Her and Peter have been broken up for six months when the game starts and haven’t spoken to each other. But Spider-Man responds to a silent alarm from the Police and discovers an investigative reporter, MJ! And now you have Spider-Man’s world colliding with investigative reporter MJ’s world, which is now Peter and this awkward reunion with his ex-girlfriend who he hasn’t seen in six months.
So we’re trying to make sure that throughout the course of the game, Peter’s world and Spider-Man’s world are constantly getting tangled and mixed because that always creates the best Spider-Man stories, we think.
As community director for Insomniac, I imagine you’re aware and conscious at this point of the prevalence of online harassment campaigns and the state of the landscape online when it comes to video games, comic books, media in general. Could you talk a little bit about how you’re preparing to release Spider-Man into this environment, and what Insomniac is doing to create a healthy community? What role do you see Insomniac playing?
I think it’s a tough conversation when you’re in a world of James Gunns and people being…
The internet mob can be weaponised against things or even individuals in a way that is scary. It can be scary for people, whether that’s been Gamergate in the past or the current iterations of it. So we actually talk about it a lot internally.
I’m always most concerned about the game developers that are on social media, making sure that they aren’t targets of any sort of harassment. I think we also, as a group, have decided to be very forward about people making comments about… We posted a team photo one time and someone made a comment about someone’s appearance, and a bunch of us immediately got online and were like, ‘Hey, there’s no place for that’.
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I think that’s the community we try to foster and build, not wanting to put up with any harassment of employees. People can say whatever they want to the Insomniac account – I shouldn’t say that, I don’t mean it like that… People say a lot of things to the Insomniac account and I’m okay reading a lot of stuff, but if people started saying some of those same things directly to employees, or targeting them personally, we wouldn’t find that to be okay. That’s always my first priority, is taking care of all the people who work at Insomniac and making it clear that we support them and that we won’t put up with that sort of thing towards the people that work there.
And, you know, we’re just gonna hope that people like what we did with the game and explain why we did it. I know it probably won’t please everybody. The good news is so far, people seem to like what we’ve done. Some people will say, ‘why’d you do this, you could have done it differently’, but I haven’t seen anything too crazy yet. But you know, it’s one of those things. It’s a scary thing when you think about it, because it can turn so quick. So we talk about it a lot, and hopefully, we don’t have to put too much of our thoughts into actual play. But we’ve thought about it, and we’re as ready as we can be.
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