Dabe Alan / Summit Entertainment
6 degrees of Disruptor: how Twilight’s director helped give Insomniac its first critical hit
Ted Price is the CEO of Insomniac Games, the studio behind Ratchet and Clank, Resistance, and now the Facebook game Outernauts and the upcoming multiplatform Overstrike. We sat together chatting about games during QuakeCon in Dallas, and I wanted to show him something that I’ve been curious about for the past year or so. I did a Google search for Insomniac Games, and showed him that the result described Insomniac as the developer of Disruptor and Spyro the Dragon. “No kidding!” he said. “We have to check that out. We’ve been around for a long time, and probably haven’t changed much in our search terms. I remember making our first website back in the Disruptor days, in 1996 or so.” Insomniac's web presence began as more of a fun project than a way to build a brand. “There was really no such thing as an online community back then, I did it because it was an opportunity to make some art and put it out on the web,” Price said. “We were very small, there were only five or six of us at the time after we had shipped Disruptor, and were in the middle of figuring our what our next move was, and that seemed to be the thing to do at the time, to have a website.” The world has changed in many ways since 1996.
A small team
Disruptor was Insomniac’s first retail game for the original PlayStation… as well as its first game ever. A five or six person team still seems small, even for the time. These days most teams are larger for Xbox Live Arcade releases, much less a boxed project for a leading console. “The majority of the work was actually done by three of us, and along the way were lucky to bring on a few talented artists and an animator, and that was about it,” Price said. “Al and Bryan Hastings did all the programming, I helped to put in the art, sound, and design, and then Mark Cerny and Michael John at Universal were helping out with the design.” When you interview people who have been making games for 15 years or so, you find that eventually all roads lead back to Mark Cerny. Then, another name popped up that I wasn't expecting to be a part of Insomniac's past: The director of the first Twilight film, Catherine Hardwicke.“She wasn’t an employee of Insomniac, she was working as a contractor on movies at Universal, who was our publisher at the time. I remember Mark Cerny, who was executive producer at Universal, was suggesting we look at film production designers to help us nail down the overall look of the game. We talked to a bunch of folks, including Rick Baker, who is a very famous production designer. I had no idea who he was until I saw his credit list for movies.” “Catherine came in, and I remember she was wearing not a hat, but a bird in her hair,” Price said. “She’s a really unique individual, but a very warm person with a great sense of humor, and very talented artistically. She helped us form the vision for the art of Disruptor, and worked with our artists to create some of the background looks, and we built things up from there.” Price found that Hardwicke's background in film helped them create the game's aesthetic. “Her expertise was set design. She thought about the story we created and the game play spaces that we were describing, and the locations we came up with, and helped to form a balanced environment visually for each of these themes.” She had ideas about architecture and structure, which are areas no one at Insomniac had any expertise. She also brought a professional eye for how to frame action due to her background in set design, and brought that experience to work in a video game setting. “She was very good with color palettes. She helped me understand the importance of color balance and complimentary colors and of course variety of colors between missions. Our goal was to create a varied set of worlds for Disruptor, but when she came on and helped flesh out the designs, she nailed it and helped us make sure each level had a distinct and memorable color palette,” Price said.
The help from movie-making talent was a boost
Price said that Insomniac always tries to create games with variety, games where it’s hard to tell what’s going to happen next, and that look different from level to level. That’s not easy with any team, much less a small group working on their first game in the later half of 1996. Luckily, the help given to the team from the talent at Universal proved advantageous. “Universal were determined to keep Disruptor fresh throughout the course of its 13 levels, so each stage is totally unique in look and feel,” IGN wrote of the game upon release. “Levels range in style from the standard corridors and tunnels to snow and open terrain. There's even a surreal dream level that takes place inside your head!” The game received favorable reviews, and after its release Insomniac and Universal began work on the successful Spyro the Dragon series. In fact, Insomniac has a magic touch when it comes to launching franchises. Resistance, Spyro, and Ratchet and Clank all became multi-game hits for the PlayStation family of consoles. The company is now focusing on working on characters and series it owns directly, with Overstrike being its first multiplatform release. So give a nice tip of your hat if you ever have the good luck of meeting Catherine Hardwicke. Not only did she give the world the gifts of Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson, she also played a small but interesting role in video game history. And she directed Lords of Dogtown and Thirteen, two films very much worth your time. Digging into the history of a company's early games is always fun, and Price has an enviable place in the industry after helming a stable, successful developer for 18 years. “I grew up with Atari games, and eventually when I got to college Nintendo games, Miyamoto games, and now thinking about people growing up playing Ratchet and Spyro is pretty neat,” he admitted. “I didn’t think people would be talking about our games a decade later, or more.”