Why Insomniac Games is betting big on virtual reality

From R&C to VR


For the first decade of its existence, Insomniac Games was on what looked like a clear path. Since its founding in 1994, the studio was directly tied to PlayStation, creating popular series like Spyro the Dragon, Ratchet & Clank, and Resistance: Fall of Man. But in 2012, Insomniac released a small game called Outernauts on Facebook, before later porting it to mobile. And that was just the start: the studio has since released a handful of other mobile games and expanded to new platforms like the Xbox One and PC. It has created everything from open-world action games to family-friendly adventures, and over that time Insomniac has partnered with some of the biggest names in the industry, including Microsoft, EA, and Sony.

Now the studio is pivoting once again, getting behind virtual reality in a big way. This morning Insomniac revealed that its working on three titles for the Oculus Rift, including the previously announced survival horror game Edge of Nowhere, as well as brand new titles The Unspoken and Feral Rites. For founder and CEO Ted Price, the move into VR is much the same as when the company experimented with other burgeoning platforms like mobile and Facebook. “We were really enamoured by the chance to get in early and develop an expertise in a field ahead of many of our peers who are maybe holding back and waiting to see what’s going to happen,” he says.

For Insomniac, the move away from just being a PlayStation studio was made for a few reasons. One was purely practical — like many others, the studio saw the industry shifting away from purely console and PC games, and realized it had to change, too. "When we were making the transition to PlayStation 3, that was when mobile and Facebook were starting to grow really fast, and that sent ripples throughout the more traditional industry," says Price. "I think it made everybody start to rethink what the future was for traditional game development. For us it certainly opened our eyes to looking beyond the games that we had been making and gave us the impetus to start experimenting."

Outernauts, the studio’s first non-Sony game, was definitely experimental, veering away from the big budget experiences Insomniac was known for. In its earliest incarnation Outernauts was a colorful browser-based game that was sort of like a free-to-play, sci-fi take on Pokemon. (The game was eventually shut down earlier this year.) The experiments continued from there. In 2013 Insomniac released a cooperative third-person shooter called Fuse on both the PS3 and Xbox 360; 2014 saw the launch of the Grand Theft Auto-esque Sunset Overdrive on Xbox One. In 2015 Insomniac didn’t release a single console game, instead focusing on smaller titles for mobile and PC.

That experimental thinking isn’t slowing down, either. While Insomniac returned to Ratchet & Clank this year with a beautiful new entry on PS4 (a CG movie is also coming to theaters later in April), it’s also working on the trio of VR titles. Adding to this is a smaller 2D adventure called Song of the Deep, which will be the first game published by GameStop as part of a new venture. In addition to simply keeping pace in an ever-changing industry, Price says that the shift to new platforms and game styles has also been beneficial to the studio creatively.

"When we were early in our careers at Insomniac, we were much smaller, and we were an even more nimble, but less experienced, team," he says. "And we wanted in some ways to bring back that small team feel, for some of the studio. When Oculus arrived and when we began talking to GameStop, we had two excellent opportunities to support smaller teams on some titles that were taking creative risks." He adds that "there are more stories here at Insomniac than we can tell."

With three impressive-looking titles in the works, Insomniac is one of just a few large studios putting significant resources behind virtual reality. Price says that he first experienced the Oculus Rift when he demoed a DK1 headset several years ago at the DICE conference in Las Vegas, but it wasn’t until a year later — when he played a DK2 demo which involved interacting with an alien character who actually looks at you — that he was finally sold. "I’d never felt that kind of connection with any character in any game," he says.

The three games the studio is working on for the Rift are all, perhaps unsurprisingly, very different from one another. Edge of Nowhere is a psychological thriller set in Antarctica, in which a rescue mission descends into H.P. Lovecraft-style horror. Unlike many VR games, Edge of Nowhere takes place from a third-person perspective, instead of the more typical first-person viewpoint. Feral Rites, meanwhile, is described as a sort of cross between Zelda and God of War, with lots of puzzle solving and brawling with feral monsters.

The Unspoken might be the most exciting of the three: it’s a magic game built with the Rift’s upcoming touch controllers in mind, letting you battle with other wizards by casting spells with your hands. According to Price, the magic-casting theme was an idea that had been percolating at Insomniac for several years, but it simply didn’t work before VR. "Many of us have this fantasy of being magic casters, and we had been talking about how we could bring that fantasy to life in our own way," he says, "but we never really had a good vehicle to do it without sort of feeling like we’d seen it before."

While dabbling in different genres and platforms can be a good thing, it also creates a dilemma: what exactly is it that defines an Insomniac game? Many of the best studios have a particular feel, so you can tell when you’re playing a game made by Naughty Dog or Bungie, even if it’s a brand-new franchise. Insomniac’s current experiences, meanwhile, run the gamut from a 2D underwater adventure and a virtual reality wizard fight club. It’s a diverse bunch, and Price admits that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what traits define an Insomniac title. Instead he thinks it’s more of a general feeling. "For me it’s a warmth that exists in our stories and our characters," he says.

When the studio expanded to places like mobile and Facebook, it was a risk that made a lot of sense; players were moving to these platforms, and Insomniac wanted to follow them. With VR that isn’t the case, at least not yet. The first consumer headsets from Oculus and HTC have just launched, Sony’s PlayStation VR isn’t coming until October, and despite all of the breathless hype behind virtual reality, there isn’t yet a large base of players ready to buy new games. But for Price, it was important to get in early because he believes it’s only a matter of time before VR finally turns mainstream.

"We weren’t afraid to take the risk and jump in early because we feel that even if the initial player base is relatively low, VR is still here to stay," he says. "When you see the support that VR is getting, not just in games, but across other areas from companies like Facebook, it’s hard not to predict a future where VR becomes important culturally."