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Insomniac's head of engine development on going multiplatform

After a lifetime of exclusive Sony development, which gave rise to Spyro the Dragon, Destructor, Ratchet & Clank and the Resistance series, Insomniac Games is going multiplatform. What might come of that arrangement is something that the studio remains coy about, but here we catch up with engine director Mike Acton to talk about what prompted the move to multiplatform, and what challenges the process involved.

GamesIndustry.bizInsomniac is switching to multi-platform development for the first time, which must be quite technically demanding. Has it been a positive process?
Mike Acton

I think that it has. More than that though, it's hard to separate, from a technical point of view, our moving to a cross platform engine from our broader initiatives. Some things have changed at the same time. We've looked at usability. Traditionally we've looked at usability from a game point of view but at the same time we've now taken those lessons and applied them to engine development and tools development. So we do these regular usability tests with tools where artists and designers use our tools and we sort of watch them do that.

So I think if we look at the impact on engine development then those other initiatives have had a much larger impact on our engine development than moving from single to multiplatform.

GamesIndustry.bizWhat prompted that switch to multiplatform? Many would argue that the PS3 has more life left in it...
Mike Acton

I think Insomniac, without putting words into Ted's mouth, is really just looking to expand its audience. While we love the PlayStation and we love that audience and continue to, I think there's this group of people that we haven't been able to reach, and this change allows us to reach them.

GamesIndustry.bizHow drastic has the process of engine development been? Have you gradually evolved existing tech or has it been a ground-up process?

The things that are important to us now are not the things that were important to us as a developer five years ago.

Mike Acton

Quite a lot of our work has been rebuilding. Not because it wasn't directly portable or applicable, but because, again, we have these broader initiatives, bigger changes, that are impacting the way we make engines and tools. Those have necessitated us making more fundamental changes. The things that are important to us now are not the things that were important to us as a developer five years ago.

That's true of development in general. Our work reflects that. I wouldn't say that we had to change because we went to Xbox, we had to change for other reasons.

GamesIndustry.bizNow that you have a multiplatform tool, would you ever release it as a middleware product?
Mike Acton

We don't have any specific plans to release middleware, but who knows what the future holds, you know? There's no immediate plans for it. I think our view is that we know what we want to do. We know what games we want to make, we know what we want to accomplish, we have a vision for our future. Our engine development is about getting to that picture. That's what we're focused on.

GamesIndustry.bizThere seem to be advantages and disadvantages to dealing with in-house tech as opposed to off the shelf middleware - what specific advantages to you see to your tech?
Mike Acton

Well, I think that fundamentally there's a couple of reasons that you'd build tech. One is that you have a vision for the future. You look at where you want to be in five or ten years and you say, "how do we get to that?" Sometimes it's the only way to get there, the only way that you can have enough control over your own destiny to ensure that you're where you want to be in five years. I think that the other important aspect in that decision is to understand your culture, your studio culture. Everything you do necessarily reflects the culture that it was built in.

If you look at a game, it reflects the culture of the developers that made it. That's true of all middleware as well. It reflects the culture of the people who made it. Unless that matches your culture closely enough, it's not going to be a fit regardless. Which is why you see, I think, lots of cases where that's not been successful for people.

Maybe you'll have a publisher who'll have an engine that one of its developers has built and maybe it'll try and shove it down the throats of a lot of its studios, and that will fail. It will fail, I think in large part, because the culture it was built in isn't compatible with the culture it's trying to be used in. Both those things have to be true to some extent.