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Insomniac Brings "Strong Console Sensibilities" to Facebook

We talk with Price about the studio's first Facebook game, Outernauts

Insomniac Games - what's the first word that pops into your head? PlayStation? Ratchet? Resistance? It likely isn't Facebook, but CEO Ted Price would probably like to change that with his studio's first social-network title Outernauts, an adventure RPG that just launched in the last week.

The game allows you to explore and capture and train "exotic beasts." Interestingly, Insomniac's push into the world of Facebook gaming isn't aimed necessarily at typical FarmVille players. GamesIndustry International caught up with Price and young lead designer Rowan Belden-Clifford to talk about the company's new social effort and how the landscape is changing.

"We have several big games in development and for us this represents a different opportunity to address a new audience and bring what we believe are strong console sensibilities to the Facebook platform," Price told us. "We're particularly excited about the game mechanics because we at Insomniac are for the most part, hardcore console gamers. We believe that what Outernauts is going to do is deliver the breadth of a console experience on the Facebook platform. It will offer something brand new for Facebook platform gamers as well as console gamers who may not normally consider Facebook games as an area they would be interested in."

"This is as big as or bigger than the console games we've made in the past, just in terms of the sheer content that is in the game"

Ted Price

Indeed, Price noted that Insomniac treated the game almost as if it were on consoles. "What we've realized is that this is as big as or bigger than the console games we've made in the past, just in terms of the sheer content that is in the game. There are dozens of planets to explore, dozens to capture, train and battle with as well as hundreds of abilities that you can learn as you are evolving your beasts," he said.

This is not by accident. Insomniac is hopeful that - similar to the games Kixeye or Kabam makes - Outernauts will pull in people who think social games are boring or not designed with their interest in mind. Price noted, "Kixeye has kicked ass. Backyard Monsters is one of my favorite games and I've probably spent more money on that game than any other social game... We certainly have learned much from others, especially early on. Backyard Monsters was a big discussion with us, it is a fun game."

Belden-Clifford remarked, "So we all at Insomniac see the audience for Outernauts being people like myself. I'm a 23-year-old avid console gamer. Over the past year, and really the past couple of years I would play Facebook games on lunch breaks or when I got home so I could blast through a little session. I think there is a lot of room for bringing an experience that I would want to play for an extended amount of time to this platform that I'm newly discovering. It is something I've seen with my peers as well; my roommate is playing CastleVille every night."

He added, "I think the biggest thing to add for me is from the design side that making a good game is making a good game, regardless of platform. That was the thing that surprised me the most about making this game. I'm using the same kind of tactics and thought processes of designing a good game that I would on a console project. Those experiences in my opinion should be the same across the board. That's one major way for me to realize constantly that we're making a real console experience, just on a different platform."

Fans of Insomniac's previous work and penchant for unique creatures and weapon designs in Ratchet or Resistance will probably find much to like in Outernauts as well.

"Each of these beasts has several levels of evolution. They physically evolve and gain new abilities that you can use in battle. Those abilities have parallels to the crazy design we have in other games, so the same sensibilities come over, we just translate them over a little bit," said Price.

Belden-Clifford noted, "Also the two concept artists who defined the look and feel of the Ratchet and Clank games also did all of our character art in the game."

Some of you may recall that Insomniac had announced an "Insomniac Click" label a while back for smaller social or mobile experiences, but the company no longer sees the need for such distinctions. "All of our games now fall under the Insomniac Games moniker. Since we announced Insomniac Click, the industry has changed and we decided to I guess integrate everything we do into the Insomniac umbrella," Price explained. "What's cool about this development is that it has been very informative for our console development in terms of how much we've learned about UI, onboarding and social mechanisms in general. It's been wonderful."

"In Facebook games, it is immediately in your hands. We want to basically engage you very quickly"

Ted Price

As Price alluded to, for a long-time console developer, diving headfirst into Facebook development has been a learning experience for the studio, and the lessons may very well be helpful for its future games.

"One of the great aspects of working in the social gaming world in an adventure-RPG like this is that the iteration time is extremely fast. We generate assets very quickly and more importantly we're able to make tweaks, changes and tune the game very fast based on user feedback, much faster than we have been able to on the console game space. This has enabled us to have a more rapid development cycle," Price said.

He continued, "Rowan and Brian Hastings and other members have worked as a very tight team to discover what makes the biggest difference for the experience on Facebook. The key, clearly, is a great UI. That is your window into the experience. For console games, that's something we don't focus on immediately. For Facebook, that's something you have to focus on immediately to ensure that the UI is responsive and clearly explained, giving you all the options you need to control the experience. Another one is onboarding - making sure that within the first 30 seconds of starting the game you understand what you need to do, you are engaged and are compelled to keep going."

"Console games are different because you have a physical game that you've purchased and it is in your console. You've spent the time to let it load. In Facebook games, it is immediately in your hands. We want to basically engage you very quickly."

Price also thinks hardcore gamers will be more drawn to Outernauts because of its PvP options. "One of the aspects of the game that is really cool for those of us who are really hardcore console players is the PvP aspect that the game brings to the Facebook platform. Being able to play anybody in the world at any time in asynchronous PvP is really cool - especially because there is so much customization in the game in terms of beasts you can capture and train," he said. "The decisions you make while you train them really affects how these battles evolve. For me it has been a lot of fun playing during our closed-beta against other Insomniacs as well as others who are part of the closed beta."

Insomniac has a solid relationship with EA (EA will publish the console game Overstrike), but the developer probably could have self-published on Facebook - it's one of the advantages of a digital world. Price disagreed, however. "EA has a lot of experience in this field. They've had a ton of success in terms of building a large audience of social gamers. Being able to rely on those experiences has been helpful for us as we've built the game," he said. "The second thing is reach. As I said, that large audience really makes a difference when you have a brand new IP that is breaking into a space that is traditionally dominated by a few heavy hitters. We are not your standard Facebook company. We're a console company. It is really useful to be able to work with EA to share knowledge on social gamers who may not be reading the same articles that console gamers are."

So is Outernauts the first of many Facebook games from Insomniac? Price wouldn't say, but if it's successful, it would be surprising for Insomniac not to do more with social gaming. There's also a chance that Outernauts as an IP could be leveraged on other platforms if it takes off on Facebook. "For all of our games, we consider all of our IP to be somewhat platform agnostic. When we build a new IP, we want to take it as far as possible. For now, we're focusing on Facebook though," he said.

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James Brightman


James Brightman has been covering the games industry since 2003 and has been an avid gamer since the days of Atari and Intellivision. He was previously EIC and co-founder of IndustryGamers and spent several years leading GameDaily Biz at AOL prior to that.