Interviews// Insomniac's TJ Fixman and James Stevenson

Posted 3 Nov 2009 15:19 by
TJ Fixman (l) and James Stevenson (r).
TJ Fixman (l) and James Stevenson (r).
For a studio as busy as Insomniac, it seems incredible that it can continue to produce playable hit after playable hit. Their mascot-based platformer, Ratchet and Clank, debuted on the PS2 in 2002 and has had a sequel created almost every year since. The fact that not once has the series felt totally worthless ? on top of creating new IP in Resistance this generation ? is a testament to their skill. Or maybe the team really are a bunch of insomniacs.

The latest in the PS3 Ratchet and Clank saga, A Crack In Time (reviewed here), hits store shelves this week, and concludes what Insomniac are calling 'the epic Future Trilogy'.

SPOnG was invited to have a chat with TJ Fixman, Writer/Editor for the games and James Stevenson, Senior Community Manager about improvements to the series, the pressures that the studio faces today and how it is maintaining a unique dialogue with dedicated Ratchet fans.


SPOnG: TJ Fixman and James Stevenson, thanks for chatting with SPOnG today. Ratchet and Clank has been such a popular franchise among platforming fans, and A Crack In Time is the third PS3 game in as many years. How has that helped you improve what's already there?

James Stevenson: The nice thing about having already developed a PS3 Ratchet game is that we had to make Tools of Destruction from scratch back then, so now we have the chance to just add all sorts of polish to it. The animated videos that introduce all the new cool weapons are a part of just trying to improve the presentation in general. And the extra time has allowed us to be creative with the new weapons as well ? for example, we have the Rift Inducer 5000, which creates a black hole to an inter-dimensional creature.

One thing we wanted to do with the weapons, specifically, was add skill elements wherever we could to them, which means adding weak spots to specific target areas on enemies. We have 'headshot' bonuses, but we can't call them 'headshots' because that's something that the ratings boards frown on, and we want to keep this family friendly (laughs).

We've also added a load of ramps and vertical-based platforming to the game, which has led us to do some really cool level designs ? and also makes use of a new skillset for Ratchet, which takes advantage of the new Hoverboots that he has.

TJ Fixman: We do a lot more wrench manipulation. Back in the PS2 days, Ratchet only really uses his wrench to melee, but now the head will detach and you can use it to grab onto things. So you can rip pieces out of machinery, or pick up a battery bot and throw it into an engine to power it up.

It makes a lot of sense to do that, right? (laughs) It's something we always wanted to do with Ratchet but never found time to make it feel good. But I think we've got it working right and it adds a whole new element to the game play.


SPOnG: I've noticed that there are a good few organic weapons now in this game, as opposed to some of the PS2 games where it was largely a machinery or man-made affair.

TJ Fixman: Well, the Rift Inducer we brought back from a past game, but I don't think it had the creature in it. The creature is new.

James Stevenson: There are loads of fun new stuff we put in as weapons in this game, like a disco ball weapon that gets everyone dancing and doing disco moves. There's also a little robot friend that acts as a gunslinger, and he has 150 different taunts and lines that he says.

One of the weapons, the Spiral of Death, is actually a fan-created weapon. We had a big contest where we asked fans for their submissions for inclusion in the game. We had the best response Sony's ever gotten for a fan contest, with over 1000 entries. Our weapons team reviewed those and narrowed it down to five entries, that we handed back over to the fans to let them vote on a winner. They picked the Spiral of Death which is pretty cool ? it's essentially a deadly yo-yo. It shoots powerful blades, one at a time, that shoots out and comes back to you.


SPOnG: With each new Ratchet game you guys seem to have a good knack of hitting the funny bones of gamers. What would you say is the inspiration to the story and humour in the Ratchet games?

TJ Fixman: From everywhere really. I'm a huge fan of Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, so there's a lot of influence from there in my scripts. The animators and I are really big fans of the classic Warner Bros. cartoons, so you see a lot of the same kind of physical humour that you'd see in the old Looney Tunes. Inspiration comes from a lot of Mel Brooks movies too ? we take inspiration from a whole load of places, and the animators are huge Pixar fans, so we take elements from these as well.


SPOnG: You call this the end of an epic trilogy. What did you want to achieve out of a three-part game such as this?

James Stevenson: We wanted to give the fans some background to the franchise, basically. Clank was kidnapped at the end of Tools of Destruction, and now he's at this facility known as The Great Clock, which is where his father created him. We find out a lot about Clank's past and origins, and we also find out about Ratchet's origins through his side of the story. Really the whole plot of A Crack In Time revolves around both characters learning about their past, and through that they wonder about their own destinies and how aligned they are.


SPOnG: Is that a challenge to go down that route, because a lot of mascot based platformers attempt to delve into the history and past of the characters and they oftentimes fall flat on their face.

TJ Fixman: It's definitely a challenge because players have been following Ratchet and Clank's lives for seven games right now, and we finally pull back the curtain on how they are the way they are. You want to match up to the expectations of the fans. You don't want a 'Wolverine' effect where as soon as its revealed where the characters come from you think ?Oh, well that's far less interesting than I thought it would be?.

But I think we've found an angle that really works because we're addressing questions that fans have been asking us for so long, things that we've hinted at for a while ? things that Brian Hastings, one of the original creators of the characters, had in mind when he came up with Ratchet and Clank. And... nothing that we've done will change who you think the characters are, so it's nothing so dramatic that it makes them less likeable.
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