At E3 2011, as part of the Electronic Arts press conference, Insomniac Games announced Overstrike—a campy, over-the-top cooperative shooter. Around a year later, the game had received a facelift and a new name: Fuse.
I spoke to Insomniac Games' CEO Ted Price about rebranding, multi-platform development, and what it is like to launch a brand-new franchise at the end of a console cycle.
What happened since Overstrike was announced in 2011? What needed to be reworked, why did you shift focus to make Fuse what it is today?
It was after we had shown off our promotional video. At that time, we had come up with our four key weapons. We had been prototyping a lot and getting gameplay up and working, but we were falling short in a big way in terms of fun factor. We realized we needed to go back to the drawing board with each of the weapons and figure out what was missing. Really, what was missing was impact, punch—a way to give players the same satisfaction they got from the Resistance weapons or some of the more over-the-top weapons in Ratchet & Clank.
A good example is the Glue Gun that we showed in our 2011 video. It generated a lot of comparisons to The Incredibles. Even though it looked cool, it wasn't fun and we had a lot of trouble making it satisfying to use, and we thus threw it out and went back to the drawing board. We also re-examined the other characters' weapons. We ended up with four weapons we were much happier with in terms of their abilities, and also weapons that worked better together from a co-operative perspective. The weapons were darker with regards to their results—they were more mature. That wound up driving the tone of the game. They weren't fitting with the campy, cartoony look and feel that we had before.
However, we definitely wanted to keep humor in the game, it just got less campy. It's drier. If you play the demo you'll see that there's plenty of humor in the emergent dialogue, and the characters aren't taking themselves completely seriously. The game is more grounded than it was. It was all driven by trying to make sure that the core fun factor in terms of gameplay, and certainly co-operative gameplay, was there.
Were any of those concerns with making a more serious game driven by the game being your first Xbox 360 release?
No, and I want to address something that this touches on. We have seen tons of comments out there saying that we changed the game because of a twelve-year-old's comment in a focus test. We didn't! [Laughs] We have treated the audiences on both PlayStation and Xbox the same, in terms of wanting to deliver an experience that raises the bar for co-op. Nothing about the Xbox audience drove us to any tonal decisions.
The style and the characters have changed over the course of development. At this stage, what are you most satisfied with?
For me, it's the way that the weapons work together. Most co-op today is the result of having four characters who have similar abilities who are using real-world guns, and the extent of co-op is pointing all of the guns at the enemy and pulling the triggers. We wanted to totally change that, and when we went back to the drawing board with the weapons, we had an opportunity to really figure out how we could put our money where our mouths are.
We started coming up with combos using all, or three, or two of the weapons together. Recently, we started really calling out those combos in gameplay, with bigger point rewards when you combine the Mag Shield, Shatter Gun, Arc Shot, or Orb Rifle. We added labels that pop up on the screen in very arcade fashion, which helps take us away from the real-world tone people assume that we have. It also reinforced the idea that we're not forcing co-op down players' throats, we're simply encouraging it by offering some cool progression-based rewards when you figure out ways to combine these four very different weapons to take down enemies.
For me as a player, too, it's fun to work with your team to figure out ways that you can do that. There are close to 60 different combinations that can be pulled off. There's a lot of variety in terms of the combat.
Then there's Leap. Late in the game development, we decided to allow players to leap back and forth between the four characters. That was the result of a lot of internal debate inside Insomniac where we were arguing about whether to lock players into one character, as most games do, or to free players up to move at will between all four characters. When we prototyped it, it was a lot of fun, and it added an extra dimension to the game that I don't think any other co-op games have. There is a lot of freedom to approach different combat situations in a variety of ways, through jumping between these four archetypes. It then became apparent in co-op as well, that so long as you have one AI team member, human players on the team can still leap using the spare character.
Are there areas of the game that oblige the player to use Leap in order to progress?
We don't have any lock-and-key areas, where players must use one specific character to get through. That was really important to us, and we did not want to enforce it. That said, there certainly are areas where certain characters will shine. Dalton, for instance, is probably the easiest character to use. As a demonstration, when you have an open space with no cover, Dalton, with his cover-creation weapon, rules supreme. He becomes super useful for his crew. So there are places where we expect players will recognize the efficacy of particular characters over others, but we never enforce it.
When you were creating this game, was the focus more on the story, or more on the weapons?
We began several years ago with the aim of creating a game that would raise the bar for co-op, but that would also be fun for individuals. Most games that lead with co-op don't have much of a solo campaign, or at least not one that tends to be considered as fun. We wanted to change that, and ensure that players who don't play with other people will still have fun. One of the ways we attacked that was to dedicate one of our senior programmers to building AI for the bots for several years, so that when you play by yourself with AI comrades, they do what you would want them to do. They don't steal your kills, they don't get in your way, and they get you out of trouble. They'll revive you, and they'll use the skills you've unlocked. For example, if you've unlocked Nyah's stealth ability, and you get into trouble in a group of enemies, the Nyah bot will go stealthy, and flank the enemies to revive you.
That was the genesis of the gameplay ideas, which we paired with the thematic concept: a group of four agents who traverse the globe to exotic locations, chasing a volatile alien substance, Fuse. As production went on, we found ourselves implementing fuse more and more with the gameplay, instead of using it solely as a plot device.
The PlayStation 3 has gained a reputation for being complicated to develop on. How was it to move to working on the Xbox 360?
Yeah, it was more straightforward than we expected! We were fortunate to have programmers on our core team who have Xbox 360 experience, so we already knew what to expect going in, but thanks to that core team's effort, things went really smoothly. One decision we made from the outset was to start fresh with our engines and toolset. We moved away from the toolset we'd been using for the Resistance and Ratchet games. Half of the reason was multi-platform support, but the other half was to increase our efficiency in general as a development team. There were a lot of things we wanted to change, and Fuse gave us a good opportunity to improve our pipeline, allowing us to make games more quickly.
How did EA Partners contribute to the project?
When we began development on Fuse, we were looking a publisher who worked with companies who own their intellectual property, who work on multi-platform titles, and one who has a worldwide reach in terms on distribution. At that point, there was only one, and that was EA Partners. We hit it off, they liked our concept, and so we made a deal. They gave us localization, marketing, QA, PR support, and distribution. We've had a ton of Fuse events where fans have been able to get their hands on the game. That is incredibly important at this stage, to create awareness. Part of it is due to the tone shift, and the other part is it being a brand-new IP at the end of a console life cycle. Most people are focused on sequels, so we have to be that bit louder with our message. Getting the game into people's hands is so important for that.
Thanks to Ted Price of Insomniac for taking the time, and look for Fuse to hit PS3 and Xbox 360 on May 28th. Can't wait? The playable demo is available now!