Insomniac Games has had busy couple of decades. The American developer has been making beloved video games since 1994 — the hands and minds behind early PlayStation classics like Spyro the Dragon and Ratchet & Clank — but past few years have seen the studio take on a different beast altogether. It started with 2018’s Marvel’s Spider-Man, a Game of the Year nominee that brought back the iconic web-crawling superhero into the gaming spotlight. Outside of its legacy in comic books and films, Spider-Man is a video gaming icon in its own right, and Insomniac’s take on Peter Parker’s story re-established the franchise at its rightful place.
Since the release of the PlayStation 5 in late 2020, Insomniac — now part of PlayStation Studios — has been the most prolific high-profile developer pushing out quality exclusive titles on the platform. Spider-Man: Miles Morales, a spin-off/sequel to the 2018 game, was a launch title for the PS5, showcasing the strengths of Sony’s current-gen console. The studio followed it up with 2021’s Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, receiving acclaim for its technical leaps and graphical fidelity. Insomniac Games is in no mood for slowing down. Marvel’s Spider-Man 2, the developer’s third release on the PS5 in as many years, is almost at the doorstep, a little over a month away from its October 20 release.
Last week, Gadgets 360 got a chance to play a sizable early section of the game in a hands-on preview, and talk to Mike Fitzgerald, Director of Core Technology at Insomniac Games, about all things Spider-Man 2. In our chat, we covered a wide range of topics — from the new advancements in the upcoming game, to the personal journeys of both Peter Parker and Miles Morales. We also touched upon the collaboration between the studio and Marvel, and discussed just how Insomniac balances quality and prolific output for their releases. Our detailed impressions of the game based on the preview will be covered separately; what follows is a condensed and slightly edited excerpts from our chat.
Gadgets 360: Hi, Mike. Congratulations on the preview event. Spider-Man 2 is now about a month and a half away from release. When you look back at the development period, and then look forward to the day when fans will actually get to play this game, what are your first thoughts?
Mike Fitzgerald: Thank you. Well, working on this franchise has been sort of a huge privilege, you know, to be able to work on something that you know is going to resonate with so many people and mean so much to people. The feedback we’ve gotten on the first games in the series, what it’s meant to so many players, so you know there’s a burden of expectation — a little bit — to deliver something that is going to continue to mean that much to people, you hope it will. But, really, knowing that so many people are going to play what you put your time into, it makes it really easy to put everything you have into delivering something special.
Gadgets 360: It’s five years to the day when Spider-Man released, and almost three years since we got to see Miles’ story. So, this almost feels like a culmination for the two games that came before. From what we’ve seen of the game so far, in a narrative aspect, this seem to be true. But how do you think Spider-Man 2 builds upon its predecessors in technical ways?
Mike Fitzgerald: Yeah, so this is the first Spider-Man title that is only on the PlayStation 5, and that doesn’t necessarily make it easy to do a tonne more, but it helped us push ourselves to do a lot more than what we had in the previous ones. So, I like to say that we tried to push it across all the different areas of the game that different players would prefer to interact with, so that there’s something new for everyone. The world is almost twice the size — we now have Brooklyn and Queens (in addition to the original map of New York City). And what that brings with it is just the scale of that world and how to deal with it in memory and making it faster to traverse across.
And not just the size, we also took a pass across all the architectural detail in the city and the buildings and the materials and the bricks and all this kind of stuff to bring more modelling detail into the world that’s there. We pushed our characters further. In this demo, there’s a mission, which I believe you’ve played at this point, where Miles is helping his mother. And the opening cinematic for that mission, it’s a conversation between the two of them, and so much of the acting in that scene is in their faces and their expressions. And that’s not something we could do very well before, right. So, using that tech to improve our storytelling is really exciting.
Gadgets 360: Obviously, the new map, like you said, is almost the double of the map size that we saw in the previous two games. But there is an element of challenge there as well, right? Early this year, The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom came out, where it’s largely the same map, but with new elements and areas. So, what they present, a big section of that world is largely something that you’ve interacted with before, but this time they give you completely new ways to interact with it and navigate it. Something similar is going on in Spider-Man 2. Web swinging was just such a fun way to traverse in the first game. But when I was playing the demo today, I was gliding a lot more, using the new web wings.
Mike Fitzgerald: For me, it’s a combination of the two. So, you swing a bit and you switch to the wings and you glide around a corner and then you switch back into swing to get some more speed and start off a new glide. I think they really complement each other in a really fun way. And yeah, like you said, it really gives you a new perspective on the city. You’re spending a lot more time higher and looking overhead, or going out over the river and coming back in. So, a lot of the new activities we put together, not just the traversal, but the different open world activities kind of give you a different perspective on the space that you’ve played in before. And then Queens is, you know, more residential — just a different character for that area. Brooklyn has new landmarks and Coney Island is off in the Southeast, which is a really fun fair type of area. And they kind of bring a different flavour to the city.
Gadgets 360: Yeah. And another thing which is new in this game is, of course, it’s not just Spider-Man, it’s Spider-Men. It’s both Miles and Peter and we can play as both of them. And I’m assuming I can switch between the two when I like?
Mike Fitzgerald: Yeah, in the full game, most of the time when you’re in the open world, you can sort of choose which character you’re spending time with and who you want to do open world activities with.
Gadgets 360: Talking of two playable characters, we’ve not seen many AAA with real-time player character switching mechanic since GTA 5 did it. Why do you think more games have not been able to do it? Is that technically challenging to accomplish and how did it come about in Spider-Man 2?
Mike Fitzgerald: That’s certainly something we wanted to make the player do it and we wanted to make it as seamless as possible, and that was a fun part of the PS5 as well. You know, that storage system is so fast that we can make it a quick fade down and fade up and suddenly you’re somewhere else with a different player. Part of it came from those first two games, too, and really developing an attachment to both those characters and saying, “we want to tell stories with both of these guys in this game and give them their own arcs and challenges and relationships.” And how do we make it fun for the player to spend time with both of them? When do you have to play with one? And when do you need to sort of pick and choose? And I think we found this really nice balance where we’re telling these really complicated stories that weave in and out of each other. You got a sense of that today (in the demo).
Gadgets 360: Was there a core tenet or a philosophy that the team had in mind when it set out on this project — an idea that you thought that would anchor your game and bring it to shore?
Mike Fitzgerald: Well, we knew it was time to do a Venom game and tell Venom’s story and the Symbiote’s story and what we’ve been able to do is work really closely with Marvel to understand —not just tell this story — but what is Venom’s story, what is it about that character that’s important? What is it about the character that you can change and do something new with, and sort of digging in with them to understand what’s the core of Kraven as a story component and what’s the core of Lizard as a story component? And then understanding how that fit into our world, you know, rather than trying to copy-paste some existing thing. How would this Pete interact with these characters? How would this Miles interact with these characters? Where are they in their lives as established in the first couple of games? And so, working with Marvel to distil that and build the story off that was hugely important for this one.
Gadgets 360: When I played the demo today, the changes in combat are apparent. It feels like the familiar DNA of the combat from the two games is there, but there’s just so much more here, too. There’s the added factor of the Symbiote abilities and Miles gaining new powers — it feels like the different combat mechanics complement each other and come together tightly.
Mike Fitzgerald: One thing we wanted to do with this game was take everything we learned from those first two games. I think in the Miles game, we learnt a lot. We had learnt a lot making that first game and we developed it a lot in Miles and created a really tight experience. So, through this game, how do we keep it that tight at a bigger scale? And I think we’ve really figured out how to polish ability structures, mission pacing, you know, all that kind of stuff. I think it’s hard to express to people a bit. We picked a small slice of the game for you to play in the demo and it feels like it has a little bit of everything, with bot Pete and Miles. It has some really jam-packed missions and cinematics. And this is a small part of the game, and that pace continues for the whole entire game. It’s not like we picked the good chunk (for the demo). So, I’m really excited for you to play more.
Gadgets 360: When it comes to superheroes, Spider-Man probably has the widest representation in different forms of media — his legacy in comic books, movies, and then of course there’s an iconic lineup of games that came before Insomniac took over the Spider-Man universe. It must be overwhelming, but do you also look at all these forms of art that exist? Comic books like Kraven’s Last Hunt, games like Web of Shadows and Shattered Dimensions. How do you navigate that to borrow or pay homage to some stuff that’s come before you, and still chart a completely new path as well?
Mike Fitzgerald: I think we do have fun looking back at classic Marvel moments and paying homage to them. There are some great moments in the first game that replicate certain comic book covers and things like that. And there is more of that in this game, for sure. But part it, too, is not holding ourselves back by saying, “oh, we can’t do this because someone did it before.” Because our games are the first Spider-Man games for a lot of players, and I’d hope we’re bringing new fans into Spider-Man in general and being the first Spider-Man experience for some people. So, we make sure we still tell a story we want to tell, not being too afraid of what has or hasn’t come before. And like I said, we work with Marvel to understand the core of these experiences and tell the right one for our games.
Gadgets 360: Do you as a team also set yourself technical milestones to achieve with your game? For example, in the first game, the web swinging was probably the technical highlight of the game. And then in the second game (Miles Morales) it was the blink-and-you-miss-it load times. And Spider-Man 2 has switchable characters. So, when you start out on a project, do you have a technical ceiling in mind and go with the approach of “we’re going to cross it”?
Mike Fitzgerald: I’d say we’re always sort of evolving where our ambitions are, and we know what we want to try and do the next time we approach something. Some of it comes from the story and the development of the game as well, because we want the tech to back up the story, we want the gameplay to back up the story, then we want the story to back up the gameplay that we come up with. Kind of weaving all these things together over the many-year process of developing a game is how we come out with something that doesn’t just feel like a tech demo and a good story, but it’s tech in service of the story, and a story we can only tell because we have that tech behind it.
Gadgets 360: On a visual level, Spider-Man 2 seems to be big step up. Today, while playing it up close it, at points it looked notches above from what we’ve seen before from Insomniac itself. There are so many new and small details that I noticed — like when you web up a fire escape, there’s a different animation of Spider-Man alternating his web shooters to climb up and then jump through to the top. And when you swing too low down in the Central Park and then you soar above in your swing, the leaves from the trees you graze come up with you and they’re suspended in the air for like half second and then you just glide off. And of course, you talked about the facial animations that have been improved, and so has the lighting. And it makes the game look so real and feel — I don’t know — it just feels warm.
Mike Fitzgerald: Good. That’s really great to hear and part of it isn’t just “what’s the most realistic? Like, how can we render this perfectly?” But what does the way we render it bring to the storytelling and if it can just immerse you in that experience a little bit more, make you forget you’re playing a game a little bit more, and immerse you that much more in the story that’s being told or the environment that you’re in — that’s when we’ve really figured it out.
Gadgets 360: Were there any learnings that you took from the first two games — I think you touched a bit upon that earlier as well, but was there something that you wanted to specifically address from the first game or from Miles Morales that you wanted to feel new here?
Mike Fitzgerald: No, I think, we wanted players who’d loved and grown attached to the franchise to really feel that in this new game, so we didn’t necessarily want to blow it all up and start fresh. I think it’s understanding that we had a really fantastic foundation to work on — and then how can we apply our skills as creators and game developers to deliver that much more? People have high expectations of the sequel and every little rough edge you can think of, by smoothing it out, we can do something a little bit better.
Gadgets 360: I also want to talk about Insomniac Games itself. Honestly, it feels a little crazy how prolific the studio is. And while being prolific, the quality remains high. Since the PlayStation 5 launched, we’ve got Miles Morales, Rift Apart and now Spider-Man 2 is almost here, and of course, Wolverine is on the way. How does the studio make it possible, when you see that modern games increasingly have long development cycles, and they take years to make and It’s hard (to maintain quality)?
Mike Fitzgerald: Yeah, we pipeline these things; we have multiple projects in development at the same time. Part of what my team does is work on all of them at the same time and try and build all this engine and supporting technology underneath them. So, if we can do some work for Ratchet & Clank that we can then leverage in Spider-Man 2, that we can then leverage in Wolverine — that’s what really enable us to do all this at the same time. That’s something we’re really proud of and we don’t want to sacrifice the quality to just be pumping games out. I think it’s those things hand in hand that we want to accomplish.
Gadgets 360: Finally, what do you think fans of Spider-Man will take away from this game when they finally put the controller down? Spider-Man is an icon that lives in people’s hearts and minds. When they think of Spider-Man, there are moments that stand out, be it from Sam Raimi films, or comic books, or games. Do you see Spider-Man 2 — Insomniac’s Spider-Man — occupying its own place in that pantheon of existing Spider-Man media, becoming an enduring icon in its own right?
Mike Fitzgerald: I certainly hope that this game will be extremely meaningful to people who play it, whether it’s what they’re taking away from Pete’s story, in his relationship with his friends; or what they’re taking from Miles’ story, like Bryan (Intihar) talked about — his struggles as a high school senior and what he’s doing next. We tell some really impactful stories in this game and that’s what Spider-Man is: people finding what resonates with them and drawing from it and remembering it. So yeah, hopefully they do that in this game.
Disclosure: Sony sponsored the correspondent’s flights and accommodation for the preview event in London, UK.