Ted Price, CEO of Insomniac Games

Insomniac Games‘ Fuse may be one of the last of its kind when the sci-fi console game debuts in stores in North America on May 28. It’s a new intellectual property, designed for the current-generation game consoles at the end of a cycle. Most game creators are either doing the third or fourth title in a series or moving on to next-generation systems.

But the timing of this shooting riot could turn out to be great for Insomniac and its publisher, Electronic Arts, said Ted Price [above], the chief executive of Insomniac, in an interview with GamesBeat. Instead of being just another sci-fi shooter, Fuse is a four-character co-op title that you can play in a single-player campaign or with three other friends. If it’s a hit, it could generate big sales because the installed base of Xbox 360 and PlayStation consoles is at a peak.

“The key is exposure, making sure that people understand that the game exists and know what’s different about it,” Price said. “The other aspect of this game is that it’s a very social game. Even though you can play by yourself in the campaign with three bots, it’s a lot of fun playing with friends.”

I saw one of the combat sequences of the game last week at the Game Developers Conference, with Price serving as my co-op partner in a battle on the Xbox 360 console. The scene started out in the second level of the game, where an elite combat team takes on a paramilitary group in a base in the South China Sea. You start out unarmed and in a jail cell. By the end, you’re ripping enemy soldiers to shreds with the power of Fuse, an alien energy source that has spawned a global struggle.

Fuse has high production values, and it brings something new for hardcore gamers who have been getting tired of sequels. In recognition of the new age of digital gaming, the title is Insomniac’s first major cross-platform IP, and the company is making other games for mobile and Facebook platforms as well. Here’s a transcript of our interview with Price.

fuse 1GamesBeat: You get to some serious combat pretty early in Fuse.

Ted Price: Yeah. That’s the second level of the game. We introduce you to combat relatively gradually in the first level, so that we don’t completely overwhelm you, but the key is that combat’s not easy. All four players have to work together.

GamesBeat: How does the sequence of story and combat alternate here?

Price: We don’t have cinematics every five minutes. It was important for us because we knew there would be groups of people playing the game together. We couldn’t slow the game down too much. There’s a lot of emergent dialogue that helps fill in the backstory, a lot of chatter between the characters. We do have story moments — we’re about to hit one — during the levels to help explain who these additional NPCs are. There are a lot of them inserted into the game. All of them are motivated by Fuse in some different way.

GamesBeat: It was easy to learn, though.

Price: Yeah, you got it. It was great.

GamesBeat: Normally, I’d have to train more to understand what’s going on with this. That was your intent, I guess?

Price: Yeah. We’re pretty fixated on creating intuitive controls. We spent a lot of time on it. That’s often taken for granted because gamers assume that games are going to be well-tuned and easy to play. But that aspect of building games is usually what takes the longest time. You tweak-tweak-tweak until it feels good to fire a weapon or feels good to take cover or feels good to vault. Those are the little tweaks that take us weeks and weeks to get right.

GamesBeat: What’s your postmortem up to this point? [Laughs] I know you’re not quite done, but you’re close.

Price: We’re a new IP coming out at the end of a life cycle. For us, it’s been fascinating because we’re now spending a lot of time educating people on what Fuse is versus having the third sequel in a franchise where people already know the story and the characters. We’re explaining the world and who these characters are. But at the same time, we’re introducing what we believe are some fresh features to the co-op shooter genre.

Leap, for example. Being able to leap back and forth between characters is something we have to actively show people so that they get it. The assumption, usually, is that when you pick your character, you’re locked in. Most games do that these days. It’s fun to play with folks who haven’t played this and show them that feature so that they can start moving back and forth between the characters. That wouldn’t have any value at all unless all four characters were different, though.

The other thing that we’ve been demonstrating a lot is how the class-based archetypes come into play during these big battles. You’ve got Dalton as a tank or Izzy as the healer and crowd control. You were playing Naya as the area-of-effect specialist, but she’s also a great flanker. She can go invisible.

GamesBeat: I forgot to make myself invisible.

Price: [Laughs] Well, that’s OK. That’s cool because you’ve got a lot of opportunities to experiment. Because you can try all four characters and because you’re constantly expanding their skill trees and adding more efficacy to their skill sets, it keeps the game fresh.

Combat in FuseGamesBeat: I’m used to not being powerful at the beginning of a game. This is interesting, to have such devastating options.

Price: To be fair, today we leveled you up a lot. We’ve been playing through this demo and earning a lot of skill points and applying them.

GamesBeat: Making it a little bit easier, then.

Price: Yeah. With your warp rifle, you’re able to trigger those black holes there very quickly.

GamesBeat: Business-wise, it almost seems like it’s a good way to launch a game. You’re coming out at the end of a cycle with a very large installed base. There’s no limitation from the installed base on what you can sell at this point.

Price: The key is exposure, making sure that people understand that the game exists and know what’s different about it. The other aspect of this game is that it’s a very social game. Even though you can play by yourself in the campaign with three bots, it’s a lot of fun playing with friends. We are going to be doing more and more to show off the game and explain the social aspects. Hopefully, when people get their hands on it, they’ll start asking their friends to play. That’s what’s fun about co-op games in general. When you get together with your buddies, you make time and you play.

GamesBeat: It’s a little harder with this, maybe. You have to re-explain what the game is about because of the pivots you’ve made.

Price: We didn’t actually explain a whole lot in 2011. We showed a trailer. Then people made a lot of assumptions based on that trailer. Those assumptions, in many people’s minds, became fact even though that wasn’t exactly what the game was about.

GamesBeat: You’re coming out in the middle of a big explosion in digital game releases, that service model. Following that model, you might have gotten that feedback much sooner. It almost seemed like you learned very late in your process that maybe you should switch to something else. Do you feel like that at all?

Price: That’s what people assume. Because we’ve been working on the game from the beginning, we know just how much changed and how much didn’t change. What didn’t change was the core of the game. The game itself has not changed. Some of the veneer has changed, and that has been what some people have glommed on to versus what actually makes the game fun.

What makes the game fun is the cooperative gameplay, whether you’re playing it by yourself or with other people. This game is built from the ground up as a four-player game — with weapons that complement each other, with weapons that can be overlaid, with [role-playing game] elements that you don’t see in a lot of shooters. That stuff has been in forever. Unfortunately, the best way to demonstrate that is just to have people play the game. We’re now at the point where we are having a lot of people play the game, and it’s great to see their reactions versus just the assumptions people have made based on a couple of trailers.

fuse 3GamesBeat: What do you notice about people finishing the game in single-player versus finishing it co-op? Does the duration of the experience or anything else vary?

Price: We balance the game based on how many humans are playing. That’s key. One thing we have noticed is that it takes several playthroughs for anybody to unlock all of the skills and upgrades that you get for all four characters.

GamesBeat: Does that normally happen, that people will go through it more than once?

Price: When we do focus-testing and usability testing, people have a limited amount of time, so we haven’t gotten to the point where somebody has enough time to play through all of it. But internally, when we talk about our own testers, yeah. We see it all the time. There’s no way they can unlock everything with one playthrough.

GamesBeat: I asked you about big changes in the industry back in December. We’ve had more big changes already. What do you think of the state of things three months later?

Price: It kind of reflects the state of the world. In our world, things do change at an exponential pace. Our industry is not an exception. Technology drives a lot of that. The length of this console generation is also driving that. The pressure on the industry to continue to branch out, to reach new audiences, has been increasing, and we’re seeing the results.

GamesBeat: When running a business, how do you balance that you had to finish this game at the same time as some other things, like next-generation development, would naturally be spinning up?

Price: We have multiple teams. We don’t have just one team, so we do a lot of that internal balancing all the time.

GamesBeat: Did you pick up any big takeaways from DICE this year? Anything that struck you amid all the talks?

Price: From a data geek perspective, I loved the Qualcomm talk. Maybe because I’m not well-versed in phone technology, it was cool to hear what’s going on in the mobile chip world and see how fast that particular industry is moving. For Insomniac, at least, we have tended historically to focus on consoles and ignore everything else. Now, in this industry, you can’t ignore everything else. You have to be aware of what’s going on. The Qualcomm talk was a nice window into one aspect of the mobile industry that we all should be paying attention to.

GamesBeat: I’m writing about whether it will be easier for Battlefield 4 or Puzzle and Dragons to get to a billion dollars in revenue.

Price: Right. Unfortunately, I think people like to ask those questions with 20-20 hindsight. I’m sure that at the beginning of the development for either of those franchises, nobody had that expectation. Everybody wishes and hopes that you’re going to have a big hit, but the focus has to be on making a great game.

I always find it funny that, whether it’s Puzzle and Dragons or Clash of Clans or any other game that’s doing well on mobile, the assumption tends to be, “That must have been easy.” No, it wasn’t. I don’t think any successful game goes through an easy process. It’s usually a confluence of a great game, an audience that’s hungry for it, the right timing, and a lot of hard work.

GamesBeat: Some of the game engine-makers are doing some interesting things where they’re extending into mobile. They’re starting from triple-A, and now they’re extending down into the mobile platforms. I wonder how well that’s going to work. Are you optimistic that that could be a good way to go cross-platform?

Price: It depends. We’re already moving into mobile as well. We’ve said publicly that Outernauts, our free-to-play game on Kongregate and Facebook, is going to mobile as well. Our industry is very savvy as far as knowing that you can’t just take a console game and port it over to mobile because it’s a completely different control paradigm. A lot of redesign has to happen. But as content creators, we’re all interested in having our content appear on as many platforms as we can.

GamesBeat: Any last thoughts on how Fuse has turned out?

Price: We’re very proud of it. Every franchise we build is a learning experience for us, but we put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into Fuse. The most gratifying aspect for me personally, over the last month, has been getting the game into more and more people’s hands and enjoying it with them. We’re having fun. That’s at the core of every great game.