Microsoft wants to win over the hearts of fans this holiday season, and it turned to developer Insomniac Games to help accomplish that.
The studio launched Sunset Overdrive in late October to high praise from critics. It is an open-world shooter with a ton of style, and Microsoft has latched on that because Sunset Overdrive is one of only a few big console-exclusive games hitting either new console this year. It’s only on Xbox One, and Microsoft is putting a lot of emphasis on that with a special bundle and a ton of marketing. You might think that would put a lot of pressure on a release and the studio making it, but if so, it’s the kind of pressure that Insomniac president Ted Price likes.
We spoke with the developer and asked it what his company’s relationship with Microsoft is like when it comes to Sunset Overdrive.
“From the very beginning, [Microsoft and Insomniac] shared the vision for creating something that is very different,” Price told GamesBeat. “A game that is tonally and stylistically unique. I remember Microsoft coming to see the first presentation for the game. They believed in the vision, and they told us that they wanted to work with us because when Insomniac is Insomniac great things happen. That was great to hear.”
It’s obvious that Microsoft believes in Sunset Overdrive. Its Xbox One-branded commercials are all over television, and the $400 white Sunset Overdrive Xbox One bundle is arguably the big item Microsoft is pushing for Christmas.
“We get a tremendous amount of support from Microsoft on the marketing, PR, and support side,” said Price. “When Microsoft has a tentpole game, you see it everywhere. It’s been really cool to see the commercials on television and the presence in stores.”
Launching and letting go
Sunset Overdrive is in stores now, and it’s this launch period that maybe has Price feeling the most antsy.
“Whenever we launch a new game, we’re always waiting with baited breath to see what the mass reaction will be,” he said. “You just never know. We have our own opinions, but the gaming audience is large and diverse. There are as many opinions as there are gamers. We’ve done what we can to make sure people understand what we were going after in terms of presenting an alternative to what has been out there for a while now.”
So far, the critical reaction is largely positive. The game has a score of 82 on Metacritic, and our review highlighted Sunset Overdrive’s style and action as particularly refreshing. Now, Insomniac and Microsoft will just need to see if that translates into commercial success.
In the meantime, we asked Price to reflect on what he has learned through this process.
“I think one of the things that we learned is that whenever you do something that is new and unexpected, it’s really helpful to communicate what the game is,” he said. “We’ve been doing that with Sunset TV where every week where we explain a new aspect of the game so that people can become familiar with what we’re changing and doing different.”
Sunset TV is an in-game video channel that informs players about events in the game. Price says his team uses it to communicate all kinds of stuff to the players.
“People comment and ask questions, and one of things we do on Sunset TV is go over questions,” he said. “It’s a fun way to connect directly with fans versus trying to guess what people are thinking.”
On doing something new
We’re still in the first year of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, and Sunset Overdrive is a prime example of how developers move out of their (and their players’) comfort zones early on in the life cycle of new hardware.
“I think every new console launch comes with a demand for new IP,” said Price. “The history of our industry creates an expectation for new experiences at or near launch windows. We’ve historically, with one exception, built our IPs closer to launches and then built on them throughout the life cycles of one or two systems.”
For Insomniac, the urge to do something new and different comes from a very organic place.
“We’re gamers too,” said Price. “We like making new things. We like playing new things. But we’ve also built new IP outside of console-launch windows. This reflects the insane creative urge that runs through this company day in and day out.”
Of course, Price also acknowledges that, practically speaking, new franchises have the best chance to flourish near the launch of a new console.
On balancing the new with the fun
From the beginning, Insomniac set out to do something different — but putting what is “new” before what is “fun” is potentially dangerous.
“We know that player expectations continue to rise for features that are innovative and fresh, but at the same time we cannot sacrifice core gameplay,” said Price. “We might have the most innovative ideas in the world, but if they’re not fun, then they won’t fly.”
Early in the process of making Sunset Overdrive, the team struggled with making their exciting and innovative ideas fun. It was really important to everyone on the team to do away with traditional shooter mechanics, and the team had a lot of ideas about how to do that — but nothing worked.
“We had a lot of arguments over whether or not it was the right direction or whether we’ve painted ourselves into a corner,” said Price. “But after a lot of experimentation, and messing with the camera and controls, and tweaking speeds, and tweaking how players attach to objects in the game, it started to feel different. People were saying, ‘This isn’t a shooter that I’ve played before. And it’s fun.’ Once we hit that point, it enabled us to branch out first with the design of the weapons and the design of the enemies and the combat encounters in general. But we had to get to that magic moment first where we could make traversal fun.”
And pushing through those arguments and doubts to get to that point is key. Price says that a lot of it comes down to faith that if you keep trying to find a solution, one will eventually come to you.
“But it is also about strong personalities — people who will fight for what they think will work who then dig in and do the work to prove it,” said Price. “It’s really easy to talk about ideas in the abstract or dismiss them or embrace them. But until you do the coding, the animations, and get the game working and put the controller in someone’s hands and see how they react — until then you don’t know if something’s going to work.”
Those personalities include Insomniac’s Drew Murray and Marcus Smith who pitched the original idea for Sunset Overdrive more than three years ago. Their vision for the game didn’t waiver much, and it helped the team push through. Price credits them — along with the whole team — for giving the title its character.
“From the very first pitch that Marcus Smith and Drew Murray made three-plus years ago — when they were describing what their vision was — it was all about letting their players be who they want to be,” said Price. “Marcus and Drew both had pictures up on the screen where they were outfitted in these insane getups — both of which were very different and reflected their own personalities. That really struck a chord for us.”
That personality bled over into the gameplay, action, art, and every other aspect of Sunset Overdrive, and it led to one of the few games that looks and feels different when compared to everything else.