Sunday, June 01, 2003

Notes on Ratchet And Clank

After reading the post-mortem on Ratchet and Clank I had to play it. The only other original title that got such a high score on game rankings with such a short development cycle was Deus Ex, if you don't count the time Insomniac Studios spent working on the game they decided to kill. In my book, more important than shipping a great game is Bang For Buck: sure, Nintendo can make Zelda great in four years, Half-Life 2 looks awesome after five, but can they do Ratchet and Clank in eighteen months?

Ratchet and Clank is a good illustration of some of the Harvey Smith articles I've been reading lately: somewhat orthogonal elements encourage emergence and the level design (as with most platformers) is systemic. It's also a good illustration of a few Falstein rules: clear short term goals; emphasize exploration and discovery; and provide parallel challenges with mutual assistance.

Some of the gadgets are more orthogonal than others; while there's a series of weapons that do progressively more damage and have longer ranges (all on the same vector), there's also the brilliant Suck Cannon (possibly the single coolest innovation in the game) which allows you to suck up small enemies and then shoot them. When combined with the amoeba creatures that split into smaller parts, a strategy emerges: hack up the amoeba, suck into your cannon, and use it on the next enemy. The game encourages you to switch weapons because you'll run out of ammo, and ammo for the best weapons costs much more than ammo for the weakest. (And ammo for the Suck Cannon is free.) There are also various kinds of mines. I'm not sure if this counts as a different vector when orthogonality is concerned, because the mines still do damage to enemies...but one thing that does not do direct damage is the 'taunter', which both activates mines and encourages the AI to run towards you (and hit the mines.) More truly orthogonal elements include a grappling hook, skateboard and 'grind boots', jet pack, key that lowers and raises water level, and key that gets through doors (this opens a little puzzle mini game that's kind of neat in itself; I'd say it's the best lockpicking mini-game I've ever seen, including the ones in Dead To Rights and Splinter Cell), and I'm forgetting a bunch.

The AI in *Ratchet and Clank* is typical of platformers. Very predictable patterns: more of a game than a sim. It's clear when playing it that the AI is supposed to be dumb, so nobody faults *Insomniac* for not spending manpower on AI. Still, even though they may have saved a man or two on AI programming, it is simply amazing to me how much stuff they got into the game. Even with the rapid turnaround afforded by repeating the same level elements (grappling hook anchors, turrets, trip lasers, platforms, switches, blah blah blah) there's a lot of different systems (rails for grinding, magnetic strips for walking in loops and upside down, water) and sub-games (skateboarding, flying a jet, and a couple of boss fights.) It makes me want to work for them, just to see how they do it.

As for the Falstein rules: the clear short term goals come up in each level screen, a laundry list of missions that need to be accomplished. The exploration and discovery is typical of the latest generation of platformers: like gates connect the worlds in Mario, your spaceship connects the levels of Ratchet. There are secret areas where one can find 'golden bolts' (I never found out what these were for...maybe just bragging rights?) Because you can choose what you do next, and because you earn money as you explore, it satisfies the 'mutual challenges with parallel assistance.' (This really was useful for me; some of the missions were too hard for me until I'd equipped better stuff, although I felt that somebody much better at the game than me could have made it through the whole thing with just the wrench.)

Like Jak & Daxter, gameplay testing is evident. If I were to give out awards for Least Frustrating Console Games, they would go to: Animal Crossing, Halo, Jak & Daxter, Eternal Darkness, The Wind Waker and this. (Both Metroid Prime and Mario Sunshine were much more frustrating...Nintendo is losing the gameplay-testing wars.) Although I didn't manage to beat the final boss...that's kind of a habit of mine, though...I have so little interest in seeing that final flashy prerender, when the final boss is too hard I'm usually content to just get to it.

I don't know how well it's selling; obviously enough to justify a sequel, but I imagine I would have heard if it was breaking any kind of records. Which makes me wonder: does it make sense to combine shooting with platforming? Both Jak and Ratchet are taking this route. It seems to me that it would alienate both audiences: too cute for people who want to kill, too violent for people who want a kid's game.

On the consensus topic, in their post-mortem they said that they do not design by consensus but they do have a process in place for suggesting ideas and making sure that the ideas fit with the game's vision. I tried e-mailing them to ask what that process is but to no avail. If anybody has a friend at Insomniac, could you bug them for me? I'm really intrigued.