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Interview: Insomniac finds its voice with Resistance 3

Our glowing preview of Resistance 3 in July left many of us at Joystiq wondering how exactly Insomniac evolved its big-budget, if far from best-in-class, shooter from simple spectacle to what our own Justin McElroy dubbed "spectacular." In our review earlier today, Griffin McElroy wrote, "Resistance 3 isn't just a great game full of marked, inspired improvements over its predecessor -- it's a declaration of intent to become the new heir apparent to the sci-fi shooter throne." When I had a chance to talk with lead designer Drew Murray last month, I decided to tackle that issue head-on, and ask if he considers that kind of praise a back-handed compliment. "I'll take those kinds of back-handed compliments any day," Murray enthused. OK, the coast was clear.

Five years on from the original Resistance, a PlayStation 3 launch title and the studio's first first-person shooter in a decade, players would be right to expect significant growth from the team and for Insomniac, that meant struggling with what exactly Resistance, as a franchise, is. "I think with Resistance 2 we swayed towards what everyone was doing," Murray explained. "I think with Resistance 3, we said, 'Let's take a look at what works well in Resistance 1 or Resistance 2 and what works well for the Resistance franchise and not worry about what everyone else is doing. We're going to do things that aren't necessarily mainstream decisions, but this is what's right for the Resistance franchise.'"

It's an axiom and everyone says it. Iterate, iterate, iterate. It's true.- Lead designer Drew Murray

That involved tossing R2's full-regen health system and reverting to a version of Resistance 1's health pack system. "Health packs are tough!" Murray said. "We put health packs in the game and there are kids who are like, 'What are these green things?'" A "day one decision" for Murray and creative director Marcus Smith was to bring back the game's weapon wheel.

"Resistance asks a little more of players than most shooters, in that we have some very exotic weapons," Murray said. "All of our guns have a primary and secondary fire, and we found in doing testing after Resistance 2, there's really a split between people who like the Resistance games and those who don't. A lot of it comes down to, do people really understand how the weapons system works."

A major change for Insomniac was having an extra year of development time, part of the studio's focus on quality. Resistance 3's extra development time allowed Insomniac to really polish its level design, and train players on the best way to take advantage of the game's massive arsenal. "Doing usability testing, we've seen the amount of guns that people use and the number of people using secondary fire, is just through the roof now," Murray said. "I think this will make people enjoy the game a lot more."

That extra development time helped "hugely," Murray said. "It's an axiom and everyone says it. Iterate, iterate, iterate. It's true. I think back on some of these levels that we have and think about if we'd only had the time to iterate once on them, where they would've been and instead getting the time to make major iterations three or four times and make dozens of smaller iterations."

Compare this to Resistance 2, whose development schedule was so tight, Murray said it didn't allow for that level of iteration. "In Resistance 2, we were sometimes just throwing stuff in," he explained. "I remember a couple nights before we went gold, we were still trying to get the final boss in that game working. We didn't want to do that again; we wanted to make it polished. We all wanted to make it polished."

Helping them in that task is Mr. Bill Fulton, whose name might be familiar top some of you. Fulton famously ran the Microsoft Game Studios Lab, profiled in a Wired cover story, which "spurred the games industry to start adopting more formal research methods" (or so Fulton's LinkedIn profile says). Murray told me, "We focused a lot more on doing usability testing [in Resistance 3]. We worked with a guy named Bill Fulton who used to run the Microsoft Usability Lab, and we did a ton of going through the game. He and I rebuilt the camera and aim assist controls, the basic controls from the ground up."

"This is what Resistance is. This is what Resistance was moving towards."- Drew Murray

Again, comparing Resistance 3 to Resistance 2, Murray said one of the biggest development differences is when the game was first played through start to finish. With Resistance 2, "we weren't playing the game through start to finish until a month or two beforehand," Murray said. "So each level designer is looking at his level and thinking, 'I've got to make this so exciting and so intense.'" Resistance 3 was "playable start to finish over a year ago," Murray revealed, noting that there was "some gaps."

Resistance 2's design process led to a game that Murray calls "balls to the wall." Murray compares that approach to the "boat level" in Resistance 3. "It starts off slow. You've got a good 90 to 120 seconds in the beginning of that level where nothing is happening. You're just riding on a boat ride; it's a Walt Disney trip of 'This is What the World's Like.' We never would've done that in Resistance 2 – even in Resistance 3 for the first couple years we thought we had to change this, it's too long, we need to put something in there for you to shoot. I think even people playing the demo think 'This is too slow.' And it is slow, but when you're coming right off of the boss fight right before it, I think it feels good."

Discovering that "feel" for Resistance 3 is a major theme for Murray. Resistance 2 was "somewhat of a military story," Murray told me, and one that was always going to be "out-military'd by the Call of Duty guys or the Battlefield guys."

With Resistance 3, "it was a lot more personal story," in part spawned by many of the team reading Cormac McCarthy's devestating novel The Road. "Marcus, the creative director, me, Grant, our art director, we all had kids towards the beginning of production," Murray said. "I think all of us were kind of like, 'What would it be like to have a kid in a world like this?' We're certainly not telling a Pulitzer Prize-winning story here, but I think we're telling a very different and more personal story than most games and certainly most shooters."

So does the team at Insomniac recognize the progress its made with Resistance 3? Murray told me, "I feel very comfortable with saying, 'This is what Resistance is. This is what Resistance was moving towards.'" And what about the inevitable next Resistance? Will it again be reconfigured or, similar to Mass Effect 2, has the team, and the Resistance franchise, found its voice?

"I am not saying that we are or are not making [another Resistance game]," Murray cautiously explained, "but from a purely personal perspective, if I was making Resistance 4, I would not change any of the core mechanics. I would figure out other cool things to do, but I think we ended up with what is right for a Resistance game."

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