A nerdy PS5 chat with Ratchet & Clank: Rift Aparts tech director

Were nearly six months into the life of the PlayStation 5, but exclusive games that really showcase the power of the hardware are still relatively rare. Thats part of what made last months Returnal so exciting. Its also a big reason why the upcoming Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart is so highly anticipated.

Ratchet has always been an incredible-looking franchise just look at the 2016 reboot on the PS4, which was reminiscent of an animated movie and the latest promises to offer new features only possible on Sonys new console. Its still a goofy shooter-platformer filled with weird gadgets, but Rift Apart also features incredibly detailed sci-fi worlds to explore and the titular rifts which let players instantly jump into new areas without any loading. (To see some of that in action, check out this recent, lengthy gameplay trailer.)

Ahead of the games launch on June 11th, I had a chance to talk to Mike Fitzgerald, core technology director at developer Insomniac Games, about the studios move into next-gen. He was able to get into the nitty-gritty of working on the console (in addition to Rift Apart, Insomniac has also released PS5 versions of two Spider-Man games), including some of the challenges of learning as you go. This title is the first one where we made the content knowing it would only ever be running on the PlayStation 5, he tells The Verge. And so our artists would say What kind of mesh density can I have? And Id be like … I dont know. Because we didnt have the hardware.

Read on for our full conversation touching on what the team learned from Spider-Man, designing games with ray tracing in mind, why making realistic-looking metallic surfaces is so important, and much more.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What were your first impressions of the PS5 when you finally learned what it was all about?

We got a briefing before seeing the hardware: Heres whats coming, heres what our priorities are going to be. Fortunately, we have a great relationship with them well, we werent a part of PlayStation then, but now we are but we have a close relationship and got to be involved with that stuff pretty early, and that informed the game we were putting together. In that presentation in particular, I think the storage and I/O solutions really stood out to us as something that would be transformative, both in terms of development and the types of games we make.

What was that initial experience like of working on the Spider-Man games on PS5?

It was an awesome experience of peeling back layers of that hardware and realizing we need to push our engine side of things more, rather than fighting against the development hardware. The spinning hard drive of the previous gen was always a big constraint for us. Making open-world games on the PS4 is a lot of being very careful with the content you put together, how its packaged up, the budgets it fits under, planning ahead of time where youre going to need to be and when.

A lot of those problems just go out the door [on the PS5], which is a big deal. Its not just the drive itself, but its the hardware decompression engine around it, its the memory transfers that we leveraged piece by piece, more and more as we went through the project, and realized Oh, we can make these transitions even faster, we can do them in the middle of a fight. It was really an evolving process with the console. And it definitely came down to roadblocks in our engine that we needed to pick apart. Some of those basic assumptions of how long it takes data to get off a drive we got to rethink.

Is your job a lot of saying No? An artist or designer comes to you with an idea, and, particularly on the older hardware, you have to say we just cant do that. And how does it compare on the PS5?

Okay, probably not Nos, but Yes, but is a common refrain. If an artist wants to accomplish something, or a designer, we try to figure out how to get there. But maybe its a point that the compromises are way fewer right now. Of course artists and designers also have a great sense for what the hardware can accomplish, and I think it was challenging ourselves to do new and different things now that the hardware is so different.

Given that this is the first Ratchet & Clank game youve worked on, what was your impression of the series? What interested you about working in this universe?

The PS4 title was gorgeous, and I think its been really fun to continue that march of progress from a realism perspective. This is what we did with the Spider-Man titles, and what a lot of games do. How human can your characters look? How realistic can New York City be? And then apply that same tech, and the rigor behind that tech, to a more fantastical, exaggerated animated aesthetic for the Ratchet games. Thats been fun. We have realistic materials and lighting, using ray tracing to bring more realism to it. But then we also have an alien whose entire head is an eyeball. The way the silly combines with the realistic I think brings a unique quality to the game that lets it show off the graphical techniques of the hardware.

Can you talk a bit about how you interact with other departments like art or game design? It sounds like the team is pretty collaborative.

My group is a shared group across multiple titles that we have going at the same time. Different groups within that core technology group have really close relationships with different productions. So we have some audio programmers who work really closely with the audio team, we have animation programmers who work with the animation teams, and so on and so forth. Were pretty tightly tied in with project schedules. With projects in R&D, we let them be creative; make some mock-ups or concepts that go further than we could ever go in the engine, and then in pre-production, lets take that and figure out how we can accomplish it and what we can put together.

So when you were working on the Spider-Man games, were you filing away ideas for things that would work well with Ratchet on PS5?

Always filing away ideas. I would even say some stuff that is essential to the Spider-Man game turned out to be cool for Ratchet, and then has some awesome quality effect on that game that we maybe wouldnt have put in if wed only been making Ratchet.

Do you have an example?

Spider-Man is an open-world title. We built all of this tech to stream that open world as you go through it. When youre downtown, theres not much Midtown in memory. You can see it from a distance, but then as you go farther north, we pull in those areas. No Ratchet game has ever been constructed that way. Theyve always been: heres a level, load the level, now youre in that level and you play it. But by switching over the Ratchet world to use that same streaming architecture, we can pack more and more density and content and quality in every corner of a Ratchet & Clank world, because were happy to ditch the west side of Nefarious City when you go to the east side, and that type of thing.

Does it make it harder to know when to stop, when you have this ability to cram so much into a game? When you no longer have the same level of technical restrictions, is it harder to say Alright, this is ready to go?

Yes, and I would say its even difficult to develop the content in the first place to some extent. This title is the first one where we made the content knowing it would only ever be running on the PlayStation 5. And so our artists would say What kind of mesh density can I have? And Id be like … I dont know. Because we didnt have the hardware. And we didnt know, as the engine evolved, how the trade-offs would manifest themselves. Even once you have the hardware, it still takes you months or a year for your engine to evolve into it where you know how you want to spend your frame budget, what you do on the GPU versus the CPU, all that kind of stuff. For this game in particular, I would say we kind of just let our artists go wild and make some incredibly detailed objects and models and textures, and then gave ourselves the challenge to make it all run well.

Obviously ray tracing is a big buzzword right now, but when youre making a game knowing from the beginning that its going to be supported, does that change how you approach things like art or level design?

For the Spider-Man games, it was a lot of This looks really cool, this will have a great effect on the buildings in the city. That kind of thing. We had a lot of content that was in the first Spider-Man game that wasnt necessarily authored to show that feature off, but we knew that it would be in Ratchet & Clank from pretty early on. One thing it does is, the artists know to put a lot of care into the material properties that they author. So this is a metal and it behaves this way, and all of those physical material properties, so when it comes together it fits nicely when ray tracing is turned on.

There are some big, obvious features we can see in terms of the benefits of the PS5, like the fast load times or the rifts that pull you into a parallel world immediately. But are there any examples of smaller, less obvious things that are cool or that youre really proud of that wouldnt have been possible on the PS4?

With the SSD, its easy to say there are no load times, and look how fast we can load this other area, but it has all sorts of knock-on effects. We dont need to be as careful with how we package our data. All of the assets for an area dont need to be collated on the spinning hard drive to get the right streaming speed out of it. It makes the game smaller on your hard drive; it means we can patch it more easily. Thats a nice bonus. We unload the things literally behind you from a camera perspective. If you spun the camera around, we could load them before you see that. That lets us devote all of our system memory to the stuff in front of you right now, that you need to experience in that moment.

The ray tracing is nice and shiny well, literally shiny and its very obvious when its working. But it does have a really subtle effect on the materials. Theres a part where youre in the spaceship with Rivet and Clank, for example, and youre not actually looking at a reflective surface per se, but just all of the metal things in that cabin, which are all curved in different ways, are all showing the effect of those characters shifting position in a realistic way. It takes us a long way toward getting the same feeling of an animated film. The way things are grounded in the environments, the way theyre animating with each other, helps us close that gap.

Is that the goal? To have it look like a high-quality animated film?

Certainly for this title, from a rendering quality perspective, we would love to be delivering stories in the same way that those films deliver stories, and having that emotional effect for players. I think between the performance capture we do know, the detail and density of the animation rigs that we have, we can tell some really good stories that I think can hit in the same way that the films hit.

Now that youve spent some time with the PS5, and the studio has made three games for it, what are some aspects where youre excited to see where it goes in the future? Some feature where you cant wait to see how Insomniac or other studios will be able to exploit it for future games. What do you think is the thing people will really be able to dig into?

Behind the scenes, theres so much to peel back about the SSD and the I/O around it. Were just scratching the surface of it. As a developer, that will be really cool to see how it turns out. I love seeing what the other internal PlayStation studios are doing, we have an awesome relationship with them. We dont show each other everything all the time, so we still get that fun surprise and delight when we see what theyre doing and get to marvel at how good it looks and then try to pick it apart and see how to do better.

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