Intern for a Day, Vol. 2: Insomniac Games
[Welcome to Volume 2 of our Intern for a Day series. As you can see from the title, Insomniac Games was gracious enough to allow me to spend the day poking around the offices, sipping Dr. Peppers and loitering in the halls. During my visit, I learned that CEO Ted Price plans to celebrate the company's upcoming 15-year anniversary of the company by treating the entire staff and their significant others to a luxury cruise. (I asked, but interns, unfortunately, are not invited.)
Fact: At a recent Resistance 2 launch event in San Francisco, a follicly-challenged fan asked Ted to autograph the inside of his toupee for him. Yes, this is the kind of fanaticism that Ted inspires. So did Ted sign it? "I did," he admitted sheepishly. Ted is so revered by his fans, the industry and his employees that you half expect him to spend his days saving kittens from trees and escorting blind nuns across busy roads. Will I uncover Ted's -- and Insomniac's -- darker side? Read on, dear reader. -S. Jones]
Home: Burbank, California (with a sister office opening soon in North Carolina).
Online Home: www.insomniacgames.com
Number of Employees: Around 180.
Best Known For: Ratchet & Clank series and Resistance series.
But They Also Developed: The original three Spyro The Dragon games, and the PlayStation's acclaimed Disruptor (Google it).
Current "Buy It Now" Disruptor eBay Price: About $3.99.
The Backbone: The incomparable Ted Price.
The Office: Literally steps away from the Burbank Airport in California.
Voted one of the Top 10 Best Small Companies to Work For: Three years in a row.
Perks: Frag-fest Fridays, Yoga sessions and gratis in-office massages twice a week.
Time of Visit: A couple of days after the Resistance 2 launch.
9:59 a.m. The Insomniac offices, I've been told, are located "right behind" the Marriott at the Burbank Airport, where I'm staying. And they are indeed right behind the Marriott. But what no one has told me is that they are on the far side of several parking lots and fences. I contemplate scaling a fence, but then decide that I'll probably pull a muscle, or several muscles, and maybe get shot at or attacked by a German shepherd. I take the long way around, and start searching for an entrance.
10:17 a.m. I'm lost. A plane takes off from the nearby airport. The plane is so close I can practically reach up and touch the retracting landing gear. The California sun is really beating down on me now. Sweat is beading up on my brow. I pass by a monolithic building covered with mirrored windows that has the word "YAHOO!" on the front. (I wonder what they do there?) Once the plane passes, the street gets so eerily quiet that I can hear the power lines humming. Then I see a dead weasel in the road. At least, I think it's a weasel. I wonder if this is a bad omen.
These elevators will whisk you to the parking garage. Or, in my case, the delivery entrance.
10:29 a.m. I'm supposed to be in the office by 10:30, but damned if I still can't figure out how to get to the goddamn building. I can see it (it's that nice-looking tan building in the distance); I just can't get to it. There are plenty of entrances for vehicles, with gates that go up and down, etc. But there are no entrances for people. Of course there are no people entrances. This is L.A.
10:36 a.m. I duck under a parking garage gate and follow a series of signs that say "DELIVERIES ONLY."
The reception desk/lobby. Check your Mootators, Shock Rockets and Suck Cannons at the door.
10:40 a.m. I'm inside. I take the elevator up to Insomniac's floor. The nice lady at the front desk puts several NDAs in front of me. I decide to give her my line about whether or not it's OK if I sign my name as "Ronald McDonald," only at the last minute I decide to change things up a bit and I ask her if I can sign in as "Phineas T. Phart." As expected, she's not amused.
10:41 a.m. It's dark in here. Shadowy and cozy. For a company called Insomniac, my first inclination is to lie down on the nearest cozy sofa -- there's one over there, in the lobby -- and take a little nap.
If you lie down on the floor to take a nap, this is what you'll see.
10:59 a.m. Community Manager and all-around nice guy James Stevenson greets me and says, "I hope you're ready to work." I'm listening for some irony in his voice, but do not find any. He hustles me into a bright, open boardroom. There's a huge picture of Clank on the wall, staring down at me. Department heads begin to file in. It's not until everyone is settled that I notice Ted Price seated a few seats away from me. I'm not sure what I expected. Trumpets, maybe? A flock of doves lowering his kingly garments onto his shoulders? A fog machine and strobe lights and that "You're Unbelievable" song that they always play at bar mitzvahs? He doesn't even sit at the head of the table; a side seat apparently is good enough for him. Damn you, Ted Price. Damn you and your egalitarian ways.
11:01 a.m. Community Director Ryan Schneider runs the meeting. The topic of conversation: the Community Day that's scheduled to take place the next day. Over a hundred members of the myresistance.net community -- including the site's star forum moderators -- have been invited to Burbank for a chance to meet and greet the people who make their beloved games, and to tour the offices.
We discuss where and what they're going to eat (outside, under a tent; pizza), how tours are going to be managed, what the schedule for the day is going to be like. Apparently there are a few fans, like the guy who asked Ted to sign his toupee, who've earned "slightly nicer versions of traditional restraining orders." I ask for an example, and I'm told that one particular person filed an application to be invited to the Community Day more than 100 times.
Discovered: These helpful pamphlets outside of Ted's office.
"We need to be able to distinguish visitors from Insomniacs," Stevenson says. I like how they keep referring to themselves as "Insomniacs." I decide that "The Insomniacs" would be a good name for an air guitar band or a softball team. Finally, a solution is worked out: Insomniacs will wear purple bracelets. I immediately begin coveting the purple bracelets. I wonder if I'll get one. I have a fantasy about one of the visitors asking me if I work there. "Do I work here?" I'd say. Then I'd pull up my sleeve and I'd let my purple bracelet do the talking.
Ted signs something other than a toupee for a change.
11:08 a.m. It's decided that Insomniacs will use walkie talkies to communicate with one another during the event the next day. Pseudo-CB radio banter ensues. "Breaker, breaker." "Cletus, you got your ears on?" "10-4, good buddy." "There's a smokey on your tail." We spend several minutes coming up with fake code words that we'll use. A "Captain Quark" is a crazy or disillusioned person."And a Clanker is anyone who is shorter than I am," Schneider says. Then he covers his mouth with his hand and says, "We've got a Clanker, I repeat, a Clanker, over." Everyone laughs.
11:20 a.m. Meeting is adjourned. My first task is to assist with the setup of around 15 high-definition televisions and PlayStation 3 debug units that are going to be used by the community members for tomorrow's multiplayer sessions. I've attended hundreds of gaming events where I've walked in and found these things already set up for me, never appreciating (or, honestly, even considering) how much labor goes into getting all this stuff unboxed and working properly. Cords are strewn about. Crates are cracked open. Shiny (and remarkably heavy) PS3 debugs are unboxed. I mill about and try to simultaneously look busy and stay out of everyone's way.
Welcome to the kitchen of the future: where cereal is served from magic tubes.
11:49 a.m. I sneak into the office kitchen where I find an impressive array of gratis soft drinks, fruit, bagels and futuristic cereal dispensers. It's glorious. I have my usual Oliver Twist-like you-mean-I-can-just-help-myself-to-whatever-I-like reaction. I'm enjoying a pre-noon Coke when I notice a bank of six or so darkened pinball machines. I've always found darkened arcade machines of any kind to be vaguely depressing. I ask Stevenson why they aren't lit up. He explains that they keep them unplugged to save energy. "But we can plug them in whenever we want to use them," he says a little defensively. Damn you, Ted Price. Damn you and your environmentally-conscious ways.
I also notice a dry-erase board on the kitchen's far wall that features a barely legible top-10 list. I ask Stevenson what this is all about. He explains that each day somebody picks a topic, and then over the course of the day, people who pass through the kitchen are invited to contribute to it. "The ultimate goal," he says, "is to be funny." We both stand there looking at today's list. Neither of us laughs. "But obviously they can't be funny every day," he adds.
Another dry-erase-board top-10 list. The subject: Why Running Sucks.
One recent top 10 was The Top 10 Things That Suck About Running. Number three was "Mainly the zombies chasing you." And number 10 was, "Cumbo's short legs" -- which I don't understand at all, but still find funny.
12:14 p.m. With most of the HDTVs set up and functioning, several Insomniacs decide that it's time for us to head downstairs for lunch. I'm still on East Coast time, so I'm all for an early lunch. Stevenson, Schneider, the bearded Corey Garnett (Community Architect) and former Electronic Gaming Monthly employee/game reviewer-turned-Insomniac Community Manager, Bryan Inthihar, head downstairs to the upscale cafeteria-like place that services the nearby complex of buildings.
Ah, the very tranquil and very verdant pathways outside the Insomniac offices make you feel like a sprightly little elf prancing across a woodland glade.
We get our food, then gather at an outdoor table. The radiators at the Crispy New York offices have been clanging away for a month, and here we are, sitting outdoors, in mid-November. Maybe L.A. isn't so bad after all?
We begin to gossip about the industry like old ladies at a quilting bee. "We always have our heads down, making our games, working on our products, so it sometimes feels like we're inside a bubble here," Schneider says. Maybe they're humoring me, but they seem interested in what I'm telling them, as if I'm bringing them news from the outside world.
Then I have one of those moments when I realize how much I'm enjoying the company of these people. For years I've posited that people in the game industry, by and large, are some of the smartest, most articulate human beings on the planet. And the Insomniacs definitely corroborate this theory. My love of videogames brought me into this business, but my fondness for the people is what makes me stay.
Well, it's that, and the fact that I honestly wouldn't trade jobs with anyone in the world. Anyone, except maybe Ted Price.
Room with a view: This is what 99 percent of the office looks like.
1:20 p.m. Back in the office, we find a couple of guys waiting for us in the lobby from a company called Ant Farm. These guys are producing what's called an "accolades" spot for television. Accolades, I'm told, are those gaming commercials that feature in-game footage coupled with statements from gaming publications that boast about how awesome the game is. Example: "This is the best game ever. 9 out of 10. --Gamefarts.com." You know the ones.
Scott Cookson and Rob Troy from Ant Farm specialize in doing this kind of stuff. They're here today to gather some multiplayer footage for their almost-finished accolades spot for Resistance 2.
I found this very helpful sign posted in the office. Hoot!
Stevenson ushers the Ant Farm guys and myself into a far-flung part of the office and introduces me to Paul Featherstone, Associate Content Artist. Featherstone cues up Resistance 2 on a debug unit at his desk, and enters a code that allows him to position an omniscient camera anywhere on a multiplayer battlefield. Rob Troy "drives" the camera around a bombed-out virtual Chicago, looking for appealing angles from which to "shoot" the action.
He settles on the Chicago Theater sign, quite literally panning the camera slowly down the length of the word CHICAGO on the sign as a humans-vs.-Chimera battle rages in the distance.
Featherstone, meanwhile, directs the multiplayer participants. He sounds more than a little like Cecil B. DeMille as he quietly says things into a headset like: "We need more Chimera on the rooftops. Can some Chimera please head up to the rooftops? Today, please."
"All right, you human down in front near the crater, blow up those cars in front of you. Set them on fire. That's it. More fire. Really bomb them. That's it."
If you're looking for last week's hoagie, and it's a Monday, you'll have to search the nearest trash can for it.
"Can someone please just fire a stream of rockets at the side of the gray building? That's it. Keep them coming. Alright. That looks good."
What Featherstone is trying to create for Cookson and Troy is the impression that an epic multiplayer battle is taking place. But really, what's taking place is that a bunch of gameplay testers, like extras in a Hollywood movie, are firing their weapons into the game's virtual sky.
It looks good to me, but Troy seems to be unhappy with it. There is some discussion of how the weapons look as they streak across the sky. Certain weapons are swapped out. More Chimera are directed to rooftops. All of this begins to take a painfully long time.
2:09 p.m. I keep saying, "Looks good to me!" and "Wow, that looks awesome!" in the hopes of encouraging them to record their footage. Honestly, it does look good to me. But Troy isn't happy. More adjustments are made. I start to fidget a bit. I head out to find Stevenson, and ask him if I can actually join the testers, and appear, in a virtual way, in the commercial.
These soft drinks have been brought to you by Insomniac Games.
He hustles me over to the quality assurance den. It's hot in here, and honestly, it's crowded and it stinks a little. Soda cans are scattered across debug machines. I'm directed to a vacant station and told to don one of the tester headsets. I wonder how sanitary this is.
I hear Featherstone's voice in my ear. At the moment, everyone is on break from the shoot. I overhear two testers across the aisle discussing Fallout 3. "Have you tried it on Awesome mode?" one says.
"What's Awesome mode?"
James Stevenson: Armed, but very much not dangerous. By the way, James is holding a $5,000 real-world-size weapon from Resistance 2. It's heavier than it looks. And it lights up. Snazzy.
"The hardest mode in the game. I can't recommend it enough, especially if you're finding the game too easy so far. Dude, try it."
I notice another tester eating cereal, his face only inches above the bowl.
During the downtime, I strike up a conversation with a pair of testers sitting nearby. One guy was a former tester at 2K Games, which he describes as "a terrible place to work" when compared to Insomniac.
Suddenly, Featherstone is barking orders in my headset. I pick up the PS3 controller. "We're rolling," he says. Long story short, if you happen to be watching TV in the near future, and an accolades spot for Resistance 2 airs, look for the Chimeran lobbing grenades at his feet in the bottom-right-hand corner of the screen.
No matter where you move in this conference room, it always feels like Clank is watching you...
4:01 p.m. My final task for the day is to spend an hour or so with designer Mike Roloson. Mike has a pair of well-manicured sideburns, and he sits at the most toy-free desk in the place. His desk also does something that I've never seen a desk do before. With the flip of a switch, a motor kicks on and elevates the desk to standing height. "Sometimes I like to stand up when I work," he explains. I suddenly covet this desk more than I covet a purple wristband. He says that he found it on the Internet, and that it cost around $1,300.
He tells me to take 20 minutes by myself to write up some notes on what a makes a boss battle successful and unsuccessful. I grab a Coke and my laptop and sit alone in the conference room with the watchful eyes of Clank's portrait looking down on me.
A stainless steel wall + plastic alphabet letters = a chance to express yourself.
I make some notes. I start by combing through some of the more memorable ones in recent memory. The Ganado in Resident Evil 4; GLaDOS in Portal; the Big Daddies in BioShock. I honestly had no idea how much knowledge I possess about boss battles.
Twenty minutes elapse, and Mike and I reconvene at his fancy desk. I tell Mike that once I've killed something in a game, I like to look at its corpse. "I walk around it a few times, and spend some time relishing my work," I say. "I hate it when after a boss battle, the thing just vanishes, or if the game lapses right away into a cut scene. You've got to let the gamer have his moment of glory."
Mike finds this strange. And it is strange. But he continues to indulge me. "Go on," he says.
Captain Quark teaches kitchen visitors how to make coffee.
I describe the battles in Shadow of the Colossus as "the messy struggle of it all." And I tell Mike that's a good thing. Mike types the words "messy struggle of it all" into his computer. He asks me to explain what I mean by that.
The two of us sit there, looking at each other. I'm stumped. "You know, I guess I really don't know what I mean by that," I say. Mike deletes the line -- tap, tap, tap.
This isn't going well. But in the end, I think get my larger message to him. Boss battles should, 1. Have an emotional underpinning of some kind, and 2. Work your intellect as much as they work your thumbs.
6:18 p.m. Once Mike and I have finished, I head back to Stevenson's desk on the far side of the office. I notice a commotion. I ask what's happening. Another review of Resistance 2 has just been posted on the Net, and I'm treated to the rare sight of seeing news of the review quite literally ripple through the office as Insomniacs frantically IM and email it to one another. It's a positive review -- a 9.1 out of 10, in fact. Hoots are hooted. One soul off in the distance claps his or her hands together. And then the office is quiet again.
Accessorize the Chimera: One of the recent dry-erase-board masterpieces.
A few moments later, another review rolls through the office. This one isn't so positive. In fact, it takes Resistance 2 to task on several fronts. Insomniacs hunch in front of their computers, trying to process the news. It's clear that this one hurts. There are no hoots this time, no distant claps. Insomniacs gather in small groups. Though I can tell that they're trying to rise above, they can't help but take the reviewer's words personally. They point out flaws in the reviewer's logic. They console one another. They defend their game.
Proof that even the back of Ted's head is handsome.
As I say goodbye to Ryan, Bryan, James and, of course, Ted, I realize how easy it is for gamers, and especially game critics, to forget that games don't magically come from the ether; they aren't made in some Southern California version of Santa's workshop. They're made by people with pictures of their dogs and their kids on their desks. People who read reviews of something they've worked on for two years, and have emotional responses to those reviews. Smart, funny, strange people who make daily top-10 lists, and who eat cereal in the afternoons, and who recommend Awesome mode to one another.
As I make my way to the exit, dreading the long, circuitous journey back past the dead weasel, back to the airport Marriott, I realize that I never discovered any sort of dark side of Ted or Insomniac. Of course I didn't. I don't think one exists.
And I also realize that I didn't get my coveted purple bracelet. But as I'm about to leave, Ryan Schneider hands me something even better: an Insomniac office keycard that will get me through one of the fenced-off gates and allow me to take a shortcut back to the hotel. I'm relieved. I really didn't want to see that weasel again.
This is the building that I couldn't #$&ing figure out how to get into.
Outside, in the cool California night, I notice a plane coming in to land at the Burbank airport, its light blinking away. I tap my keycard on the gate's security pad. The gate clicks and makes a satisfying beeping sound. And for one, brief second, I know what it's like to feel like an Insomniac.
But the gate doesn't open. I tap the card a few more times. Beep, beep, beep, beep, beep. Nothing. I'm feeling humiliated. Beep, beep, beep, beep. Finally, a passing employee notices my struggle. He runs over, taps his card, and this time, the gate opens. "There you go," he says. As the gate swings shut behind me, I pocket the useless card. I cross the dark parking lot, weaving between the cars, letting the blazing MARRIOTT sign guide me.
Be sure to check out Vol. 1 of Intern for a Day.