Feature Article

Marvel's Spider-Man: How Insomniac Spun Its Web

Do whatever a spider can.

In hindsight, it's easy to take for granted the success of Marvel's Spider-Man, Insomniac's hit game based on the classic character. It broke Sony's internal sales records, raised Sony's financial outlook, and helped lead the charge for an overall increase in game industry sales, according to the independent data analytic firm NPD. It all went so right for Sony and Insomniac that one may forget how it all could have gone wrong, how many times the webhead has been misused and mismanaged in sub-par material, and how badly he was in need of redemption.

Now, as the final piece of downloadable content is released, closing the book on plans for the PlayStation 4 game, we're taking a deep and expansive look back at its development--with access to the top creative minds behind the game. The story they tell isn't one of surefire success. Like many games, development was a messy process of discovery, compromise, and iteration. This is how Spider-Man came to be.

Spoilers follow.

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Into The Spider-Verse

The genesis of Spider-Man began as Insomniac was wrapping up its work on Sunset Overdrive, its first Xbox exclusive. Without a formal deal in place, the talks were quiet and off-the-record, gauging interest in a potential project. At the time, it wasn't even focused on Spider-Man.

"PlayStation and Marvel had been talking about how they could work together and I remember I was one of the first people [Insomniac CEO] Ted [Price] talked to about it," creative director Bryan Intihar told GameSpot. "I went crazy. I was like, 'yes, I would give up one of my arms to work on a Marvel game.'"

"It's pretty daunting if you think about it, trying to make a great Spider-Man game and really do it justice," added game director Ryan Smith. "But also, when you think of Insomniac's strengths, Spider-Man is just a tremendous opportunity for storytelling and for building mechanics that really define the character, like the open-world swinging."

Part of that initial design work was pouring over research and reading every Spider-Man comic developers could get their hands on. Art director Jacinda Chew recalls her first reaction was fear, out of a desire to do justice to a character so many people feel a connection to. At the same time, the longevity of Spider-Man has resulted in lots of iterations and interpretations. This could have created even more difficulties by leaving little room for a new spin on the character, but Chew chose to look at the wealth of information as an opportunity.

"There is tons of reference online because of that," she said. "I can also work with a company like Marvel, who has a deep well of knowledge. They actually have archives of every Spider-Man comic ever written. Everyone there knows so much about Spider-Man, so in cases like that, it's actually a great resource, because so much has already been done."

Intihar collaborated with the team of writers, headed up by lead writer Jon Paquette. Intihar knew he wanted his Spider-Man to be different, but just how to make this version of the character stand in its own continuity while remaining true to the spirit of Spider-Man was its own challenge. The team also wanted to create a visual signifier that set this Spidey apart.

"Whenever Peter wins, Spider-Man loses; whenever Spider-Man wins, Peter loses."

That link between visual distinction and narrative kept coming back in the early discussions. Paquette had room to explore the character, and Chew gave visual clarity to this new addition to the Spider-Man multi-verse, resulting in a Spider suit with a big, white logo--Insomniac's take on the iconic look. The take has become so popular that it received a cameo in the recent film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and Marvel plans to begin publishing a new comic book that takes place in what has become known as Earth-1048--the game's setting, and now the latest in Marvel's numbered designations for alternate universes.

"Marvel, Sony, and Insomniac all agreed that we wanted to do our own take on the character, we didn't want to adapt any other take on the character," Paquette said. "As a creative team we wanted to immerse ourselves as much as possible into all the other iterations of the character so that we can understand what makes a great Spider-Man story--and then after we did all that, we said 'okay let's forget all that stuff' because we didn't want to be too inspired by any single iteration of the character.

"When you're writing Spider-Man and there's something inside your heart, you're bringing a lot of love to the character. There were a few key lessons. For example, whenever Peter [Parker] wins, Spider-Man loses; whenever Spider-Man wins, Peter loses, right? We wanted to make sure we hit those things when we were creating our version of the story."

A Superior Spider-Man

That kernel of an idea, regarding the duality of the Spider-Man character and how his double-life stretches him thin, developed as work on the game started in earnest.

"That was from day one," Intihar said. "This has to be as much of a Peter Parker experience and story as it is about Spider-Man. We all come into loving the character of Spider-Man in different ways. It's kind of a similar journey. If you come into him younger, like I did, that's a really cool character with cool powers. I would love to swing around the city, I would love to shoot webs. As you get older you start to more identify with the Peter Parker side of the character.

"I feel like he's the most relatable of the heroes. As much as I love Tony Stark, it's harder to identify with a billionaire. As much as I love Thor, it's hard to identify with a god. Peter makes mistakes, he has ups and downs in his career, his relationships, his family. I think we can all relate to that. We all go through those things in our lives. Peter Parker's life is messy! We tried to do our best job of representing that, of having not only a big problem to deal with but big victories."

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Most crucially, this Spider-Man story is unflinchingly optimistic and hopeful. This version of Peter is an experienced veteran, but the story pits him against impossible odds with heavy emotional stakes. For all the light-heartedness of the character, Peter is put through the ringer. After a difficult battle, and with the city turned to chaos, he casually references having broken multiple bones, but he still jumps straight back into the fray. His relationship with his friend and mentor implodes to tragic consequences. In a tearful ending, he makes an impossible decision, choosing to make the unselfish choice. Through it all the character is driven and righteous, and even as he struggles, he doesn't give into cynicism.

"When we broke down what makes a successful Spider-Man story, one of them was that he always uses humor as a defense mechanism," Paquette said. "Keeping the positive side of things and optimistic viewpoints I think is important, not only for the character but just kind of for our times as well. It's easy to get sucked into the negativity of where we are in society and the world in general. But I like to smile. I think players like to smile while they're playing games."

True Believers

Naturally, you can't create a Spider-Man story without his cast of surrounding characters. Peter Parker has a well-established support system, and those connections also serve to balance the human aspect of the character. Given the vision for a story that is as much about Peter as it is about Spider-Man, the studio set about giving his friends and family their own unique applications in the narrative. And that all started with Mary Jane Watson.

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"[MJ] is that one thing in Peter's life that he can't let go," Paquette said. "They start the game broken up but he's still thinking about her all the time. She is kind of that centering thing in his life and he's not complete without her. Our goal in this game with MJ was to show that she can be a hero using her own skills and in her own way. And he's got to learn how to allow her to do that--not be protecting, he's gotta get beyond that and understand that there are other heroes in the world. Other people can be heroic, it's not up to only him to protect the city."

To that end, MJ had some of her own gameplay sequences--stealth-focused scenes meant to illustrate her career as a reporter. And she's dressed the part, with a smart but sensible outfit that belies some of the character's history as a supermodel or actress.

"MJ is an aspiring reporter," Chew pointed out. "She's not a nightclub owner, or model, so because of her job as an aspiring reporter, I wanted to make sure she had a very modern, useful New York wardrobe.

"I'm also really proud getting different body types in as well. From Aunt May to MJ to Black Cat. We didn't just copy paste the same female body onto every single character, I'm really proud of that fact, because I do think we need more body diversity amongst our female characters. Obviously I always want to do a lot more, but it's a start."

The functional, girl-next-door look for MJ goes hand-in-hand with a kind of easy familiarity that she shares with Peter. In one quiet scene, Peter and MJ fill each other in on the details of their individual investigations, and when Peter receives a phone call, she casually tosses the phone behind her, only for Peter to web it back to him. The game is full of tiny touches like that which illustrate the relationship and lived experiences of the characters.

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One surprise inclusion is less a tried-and-true part of Peter's history, but no less a crucial part of the game. Miles Morales, who began as a character in the Ultimate universe where Peter Parker died, has exploded in popularity and become folded into the main Marvel continuity. Despite his greater presence, Miles' interactions with Peter have been passing, and the two mostly operate individually. The story in Marvel's Spider-Man gives them an established relationship from the start, while Peter is operating as Spider-Man but well before Miles gets his matching set of powers. Rather than individual heroes who team up, they're personal friends.

"Our goal was to weave these stories together in a way that felt like a coherent whole," Paquette said. "I think the younger part of the audience really needs another character in there to say, 'Oh that's more like me.' It's like when we made the decision to bring Peter out of high school and not do the origin story, we still felt like there was a part of great Spider-Man stories that are like that really energetic fun pop in a teenager and we wanted to kind of hit that with Miles as much as we could."

Of course, any inclusion of Miles has to include him getting bitten by his own spider and obtaining his own set of powers. This is left as a tease in Spider-Man, and perhaps something for the next game to explore. Paquette playfully noted that it felt natural to tee up for more stories, and that "we just scratched the surface."

The energetic presence of Miles is a stark contrast to the story arc of Aunt May, who meets her unfortunate end in the game. Paquette says that he knew dealing with the death of such a major character would be a challenge, and the writers seeded a slightly bittersweet but happier scene with Peter and MJ right afterwards to go out on a less dour note. At the same time, he thinks it's vital to the story this game tells and the lesson it's teaching to Peter.

"You want that hero to make a sacrifice because that reveals the character, that reveals what he really cares about."

"For me the Aunt May death at the end really had to be earned," he said. "Early on where Peter gets kicked out, he has to sleep on the couch. Aunt May gives him some money and she says to him, 'You have to remember that you're human like the rest of us.' That's a lesson that goes beyond just that moment. The overall message there for Peter is: don't try to take on too much, you're trying to do all this by yourself, you need to learn to trust other people who are trying to help you. And that's what happens in the story until act three [when he teams up with MJ and Miles]. But because of the events of the story, that kind of happens a little too late. In some readings that could be seen as the reason Aunt May died. And of course Peter's going to feel all this mixed guilt and is gonna think it's all his fault because that's who that character is."

Part of the sacrifice of Aunt May is an echo of Uncle Ben's death. After losing his uncle for selfishly making the wrong choice, Peter ultimately loses his aunt by selflessly making the right one. That theme of the impossible choice and personal loss for the protagonist comes through in a lot of superhero fiction because it expresses something deep about the character.

"For any superhero story, for any hero story, you want that hero to make a sacrifice because that reveals the character, that reveals what he really cares about," Paquette said. "The more difficult that decision is, the more character it reveals and the stronger the moment is."

Not all of Spider-Man's associations were quite so successful. Spider-Man's relationship with the police, in particular, became a point of critique, especially given ongoing real-world discussions regarding police accountability. For some players, Spider-Man having a cozy relationship with the police and even jokingly referring to himself as "Spider-Cop" was tone-deaf to the cultural moment. Paquette understands the critique and acknowledges that Spider-Man's relationship with the police is traditionally complicated, but he wanted to give him a kindred spirit in the character of NYPD detective Yuri Watanabe. That theme is further explored in the DLC.

"I think Spider-Man does see himself as being responsible for the city, that's a core part of his character," he said. "Both [Spider-Man and Yuri] feel this huge responsibility to making sure that people are safe and they're willing to suffer the slings and arrows of the public in order to do that."

Arms Dealers

Another of Peter's friendships is equally fraught: the one with his mentor, Dr. Otto Octavius. Even casual comic fans would immediately recognize Octavius as the supervillain Doc Ock, one of Spidey's most iconic nemeses. Instead, though, this iteration takes its time and patiently establishes the character and his personal relationship with Peter first. Rather than a megalomaniac, Otto is a soft-spoken, optimistic man of science, and a mentor to Peter.

"The Otto relationship had multiple layers to it. At first we wanted to put Peter in a job that maybe people didn't expect," Intihar said. "We said, you know he is a really smart guy, the comics have pushed the science thing, we could do that. How could we make that job interesting? Who could he work for? What if he worked for Otto? What if in some ways Peter was responsible for helping create one of his greatest adversaries?"

The reveal comes slowly throughout the course of the game, and on more than one occasion, the foreshadowing makes the turn appear imminent. When it finally does come, Otto has become a tragic figure.

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"I wanted to show the story of their friendship. Without that, Otto's eventual turn wouldn't have the impact that I hope it did," Paquette said. "And so there's a part of me that wanted to write that for people who don't know that Doctor Octavius is eventually going to become the villain. My hope was that if we attack it from that direction, assuming that people don't know the characters but come at it from a real genuine and heartfelt direction, that the people who do know the characters will fall in love with them all over again but will have this unexpected kind of experience with Otto. You know he's going to turn bad, but oh man, he's such a good guy for a while."

To illustrate this take on Otto, Chew researched the many character design elements throughout the comics--from the bowl cut with green glasses to the giant belt. She wanted her take on the character to feel more modern. He's "balding and nerdy, and he's very lovable" and Chew wanted his look to illustrate that. For the ultimate turn, Chew wanted his iconic arms to be sleeker and more high-tech than they had been throughout other versions. And true to any nemesis, the hero and villain are reflections of each other.

"In many ways they're parallels: they're both really smart, they have big hearts. Our major goal for the game was to have the lens that's very believable motivations," Intihar said. "So we wanted to, especially with Otto, spend time with that character, understanding everything about him. Which is why we spent that time, almost the full first two acts, building the relationship and understanding what Otto's journey is.

"The one thing with working with these characters that have been around for 50, almost close to 60 years now, there's a lot of stories been told already and it's hard to surprise people. We said to ourselves, 'Imagine if we could make people like Otto so much that there's a part of you that doesn't want him to turn evil.' Can we do that? Can we build it up to the point where you may know what's gonna happen but there's a part of you going, 'Maybe they're not going to do it?'"

When the relationship does collapse, it leads to a climactic confrontation with emotional performances from the voices behind Peter (Yuri Lowenthal) and Otto (Bill Salyers). Paquette recalls the electricity when the two were acting against each other during the capture sessions.

"Imagine if we could make people like Otto so much that there's a part of you that doesn't want him to turn evil. Can we do that?"

"I think [that connection] was probably the strongest one that we discovered while shooting and making this game," he said. "The scenes with the two of them were just magical. When you get really great quality performances from the actors, it can elevate the material. I remember our animation director was directing [the final] scene and Bill would yell 'Peter!' And our director didn't want to yell cut because we're all like 'Oh my God, what's gonna happen?'"

The ultimate reveal of Doc Ock and his Sinister Six serves as something of a bait-and-switch twist. The majority of the game centers on an entirely different villain: Mister Negative. The character was chosen both for functional gameplay reasons--his superpower allows him to generate henchmen to fight--and to contrast against Octavius and Osborne. Those two are at each others' throats constantly, and it's ultimately revealed that Mister Negative is at the center of their falling out. Just like Octavius, and even ultimately Osborne, Mister Negative is treated sympathetically.

"Like any good villain, he's a hero of his own story," Paquette said. "We wanted to give him a really interesting motivation and a way to connect to Norman and Otto that allows their stories to rise above as well. Something happened to him when he was young, and you know it was mostly Norman's fault; but then at the end, you learn Norman was doing this to try to save his own son. All these people are trying to do the things that feel right to them."

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Chew noted that Negative was a particularly fun villain to design around, especially given the freedom to create their own interpretations of characters. At one point he was a youthful character with a leather jacket and sunglasses, in a look she characterized as a "rebel." Ultimately, the character itself drove the visual style, including a spooky negative-photo effect that twitches and blurs as he moves.

"As we were getting to know the character, we realized that it was important that the visual reflected his true nature," said Chew. "The negative and the positive parts. What showcased that the best was the really simple black and white suit. And it's the same thing, with the actual effect as well. We kept it very black and white. The original character design of the comics are really inspired by still negatives, so we looked at still negatives as well, to get that feeling of a monochromatic world."

The full roster of the Sinister Six includes Otto, Negative, and some other classic villains from Spider-Man history: Vulture, Electro, Rhino, and Scorpion. These are treated as boss fodder, and they have little story outside of having been kept in a super-prison known as the Raft after their defeats at the hands of Spider-Man. They all have their own grudges against the webhead, and some passing attention is given to how Otto recruited them all to further his plans, but for the most part they exist to fight Spider-Man.

This isn't to say that they don't help illustrate the core story, however. As the game rockets towards its conclusion, Spider-Man is clearly in over his head and overwhelmed with villains, resulting in the aforementioned broken bones and new reliance on his friends. But gameplay may illustrate the idea the best, when Spidey is pitted against two of his adversaries at once. The fight against Electro and Vulture is frenetic and breathless in a way that few other moments in the game are. But it didn't start that way.

"You plan for so long, you have this idea in your mind of what this is, you almost write it in stone and then you just assume that that's how it has to be."

"If you look at the final act of the game, everything from the Raft mission into our third act, that was actually a much bigger act but we were just realizing that things weren't clicking, looking at the quality bar," Intihar said. "Originally, the Vulture fight and the Electro fight were supposed to be separate. They actually were supposed to be separate events. Then you're like, 'Alright, we've got to start cutting some stuff from the game.' But because you plan for so long, you have this idea in your mind of what this is, you almost write it in stone and then you just assume that that's how it has to be.

"Someone had an idea, if we could combine the Electro and the Vulture into one boss fight, more of like an aerial boss fight. That's when you just learn to trust the team. They got a feeling about something, you give them some time to go prove it. They just did a really quick version of putting those two characters together and it instantly felt better. Then when you get the iteration, the polish and all the bells and whistles with audio effects, it just becomes even better."

Intihar chuckled at the changed plans and how much he had clung to the original. "It's funny," he said, "we originally always had the Scorpion and Rhino fight to be the dual fight."

Swinging Into Action

That fight with Electro and Vulture relied on pitch-perfect web-swinging mechanics, which was one of the studio's first challenges from a gameplay perspective. There was no magic bullet or established physics package for creating the web-swinging. It was just a matter of iteration and experimentation until they figured out what felt natural.

"It's amazingly hard to make it feel that good," Intihar said. "I think one of the biggest accomplishments of the game is that we, at least in my opinion, I think we make you feel like Spider-Man almost instantly. That just comes from a ton of iteration. Putting the game in peoples hands and seeing what is not feeling right. Where you getting tripped up? Where do you feel like you're losing momentum? How are you losing momentum? What do you wanna do that you can't do?"

The resulting system is littered with tiny touches the player may never notice. When casting a web, for example, the game takes into account your current momentum and direction to help determine where the web should stick. If you're going for speed and distance with longer strides, it will automatically stick to a further point with a longer pendulum swing. If you may be making some hairpin turns, it will cast a shorter web to a nearer object to help pull you correctly in the right direction.

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Similarly, Spider-Man had to feel like Spidey in the combat challenges. The timing-based combat bears a passing resemblance to the Batman Arkham games--a comparison that Intihar shrugs off. He says it was more about determining what felt right for the character, and the team was influenced as much by Kratos (God of War) and Dante (Devil May Cry) as Batman.

"We wanted to feel the improvisation," Smith said. "For a long time, for example, you pull things down. That was really cool but we didn't open up so that you could pull things from the air for a long time. That was something we had to discover in the process. But it still all came from that sort of core of being an acrobatic improvisor in combat."

Less universally praised were the MJ and Miles segments. These brief snippets of stealth gameplay were divisive. Some players found them a refreshing way to break up the pace of swinging webs and fists as Spider-Man, while others critiqued them as slow or half-baked. In particular, the immediate fail-and-reload consequences of getting caught rubbed some players the wrong way.

"I definitely think they're an important part of the game. They have a chance to develop all three of the pretty important characters in sort of the Spider-Man, Peter Parker's life and universe," Smith said. The mechanics build to a crescendo with layers of complexity by the last instance of each, which was intentional.

Still, Smith knows the segments weren't as highly praised as the rest of the game. "I think we can always look at [the feedback] and consider going forward you know what is the best way to take the part that people like and if there's any lessons we can learn," he said.

Great Responsibility

With the game and its only announced DLC now released, Insomniac is taking stock. Having headed up one of the biggest games of the year has made Intihar reflective of his own philosophy and approach toward his work. If he could travel through time, he has advice for his younger self.

"I would tell him that there's going to be a lot of highs and there's going to be a lot of lows," he said. "When you're so invested in the game and the character--from a personal level, I've been a Spider-Man fan since I was a little kid. Everything just means that much more to you and you're so concerned about getting it right that the lows can really impact you emotionally. They can really cause a lot of doubt in your head. I would just say: Stay calm and you're gonna get through it and at the end of the day, the bumps are actually what makes the game better."

"I want to continue to make more Spider-Man stories... They're a heavy investment but it seems like people really like them.

Meanwhile, this likely isn't the last we've heard from Insomniac and Spider-Man. The game was a bona fide hit that left some very clear threads for a sequel to expand upon. Miles and his newfound powers and the mystery of Harry Osborne's health are just two intriguing story breadcrumbs that are awaiting resolution. We may not even have to wait that long. Insomniac consciously structured its DLC in comic fashion. The final installment that releases on December 21 is the last chapter in a distinct story arc, called The City That Never Sleeps. There's nothing to stop the studio from planning another multi-part story and releasing it as well.

"I want to continue to make more Spider-Man stories, for sure," Intihar said. "We've had a lot of fun putting these DLC packs together and I think that for us, one thing that's really great is we know single-player games don't usually get a ton of downloadable content. It just takes such a huge investment to put them together, the presentation level is right up there with what we delivered in the main game. They're a heavy investment but it seems like people really like them."

That's far from a promise, but it certainly shows Insomniac is open to more Spider-Man if the market demands it. And if the last 60 years have shown nothing else about the wallcrawler, it's that there's always room for more Spider-Man stories.

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