Adapt or Die: The 15-Year History of 'Ratchet & Clank'

“We always imagined the story as being 'Lethal Weapon' meets Saturday morning cartoons"

Few games are successful enough to justify a sequel, let alone 13 of them. For the past 15 years, the Sony-exclusive Ratchet & Clank franchise consistently defied the odds. So far, it’s been on three generations of PlayStation consoles, has its own manga series, and even made it into theaters as a feature-length film in 2016.

The most recent entry, Ratchet & Clank for PlayStation 4 (a reimagining of the original PS2 game), was the fastest-selling title ever in the series’s history. Insomniac Games experience director Brian Allgeier and long-time writer TJ Fixman took the stage at the Game Developers Conference this week to discuss how they’ve been able to keep the franchise relevant for so long.

“One of the things that surprised us most was that over the years, platformers and mascot-style games have become a tough sell. Console gamers have been drifting more toward darker, more realistic fair. So it’s really cool to see that Ratchet & Clank still has a place in audiences’ hearts,” said Fixman.

Insomniac certainly didn’t plan on creating a series that’d eventually become old enough to drive. At the time, the studio (known best for creating Spyro the Dragon) was trying to figure out what to do for its next title. The first idea had the codename “Girl with a Stick,” and it was a mash-up of Tomb Raider and Legend of Zelda. The team worked on it for a year, but according to Allgeier, they “weren’t feeling it.” CEO Ted Price killed the project.

The Ratchet & Clank we know today came from a short pitch from chief creative officer Brian Hastings: “an alien that travels from planet to planet collecting weapons and gadgets.” Despite its simplicity, that sentence was enough to re-energize the developers and get them feeling excited again. They loved the idea of exploring an unknown universe filled with colorful characters and stories. Artists finalized the looks for Ratchet, a mechanic from a cat-like alien race known as the Lombax (a term Price came up with), and Clank the robot, Ratchet’s unwitting partner.

Clank was originally thought of as a younger version of C-3PO. Insomniac experimented with giving him a childlike voice with a British accent, but it didn’t work. Allgeier said they wanted Ratchet and Clank to be on “equal footing” so that they had more of a buddy cop dynamic.

“We always imagined the story as being Lethal Weapon meets Saturday morning cartoons,” said Fixman.

Ratchet & Clank came out in November 2002 to favorable reviews. However, it didn’t really have a great story, and the characters didn’t have much depth. Insomniac was so busy on the gameplay side of things that it didn’t have time to flesh out this new universe.

Ratchet, Fixman said, was a bit of a selfish jerk. So for the sequel, the team rewrote him to be “a kinder, more curious character” and hired a new actor, James Arnold Taylor, to play him. From that first game, Insomniac learned an important lesson: spend time developing your heroes and their relationships. If players don’t care about them, they won’t care about your world, either.

For the 2003 sequel Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando, the team dug deeper into the RPG features and added more weapons and gadgets. It also marked the beginning of a new tradition: the cheeky double entendres. 2004’s Ratchet and Clank: Up Your Arsenal was the first to have online multiplayer modes, and introduced Dr. Nefarious, a character who would become the franchise’s most iconic villain.

Insomniac also tweaked the controls so that it felt more like a modern third-person shooter, a genre that was starting to become more popular. It was a strategic move, as mascot platformers had already started to fade away in the mid-2000s.

“Part of the reason why the Ratchet & Clank series endured was [because] we dramatically evolved it. We transformed from being a platformer with shooting to a shooter with platforming,” said Allgeier.

But this “adapt or die” philosophy would turn out to be a double-edged sword. For the fourth game, the developers looked at big hits like Halo and Grand Theft Auto, and figured that they, too, should take a darker turn. That led to Ratchet: Deadlocked. The co-op shooter was a huge departure for the franchise as it got rid of the exploration aspects and buddy cop story (and notably removed Clank’s name from the title). Deadlocked ended up selling well, but, as Fixman noted, they “deviated too far from the franchise DNA.”

It didn’t take long for the series to find its groove again. With the advent of the PlayStation 3, Insomniac decided to lean on the aspects that made Ratchet & Clank so fun in the first place: combat, exploration, and character relationships. That’s when Fixman joined the team. He worked with Hastings and Allgeier to build a franchise bible, one that’d unify the “loose” mythology of the previous games. They added more depth to the characters, really defining the personalities and backstories of Ratchet, Clank, and the rest of the supporting cast.

It all led to a brand new trilogy on PS3, which ended with Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack in Time — a game that Insomniac honestly thought would be their last one in the franchise. But, as Allgeier said, “it’d done well enough to warrant some sequels.” This led to another adapt or die moment for the company, and it responded by making three underwhelming games before the 2016 reboot: the family-oriented Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One (other working subtitles included Multiple Organisms and Four Play), Full Frontal Assault with its tower defense mechanics, and Into the Nexus.

While some of these games were commercially successful, fan reaction was mixed. But for the team, taking these bold steps (even if they all didn’t pay off) was vital to keeping the series alive. They learned as much from their mistakes as they did from their victories.

“What we found is that you really need to embrace the unknown. ... You have to constantly change. But you also have to know what made things great,” said Allgeier.