This paper was written for my Games Industries and Organizations class at HPU, where I had the pleasure of interviewing Insomniac Games’ COO John Fiorito to figure out his history in game development. Definitely one of my favorite assignments I accomplished at HPU!
The Man In The Moon: The Story Behind Insomniac Games’ COO John Fiorito
Who comes to your mind when you think of the Seahawks NFL football team? The most probable guess would be Marshawn Lynch, due to his reputation not only as a running back, but also for making hilarious, curt responses in interviews. When you look at the soundtrack for Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventures, which name is going to stick out more: Lorne Balfe or Hans Zimmer? Despite composing one song for the 15-track album, Hans Zimmer will likely ring more bells. With these illustrations, my point in drawing them is to demonstrate that for the vast majority of companies, film studios, rock bands, or what have you, people are naturally inclined to put a face to a name that represents a group of a few or even thousands of individuals. There is usually one person who becomes the public face, and the same can be said for game developers, or more specifically, Insomniac Games. Nearly everyone who knows about it knows that Ted Price is the Founder, CEO, and President, who can be found speaking for the studio in dozens of interviews, at conferences, and more. While he is undoubtedly a hardworking and highly essential piece to what makes Insomniac Games, well, Insomniac Games, he is but one part of a whole; a plethora of other “pieces” work behind the scenes in programming, level design, art production, sound design, and so forth to bring the developer’s video games to life, and they could be considered just as important in their own unique capacities.
Even still, it is not easy to uncover who exactly these other people are and what their stories are in regard to becoming “Insomniacs” at one of today’s most recognizable studios in the video game industry today, which has a track record of highly-regarded titles like Spyro: Year of the Dragon, Ratchet & Clank: A Crack in Time, and the recent Sunset Overdrive. For a developer who’s made games like these, can you imagine being the one who has been with it for nearly 17 years, worked on and directed its art team, and eventually became COO: the one who coordinates with every creative department to make daily, important decisions? Insomniac Games’ John Fiorito uniquely fits all of these criteria, and it is time to unearth his tale through my studies of his work and the personal conversations I had with him.
Growing up in California’s San Francisco Bay area, John Fiorito was born in the mid-1960s and is the oldest out of two other siblings. His favorite hobbies as a child were playing with Lego sets, building model airplanes, and drawing. Although he did not consider making video games in the slightest then or even after college, he distinctly remembers playing Pong with a friend, who had lines of kids come to his house to try it out as well. Breakout and Centipede were arcade favorites of his that he played for hours, but the crown jewel he loved most was Gunstar Heroes for the Sega Genesis. “I played it so hard that I got blisters under my thumbnails,” he said, listing it as one of his influences for the type of game and level design he enjoys the most, which ties back to his love for the SNES and Sega Genesis era of games. Moving back to his childhood, he finds it humorous how much he finds himself saying and believing what he disagreed on with his parents as a younger man then, so he has and still considers them his greatest influences, especially when it comes to “ …learning the satisfaction of a job well done [when you] do your best, finish on time, and do it right.” It is no wonder that in this kind of environment, he was prone to enjoy school from kindergarten to college, and he believes the passionate teachers who pushed his abilities were individuals who helped shape his path, which he was literally drawing out for himself. During high school, Fiorito obtained a sketchbook and went to museums and the library to improve his own artwork and learn about art history. He even gained a reputation for drawing in students’ yearbooks, which actually kept him up late at nights when he did this for multiple friends. His aspirations reached farther though because he adored the styles and creativity of record album covers and posters; he reveled at the idea of producing commercial art to be seen by millions, and with films like Tron, he knew the boundaries and creative power of new forms and ways to create art had yet to be accomplished, so he was set on his goals to jump into this job field.
Video games were the farthest thing from Fiorito’s mind during his time at the University of California, Berkeley, where he pursued a major in Architecture and minor in Architectural History. However, the work atmosphere in that business was not to his liking, so he came back around for more education and got a degree in Illustration at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. With this experience now in hand, he was more than ready to create his own album covers and posters, but with the advent of CDs came the great decline of this art, so this dream disappeared as a viable career. Fiorito instead took many part-time and freelance jobs as his first steps into the workforce, including being an art director and set designer for projects such as R&B and New Age music videos or even cartoon commercials. This was a very taxing line of work though, requiring many hours of physical labor and creative juice to keep up, so he knew he could not do this forever.
Around his mid-20s, his journey into the video game industry began, and it was entirely by accident. A friend of his from the Art Center College of Design was working at Disney and said they needed an artist to help with a project for two weeks, but this required Fiorito to have familiarity with PCs and Macs, which he had barely used in advanced manners before then. However, he guaranteed he could learn all of the programs used for this project over one weekend and be ready by Monday, and by then, Fiorito proved himself prepared and began work on a flight simulation game called Stunt Island, which included an editing mode where users could create their own movies with in-game props, characters, etc.
Besides working on kid-friendly games for various in-house Disney projects, he actually assisted in the development of Virgin Games’ Disney’s Aladdin for the Sega Genesis by creating storyboards and working on “clean up screens.” However, he had a larger role in the famous (perhaps infamous for some) The Lion King for the Sega Genesis, which could be regarded as the Dark Souls of licensed video games due to its level design and need for precision with the controls, and Fiorito took part in this by designing some of its levels. He also processed the game animations to look smooth and hand-drawn like the film, giving characters more depth in their appearance even with the 2D graphics. “I do look back fondly on my early games,” he said. “It was like the Wild West and there were no established rules for putting a game together. We were figuring things out as we were working on a title.” With later games he was more of an Art Director because early in his five years at Disney Interactive Studios, a rumor went around that the company would shut down the studio and license out Disney franchises instead, so 45 out of 50 people left to find new jobs to avoid this hassle. Fiorito remained though and – after Disney decided to keep everything going – was tasked to find, interview, and hire new artists since he was the only one left, and with departments in a studio consisting of less than 10 people, Fiorito more easily transitioned into this leadership role, something he did not learn to do in school.
Disney eventually became more of a publisher and outsourced developers to work on video games, so Fiorito said farewell and sought out a new role in video game production around the age of 30. He applied for a little developer called Naughty Dog, who was fresh off Crash Bandicoot and making the sequel at the time. However, his résumé found its way into the hands of Insomniac Games, which happened to be located on the same floor as Naughty Dog in a Universal Studios back-lot building. He went in for the interview and got the job the same day as the tenth employee to start work on the studio’s second game, a small gem that would become Spyro the Dragon.
What made Insomniac Games different for Fiorito was the atmosphere. “The big difference from my previous job was that we invented everything from scratch. The environment definitely had a startup/garage shop vibe, which I liked,” he said. “We were so small that our entire team was in one room.” With this amount of people, it is no surprise that he had to learn the basics of 3D modeling within a week of being employed. Back in those days in this industry, learning on the job was extremely common, and after two years of development, he had helped create 1/3 of Spyro the Dragon’s environments with his newfound, honed skills in 3D modeling and texturing. He details the process of creating them by defining design guidelines the team abided by in order to separate the game from others with similar medieval, fantastical themes. The use of vibrant colors, soft, inviting textures and artistic detail to environments, and the use of intentionally placed yet natural-looking landmarks to prevent players from getting lost were a portion of the philosophies that shaped the level design and art direction (Fiorito, 1999, pp. 42-48). As for the sequels, development time was cut in half, so Fiorito got to work by drawing concept art for more environments while working on lighting and helping other artists at the same time. From that time onward, he was a part of the advance team for I-5: Girl with a Stick after Spyro: Year of the Dragon, but this project ran aground and instead led to Insomniac Games’ most well-known series: Ratchet & Clank.
Throughout the PS2 era of this franchise’s heyday, Fiorito was the Environment Art Director and responsible for “concept art for levels, lighting, modeling/texturing backgrounds, skies, and level layout,” working with multiple artists and PS4 Lead Architect Mark Cerny at times (Fiorito, 2012). One of the fascinating details about his work and with others he collaborated on with these games and the Spyro trilogy is that he applied “grounded principles to fantastic settings” to the games’ structures and buildings, which could likely stand if created in real life.
On the comedic stage of their games, the characters were the “crazy man” with silly proportions and cartoony features and the environments were the “straight man,” so to speak, being subtlety intelligent and realistic in design. Out of his time doing hands-on work though, he personally considers Ratchet and Clank: Up Your Arsenal his favorite project, calling it the perfect storm of all the tightest game design, artistic creativity, and passion Insomniac Games had to offer then. After that and Deadlocked came new ground to explore with a next-gen system (the PlayStation 3), and Fiorito moved his way from Environmental Director to Project Manager to, finally, Chief Operating Officer during this time. Much of his most recent work is largely hands-off, but his guidance of the Metropolis level and video of it that premiered at the 2006 GDC – which was compared to top-notch CGI in movies – is something he is still proud of, especially for the hard work his team members pulled off to make it happen.
But why did Fiorito desire to become a COO? With a deep background in architecture and illustration, how did he transition from that to a manager and decision-maker for the entire development studio? He said it has naturally come to him through personal experience.
I’ve always enjoyed solving problems and I’ve been solving bigger and bigger ones as my role evolves. At first it was my own work. Then it was working with a deadline, working on a team, leading a team, and finally all of the above plus a budget. Nowadays all of Insomniac’s (Programming, Art, Audio, Design, Project Management, QA, and IT) production departments report to me. At the same time I work with our executive team to staff projects, set milestones, and meet with publishers to sign new projects. I find it challenging to keep everything working in synch but satisfying when it does.
You can see the born leader, organizer, and manager in him through a multitude of philosophies he displays in his rhetoric and beliefs. For his post-mortem report on Ratchet & Clank: Tools of Destruction, he describes what went right and wrong with its development, stressing the importance of realistic yet highly structured, flexible scheduling and time management with “unified production goal.” In the video game industry, Fiorito realizes that creativity must be balanced with time and money in mind, but to understand, take it on, and work with it is what being a COO is all about. “Your value is the decisions you make,” he said. They must be strong and good at all times, and trust between all members of the studio and himself is essential in motivating and influencing them in various ways. One, everybody wants to do well and be recognized for their work, especially in a creative field. By giving the impression and sincerely believing that you want to do the same and desire that every one do a great job as well, they are likely to live that out. Two, openness leads to honesty between everyone, and Fiorito makes that clear with the people he constantly meets with to approve, alter, or reject their ideas and work for the studio’s benefit. In this process, he said, “I don’t want them to tell me what they’re doing right. I want them to tell me what’s going wrong.” That’s the key to being a problem solver, and Fiorito demands that problems be tackled as one sees them rather than after the fact. In game development, this issue only leads to blaming others and confusion, causing turmoil for the whole team when it is not needed. He said though he has had his fair share of mistakes to learn from, pointing to Fuse as a relevant example.
Despite focus testing and surveys that practically said Insomniac Games should take the cartoony, humorous vibe of their team-based third-person shooter Overstrike and change it to match more of the gritty tone of Gears of War and Call of Duty to appeal to a broader, more “hardcore” audience, the studio ended up alienating their primary fanbase and those who were looking forward to a less generically serious game by changing the vision through production by turning Overstrike into Fuse. Because of this, Fiorito ardently believes that you should “take your idea and push it as far as you can,” which is actually an echoing of what he and the team learned from showcasing Metropolis for Tools of Destruction for the first time: When you set a vision for an audience that loves it in the first place, you run with it even if it will still not appeal to the largest consumer base possible. He says there is truth to sticking with what you are good at, and that is exactly what he believes Insomniac Games did for Sunset Overdrive, which brought back all of the zaniness, humor, colorful, stylized art style, and open-world gameplay goodness it is known for, as anyone can see from its warm reception from game critics and gamers alike last year.
At the end of the day, Fiorito also likes to think about how other developers accomplish feats as they come, such as Stacking’s unique art style, the brilliance behind Minecraft, The Order 1886’s jaw dropping visuals, or the open worlds of Grand Theft Auto and Assassin’s Creed. Trying to understand how the competition is innovating in regard to how they operate internally, what it takes to cut certain features and ideas while retaining a game’s vision, how they push the boundaries of creativity…these are questions that he ponders and sometimes inquires of other developers, seeking to become a better man for the people of Insomniac Games in the process.
Of course, Fiorito is not all work and no play. In his spare time, he enjoys side-scrolling platformers and action-adventure titles, and even the occasional match in Words With Friends or Bejeweled Blitz. He loves to read all sorts of books (from fantasy to business), enjoys Mexican, Japanese, and Italian food (including In ‘N Out’s evil yet delicious lure from time to time), and even watches plenty of anime. Then, when you think you could not be more surprised, he considers long distance running one of his favorite hobbies that he partakes in nearly every day. But when you compare his occupation with this hobby, they are similar in several ways, as he demonstrates in a wonderful analogy.
One lesson I learned from running is that a strong performance is built on top of years and years of regular disciplined training. I’ve been at Insomniac for 17 years now and I guess that qualifies as a marathon. I try to be consistent, fair, and to remove roadblocks for my team so that they can do the best job possible. We’ve made a lot of great games, but I still want to make a Game of the Year title.
It is that constant drive to work to the fullest of his abilities that brings John Fiorito to the front of the line at Insomniac Games to help guide everyone through the dark forest of game development. In running this race, he strives to jump over all of the hurdles that come with it and take the best paths to the finish line so that others may follow his lead. This race…it is one that he seeks to win, because in doing that, everyone wins, and when you make the tough calls and go through good and bad times to make that happen, it is no question in the end that all of his artistic and managerial contributions to the studio have directly shaped its direction and nearly every game he has been a part of for all these years.