I have to say I’ve surprised myself.
Somehow I didn’t start my time with Insomniac Design Director, Josue Benavidez, by yelling “BRING ME PICTURES OF SPIDER-MAN!“. While the Spider-Verse is filled with memetic material, it felt like a disservice to not only the history of Spider-Man, but to Josue and their time at Insomniac Games.
The first thing I wanted to cover was how to pronounce their name. “It’s just Josue. It’s kind of like Jose, but with a little more sway in it”. A bombastic intro to start off our conversation on all things Marvel’s Spider-Man 2. Having started with Insomniac around 2005, I wanted their personal pitch on themselves:
“So I’m a Design Director at Insomniac Games. For the past few years, I’ve been working on Spider-Man 2. I’ve actually been working on the franchise since the first Spider-Man (2018) game! And so, as a Design Director, I help guide and direct the designers on making missions and level layouts. So I’ve been a part of building the Spider-Man games since the beginning!”
At this point, our chat session decided to mute me, requiring me to reset my microphone. Honestly if it had an issue with me, it could have just said. Having looked back at Josue’s career, I wondered if they’d had any personal highlights from their time with Insomniac.
“Oh, that’s tough. I’ve really enjoyed all the games we’ve worked on.”
This coming from a man lucky enough to have worked on the excellent 2006 Resistance franchise on PlayStation 3.
“I started in games right after high school. And not long after, maybe a year after graduating, I started working for Insomniac. So I’ve technically been with Insomniac since I was a teenager!”
I quickly thought to myself that Josue’s own path feels very similar to that of Peter Parker, who also started working with the Daily Bugle as a teen.
“I was 19 when I first started working for them, which is funny because I was the youngest person on the team for a while. And in the US, of course the legal drinking age is 21! And so, during Happy Hours I was the only one who was under 21 and I’d always have these HR folks looking at me and I’d have to say “Don’t worry! I’m not gonna!”. Then you’d have these monthly birthday celebrations I couldn’t participate in also, but it makes me remember when I turned 21 years old. Insomniac actually threw a special celebration for me! Where they had champagne and stuff because I was finally 21!”
Thankfully a more special and intimate affair than the typical yardie consumed in Aotearoa for a 21st.
“It very much feels like a family because I’ve been these since I was a kid. And what’s great is each game I feel is a kind of highlight for me. It’s why I love working for Insomniac. You know, I get new opportunities every time. Resistance: Fall Of Man was the first game where I was on the Developer side of things as a designer. I was hired as a designer to help with that game, and it was exciting because that was the first time I got to get out of the testing environment! Then on Resistance 2 (PlayStation 3, 2008), I got to help out with the co-op, building maps for that and the multiplayer side. And then there was Sunset Overdrive (Xbox One, 2014), and that was A LOT of fun.”
An often forgotten title from the triple-A studio, it’s finding new life again thanks to GamePass. And it found life again for a brief moment in our conversation, as Benavidez excitedly spoke of a notebook they had during their time working on it.
“I had this notebook, ugh, I should’ve brought it with me! I had this notebook, and I would just sit there and doodle traps all day long and we’d go to a meeting and I’d say “Well we have this thing, but what about this thing?” and “What about this thing!”
“And then it was really exciting to work on Marvel’s Spider-Man. It was the biggest game I had worked on by a large margin. I’d been building bases in Sunset Overdrive which are little buildings basically. And then Insomniac asked “Can you help us start building the entire city for Spider-Man?”. So it was a BIG shift and a lot of fun getting to learn the layout of Manhattan and trying to translate that into the game.”
Having somehow read my mind, which based off his current origin story may reveal his super power, it connected to my interest in his blockmesh work. Having checked out his work at josuebenavidez.com, I wondered what it was like creating Manhattan. I personally found understanding the creation of something so massive overwhelming. Add to that the challenge of creating a layout which looks like New York, but provides players with a fun and mobile environment to swing through, just how did they take this on?
“It was super exciting! AND a little bit scary. I’ll be honest, and what’s funny is this isn’t a plug, but I have a whole talk on the process of this level design.”
This whole talk, being the following:
“What happened on Sunset Overdrive, was me building a lot of bases back-to-back. So I wanted a reliable process where I could design a base, mock it up, then move on to the next base. So I had written myself a step by step process for doing this.”
An interesting way of saying that he’s potentially created a manifesto for his super heroics, but I digress.
“So when they asked me to do the layout for Manhattan in Spider-Man, I thought “This…this is a big, BIG ask”. But I just went through my process and it worked. There was a lot of research and a lot of defining metrics, right? In the beginning, I remember one of the first things we did was define the shape of Central Park. Because if you’re doing a layout for Manhattan, Central Park defines the size and shape of it because it’s central. So you want to make sure it’s right. And I’ve seen other examples where it doesn’t feel like this big open area, so we did a bunch of mock ups for different sizes to really nail the scale. And when we found the right one, we just built around it.”
But just completing a park isn’t the end-all solution for the perfect city for ol’ Webhead to swing around. Locations have as much history as the character themselves, and Benavidez and their team knew this.
“We wanted to make sure we got all the good landmarks in there for people to recognize, both from the real world but also Marvel.”
“Things which Marvel fans would focus on, but also familiar things for people who have visited New York or seen it in movies. We tried to create a city in a world which really speaks to people on all these different levels”.
From footage I’d seen so far, it felt like Insomniac weren’t so much as trying to redesign the wheel, but rather improve on the already incredible foundation they had built in 2018’s Spider-Man.
“We had to make sure we were offering a lot of new ways to experience the game. There was a lot of effort and focus on our end [Insomniac Games] on how we can ramp things up to give players a new experience. One of the biggest ways is the web wings right? That’s a new way of traversing through Spider-Man 2. And it’s a new feature that really allows you to explore the city in new ways. We’ve got new areas with Brooklyn and Queens, which combined with the web wings allows players to see things in a different way, while also being allowed to create new traversal combos.”
“And in the same way, we also have two heroes. We wanted to make sure players could experience this dynamic, so say you’re swinging around the city and a crime is reported. Sometimes, you’ll get to it and find Miles there or vice versa. So you can show up, and the other Spider-Man could already be there beating thugs up!”
With this dynamic in mind, I wonder if there were any characters from the Spider-Verse they were hoping to add.
“There’s definitely ways we wanted to tie-in to it. You know, because the Spider-Verse also included our character in their world, which is awesome!”
I’ve removed the slightly spoilerific full answer they provided, but it had me excited for players out there to experience this. It also had me excited for Wolverine, which is the next Marvel title Insomniac are working on.
“Well right now I’m just here to talk about Spider-Man. That’s where my focus is; Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2!”
Protecting this information like their secret identity, I wanted to know what it was like working on one of 2023’s biggest titles, and what other features they were hoping players would find and think to themselves “Wow! I can’t believe they did this in Spider-Man 2!”
“Oh man, there’s so many. We’re excited”.
“What I’m super proud of is how we’ve used different features of the PlayStation 5 console, and how that affects things like fast travel and character switching. We knew we wanted to switch between Peter and Miles out in the world. But we didn’t anticipate how fun and awesome it was going to be. Like hot-swapping right back and forth between them, and you know what’s funny about that? That’s how we developed the fast travel system”.
While it’s had its own discourse out on the internet this week, it’s a brilliant system. Utilizing the speed and power of the PlayStation 5, players instantly fast travel without need for a spawn point.
“It was a very organic process. And it’s one of the reasons why I love working with Insomniac. Because at first we didn’t have the full plan for how it was going to work in Spider-Man 2“.
I gasped in shock, wondering how they overlooked my beloved “riding the subway” scenes from 2018’s Spider-Man.
“We’ve got our map right, and we didn’t really know how we were going to do it. In the previous game, you could fast travel to towers or the subway stations. And we didn’t know what that looked like for this game. So when we were developing it, we had a dev ability to select a position on the map, and it would put us at the closest spawn point. And when we were doing this, it was loading so fast we were thinking “Oh, wow. That’s almost instantaneous!”. And it’s funny, because you just look at the map, select a point and “BOOP!” you’re suddenly there”.
And it’s true. If you’re lucky enough to be playing Spider-Man 2, you’ll notice how quickly this takes place. Giving players the ability to move through the map as swiftly as they want, while making it easier to complete tasks in succession.
With all the excitement surrounding the title, and their work on it, I had to wonder if Benavidez would like to bring back or work on anything else with Insomniac.
“Right now, it’s all Spider-Man. It has been an amazing experience to work on this”.
“It’s been almost 9 years since I started on it. I know this, because my daughter was born right around when we started working on the first Marvel’s Spider-Man and she’s 8 now. She’s gonna be 9 next year”.
A helpful scale for Josue to use for tracking time passed while working on Insomniac games.
“I know exactly how long we’ve been working on it, but it’s been an amazing experience working on these games and having these great opportunities. I just love doing it, and would love to keep doing more of it.”
It was a privilege to hear Josue’s journey with Insomniac. If anyone could talk about their modern history, it definitely feels like they could. From Resistance to Spider-Man, they appear to swing as high as Peter Parker and Miles Morales, but with less alliteration in their name.
Having professionally opened this time I had with them, I had to close it out with some nonsense. And that’s where 19 inches of Venom comes into play.
“I’ve got the statue at home right now!”
“It was sent to us. My kid and I have a shelf with all the game stuff. So it just appeared on the shelf one day when they sent it for the game. Statue’s great!”
And of course I had to ask if they wanted to link any of their other work, or anything else, to finish.
“Get out there and buy Spider-Man 2 now for your PlayStation 5. Link them to the pre-order page for the digital edition. Yeah. Here’s the links everyone! That’s good.”
So thank you Josue Benavidez, and here’s the links everyone: