Reality and fantasy were deeply intertwined in Marvel’s Spider-Man, where gamers swung from webs above Lincoln Center and leaped from the Empire State Building’s spire into the crowds leaving the subway station at Herald Square. The comic book icon also brought his own landmarks to that version of New York City, which hosted the Avengers headquarters a few blocks north of the United Nations and a supervillain prison in the East River.
The designers at Insomniac Games are now expanding the superhero’s jurisdiction beyond Manhattan for the sequel, to be released for the PlayStation 5 on Oct. 20. Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 swells into Queens and Brooklyn (including Coney Island attractions), testing a design team responsible for nearly doubling the real estate of the 2018 original.
Replicating parts of the largest city in the United States was also a bigger challenge this time because the process began while many designers at Insomniac, which has offices in Burbank, Calif., and Durham, N.C., were working from their homes during the coronavirus pandemic.
The game’s design director, Josue Benavidez, said his research involved contacting organizations like the Center for Brooklyn History, posting on Reddit groups devoted to the borough and calling businesses near the buildings he was studying.
“It’s been a lot of living in Google Maps,” Benavidez said.
Several open-world video games have leaned on New York’s familiar topography, including Grand Theft Auto IV and Tom Clancy’s The Division; in Assassin’s Creed III, players can scamper across an 18th-century version of the city. But New York is an inextricable part of the Spider-Man mythos, from its comic book origins — Peter Parker was born in Queens — to its movie iterations.
In the franchise’s first live-action movie, 2002’s “Spider-Man,” Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider at Columbia University, rushes to his dying Uncle Ben outside the New York Public Library at Bryant Park and rescues passengers on a Roosevelt Island tram tormented by the Green Goblin.
Insomniac, the creator of Spyro the Dragon and Ratchet & Clank, thrilled players five years ago by letting them swing their way through sights like Central Park and Times Square. The addition of Brooklyn and Queens in Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 brought new design challenges that included learning the quirky geometry of brownstones and rowhouses.
Designers also wanted to vary the urban landscape, ensuring that important sites from the comics, like Aunt May’s house and Brooklyn Visions Academy, were clearly represented. Another difficulty was identifying where to end the playable area in boroughs that stretch into Long Island.
“The good news was that Spider-Man became successful,” said Bryan Intihar, who returns as the game’s senior creative director. “But with success comes greater expectations.”
In the sequel, players will control two Spider-Men as they navigate new responsibilities and powers, including the ability to jet through the skies with “web wings.” Parker and Miles Morales, who is from Brooklyn, will twist into knots over a symbiote suit that warps Parker into a villain from the comics, the alien parasite called Venom.
The drama unfolds across a landscape of construction cranes, water towers, bridges and tunnels — infrastructure that Insomniac designers studied for months.
“Everything is very intentionally placed,” Benavidez said, noting that there must be plenty of objects to show off the physics of Spider-Man’s web-slinging abilities.
One design solution was to plant more trees than you would find in the real New York City. Some changes provide sly commentary, with additional greenery and shade in the virtual Times Square and a plethora of newspaper kiosks bordering refuges like Union Square Park. Other choices skew closer to reality: Trash cans and heaps of garbage fill the city’s sidewalks.
“When there is combat, people like breaking things,” reasoned Jacinda Chew, the game’s senior art director.
Designing a believable New York takes time, and Benavidez discussed the lengthy process at the 2019 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. “We wanted the world to feel like a real place, like the actual city,” he told an audience, referring to the original game.
A digital sketch of that version of New York City included generic skyscrapers with gray facades and black windows dotting the horizon. Developers then used their visual research — culled from online images and field photographs — to define the scale of the city and breathe life into its avenues.
Once designers had enough information, they began creating versions of the high-rises and brownstones that characterize a city block. Many of those designs were then fed into a procedural generation software called Houdini, which helps eliminate tedious tasks like placing individual street lamps.
Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 was built specifically for the more powerful PlayStation 5, which allowed Chew’s team to design buildings with greater depth. Spider-Man may see more than his reflection when he scales a skyscraper, with some windows that peer into office cubicles and living rooms.
Depicting a famous city, however, takes more than meticulous renderings. Although the Chrysler Building appears in the 2018 Spider-Man game, it is missing in a 2020 spinoff, Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, because Insomniac could not reach a copyright agreement with the building’s new owners. The studio says the skyscraper will also be absent in October’s sequel.
Expectations are high for Spider-Man 2, which may be the biggest PlayStation exclusive of the year. Insomniac said last year that the original Spider-Man and the Miles Morales spinoff had sold a combined 33 million copies.
A spokeswoman for the studio declined to address the budget or size of the development team for Spider-Man 2, but making high-fidelity games of that size can require hundreds of millions of dollars. Documents from the Federal Trade Commission’s lawsuit against the Microsoft-Activision merger included an accidental disclosure of budget data from Sony, the publisher of the Spider-Man games, revealing that other popular titles like The Last of Us Part II and Horizon Forbidden West cost upward of $200 million each.
Market analysts say major studios have relied on established intellectual property to mitigate their risk. But characters with established followings in action movies and comic books do not necessarily have the same appeal in video games.
Over the summer, Axios examined recent entries in the genre, including Gotham Knights and Marvel’s Avengers, that sold poorly and drew negative reviews. Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League, by the studio behind the successful Batman: Arkham games, has been repeatedly delayed and mired in staff departures.
“Spider-Man fans will at least give it a fair trial,” said Andre James, global head of media and entertainment practice for the consulting firm Bain & Company. “But the world of possibilities that tech has enabled may need a lot of time and iteration to get right.”
The team behind the Spider-Man sequel believes it has already found a winning formula, one that whisks players into the superhero’s universe by adding a touch of realism and a sucker punch of New York attitude.
“What we have tried to focus on,” Intihar, the game’s creative director, said, “is respecting the DNA of the franchise without being afraid of mixing things up.”