The Guardian news recently had an interview with Rocksteady Studios game director "Sefton Hill" about developing a modern third-person adventure.
Read what he had to say about Batman: Arkham City in the interview below...
What do you think are the fundaments of designing a modern action adventure title? What are your design starting blocks? Wow! Let's start with an easy question! I think creating a successful modern action adventure game requires a delicate balance between many critical components with each of these complementing and enhancing each other.
You need an engaging storyline created around compelling characters in a beautifully realised world, all built on the bedrock of original and fun core gameplay mechanics. No longer is it sufficient to excel in any one of these areas if you want to stand out.
At Rocksteady, working on Batman: Arkham City, we started with two key driving forces: everything we do is built around creating a fun experience and this experience must be completely authentic to Batman and his universe.
In terms of what the content is, it's simply about what excites us. I believe the only way to make something that people will feel passionate about is if you feel inspired by the ideas yourself. We don't try and second guess what other people want; we make the game we want to play.
Are there any theories of design that your studio subscribes to? There are many different trends, but personally I believe there is no magic bullet design theory that fits all situations. At Rocksteady, we believe the solution is to be flexible. Depending on what area of the game we're designing, different people will be involved and different processes will be used.
We have a totally different approach when we design levels, to story, to bosses and to core gameplay mechanics. Some of these processes involve repeated iterations and reviews by a large group over a number of days and some require monthly reviews by just a couple of people over the entire duration of the project.
If there's one thing we always strive to do though, it's to keep the design process as inclusive as possible. We have a team full of incredibly talented staff and great ideas come from everyone.
But in terms of structure, Hollywood famously has its three-act system – it's easy to spot, but it works. Do narrative-based games have anything similar? What's exciting about game development at this time is that that developers are still experimenting with many different ways to keep players engaged. Because we have an instant feedback loop, we can tailor the experience to exactly what the player is doing. There are things we can do in videogames that simply can't be done in any other medium.
The Side Missions in Batman: Arkham City are a good example. We have around 15 hours of story that's off the main path. It's completely down to the player when and how they want to tackle this – there's no right or wrong time. There's no other medium that can offer this kind of flexible experience where the viewer gets to tailor the experience they want themselves.
In terms of narrative structure, I think games are much more analogous to an episodic TV series than a film. You have, say, 15 hourly episodes to fill, each requiring its own narrative arc but each plugging into an overarching storyline. It requires a lot of planning to make sure that every single hour is consistent with each other, is feeding and driving towards a compelling crescendo, while remaining implicitly self-explanatory so players can pick up and play at any time and know what they are doing.
How important is the acquisition of new skills and items, in terms of retaining player interest? Do you work hard on ensuring these aspects are spaced correctly throughout the game? It takes over 25 hours to complete the main stories in Batman: Arkham City. To keep players engaged for this length of time, not only do the characters and the story need to progress, but the core mechanics of the game they are playing need to change and adapt as well.
The new abilities, upgrades and most importantly, the player's mastery of the character, give this progression, resulting in an experience at the end of the game which is almost unrecognisable from that at the start.
We spend months planning out the distribution of the new abilities throughout the game to ensure that players are not overwhelmed at the start, and from this point forward is getting a constantly evolving experience perfectly balanced with their learning curve.
What's really rewarding is seeing the change in players by the end of the game. Playing a great, well-balanced, fine-tuned game is almost like learning a musical instrument in fast forward. As players progress, the music they make will surprise even themselves.
To see players go from enjoying running around the Arkham City streets and then fast forward 10 hours to see them swooping hundreds of metres through back alleyways and impossibly tight spaces to glide into a group of heavily armed thugs and take them out in a matter of seconds is incredibly rewarding for us to see.
In what ways is interface design an important factor? Obviously motion controllers have brought this to the fore recently, but with in-depth action adventures, are there any guidelines on how buttons and analogue sticks should be employed? Or do you just iterate until a game feels right? Creating the perfect interface between the player and the game is critically important. Without this, it doesn't really matter about anything else, as the player is not going to be able to enjoy the content if they are fighting against the controls to do so.
There are definitely accepted best practises for this which have been honed over the years – for example, using the left analogue stick to move and the right analogue stick to look around.
When designing the controls you need to consider familiarity with accepted best practises because it makes the game instantly accessible if you use a scheme that players have become accustomed to over the years.
Where it gets more interesting is that most games then have their own unique requirements on top of these best practises. Taking Batman as an example, he has a wealth of different gadgets and navigational abilities on top of the core movement set that most action adventure games have. As we add these we need to be very mindful not to make the controls so complicated that no one can enjoy the game.
Designing the perfect control scene is really a question of balance. As you make certain actions more prominent on the controller, then other actions necessarily become less prominent and easy to access. The perfect control scheme is one where the accessibility of the various controls is directly related to their usage requirement.
This also needs to factor in the context of this usage. To give an example, you won't necessarily be using a smoke pellet all the time in Arkhan City but when you're getting shot at by five The Joker thugs, you want that action to be instantly available on one burton press as it's the difference between life and death.
For Rocksteady, the control interface design is the most iterative part of the process and we will try out different configurations for the entire development cycle, right up until just before we ship, to get the perfect balance.
In what fundamental ways do you think narrative game design has changed over the last five years? What have been the key new aspects? I think for many years now we have had games with rich stories and detailed characterisation. However these were the exception rather than the rule.
If I had to choose one element that is precipitating a change it would be the increases in technology that has enabled developers to create much more life-like characters. I think this is having a significant effect on the industry's attitude to telling stories.
At Rocksteady, the narrative design has always been a core driving force of our work but improvements in technology are allowing us to breathe even more life into our characters and story.
For example, in Batman: Arkham City we are using full facial motion capture for the first time, which gives a full character performance, allowing the player to see even the most subtle emotional responses on the characters' faces, as well as hear them in the dialogue.
What do you think are the key emerging influences on game design? Where do you think narrative games like Batman, FEAR, Uncharted, etc are going? The beauty of video game development is that the potential for new ideas is incredible. The industry is so aggressively creative that the parameters of what is even possible changes every few years. It's what makes working in this industry so challenging, competitive and rewarding.
The new trailer for Batman: Arkham City has finally been released.
This trailer has been titled "This Ain't No Place For A Hero" and features gameplay footage too giving us some great examples of the new combo moves and other features available in Batman: Arkham City.
Gotham needs the Dark Knight. Criminals better run.
Take a look below at this news story from IGN giving us new details about Batman: Arkham City ...
Batman and Gotham City share a special connection. On the rooftops, it's as if the Dark Knight is connected to the soul of the city. He knows every alleyway, every criminal safe haven, every trouble spot. Trapped in Arkham Asylum last game, Batman was disconnected from the city that speaks to him. In Arkham City, Batman is in his element. This isn't Batman trapped in an asylum; this is a city full of criminals trapped with Batman.
Arkham City is a section of Gotham run by Warden Hugo Strange where the inmates of Arkham Asylum and Blackgate prison have been placed. The major criminals have secured their own districts and run them with some autonomy. To ensure gamers feel like Batman at his best, the city is wide open from the start. Each district has its own set of missions, its own narratives to experience. Go where you're needed and unravel the clues to the larger plot and Hugo Strange's true motivations.
Batman starts out strong, with the gadgets he needs. His grappling hook, cryptographic sequencer, Bat Claw, remote-controlled Batarang and more. These items can be upgraded, but you don't begin Arkham City stripped down. Far from it. Arkham City is a large open city and Batman is ready to take full advantage of familiar ground.
Probably the two most crucial pieces of equipment are his cape and the grappling hook. Gliding is a major part of Arkham City, with Bats making use of momentum to adjust his speed. Couple this with the grappling hook and Bats can easily get around the city. He can grab onto billboards, the sides of buildings, even the legs of patrol choppers. Movement was fairly limited in Arkham Asylum, but the city is a very different story. This is Batman's city and he's developed these tools over the years to best take advantage of Gotham's architecture.
The city is quite a sight. It's a gritty underworld filled with seedy bars, dark alleys, and danger around every corner. Though I only saw Two-Face's district, the sense of scale in Arkham City's impressive. The game world's five times the size of Arkham Asylum, but more importantly, it has vitality and a sense of life. It's worn down but seems brimming with activity.
It's amazing to view, but there is one downside. Detective Mode is not only back, but it appears far more crucial this time around. In the span of 20 minutes, there must have been a half-dozen occasions where Detective Mode wasn't just helpful but necessary. Hidden Riddler clues, tucked away criminal, armed guards and so on. I'm really excited for a fully powered Batman to take on an entire city's worth of criminals, but not if I am watching the world through x-ray goggles most of the time.
It sucks to have Batman being such a badass right from the start -- punching through walls, diving from the air and landing with his hand around an enemy's throat, disarming an thug and cracking their head with their own bat -- only to see him relying on the same old Detective Mode crutch.
Detective Mode complaints aside, there are some welcome upgrades for Batman's tools of the trade. This includes the Cryptographic Sequencer, which pops up a small holographic panel above Batman's arm. Batman can then locate signals across the city and hack into them, listening in on what the armed militia or others are up to.
Combat plays out much like in Arkham Asylum, with Batman fluidly chaining attacks between large groups of enemies. But he has more tricks up his sleeve. The Bat Claw can grab and zip baddies towards Batman's waiting fist, new silent takedowns allow for impressive sleeper hold moves, and there's just a higher level of brutality to Batman's combos.
This is the Dark Knight as I imagined him. As a big Batman fan (I own around 200 Batman graphic novels -- yes, nerd) I have a pretty critical eye to all things involving the Dark Knight. 2009's Arkham Asylum was a good start, but this Batman seems more like the one I knew and loved for years in the comics. And this is his Gotham, on the verge of collapse but someone remaining solvent seemingly by the force of Batman's willpower.
Batman's Rogue's Gallery is as important to his identity as Gotham. His psyche is as linked to the criminals as it is to the city they seem so desperate to destroy. The more they escalate their activities, the harsher Batman's response. And things seem to have gone to extremes in Arkham City. Two-Face tries to dump Catwoman in a vat of acid at a dilapidated courthouse and Joker nearly blows up Batman. That's in the first chapter of Arkham City. The bad guys are playing for keeps but so is Batman.
Despite the heightened stakes, there is some evidence that the fun little Easter Eggs that brought Akrham Asylum to life are also in Batman's newest adventure. Early on, Batman finds a babbling Calendar Man locked in a cell. He's murmuring about St. Patrick's Day and a crime he committed, but he won't give details. As it turns out, if you return on St. Patrick's Day (in real life, not in the game world), Calendar Man will give vivid details on his crime's from that day. Each holiday has a story for those who want to revisit Calendar Man throughout the year.
It's these little details that can make for a special experience. I don't know how many of these little touches exist throughout the city, but if Calendar Man is just one small example, then Batman: Arkham City is going to be a real treat for Bat-Fantatics.
I've always wondered why anyone would live in a city home to the criminally insane -- people who shoot up the neighborhoods, poison the water, and set off massive explosions every other week. But there's this unspoken contract every citizen has with Batman. They keep the city working, even in the face of madness, and he keeps them safe. This is Batman's city and he's come to reclaim it. I can't wait.
Thanks to IGN, here we have an interview answering many questions we have all had for some time regarding Batman: Arkham City. Read the full interview below...
IGN: First and foremost, how hard did you guys have to work to keep the warden's secret room a secret in Batman: Arkham Asylum? Were there company NDAs signed in blood? Were you checking the web every day to see if anyone had found it?
Sefton Hill: To be completely honest, I wasn't sure anyone would ever find it. It required 3 sets of explosive gel to be detonated in the same place (something you didn't have to do anywhere else in the game) and there was absolutely no hint that it was there. But it was kind of exciting knowing there was a big hint to the next game so close if only you knew where to look.
IGN: Were you a bit shocked by how well Arkham Asylum was received? You must've known it was good, but with people's distrust of comic games, were you worried?
Sefton Hill: Yes! I was incredibly proud of the game we made. We'd had lots of positive feedback during production, but I didn't really take it in until we released and the reviews started to hit. The awards and feedback from the public blew us away and it was immensely rewarding for the team who had poured so much of their heart and soul into the game.
IGN: Did work on Batman: Arkham City start as soon as Arkham Asylum was out the door? Before then?
Sefton Hill: We started to think in earnest about the story for Batman: Arkham City around the start of 2009. We'd been kicking around a number of possible ideas before then, but at that point we started to crystallize them and make sure they were woven into the fabric of the first game. Then, as soon as people finished off on Batman: Arkham Asylum they moved straight onto Arkham City, with our concept team working on the game as early as February 2009 before being slowly joined by the rest of the team over the following months.
IGN: How much did Arkham Asylum feedback shape Arkham City? Were there things you said you had to change based on fan reactions?
Sefton Hill: Honestly, the biggest message we received from people was, "keep doing what you're doing," which was great. I suppose in some respects the fact that there wasn't a single piece of unified feedback where everyone said "please add this one thing" was a testament to the first game, but it did make designing the sequel more challenging. However, I truly believe that if you want to make something that other people will be passionate about, then first and foremost you need to be passionate about it yourself. So we decided to focus on delivering one main promise: I want to be The Batman in Gotham.
IGN: Even though we really know next to nothing about Arkham City (thanks for that, by the way), some people openly complain about there being too many villains announced. What can you say to them right now? Is the story that much bigger this time around or do we have the wrong idea?
Sefton Hill: It was never about making a bigger game for us – just a better one. If we thought the best game featured just one villain then that's we'd do. Rest assured, we aren't putting villains into the game just to make up the numbers, we are choosing characters who we think have an interesting story to tell and who can challenge Batman in an original and exciting way. So it's true, there are more villains. A lot more villains. There will be more exciting announcements soon. (And many who we will never announce!)
IGN: Tell us about Hugo Strange's role in Arkham City.
Sefton Hill: We know Hugo Strange is going to be a completely new character to some players, but he was the perfect choice for the role of Warden of Arkham City. Hopefully the trailer at the end of last year has given you a few hints to his character and motivation. Strange makes the rules that all prisoners have to abide by. He enforces these rules with a zero tolerance policy through his Tyger security force, a force equally as fierce as the gangs the incarcerated criminal bosses have amassed. The walls and airspace are constantly patrolled by heavily armed Tyger guards who share Strange's contempt for criminals.
The other dimension to Hugo Strange is that he knows Batman's true identity, which massively raises the stakes for Bruce Wayne. By entering Arkham City, Batman is vulnerable and exposed in a way that he has never been before.
But don't worry if you've never even heard of Hugo Strange. Arkham City tells the story of the first time Batman has crossed swords with Strange, so you will know a lot more about him by the end of the evening.
IGN: What about Catwoman's role?
Sefton Hill: Catwoman is one of the most recent criminals to be incarcerated in Arkham City. She's independent, strong minded and not aligned with any of the existing super-criminals who are already inside. Batman's presence in Arkham City presents a very interesting dilemma for them both, not only because they have so much history, but also because they are both in an incredibly hostile environment with nowhere to hide in the middle of a brutal turf-war. Like I said before, we selected characters that would challenge Batman in an interesting way and Catwoman, always following her own agenda, is someone who really spices things up for him.
IGN: Is it easier working on Arkham City with the experience of Arkham Asylum under your belts or is it tougher because of the expectations on the game?
Sefton Hill: Batman: Arkham Asylum has given us a huge amount of confidence to try and take on technical and gameplay challenges we wouldn't have dreamt of attempting beforehand. There was never a thought of resting on our laurels because as soon as we'd chosen the ambitious setting of Arkham City, we knew we had a lot of work to do. I can honestly say that every department has worked harder and challenged themselves even more on Batman: Arkham City than we did on the first game.
We are also aware of the levels of expectation, but you have to try not to let it affect you too much because if you stop and think about it, it really is bloody terrifying. Then you can become too afraid to make the exciting decisions that made the first game a success.
However, we never lose sight of the position we are in. I can honestly say I feel honored and privileged every day for getting to work on a Batman game.
IGN: Now, give us a Valentine's Day gift and tell us SOMETHING about multiplayer. You know that the couple that plays together stays together – and that works for friends or significant others. What's going on with multiple players in Arkham City? Co-op? competitive? We must know!
Sefton Hill: There have been a number of rumors circulating about a multiplayer mode in Batman: Arkham City so let me start by saying, once and for all, that Batman: Arkham City is a "single-player only" experience.
Our thought process behind this was fairly simple: when we investigated adding multiplayer we asked, "If we use all of the energy that is required to create multiplayer and instead focus this on the single player, would that deliver a better overall game?"
With the game now coming to the final stages, I can honestly say it would not have been possible to deliver Arkham City the way we wanted to if we'd have added multiplayer.
So it might not be the fashionable choice, it might not get us an extra tick on the box, but we are convinced, and we hope that gamers will agree when they get to play the finished game, that we have made the right decision.
We hope that you love Arkham City. We're working as hard as we possibly can to deliver the game you want.