An afternoon with Rocksteady Studios

The London based developer responsible for the hugely successful Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City sat down with IGN UK’s editor-in-chief Alex Simmons at this year’s KAPOW! comic convention to discuss the making of the Arkham games. Game Director Sefton Hill, Lead Narrative Designer Paul Crocker, Audio Director Nick Arundel and Art Director David Hego were on hand to provide insight into how they approached creating such successful games based on the much loved comic icon.

Back in 2007 Rocksteady Studios were approached by Eidos, (who they were working with at the time and had obtained the Batman license from DC). As huge Batman fans, Rocksteady wanted to show the world that a Batman game could be done, and could be done right. Using the comic books as source materials and having weekly meetings with DC, Rocksteady had over 70 years of Batman experience at their disposal. DC also gave Rocksteady almost complete creative license so they were free to create the Batman that they as fans wanted to play. With carte blanche on a franchise of their very own, they could design the Arkham games from the ground up.

David Hego expressed his vision to set the game in a non-photo realistic world, opting instead for an exaggerated, stylised look. It needed to feel believable and realistic without necessarily looking it. Inspiration from the original comics can be seen in the stylised shaders and gritty undertones that reverberate in the visual and sound design alike. Whilst their world feels believable and fantastical, Rocksteady argue that if a world is too fantastical, the player’s actions have little consequence and therefore the player doesn’t invest in the characters and immerse themselves in the world as much. Rocksteady argue that if the world is believable then you can accept the characters in them more easily. For example, the player wouldn’t have accepted the Poison Ivy segment of Arkham Asylum so easily if the world wasn’t successfully immersive.

Speaking of characters, Rocksteady continued to credit their creative license for the success of their characters such as choosing to dramatically change the Penguin’s look, (changing his costume and choosing to have his monocle as a broken glass bottle). In keeping with the Arkham lore, Rocksteady made sure to keep the villains realistic. Although each villain has their own strengths and abilities, (Bane has brute strength and endurance whereas Joker has his ability to manipulate and confuse), those that lack physical prowess such as the Penguin go down in one or two punches. This serves to highlight both Batman’s physical prowess and the realistic vulnerability of the villains whilst maintaining an immersive environment, (and sidesteps the standard video game trap of making every boss encounter a prolonged drawn out affair regardless of prior character establishment).

Regarding Joker, Rocksteady wanted to see how dangerous and how much anarchy they could infuse into the character before he became too ridiculous as they wanted to make Batman and Joker’s relationship the narrative core of the Arkham games. However, when it came to characters that they had significantly altered such as Harley Quinn, Paul Croker expressed concern that long term fans of the character would not connect with her as much as they would have if they had altered her less. The team expressed a distinct pleasure for being able to make the Riddler a darker character and enjoyed development on the Riddler challenges. Here creative license allowed Rocksteady to implement collectables in a way that makes sense within the universe – Batman would want to complete his riddles to save the innocent lives the Riddler placed in peril, (again sidestepping the standard video game trap of including collectibles in an attempt to prolong the game experience).

Rocksteady had nothing but praise for their voice talent, arguing that the strong talent brings the character to life in a standard rarely seen in video games, although highlighted the difficulties of judging how well the audio will work until all other areas of the game are complete. Considering the 14,000 lines of dialogue in the game, there were moments when the audio didn’t gel with the animation or with other voices, (as the audio was not always recorded with the relevant actors present). As Arkham City is less scripted than its predecessor Rocksteady had less control over how and where players were exposed to the next mission. As the player is free to explore the world at their leisure, directions that Rocksteady thought were simple to understand were actually difficult from a gamer’s perspective and vice versa. What if the player walks away or is interrupted and they miss the information on where to go next? In order to keep players in the loop Rocksteady implemented the side mission progress percentages and provided players with the ability to return to the main mission waypoint at any time.

Nick Arundel highlighted that the much praised score needed to constantly change depending on the player’s actions. Producing a score that has to dynamically shift at any time is a huge challenge as you don’t know what the player will do next, (every player may do things slightly differently). Rocksteady outsourced some of Hollywood’s and video games best sound designers and decoders. By outsourcing people that were already familiar with the Batman verse, (one sound designer worked on both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight), Rocksteady could learn from the best whilst ensuring they put their own spin on the sound of Arkham.

Riding off the success of Arkham Asylum, Sefton Hill admitted that it would have been easy to remake Arkham Asylum but in a new environment. Although they didn’t want to change too much for the sequel, the team highlighted the risks they took with the original as exciting and innovative for the genre. Considering that they’ve only been around for 7 ½ years, they still view themselves as a new developer with a lot to prove and so everyone at Rocksteady has a desire to make the best game they possibly can.

Sefton Hill teased that there are at least three or four easter eggs left to discover, albeit the main ones have been found already. Secrets that they considered difficult to find, (Scarecrow’s boat for example) were found in mere days, whereas these supposedly undiscovered secrets are supposedly easy to find, (one has been in gameplay footage since the first E3 trailer). However, it doesn’t look like there is another secret as large as Quincy Sharp’s office in Arkham Asylum so unless you have a distinct desire to explore every nook and cranny of Arkham City I’m sure someone else will find them eventually!

In response to fan questions Rocksteady admitted that they talked about possible super hero crossovers and/or other superhero games but expressed that it’s extremely difficult to put someone like Superman into the Arkham verse and it not belittle Batman and his efforts. In Arkham City Batman is the only thing keeping the villains from tearing the city apart and if you could call in Superman, (with all his powers and near invulnerability), then that demeans both Batman’s abilities and his efforts. Why would the world call on Batman when they could just as easily bypass him and call in Superman? Paul Croker claimed that the core relationship between Joker and Batman is one of the main reasons for the success of the narrative, and that Joker is deadliest because of his connection to Batman. As is alluded to in the ending of Arkham City Joker needs Batman, he even loves him, and maybe Batman needs him too. Batman is both physically and emotionally vulnerable to Joker, whereas someone such as Superman or Green Lantern lacks vulnerability on the same level.

The team seriously considered adding vehicles such as the Batmobile and Batwing to Arkham City as they such iconic parts of the Batman verse. However, they decided to focus on gliding as they argued it was easier to glide through the buildings of Arkham City than drive a car. They thought what is the most fun? What hasn’t been done before? And, (most importantly), what’s the most original?

When asked where they would take the franchise next and in regards to future DLC, they pointed to Harley Quinn’s Revenge as an example of one of the many ideas that they wanted to implement in one of the main games but as it didn’t feel right they decided to focus elsewhere. Thinking about it for a moment, the pacing of the main game would have been abruptly slammed into a wall if Harley Quinn pops out of nowhere to exact her revenge on you after the climactic battle with Clayface. Setting the DLC four months after the events of Arkham City allows Rocksteady to explore the aftermath in the world since Joker’s demise and explore the shockwaves this has created. Finally allowing the player to control both Batman and Robin is something they always wanted to do. And I for one am glad as I would have loved the Robin and Nightwing DLC packs to add character specific mission s into the main story (a la Catwoman).

Finally, in relation to where the next game would take the player, and if there were any villains they wanted to implement into the games but didn’t, Rocksteady asked the audience who is left, and if there was anyone they could think of… to which there was a moment of complete silence. Considering that Mark Hamill has come out to say that Arkham City was his final Joker voice over role, (and those of you that have completed the game may understand this better than anyone else), it could be that Arkham City is the final game of the Arkham verse – for now at least.

So there you have it, make of this what you will. Just because Rocksteady didn’t come out and say they were or were not working on a third Arkham game doesn’t mean anything at this point. With E3 less than two weeks away I don’t think anybody was expecting Rocksteady to come out and make any announcements at a rather low key UK comic convention, but considering they have their roots firmly planted in London there was always a chance they would give something away. Look for Rocksteady at E3, but keep in mind that they are by industry standards a small development team, at around one hundred members, and so every game they make demands their complete attention. With Harley Quinn’s Revenge on the horizon I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we don’t hear from Rocksteady regarding their next retail experience this E3.

For my thoughts on where the Arkham verse may head next leave a question in the comments section below or follow me on Twitter @WallaceMerrett.