"the best ultimate Batman Dark Knight experience"
At last week's Warner Bros. even in Sydney, we got a good look at the upcoming Batman: Arkham City. Afterwards, slots to interview Dax Ginn from Rocksteady (the developer) were being hotly contested, which meant we didn't get a chance until late in the night.
Dax, however, is a good sport and, despite the late hour and having already completed dozens of interviews, he sat down with us to give us the good oil on Bats' next adventure...
NZGamer.com: It’s the last interview of the evening. I’m going to basically give you as much rope as you like, to talk about stuff that you haven’t said a thousand times already tonight.
NZGamer.com: So is there anything you can think off the top of your head that you haven’t already talked about?
Dax: Me, I talk about everything, a lot at the same time. So, you know a lot of the stuff we do talk about, about the game world, about the game space, how we design that, why we design that, it’s all kind of stuff that we’ve covered, territory we’ve been on for a while now...
But I think some of the really interesting of the game design for maybe hard core gamers, I don’t know what audience you’re writing for..?
NZGamer.com: Very core!
Dax: The way that Batman’s gadgetry works between Arkham Asylum and Arkham City. I don’t think a lot of journalists really think about that aspect of his skillset, because Batman’s sort of associated with combat, and navigation, and his dark psychology and all of that, but his use of gadgetry is a really core part of the gameplay.
So the experience system, and the upgrade system that we established in Arkham Asylum was really re-thought and re-designed within the context of Arkham City to provide new upgrade trees, so that even though you start Arkham City with the same gadgets that you ended Arkham Asylum with - it’s this really nice kind of technical link between the two games - the way in which those gadgets upgrade when you do upgrade them is functionally very very different, because the challenges that he faces within Arkham City are very different to those that he faced in the Arkham Asylum.
So, I’m hoping that when gamers play this game, they’ll go “Ah right, yeah, the line launcher, I used this in the first game, I know what this does...woah, this does something totally different!” I think that’s a really cool thing, and something that not many people ask about, because they just assume that a batarang is going be a batarang, is a batarang... but actually there’s a whole load of new functionality within those gadgets that’s going to be pretty sweet.
NZGamer.com: So here’s another question you hopefully haven’t had already tonight... A book on game design? Are you going to write one?
Dax: Um...maybe. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while, actually. I think there’s a lot of really interesting aspects of game design that [are] really undergoing a lot of reconsideration at the moment. Mostly to do with changes in interface and changes in platform, you know, the kind of emergence of mobile gaming and apps has really driven a new generation of games that have got a fundamentally different interface to what traditional console gaming has. And not having a lot of horse power to work with really forces designers to think about ‘how do I deliver an experience that’s meaningful and emotional and engaging and compelling, without the ability to rely on 16 buttons and an amazingly powerful graphical engine’.
So that’s the stuff that really interests me - interface. You know some designers are all about narrative, some designers are all about characterisation, some designers are all about graphics. For me, not that those things aren’t important, but the connection between the player and the game is the control system, much like tyres are the connection between a car and the road. You know, tyres are a really important thing in making cars go forward and fast, so I think there’s a lot to talk about just in the realm of interface that’s really fascinating in games at the moment.
NZGamer.com: So could we expect perhaps to see a Rocksteady Batman Arkham Pocket Asylum? An iPhone game or something along those lines?
Dax: Sounds good! But you know, we’re not a big team, we’re only 97 people which isn’t big by today’s standards! So, our focus is purely on making this game as amazing as possible. There’s a lot of opportunity down the track, I think, but we’ve just got to make decisions that really push us in new ways... that challenge us in ways we want to be challenged.
NZGamer.com: Thinking back to the first game, obviously it would be pretty hard to imagine that you guys could have gotten to the end of that and not realise that it was going to be a pretty big deal. This time around, you knew, and you know, that people are going to be expecting big things. The first game got rave reviews, there’s people talking about Arkham City already, people are leaping up and down on forums to try and get more access to screenshots and video...
Dax: Oh yeah, I know that! You’re not telling me anything new there!! (laughs)
NZGamer.com: So tell me how that makes the experience different from your side of the fence, getting ready for this now expectation from your gaming audience? Does that change the way you guys approach the problems and your decision making when you’re determining how to approach particular issues?
Dax: We certainly don’t kind of sit there shaking in the studio, thinking “oh my god, are we ever going to make this any good!” because we know that it is good, there’s no bigger critical force in the world than ourselves, we have got an incredibly high standard of quality within the studio. And we’re pretty confident from our experience on Arkham Asylum that we know how to take risks and make ourselves uncomfortable, but when we feel that way it gives us confidence that we’re doing stuff that hasn’t really been done before.
That’s what gamers want, gamers want [an] experience that they’ve never had before, so when we do feel like “oh my god we’re in unfamiliar territory here!” it reminds us how we felt when we made Arkham Asylum, and that feeling, although scary, is very... it reminds us that we’re in the place where we should be.
No-one in the team wanted to make a kind of 1.5, no-one wanted to just quickly turn around a more-of-the-same sequel. Moving from the kind of intense atmosphere, but kind of internal atmosphere, of Arkham Asylum, to an open world, is a huge undertaking, technically and creatively. It’s a massive risk, but our technical guys said “look, let’s do it!” They said ‘this is going to be really really hard, this is going to require a lot of sleepless nights but let’s go for it!’. I’m just so glad that that’s the attitude within the team, it wasn’t ‘let’s play it safe’, it’s ‘let’s put it all out there again, and see what we do’.
And I think for the first time we’re able to take the game out, and show it to other people, and you can see for yourself that it isn’t hot air, you know, we’ve actually created an open game world, set on the streets of Gotham City where you can go anywhere, at any time, right from the beginning of the game. And it’s got a very emotional sort of feeling about it. The power that Batman has, being able to navigate in way that you want. But also that kind of feeling of threat and intensity of the atmosphere. That was a really difficult thing to get right, but we have.
NZGamer.com: Nice. The original, with its tight, like you were saying...cramped, intense... internal...
Dax: Claustrophobic is the word!
NZGamer.com: It is indeed! Was that the reason it was set inside the asylum, or was that a creative decision? Was it an early ’let’s keep the budget low’ decision? What was the original thinking behind that?
Dax: (laughs) Um, it was ...I mean Arkham Asylum is a great environment. I think it’s a place where anything is possible because... it’s just full of lunatics! It’s a brilliant atmosphere. But it represented a relatively low risk aspect to the development of the game, because we were taking so many massive risks with our interpretation of Batman and the areas that we were going to explore with Batman. So not just combat, not just navigation, but the forensic detective side of his personality, as well as the kind of dark psychological side, the trauma that he carries with him, his sort of internal demons that go wherever he goes, that battle that he fights on the inside. So that was the risky stuff for us because I don’t think a lot of Batman experiences really cover off on that. So we knew that if we were going to really massively invest a lot of time and resource in exploring those kind of risky areas of who Batman is, we had play it safe somewhere.
So the asylum itself and the structure of that was...you know, fairly cut and dried. It was Batman the good guy versus Joker, the bad guy, in a horrible place. We’re switching that on its head with Arkham City and taking massive risks with the game world, in a way that we never did with Arkham Asylum.
NZGamer.com: One thing that does come up - particularly perhaps amongst our junior players - is multiplayer. Is that something you guys have kicked around much with the franchise? Can you take it in a multiplayer direction?
Dax: We considered it for about three minutes, and then just decided this just doesn’t make any sense.
Dax: (laughs) Well, that’s the feeling that we get, and certainly when we came out and announced a few months back there’s no co-op, there’s no multiplayer: this is a singleplayer experience, in fact it is the best ultimate Batman Dark Knight experience you are ever going to have. We are not wasting time making a bolt on multiplayer simply because it’s fashionable, a lot of people went “Yeah, you’re right, that’s the right thing to do!” And for us it would have meant splitting the development team in half, to make kind of two games, and both games would have suffered as a result. So, we were...I think, duty bound to consider it, but very quickly we realised that would be a douche move.
NZGamer.com: For sure. So where to next? Are you even thinking about that yet?
Dax: (laughs) God. To bed, I think! That’s where we’re going next! (laughs) No, we’ve worked incredibly hard, and we continue to work incredibly hard, and we won’t stop until the game hits the shelves. But after a well deserved break around Christmas time, I think we’ll start to think about what next.
NZGamer.com: So, you got a space cleared on your shelf for the Game of the Year trophy this year?
Dax: (laughs) Oh, I’m glad to hear you say that!
NZGamer.com: I don’t think it’s going to shock anyone to think that maybe you’re in contention, given the last one was good, and this is already looking to extend on it in every direction!
Dax: It’s bizarre... we don’t... well, I don’t really think about that. We’re so focused on the game and I’m not just saying this because it sounds kind of, like a... cool, sort of suave way to behave, but we’re honestly not thinking about any of the flow-on components or aspects of the industry that happen after you release a big game. We just want to make it amazing, and to be honest... the accolades that we receive from the people who love the game...that’s what means the most to us.
Yeah, we’ve won a lot of awards, and I think a lot of people really love the work that we do, and that’s great to have an amazing trophy cabinet...but we receive letters from kids who’ve played the game, and it’s handwritten, and they’ve done little drawings of Batman, that’s more rewarding than any trophy.