Batman: Arkham City - Rocksteady on Detective Mode, boss battles and more
11th Apr 2011 | 10:06
Following up a game like Batman: Arkham Asylum is no easy task. Recreating the same great gameplay and maintaining the strong sense of 'being' Batman whilst bringing something entirely new to the series must have Rocksteady sweating a little bit.
And having to do all that in an open world city that's five times bigger than Arkham itself is enough to make any developer cry.
Fear and apprehension, however, were not emotions that Rocksteady's marketing game manager Dax Ginn exhibited as he blasted through an Arkham City gameplay demo before answering our questions.
In fact, he seemed nothing but confident in every aspect of the game; about it's ability to stand tall as a single-player title in a multiplayer laden world, about the changes made to that problematic Detective Mode, about breathing life into lacklustre boss levels and, of course, about the studio's ability to bring Batman out of the asylum and into Arkham City...
A lot of successful story-driven games have taken on multiplayer when some would argue they didn't need to. Are you confident that there's enough depth in the single-player to keep Arkham City off the pre-owned shelves?
Absolutely. The challenge for us was to build out not just the game world but make sure there was enough story in there so it didn't feel like there was a big world full of nothing to do. That was our biggest fear; making a game world that's five times bigger than Arkham Island. It's a huge technical and creative challenge for us but as soon as we made that decision we were absolutely committed to making sure that everywhere you turn in Arkham City there's story coming at you. That's why we've developed those surveillance systems so that you're always hooked into what's happening in Arkham City.
Then, on top of that, building missions and genuine gameplay that feed into that game world so that you never get to a point where you're flippantly doing side-missions that have got nothing to do with the main story. Calendar Man, I guess, is the only example we've seen here of something that's a non-essential side-mission, but as you're doing that you still feel like Batman, you're not just collecting things for the sake of collecting things. It's still really Batman-centric stuff.
In terms of replayability or filling out a single-player story with additional features, there are more announcements that we're going to make to solve that problem. Well, I don't feel it's a problem.
We've got a decent, chunky game and, in addition, we didn't want to do a multiplayer because it would have meant splitting the team in half and I think that would have resulted in two average games instead of one awesome game.
So we're unlikely to see multiplayer in future iterations? Is it a policy to avoid multiplayer or just something you're trying to perfect?
We considered it pretty briefly and then realise that it would have hit and hurt our production and also it didn't really make a lot of sense for a game that is so single character-centric.
But I can totally see that multiplayer is a super popular thing and online playability seems to be growing and something that people desire. So I can't say that what's going to happen down the track but for Arkham City we're focused on the single-player experience.
How hard is it to contain players in the areas that you want them in or are you happy for people to go off and mess about with side-quests?
Well the open world aspect, everywhere that's open to the sky is available to the player from the off. So they can go anywhere they want and that was the emotional feeling that we wanted to convey; you're Batman, you can do what you want. That's the empowering thing that Arkham Asylum didn't really deliver because it was such a linear, tight, intense story.
The way in which we are pacing out the narrative reveals is through the internal areas so coming to the court house, before the whole Catwoman/Two-Face thing, it wouldn't have been available, there would have been some other priority that would have been the focus at that point. So it's the internal locations that are used to book-mark that experience.
But there's loads of content out there in the streets and you can engage with in any order you want right from the beginning.
How much more difficult would you say it is with something so plot driven to move to the open world but keep that suspense going?
It's really hard. The decision to take the game out into the streets and out into an open-world structure - the first thing that's going to do is deal a massive body blow to your ability to tell a tight story. So that's why we developed these ambient story-telling systems, which meant we weren't just relying on cinematic cut-scenes to tell the story, we're bombarding the player with story all the time because you're constantly hearing discussions of thugs or they're bricking it before you take them down.
So we developed systems over and above what we had in Arkham Asylum in order to allow us to continue to tell story even though we've got no idea which direction the player's going in or where they're heading at any point in time.
We can hit them at every angle rather than waiting for them to hit a linear point.
How important do you think the music is to keep people in the moment?
Our audio team - and they're creative as well as really technical - everyone works hard but these guys never stop. Every night they're the last guys to leave. The amount of effort that goes into the audio for this game, and I think for Arkham Asylum as well, is just immense. I think it really pays off but it's not something that's top of you list of development priorities but I think if it wasn't so strong you'd really feel like something was missing.
When we think about all the things that make up the Batman experience, I think the great thing with what we're doing at Rocksteady is not just, "Let's make sure we have him beating up people and flying around." It's like, "OK, let's deal with the detective forensic side of him and let's deal with the psychological side of him, let's deal with the things that are unexpected but are really intriguing, that are loaded with gameplay potential."
It's probably difficult to put a number on it but how long do you think the campaign is altogether?
You're right, it's very difficult to put a number on it. I can tell you that our QA guys, who are ninjas and obviously know everything in a game can just do the core story missions in about eight hours with nothing else, just in a straight line, and they know exactly where to go and what to do - the most efficient way of doing everything.
Someone who has no idea what to do and wants to complete everything, it's going to be significantly more than that.
People wanted to see Detective Mode and boss battles from Arkham Asylum fleshed out. Are those things you guys have identified as needing improvement and how have you done that?
I could have finished that question for you. Yeah absolutely, they were the two things we were hearing loud and clear as well. The Detective Mode question was a really interesting one for us to work out where it went wrong, but I think once we identified what it was it was an easy fix.
Our assessment of that was, we always saw it as a tool and it's a tool that indispensable to Batman because we wanted to explore the detective side of his role so we couldn't just get rid of it in order to solve that problem.
So we knew we wanted to keep it. He's got a lot of tools in his utility belt, you use the Batclaw to achieve an objective, you use the Batarang to achieve an objective and we always saw Detective Mode as a tool just like that.
So, you need to know how to overload that fuse-box, you use Detective Mode to give you that information and we always thought that gamers would see it like that, "I need to turn it on, I get this information and then I turn it off." But the problem was we had implemented in such a way that it gave you more information all the time than you had by default and it was open to exploitation.
People weren't complaining saying it was a stupid thing that shouldn't be in the game, they were saying it was more like an exploit than a tool and so we've returned the balance between the information you get in Detective Mode and default mode.
Boss battles; they came pretty late in Arkham Asylum, we weren't really planning on doing big boss battles and then we got to a point where we were like "We need climaxes throughout this game." We needed to give them more development time and we didn't have it so we've front-loaded the boss battles this time around so that we've got dedicated people working on them right the way through the dev cycle.
It's hard to tell until we go into intensive focus testing if they're working but they certainly look pretty epic.
Harley Quinn was actually created in Batman: The Animated Series, not the comic-books, but she's since been adopted by the comics. Would you ever be tempted to create your own major character? Maybe it could take off.
I really wanted to. That's something I was talking about really early on in this but it never happened for whatever reason. I think because we're just so spoiled for choice with the awesome characters that already exist. To go off and create something new...
What was your idea?
My idea was just "Let's make a new character!"
Working so close to DC Comics means a lot of things - more than anything else it means you've got an amazing access into the archive and knowledge of these characters.
So, what have we announced so far; Joker, Harley, Catwoman, Two-Face, Zsaz, Riddler, Hugo Strange, Calendar Man... I don't know how much more you'd want.
Do you think you'd have that kind of freedom though? Considering your success with Arkham Asylum do you find yourself in a position where people just say "Go for it"?
It certainly wouldn't be off the table, we're not planning on doing it for this game but... I don't know does anyone create new characters anymore?
In Arkham Asylum the overground was split into three or four load sections, are we going to be doing the same in the city or is it all open?
It's all open, all the time. Our technical director was like, "What? You want an open-world that's open all the time that's five times bigger than anything we've done before? Are you crazy?"
And there's no loading?
Not in the exteriors, you saw the loading from going inside the courthouse from the outside but no it streams seamlessly throughout and that has been a massive, massive challenge.
You know, the Unreal Engine is an amazing engine and it's got strengths like any other engine and we're not using it for what it was designed for, but it's doing a brilliant job.
How free-form are the sidemissions? Can I do all the core mission and then spend hours doing side-quests or will I reach a point in the game where some of them are locked out?
That stuff's still being nailed down. The content is all there but the way in which it's revealed and the duration for which it's available, that's the polishing phase at the moment.
Certainly the game is quite dynamic in the way that the first had the Poison Ivy stuff that physically changed the game. We've got these simmering turf wars between Joker, Two-Face and Hugo Strange's factions - there's a power struggle between those three factions going on. So if you go into an area at one point, you might go into it a few hours later and previously it was a Joker area now it's a Two Face area and so the fiction within that district is different as a result.
I'd be surprised if it would mean that there's a side mission where you thought, "I'll come back to that later" you can never do it, I don't think that makes a lot of sense but like I said that's the stuff that they're still finalising.
Apart from Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy, have you got any other famous faces? A lot of people have been saying Hugo Strange sounds like Christopher Lee. Is it?
It's not Christopher Lee. There's some really cool factoid about that actor playing another character that Christopher Lee plays but I can't remember it. There are [other famous faces] but we haven't made any announcements yet because it's character linked, so when we reveal a character we'll then talk about the names behind them.
We were expecting to see more challenge rooms for Arkham Asylum but they never really materialised, is there a reason for that?
I don't think anyone expected it to be as massive as it was, so we played through our DLC plan and we moved on. So we didn't plan a load and then think, "Let's not do this." We did what we set out to do.