Batman: Arkham City is finished, and a tired Rocksteady Studios can emerge from its development bunker and catch some rays. Launch is imminent, and the team is excitedly awaiting your reaction to what is expected to be one of the biggest games of the year.
Ahead of his developer session at Eurogamer Expo 2011, game director Sefton Hill chatted to Eurogamer to discuss Arkham City design decisions, reveal just how important review scores can be, and offer his thoughts for the future.
Eurogamer: Batman is finished. Can you go on holiday now?
Sefton Hill: It's been a hectic last nine months, where we've been pushing towards the end. With Arkham City it's been, if anything, a lot more ambitious than the first one. We've worked harder. We've worked longer. We didn't want to rest on our laurels and do something similar. We wanted to push ourselves again. I always felt we were still improving when we were finishing the first game. So we set ourselves this goal of taking Batman into Gotham City. It turned out to be a lot of hard work. It's been worth it, but it has meant I haven't seen any sunshine for about nine months.
We have a few things. We are still working on some unannounced DLC stuff at the moment. That's keeping us busy. So we're not completely done, but the main game is done, which is great. We will keep watching the forums. The community is important to us, so we look at what they like, what they didn't like. And there is some scope to fix any issues that come up as well, any exploits people find in challenge maps or whatever, through normal patching. But, to be honest, with this game we've done a phenomenal amount of testing and I'm happy with the game we've got.
Eurogamer: Do you care about review scores?
Sefton Hill: It's hard not to. Only because what you don't know is how people are going to take it. I don't care about every individual review score, but it's great to have everyone behind the game and enjoying the game. In a sense you can't help but feel it validates your work. But at the same time, if everyone turned around and said they didn't like it, that would probably hurt a bit and I would probably just convince myself they were wrong. I guess they do when people are saying it's good, and if they don't like it, I'll convince myself I don't.
Eurogamer: Did the critical acclaim and success of the first game put pressure on you when it came to making the sequel? Does that affect you in any way?
"With this game we've done a phenomenal amount of testing and I'm happy with the game we've got."
Sefton Hill, game director, Batman: Arkham City
Sefton Hill: It definitely does add a lot of pressure. There are good sides and bad sides to it. It's great to know when you're working late nights and weekends it's something people are going to play and they're really anticipating. It gives you extra motivation to know what you're doing is worthwhile. I say that, working in games is awesome anyway, so I'm not complaining in any way. But obviously if you know people are eagerly waiting for something, you feel the responsibility, but it also motivates you to make it as good as it can be as well.
Having said that, my attitude for most of the development was to put that out of my mind and always make decisions that are about making the best game we can make. I'm firmly of the belief you have to make the game you want to play. I want to make the Batman game I want to play, that gets me excited and gets us passionate as a developer.
Then other people will see and feel that passion when they play it. I don't believe in second guessing what the mass market want. Maybe that works for some people, but it's never worked for me. Our methods are: what do we want to play? What's the most exciting Batman game we could play? Right, let's make that, and hope that passion comes across and other people will pick that up and enjoy that. That was our attitude on the first one and our attitude on this one. If you stop and worry too much about it, it would drive you properly insane.
Eurogamer: Batman looks great. Is hardware at the stage where you're able to implement ideas without a concern for tech and horsepower, or does it still impact upon you realising ideas and features?
Sefton Hill: It definitely affects things in terms of, it's not easy. Creating Arkham City has been a tremendous technical undertaking. Our engine teams, optimisation teams, art teams and design teams have had to do a phenomenal amount of work to get this game to run and optimise it and run at a solid 30 frames a second throughout, while creating such a richly detailed city. So it's definitely not easy. And it does impact things to the extent that it's a challenge.
But when we first sat down and we said, what do we want to do with this game, we'd put all these ideas on the table about what we thought would make the best Batman game, and all those ideas are in the game. We didn't take things off. Huge credit to the technical team, who said, look, we'll make it happen. You design the best game you can think of and we will work hard to make that happen. Those guys did a phenomenal job with that. All credit to them because there are a lot of technical achievements in there we'd never done before and taken on. Our attitude has always been to make the best game we can possibly make. We don't do technology just for the sake of technology. The technology was always to create this living breathing city.
So I guess the answer is, no, it didn't change the design. But yes it was bloody tough.
Eurogamer: In the first game you nailed the Batman character in a way we haven't seen other studios do with other superhero games. Did you do anything differently with the character for Arkham City?
Sefton Hill: Batman is a great superhero because he doesn't have superpowers. There's a definite relate-ability there. Everyone secretly dreams that with enough dedication they could become Batman in some way. He's such a great character, but he has all these weaknesses, which was something we wanted to get across in the first game. So much of what he does is about his relationship with other characters. It's not just about spectacle. It's not just about buildings blowing up.
The great moments of Batman are when you see Batman and Joker on screen, Batman and Two-Face together. It's those great relationships and how those characters spark off of each other, and how they're so different. That's something we embraced, and it's something we're fortunate to have as well. We have this great rogues gallery. No one gets close to matching Batman for rogues gallery. So being able to draw on those relationships between those different characters allows us to let the player experience what it's like to be Batman and what all these other characters are like. That's what hopefully sets the game apart - it's in the characterisation rather than just the spectacle. A lot of games are just about spectacle, but don't bring it back to having a deep underlying characterisation.
Eurogamer: The combat is satisfying and unique. Do you see that mechanic evolving in the future, or have you perfected it?
Sefton Hill: It's always hard to know the state of evolution of a particular mechanic. In the first game we spent a lot of time polishing it and making it feel good for the player. A lot of these things are born of a certain level of frustration. I've never been good at fighting games because I've never been able to memorise all the different button combinations and pull them out at the moment you need them. So when coming up with our combat system we were thinking, let's not make it about remembering long chains. Let's just make it about, you can link any of the moves together. We're not going to tell you which moves to link together. It's more about deciding the situation you're in and picking the right move in that situation.
There's so much game people haven't seen, that, when people play it they're going to be really surprised and excited.
When we finished the first game, we asked ourselves, OK, where do we go there? For Arkham City we wanted to give the player more choices. In Arkham Asylum if someone was attacking you could counter. You had the ability to strike. In this game you have other options. You can beat down, so you can stun someone and repeatedly attack to focus an attack on one person. You can combo in your gadgets as well. But these are all simple things to do in of themselves. It's still giving the player lots of options on a fundamentally simple system. You decide how complicated you want to make it, by picking from this inventory of different attacking and defensive moves you have.
Where does it go from here? I don't know. That's a question for another time. That's tomorrow's problem. We've just finished this one, so I'm just going to enjoy this one for now.
Eurogamer: Is there the potential to create a true, open world sandbox Batman game in the GTA vein? Or, given the type of controlled story you like to create, that wouldn't work for Batman?
Sefton Hill: I feel with Arkham City we've got a game in a nice position between the two. When you play the final game, there's a huge amount of freedom. You can choose what you're doing at any given time. You can choose which side mission you're going to do, if you're going to go after Riddler Trophies, if you're going to rescue political prisoners who are getting beaten up. At any given moment there's a hell of a lot of choice in there which you would normally associate with an openworld game. But at the same time you still have this focused story you can follow. We've got a nice combination of those two gameplay elements.
Because of how important the characterisation is to a Batman game, I wouldn't want to give that up just in the name of letting Batman run around a bigger area. When people play this they'll see it feels like an openworld game, it feels you've got the freedom of an openworld game, but still with the crafted characterisation you get from a more story driven game. That's one of the big strengths of the game.
Eurogamer: What happens now?
Sefton Hill: Now I get to see a bit of sunlight again, which is nice, and then we look at what to do next. We're all really excited by seeing what people make of the game. What's quite exciting for us as well is, we haven't shown off a lot of the story. We've shown off some of the mechanics, but we've deliberately not talked too much about the story. There's so much game people haven't seen, that, when people play it they're going to be really surprised and excited. It's a definite, deliberate tactic. We didn't want to show off too much because it's a story driven game. We wanted people to enjoy the story when they get to pick up and play it.
For us, it's the excitement of seeing how people take it when it goes out there, and seeing what the community think. The community has been behind us, which has been great. Just seeing how that works and then deciding what we're going to do next.
Eurogamer: Having worked on the Batman license for a good few years now, is there still a desire and hunger within the studio to continue to work on Batman games, should the opportunity present itself?
Sefton Hill: Yeah. Batman is a phenomenal license. We're hugely fortunate. For me, personally, I'm a huge Batman fan. Getting the opportunity to work on Batman every day is amazing. It is a genuine privilege to get to work with such an incredible character, so many great villains and create something in the Batman universe. I couldn't ask for anything more than that.