Arkham City developer Q&A at BAFTA

I always wondered why I had never noticed BAFTA’s Piccadilly HQ before but armed with the address and an iPhone I spotted the discreet entrance. An anonymous-looking set of doors that opened to reveal a swish foyer and a receptionist who happily had my name “on the list” already. How clandestine! How chic! How very, dare I say it… Hollywood? The swish interior of BAFTA, free bar and free Arkham City comic all were a great introduction for BAFTA’s sneak preview of Batman Arkham City. As I had thoroughly enjoyed, and indeed completed, Rocksteady’s first Batman game (Arkham Asylum) I was eager to get a look at the sequel.

Rocksteady Studios provided both their senior staff and a live demo of the game itself, which they jumped right into to show a level set in Arkham City. The demo was very entertaining with the Producer encouraging the very male audience to whoop whenever a particularly difficult takedown or new combo was performed. A particular crowd-pleaser was the “double silent takedown” wherein the Dark Knight grabs the heads of two unsuspecting goons and mashes them into the floor (in keeping with Batman’s rules of engagement, the goons are knocked unconscious rather than killed). Visually the game held up very well to being projected on a large movie screen, looking admirably like the original Arkham Asylum despite now having to render a much larger open-world play area. However, interior locations are still used extensively to keep the signature Arkham-verse stealth and combat tactics in use.

A nice touch on the audio side was use of intercepted communications and chats from nearby goons as Batman navigates the heights of Arkham City. Swooping effortlessly from rooftop to rooftop Batman hears the state of the city from the nervous exchanges of gossip between thugs. This makes exploration of the city an opportunity for narrative development and engagement.

Although Batman’s core “stealth melee” gameplay remains unchanged, new gadgets and abilities are – as expected – provided in the sequel. Demonstrated was an electronics-futzing gun that allows players to start motors, open doors or activate electromagnets to solve puzzles and progress through the environment. Electrical pulses can be positive or negative, offering a little more depth to the puzzle-solving gameplay.

An intriguing end-of-level cutscene hinted that the big boss in Arkham City may not be the Joker, as he apparently dies of complications following his massive drugs intake during the events of Arkham Asylum. Is this the True Death for the Joker? It seems an unlikely fate for the long-time arch enemy of Batman, but the Rocksteady devs wisely played their cards close to their chests and didn’t say. If I were a betting man I would assume a return at the end of Arkham City to set up Arkham 3 would be likely. Until then, other villains from Batman’s back catalogue provide the opposition, including Two Face and Iceman. No word as to the return of the Sandman and his hallucinogenic reality-bending levels. Personally I would love to see more of the Sandman as his levels provided a welcome break from tromping around Arkham Asylum and some of the more bold design choices in the original game, including one memorable sequence in which an endless corridor melted away to reveal a disturbing dreamscape of Batman’s fears.

An interesting change in Arkham City is the promise of GTA-style open world freedom in choosing which missions to undertake (presumably, only up to a point). Those who found the strict linearity of Arkham stifling should prefer having more choices this time. Additional variety in playable characters was confirmed as the game will start with the player in control of Catwoman, acting in some ways as training before taking the reins of the Dark Knight himself, presumably for the majority of the game.

Many more collectible and hidden items are promised with the cunning idea that many will be inaccessible when first seen. However once photographed they are then recorded on the in-game map to be searched for later, reducing the mental effort needed to track down every single Ridder trophy. Helpfully for occasional players, loading screens give you a synopsis of what you did last, so presumably if you take a break you can pick up pretty much were you left off.

After a pleasingly long live demonstration it was time for questions from the audience, with many ‘heads of department’ from Rocksteady on stage to provide answers. Although most of the questions were somewhat fluffy I felt some interesting tidbits did emerge from the Q&A session.

There was significant technical work on making the licensed Unreal Engine stream in the larger levels in Arkham City without putting up any “loading” screens. This time players will seamlessly traverse from exterior city-navigation into interior bat-stealth and combat sections. Rocksteady noted their preferred conceptual model for streaming was to maintain a ‘bubble’ of loaded high-quality assets around the player, making use of lower level-of-detail models for farther scenery. Fairly standard stuff in other words, although it’s likely there wasn’t time for a more detailed technical explanation.

Although sporting open-world gameplay as popularised by Grand Theft Auto, the developers confirmed that there will be no drivable vehicles in Arkham City (as in Asylum) claiming that “Batman is the best vehicle” for the game environment.

One of the better questions was about Detective mode, which many players of the first game used almost exclusively (to the chagrin of the art team). To give players an incentive to actually turn it off this time, the team differentiated the two modes by making the regular mode for navigation and Detective for stealth. For example, by changing the contrast in Detective mode, making the compass and some game secrets only visible in normal mode.

When asked if original villains be created for the Batman Asylum-verse the team responded that the fun thing about Batman is the villains don’t get killed so they “stick around” and you get to know them. So there are already plenty of canonical villains to choose from. (Which strongly suggests that the Joker is likely to make a reappearance in some form). In terms of working with the Batman IP in general, Rocksteady said that one advantage is that they do not need to tell the whole backstory – everyone knows what Batman’s motivation is. But there can be “too many” stories or characters to choose from.

To give more longevity to the Challenge Rooms (stand-alone “combat puzzles” in the first game) they have introduced Campaigns of several rooms in sequence. The twist is that you are given a number of Modifiers (or perks) for the campaign but have to decide which room to use a modifier on, so giving more variety to each Campaign.

A few short answers from the Q&A:
3D TVs will be supported, as is the current vogue. Rocksteady use focus testing but didn’t do it “too early” instead using it to refine and tweak the gameplay for a smoother experience. The classic Metroid series was revealed as being a large influence on the design of both Arkham games. The studio headcount is at about 100 people now. Their choice of Robin is Tim Drake rather than Dick Greyson.

When asked what was next for Rocksteady Studio they said they wanted to “continue making exceptional quality AAA games”, but they could not say exactly what was next.

From what they said regarding “working very hard to finish the game” it sounded like they had been in crunch for a while to finish the game. The first Arkham Asylum impressed with its polish, focus and originality, with impressive amount of ‘game’ from a relatively small team. Scaling up the scope and the team was an obvious next step in some regards, but is in my opinion a risky one. Doubling down on a large AAA sequel is quite common but if the game doesn’t do well, the risk is equally large. I would have loved to ask them about this and if they would have preferred to diversify and make two smaller games. Also, what are they doing to avoid crunch? Do they even think they need to? Had the crunch been worse on the sequel, what was their staff retention rate and so on. Sadly the questions were, I felt, a little too easy.

I got the impression Rocksteady was a somewhat “old school” developer and I am somewhat of the opinion that they are a dying breed. When every “bet” you make can break the company, you only need to fail once to bring it down. Watching how companies like Rocksteady adapt and survive (or don’t) in a changing commercial environment is going to be fascinating stuff. I wish them success, and can’t wait to get my hands on Arkham City.

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