DICE 2012: Sefton Hill on the Arkham Approach

Design. Innovate. Communicate. Entertain. While the Game Developers’ Conference (GDC) has grown increasingly commercialized, the annual DICE summit remains a game conference about a certain type of person in the game industry: the developers. It’s a place where developers can get together from all over the world and just talk about what they do without the pressure that they need to sell something. A big part of this summit are the presentations that are given by some of the most esteemed, successful people in the industry as they discuss some of the concepts and philosophies employed by their respective studios and teams. Not how to squeeze a few hundred more polygons out of the hardware or how to manipulate shaders within a popular engine, but rather the overall process of game development, the philosophies that define these companies and contribute to their standing out.

 

 

Highlights:

  • Sefton Hill, Lead Designer at Rocksteady Studios, lays out some of the foundational principles behind the studio’s design philosophy as implemented in Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City
  • Rapid Prototyping: similar to Bethesda’s approach, Rocksteady tries to get the game playable as soon as possible and build off ideas from there so they can learn from playing what does and doesn’t work about the gameplay. Quickly iterating on gameplay is a great way to make sure your gameplay is being crafted well from an early stage.
  • Smart Foundations: Hill noted that back in during Arkham Asylum‘s development, they made a conscious decision early in the design process to create a world of interconnected smaller areas rather than one large area. This allowed them to focus on making each section of the game distinct, memorable, and of high quality, and also made fixing problems easier as they could point to specific areas. He says this philosophy also translates to Arkham City, which he characterizes as the smallest open world game ever, but that it is also one of the densest.
  • Hill also says that choosing the right premise is also important. He cites and example of leveraging The Riddler to include puzzle elements into the game since The Riddler, in the fiction, wants to outsmart Batman on an intellectual level, and thus puzzle-based gameplay fits seemlessly into that. “Making games is hard enough…create rules that allow you to focus on what counts.”
  • Constant Re-evaluation: Hill says that typically a developer might focus on making sure its weak features don’t suck as much, which takes up a significant portion of development time. This might result in a game with no glaring weaknesses, but also no outstanding features, which is a “tough sell.” Instead, Hill says that Rocksteady focuses on making their best features really stand out since those are going to be the ones that bring gamers in anyway and the ones that stick with them after they play. That might mean some weaknesses, but every game has weaknesses and the trick instead is to minimize the impact of those weak features or fold the stronger parts of them into other features.
  • Psychic Powers: a tongue-in-cheek piece of advice that relates to how a developer will know if its game is good or will sell to its audience. Hill essentially stresses that developers should trust themselves to make a game they want to play to. If they are passionate about what they create, gamers will respond.
  • “The Arkham Recipe”: make the game instantly fun and accessible. The player is paying money to be entertained, so they shouldn’t have to sit through protracted sequences or be forced to “earn” their progress, especially early on.
  • Complementary Design: different features should complement each other but not step on each others’ toes. In Batman, Hill cites combat sequences, predator sequences, story-driven sections, Riddler rooms, and free-roaming the world as distinct flavors of gameplay that aim for different types of gameplay without superseding the others.
  • Authenticity: mostly applicable to licensed games, but elements can be applied to any game. Basically, don’t do something that is out of character for your property, even if it requires you to be more creative in how you craft elements of the game. His example is that Batman does not kill, which immediately eliminates popular gameplay mechanics that would be easy for the studio to implement but would alienate the fanbase.

 

Response:
For the most part, Hill’s speech hit a lot of the same beats as Todd Howard’s keynote. Both studios like to get to the playable stage as quickly as possible so they can build the game based on feedback from what they themselves are playing. Hill’s speech was a little unique in it addressed some issues specific to licensed games, but also talked about general gameplay philosophies in the way different “parts” of the game work together. Keeping different game elements distinctly separate but equally engaging is easier said than done, but it is certainly a great thing to take away. However, there was a palpable sense of irony in the middle of the speech when he was discussing Arkham Asylum‘s strengths that resulted from its design process. We are getting into personal opinion here, but I felt that Asylum was the better-designed, more memorable game of the two, and it mostly had to do with level design (since clearly City features an evolved version of the playable Batman character). I found City‘s environments to be drab and monotonous, whereas Asylum had character and overall better pace and flow. This is entirely because of the fact that Asylum was crafted with strong sections, whereas City was weakened by its wide-open approach, both in art design and gameplay pacing. Slightly less egregious but similarly troubling was Hill’s emphasis on having a strong premise. Again, this is personal opinion here, but I found the entire premise of the Arkham City setting to be very troubling to the point that it distracted from my experience (why in the hell would could cut criminals lose in part of the city? and if you did, why would you give them a section of the city that included  landmarks like the GCPD department?). Hill’s talk definitely gave a lot of insight into some aspects of a successful game, but it was strange to say the least that his own game failed to follow some of the lessons he supposedly learned from its predecessor.

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Jason Ragatz

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