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Rocksteady's Sefton Hill Unmasks Batman: Arkham Asylum

Director Sefton Hill of Rocksteady explains how his studio stayed true to Batman's "strict rules" when creating Batman: Arkham Asylum new immersive world.

Kris Graft, Contributor

October 19, 2009

20 Min Read

As far as comic book superheroes are concerned, Batman is quite a multifaceted fellow. He's not only a skilled martial artist who can effortlessly beat the pulp out of thugs with his fists, but he's also a world-class sleuth and a tech whiz rolled into one deeply disturbed, conflicted human being. And few developers have been able to faithfully translate the Caped Crusader to video games.

Following up its relatively obscure freshman effort, Urban Chaos: Riot Response, with Batman: Arkham Asylum -- hailed by many as one of the best superhero games of all time -- UK-based game development studio Rocksteady seems to have officially arrived, with a multifaceted Batman completely intact.

Two-and-a-half million units shipped later, Batman: Arkham Asylum director Sefton Hill of Rocksteady talks not only about how his studio was able to successfully bring a dark, forboding Batman to video games, but also discusses the game's marketing, working with Unreal Engine 3, and influences that include Zelda and Metroid.

Can you talk a little bit about the move from your first game, Urban Chaos: Riot Response, to Batman: Arkham Asylum? How did it all come to fruition?

Sefton Hill: We started the company in December of 2004, and started working on Urban Chaos for PS2 and Xbox. That project took just over a year, and after we finished that, we started to work on a number of different prototypes using Unreal Engine 3 for a next-gen game on 360 and PS3. That was the first time we'd used Unreal, and we worked on that for about a year.

Then, Eidos acquired the Batman license because of the deal they had with Warner, and they came to us because they liked the prototype we were working on. They felt that it looked great and played great, and asked if we could bring some of that attention to detail to Batman. They basically approached us and said, "Well, what would you do with Batman?" to come up with ideas for the project. We did a presentation for them, which Eidos looked at and really liked it, and that was how it all started.

Now the game is out and has achieved strong sales. What was the studio's reaction to the reception, critically and commercially? Were you guys pretty confident that you had a hit on your hands?

SH: I think it's always kind of strange, because we're so close to the game. We've been close to it for two years. I was tremendously proud of the work the team had done, but you don't ever know how it's going to be received by everyone. I have to say that the team did a great job, and I think they got across our vision for Batman and what we felt Batman should be like in a game. I guess we just kind of threw it out there to see if other people think and feel the same. I can't say.

I can just say I was proud of it, and I guess in a way, you feel like it's nice to get good reviews, but when it went out there and people really responded to it and it really resonated with people, that was great, and it was great for the team as well, to get all of that positive feedback.

Everyone here liked it and we were all confident, but it was just great to get that positive feedback in terms of sales. And I think the other thing we're really happy with is that the Batman fans are really happy with it and feel like we had done justice to the character. That was something we had set out to do at the start.

The game got decent press leading up to the release, but coverage wasn't huge in scale, compared to some of the bigger video game franchises. Do you think maybe this lower amount of hype might have helped the critical reception by taking people by surprise? As a game developer, what are your thoughts on the marketing hype? Do you think that the level of publicity that it got -- so as not to overblow expectations -- helped?

SH: I think it's a fine line. You want people to be as excited as possible about the game you're making, and superhero games had a tendency to not live up to expectations in the past. So I think there was naturally some skepticism. I think you're right in terms of when people got their hands on the game and were pleasantly surprised. It was a Batman game, but it was also a good game.

A lot of people said that even if you strip out Batman, the core mechanics are good game mechanics as well. They're really strong. So in terms of the hype, it helps in some ways. There were certainly bigger games and some skepticism, and it's always pleasing when you get your hands on something and it's better than you thought it was going to be. I think that did help us to an extent, and obviously, whatever Rocksteady does next, it's going to be a really big challenge for us.

In recent memory, Lego Batman was a decent game, and way before that was Batman for NES, which was good. But for all the games based on Batman, there aren't many that stand out. Why do you think that maybe Batman in particular is so hard for developers to get right?

SH: One of the things about Batman is that he has so many sides to his character. Sometimes it's perhaps easier to focus on some of those facets and miss out on some of the other things that really make him who he is. If you focus on the brawling element, then you miss some of the detective element or some of the other sides of his character.

I make a conscious decision when working on projects not to look too much at the competition, so I didn't really go back through all the Batman games and play them, because I find it quite constricting to come up with new ideas.

I find it much better to start with a blank slate. We never really compared ourselves against the previous Batman titles. I think he's a tricky character, because he has many facets, and you're trying to encompass them all.

But at the same time, there are strict rules with Batman. He can't kill, so that means that it's much more challenging to create gameplay that allows the player to have complete freedom while not transgressing any of the fundamental rules of who Batman is.

Batman's combination between his power and his vulnerability is key to who he is, and I think one of the best mechanics for a game is to have an incredibly powerful character who at the same time is still very vulnerable. It's such a great combination and balance for a game character. But I think in some ways, he's perfectly fit for games as well. It's just about looking in the right places.

There are some influences from other games in Batman: Arkham Asylum. You said you didn't necessarily look to other Batman titles, which was probably a good idea for the most part. But can you comment on the specific influences? I see a little bit of BioShock, and a little bit of Eternal Darkness. Can you comment on any of the game influences that you have had in design?

SH: Like the rest of the design world, I'm a big fan of Zelda and Metroid games, going back for years. They were definitely big influences. I like that sort of approach to design -- giving you a number of different gadgets and abilities that you can use and combine in different ways, and the way that combines and the feeling of being in this complete other world. Those games were definitely a big influence. I played Eternal Darkness and I really liked that. Those guys did a great job with that. They had a sanity system in there that freaked a lot of people out. It was a nice idea.

BioShock I never actually got around to playing. It's on my list of games to get back into. I can't say for me that was a big direct influence, but obviously, one of the things from that that they've done is create this really believable alternative environment. I know a lot of people in the industry played it and really like it. I think that you're inspired by the things that inspire you as you play them. Those are pretty good references.

We were also really fundamentally influenced at the start with the character himself. We had a combination of fans in the studio, and some people who were more mainstream Batman fans who were only aware of Batman through the films. Something that happened throughout the studio was that we realized how much depth this character really had, and I think everyone in the studio came to really love him. I think that's really unusual when you're in a studio working on a project.

Over two-and-a-half years, you can see studios become fatigued with characters, because you're doing that every day. It's like working in a chocolate factory or something. But that was an unusual thing. People just got more and more into Batman, and more and more excited by Batman. They devoured more and more of the Batman lore and universe. That was great to see over the course of two years.

We really started was taking those facets from the character in the comics directly, and said, "These are the things that are Batman." We wrote those things on a board and said, "We have to make a game that really exaggerates these things and brings them to the fore." We left those there.

Nothing we came up with in terms of design could ever break those things, even if we thought of a design ideas. If it didn't fit with who Batman was, we would drop it. It's unusual, but the comics were a massive influence, and we were trying to get to the core of who Batman is and try to reflect that in the game the best way that we could.

I thought that the storytelling in Batman was quite well-executed. It was a good mix of cutscenes and the Joker over the speaker, and with the hints like the tapes laying around that help you figure out what's going on in the backstory. Can you comment on the decision behind how many cutscenes there should be? The use of cutscenes is still an ongoing discussion with developers.

SH: I have a strong opinion on cutscenes in games, really. Personally, I think cutscenes should be used to advance the story and display the relationships between characters -- things that can't be done within the action. Cutscenes shouldn't really be used for the action. That's what the game is there for. There's a lot of cutscenes in games that show you a lot of really cool action, but then you get to play the game and you don't actually get to do that.

For Batman, we really wanted the cutscenes to advance the relationships between the characters. There were situations where we felt we needed to do that, but we didn't want the cutscenes to display big action sequences that you wouldn't assign to the player. When you get that kind of thing, it really disengages you, because you feel like, "Why aren't I able to do that? That's what I want to do. That's why I'm holding the pad!"

The relationships are when you get to do cutscenes, and it naturally brings you into the game. Obviously, there are things you can't do with a pad, so I think there's a balance to the cutscenes.

We have to know their place within the game, and we have to share this relationship with the characters. Each of the cutscenes is designed in a way that they all change the values of the game. They all change the value of what you're doing at any particular time.

Never in Batman should you watch a scene and find what you're doing has not changed, or the importance of your actions has not changed in any way. You learn something new that makes you think about the story in a different way or want to do something in a different way. It's quite easy to write a lot of scenes on paper, but they're not affecting the play experience. We really wanted the cutscenes to do that when you played the game.

Can you speak of any particular challenges that immediately come to mind that you encountered during the development of the game?

SH: There's a couple of things that spring to mind. Combat was probably the biggest design challenge that we had, because we wanted to create something that was unique for Batman. Also, we had the philosophy that if it's something that's simple for Batman to do in his world, then it should be easy for the player to execute as well. That's where the combat's simple controls came from.

But we went through a number of systems in the game. The combat in the final game is actually the third combat system that we had. That was quite a challenging area, because combat has been done a lot in games, and we really wanted it to feel fresh and new for Batman. I think that definitely was a big challenge for us.

We had invested a lot of time purely in the gameplay. We'd spent weeks and weeks tweaking the controls, and during that time, it can be quite difficult, because there's always a pressure to make things more showy and look more amazing, but we felt that people respond well to something that just played great. We spent a lot of time making it play great before it looked great. That was a big challenge for us.

And then there's the classic challenge that you get striking a balance between design and art. Both sides need to complement each other, and I think that was something we were really successful with in Batman. The environment is always clear and readable. It's always easy to see what's happening and where you need to go and what's interactive. But at the same time, it looks beautiful as well. That took a lot of work. The design team and the art team deserve a lot of credit for the work they did on that.

I read somewhere that you guys spent quite a bit of time even before the game went into full production looking into Unreal Engine 3.

SH: We did. We're big fans of Unreal, and there was a learning period when we were working on all those different prototypes. It was a good opportunity for us. There was about a year when we were working on the different prototypes and learning the tools and learning to get the best out of them.

That definitely gave us a great start when we started Batman. I think Unreal as an engine is really strong, and you have to work with it to do things the way it wants to do things. But as long as you do that, you can get some major results. I think we have a great relationship with Epic, and our philosophies are very closely matched. They really put the power into the hands of the content creators, which is very important for us. I can't speak highly enough for Epic and Unreal. It's a great engine.

What about the 360 version versus the PS3 versions of the game? How was that during the course of development for Batman?

SH: The systems definitely have their different requirements. We had a group of people working specifically on optimizations for both platforms. The PS3 was better for some things, and the 360 was better for other things. I think what you need to be prepared to do is make sure you're going to tailor your output to get the best out of both systems.

I really give a lot of credit to the guys who worked on the PS3 version, especially, to get that running the same as the 360 version. Specifically, they were making sure that it ran as fast on their version. We spent a lot of time making sure that both versions were as good as they possibly could be, framerate-wise. Those guys did a great job with that.

In general, what are some of the lessons that you're going to be taking on to the next project that you learned from Batman and Urban Chaos?

SH: There's a few things. The first thing that we hoped players would respond to and we got a lot of positive feedback on was that a lot of our development time was spent on empowering the player and giving the player a number of different ways to play the game, especially with the invisible "predator mode" and the number of different techniques they could use, and then letting them choose how to approach those situations.

Sometimes, the way that works is not particularly showy, because it's giving the player different gameplay mechanics they can use, and they're thinking up different ways to create their own stories. It was great to get a response on that, and we would definitely like to be sure that we develop that player-empowering philosophy further so that they create their own stories when they play.

One of the great things about the positive feedback we've received is that it gives us confidence in that philosophy to invest our time in that and invest time in making sure the player has options in how they approach situations. Each of those options have different benefits and pluses and minuses. I feel that's definitely something we've learned and we'll take forward to the next games that we do.

There was very little negative feedback on Batman, particularly in the games press with the reviewers. But some said that the boss battles were not as strong as they could be. Some of them said it was too tempting to stay in the detective mode all the time. Are you taking any of these criticisms to heart? Do you understand where they're coming from?

SH: Yeah. We always do a lot of focus testing on the game before it comes out and we always listen to players about what they like and didn't like about the experience. It's definitely fair to say that we'll be listening to people to see what they liked about the experience.

One of the things we look at is that we don't just focus on the negatives, but also on the positives. It gets quite easy to focus on the negatives and try to fix them, but I think if you want to make something different, you have to focus on the positives as well, and think about how to make those things different and push them even further. For sure, we'll be looking at any negative feedback, but we'll also be looking at the positive feedback to make sure that the games we make in the future are still surprising people.

What about original IP? You did Urban Chaos and then worked with a license. Are you still open to creating something original as well?

SH: I think as a studio, we've got a lot of room to work on original IP or work on licenses. I know that some people perhaps don't like working on licenses, but we really enjoyed working on Batman. If you embrace the license and enjoy the license, you can definitely get a lot more out of it.

It's easy for me to say, because we were able to work on Batman, but I think we definitely have a lot of talent and a concept team here to work on ideas. We can work on original IP or on licenses. Our main thing is to work on games that are fun to play. That's the fundamental thing that we work on.

For Batman: Arkham Asylum, how hard was it to resist the temptation of throwing in Batmobile driving segments? I thought it was interesting what you guys did with the Batmobile, but Batman has these great vehicles like that and the Batwing. Was there some debate whether or not to include those in the game? It would seem like obvious to have a driving or a flying segment.

SH: We didn't have a flying or driving section in the game, that's true. There was a lot of discussion about that. Obviously, the vehicles are a part of Batman. We decided that we would make vehicles a part of the story, so rescuing the Batmobile plays a significant part, and the Batwing delivers the Line Launcher.

What we don't want to do is take on too much. Some of the things that we really wanted to achieve were for Batman himself, so we didn't want to overstretch with a driving section with its own mechanic and requirements, and take that development time away from the things that were important for Batman himself.

That was what really drove that decision. We had a lot of discussions about it, but at the end of the day, anything that is going to compromise the quality of what we were doing was something that we wouldn't take on if it was going to compromise the quality of the other components. We wanted to make sure that what we deliver and what you play is of the highest possible quality.

That's one thing I think a lot of people picked up on. It does feel like a very focused, tight game, whereas a lot of other games try to do so many things like multiplayer and vehicle segments and a single-player campaign and so on. They just fall into that trap, it seems.

SH: Yeah, I think that's easy to do. When it comes to features, they're always a very quantifiable thing. It's very easy to sit there and go, "Where are all these features?" Quality can be a little bit harder to quantify, especially at the start of the project when you're talking about, "How big is it going to be?" I think it's easier to say, "All these features are going to make it great," rather than, "We're going to have less features, but those features are going to be really good." It's harder to convince someone that that's going to be the case.

It's easy to see how people fall into the trap of having so many features. It's natural to equate features with quality, because that's all you've got to go on at the beginning of the project. I think what you need is confidence, and it can be hard. It's harder for publishers to give developers that confidence when you're in a catch-22 situation.

You don't want to overstretch. You want to do less, but do amazingly well, rather than do more and have a load of average stuff at the end of the day. There are too many games out there that deliver lots of average content.

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About the Author(s)

Kris Graft


Kris Graft is publisher at Game Developer.

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