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Arkham VR and Rocksteady's path to VR game development

At E3 Rocksteady cofounder Sefton Hill chats with Gamasutra about how Arkham VR was made, and why he thinks VR is uniquely well-suited to evoking emotional reactions in people.

Longstanding U.K. studio Rocksteady has made a name for itself as the developer of Batman: Arkham games, but after shipping Arkham Knight last year it seemed as though the studio might be interested in moving on from Batman. 

Now it seems Rocksteady has turned to a new platform, rather than a new franchise, to shake up its routine. During E3 this week Sony announced that Arkham VR, a Rocksteady-developed VR experience for PlayStation VR, would be launching later this year alongside the PSVR headset. 

The story of how Rocksteady came to be a VR developer is intriguing, if not terribly uncommon -- like many game makers, the developers at Rocksteady were excited enough about the possibilities of VR to get a few dev kits into the office and start messing around to see what they could make.

At some point, one of those messy experiments became Arkham VR. During E3 Rocksteady cofounder Sefton Hill chatted with Gamasutra about how that happened, and why he thinks VR is uniquely well-suited to evoking emotional reactions in people.

Where does Arkham VR come from? How long has Rocksteady been doing VR game design?

Hill: So it's been about nine or ten months overall. When we finished Arkham Knight we started working on some of the DLC for Arkham Knight and we got PSVR dev kits and just started playing around with them, but not really with any intention to create anything. Just trying some stuff, you know? 

Then this opportunity came up to work on a Batman piece and we felt we could do something different with it. It wasn't, "How can we re-create the Arkham game we've got but put a headset into it?" We were thinking, "What's really good about VR? What do we really enjoy about it? How can we use that to tell a different kind of Batman story?" That's where the project started.

It started as a -- I don't want to say "tech demo" but it started more of an an experiment. "What can we do with this? What can we do with VR as a tech?" That was what Warner was interested in. Like, "Hey, Rocksteady, what can you do with this?" Well actually this is getting really interesting and really fun. People were playing it and going, "Well this is great." It sort of took a life of its own. So it really was an organic process. It just grew and grew into the game it is. 

We were sitting at the Sony conference and we were talking about how it seemed like there was a real push for prominent teams to be developing -- "sideline VR experiences," for lack of a better term. That seems like a good way for Sony to seed adoption of its headset and also to get people to come and check out VR, because it's games they're accustomed to and are excited about and now there's a VR thing for them. Was that at all your experience in development?

Yeah, I guess. I think what's nice if you can do that is you have a talented team and a number of assets and components you can use to create the game. But at the same time to get the best out of it you need to think about it slightly differently.

I think the best VR experiences are not going to be taking a console experience and traditional 2D experience and putting a headset in it. I think there are a lot of things that work really well in the Arkham series: free-flowing combat, predator gameplay, that don't directly translate well to something where you have a limited amount of space to move around in. But then because of that sense of presence and your direct physical interaction with the environment there are a lot of things which suddenly opened up to us as new possibilities. I think it's about really designing that experience to get the best out of it.

To answer your question: for us, it was about being excited about it. That always determines what game we're going to make is what excites us. It's great that Warner has always backed us to do this. The team were really energized to work on something that was new and fresh. Different, but still with characters that we knew and loved. Being able to tell a story in a different way.

So did Rocksteady approach Sony about this? Or did Sony approach you guys about this? 

We approached them for dev kits, just because it was something we were interested in. We had a number of prominent programmers in our studio, and some of the very senior programmers are really interested in VR. So it was more an area we just wanted to experiment in.

Warner, at the same time, were like, "VR is something we're interested in, but we're not really sure. What can we do with it? You guys are the developers. You guys are the designers. What's interesting in that space?" It's kind of an alignment of those things. Like, "Okay, let's play around with it and see what we think works."

I think, as well, because we had people who were fairly prominent in early VR we had a good head start with that to think about, "Okay, well, we know these things work well. So we can really design to push that." While at the same time making it a very comfortable experience. That was really important to us.

VR, if you have a bad experience with it can push you away very quickly, but if you have a good [experience], if it feels very comfortable to play -- That was one of our initial goals. We're aware that it's a Batman game. It's an Arkham game. It's a launch title so this will be a lot of people's first VR experience so we kind of felt that it's our responsibility to make it a very comfortable and enjoyable experience for everyone. That was also one of our big driving goals.

I imagine that must have led a lot of trial and error at the studio. Are there any specific examples? 

I think the movement was one of the biggest things. I guess your initial reaction is, "These are all things that work for us traditionally, so we're going to have a character and things moving around through an environment." As soon as we did that and you had the movement attached to the stick...well, you can feel very sick, very quickly combining those things with your own movement.

We learned that there were particular movements that were worse. Sidestepping, for example, especially since this is a standing experience. We do support seated play, but it's designed to be played standing primarily. Anything with sidestepping made you feel very woozy very quickly. That was a big no-no. So there were a lot of initial ideas that we were like, "Okay, we can't do any of those." They sort of got thrown out the window quickly.

At the same time, what we learned is the actual emotional impact of a lot of what you get in VR is more powerful. So actually investing a lot of time in telling a good strong story and having characters that feel interesting in kind of this murder mystery. This story's about following a serial killer through Gotham. That kind of story can resonate a lot more when you're in there and experiencing it. It actually has a much stronger emotional impact. 

Who bore the brunt of VR testing at Rocksteady? How did you determine what's too nauseating?

It's kind of everyone, because one of the weird things about VR and that sensitivity to it is it's fairly non-discriminatory. It affects everyone in different ways. We have some people who could put on a headset and get a bad experience and have -- You know, we're playing other VR games and we're playing other VR demos. [They] would put those on and feel sick for like two days. Those are right at one end of the spectrum. If you're just unlucky, that's the way you react to it.

Then we have people who are kind of bulletproof to it who can do anything and it didn't seem to affect them at all. We got this idea across the team, [where] we took people right at the sensitive end and made sure they could play the game completely comfortable. And do that without watering down the experience as well. I think you can do that while still leveraging everything that's special about VR and everything that makes it different. I think VR games are very different from traditional games. There's some crossover, but also there's a lot of things that you can do that are totally unique in one realm that you can't do in the other. 

Yeah, it's been interesting to see VR game development expand out around traditional "full games" to encompasses shorter experiences. Do you see that as being something you're excited about doing going forward? After this experiment, is it worthwhile to continue?

SH: Yeah, I don't know. That's a good question, because we are working on various prototypes and ideas for what we're going to do next so I think that that's definitely something that we're taking into account. But I wouldn't say that we're committed one way or the other. It's not, "Okay, now we're a VR studio." or "Now we're not a VR studio." It's just another thing that I think we could do and we have really good strong experience with now. We know when it works and we've got an idea of when it works and how it works in order to, if we were to integrate that, to do it in the right way that feels worthwhile for VR. 

Did you find this was a good way of learning to work with PSVR? 

SH: Yeah, this is our first game in Unreal 4, as well. This was a great way to learn that during that same time, as well. It allowed us to make a transition because we previously worked on 3 and then our own heavily modded version of 3. And we wanted to start with this to transition to 4.

I confess I was surprised. I didn't play the Arkham games, but I had heard that Rocksteady had sort of completed their trilogy. It felt like maybe they were looking to do something different. And now you've moved back to Batman again. Why?

SH: Yeah, that was me. I said we weren't making any more Batman games. And when I said it, we weren't making any more Batman games. We genuinely weren't at that point. 

Things change.

But things change. And when the headsets turned up and it just felt like we could tell a different story in that medium. Where we felt we were with Batman was we told the stories that we wanted to tell and we felt like it was time to keep the studio energized over into work on something new. But then when the headsets turned up, it's like, "Okay, but we know these characters really well and we can do something different with them than we've done before." So that was why we changed to make a Batman game with those characters that we love. We just wanted to make sure that we always did those characters justice.

We didn't want to make another Batman game just because we were the people who could make Batman games. For us it's about that passion. You should be able to feel that passion in the games we make. If that isn't there in any way, then that isn't the right decision to make. 

It's interesting that Arkham VR is in first-person, and features a lot of voiceover about Batman's fears and regrets. I wonder, do you see any renewed potential in VR's ability to evoke empathy in players?

Yeah, definitely. It's strange because when you work on something at a very mechanical level -- like in terms of constructing the Nightwing crime scene. We obviously are putting together all the bolts to build it up to where it is. But then you give it to people who do have an emotional reaction to seeing that, and it's really interesting.

The interesting thing about VR is it's kind of involuntary. You don't have to give yourself over to it, like if you watch a film or if you play a traditional game you have to buy into the fiction. To some extent with VR, because it convinces you, because the world feels so real -- good VR -- it can convince your brain. It jumps in and bypasses that suspension of disbelief. You don't even need to make that decision. You're like, "Okay, I'm here." Even though there's a part of your brain saying, "You're not here. You're in a room somewhere," mostly your brain is saying, "No, I'm here. I'm pretty sure that I'm in the Batcave." That's what I think gives you that stronger emotional reaction. Everything isn't having to pass through a filter first. It's direct input. I think done rightly that gives you a stronger emotional reaction. 

We actually showed the game to Geoff Johns and Jim Lee from DC and those guys were quite emotional about it, in their own way. They're both really different guys. Jim Lee was quietly like, "Wow, this is amazing getting to experience this. I've always wanted to be Batman, this is like I actually am Batman." And Geoff Johns was just like, swearing. 

Well, sure.

In their own way, that emotional reaction was great to see and feel I think because VR done well has that possibility and that potential to elicit those reactions much more strongly because you're removing that suspension of disbelief and by passing that. Done well it is a really strong emotional reaction.

Has it changed the way you look at game development or game design?

Certainly developing VR games is very different -- fundamentally different. There are still shared good practices, but then there are things that are very different as well. A lot of those fundamental rules we had to rethink, based on restrictions of VR versus what VR gives you in development.

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