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DICE 2012: The five keys to Rocksteady's Batman success

Sefton Hill with Batman: Arkham City developer Rocksteady tells DICE 2012 attendees just how the studio was able to find critical and commercial success by sticking to its guns.
At DICE 2012 on Thursday, Rocksteady's Sefton Hill exposed the fundamental rules that the studio followed to make critical and commercial hits Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City. One of those keys, Hill said, is rapid prototyping. "The prototyping is all done in-game," he said. Early in the game's creation, he would present an idea to people on the team. Then they'd break it apart, analyze how it could be implemented, and "get it in game as quickly as possible." He said, "The gameplay needs to be iterated quickly to be improved. The quicker you can get that turnaround cycle, the better your ideas are going to be." If a team does not give itself time to improve aspects of a game, those ideas will not be as well developed, and "just not as good," he said. Rapid prototyping, said Hill, is important because "Ideas themselves have an energy, a life force." Ideas always will encounter problems, he acknowledged, but if you preserve that idea and excitement, "that energy can help you smash through" problems. "Slow iteration is a killer," said Hill. "With more risky ideas, you'll hit more problems, and you need more energy to get you through those problems." The shorter a team can keep the gap between your ideas and their implementation, the better the game, Hill said. Another important aspect of Rocksteady's method is establishing "smart foundations" for the game, foundations that will be conducive to good game design and a high level of polish. "Choose foundations to establish what's important in your game," said Hill. He noted that in Arkham Asylum, the game was designed with a level and room structure that let the team really isolate areas in the game, and polish them to a high sheen on an individual basis. "It was one of the most important [decisions we made]," Hill said. Hill said that with Asylum's follow-up, the more open world Arkham City, the team made the choice to make "The world's smallest open world game." "We figured that by going smaller, we could come up with something more unique. ... Every square foot of the game can be filled with hand-crafted content, and look different from any other game out there." The next ingredient to Rocksteady's success, Hill said, was choosing a premise that lent itself to believable fiction. The team wanted to include more puzzle elements, so the premise had to make sense for a character like Batman to solve a unique room puzzle, for example. Hill's next key to game development is to "constantly reevaluate" the in-process game. Teams need to examine the game's features, and the quality of those features, very carefully. Some development teams identify the weak areas and focus on those. By improving the weak features, a team might even bring up all of the game's other feature a little bit. But that's not Rocksteady's method. The studio instead focuses energy on the game's strengths. Weak areas are combined with other weak areas, improved individually, or cut completely. "Focus on your strengths, not your weakness," Hill said. Hill said another component of success is, rather unfortunately, psychic powers. Of course, the studio isn't psychic, but the studio's ability to please a large audience of video game fans might seem like it is. Rocksteady's team didn't succumb to "sycophantic design" that pandered to game reviewers or to what they thought some theoretical audience wanted. Hill said such methods result in "creative paralysis," and lead to generic experiences as a developer becomes obsessed with trying to guess what people want. "The person who knows best what your gamers want is you," Hill told the developer audience. ... We're our own target audience ... we know what games we want." "I don't think we need market research to achieve that," he added. "We need to ask 'what excites me?''" You need to make a game you want to play, a game that you're passionate about, Hill said. "Once you make a game that you're passionate about, your team will be passionate about it. ... That passion and pride will translate directly to the game." Finally, there's what Hill called the "Arkham Recipe." This includes making sure that a game is fun right off the bat. Players shouldn't have to earn the right to enjoy a game. Rocksteady "believes it's our job to entertain," Hill said. "We want to make it instantly fun and accessible. ... As soon as you start playing the game, you start kicking ass." Deep core mechanics are also part of the Arkham recipe. The Batman games are celebrated for the sharp and entertaining combat mechanics. The mechanic rewards the player for the effort, and the more effort he or she puts in, the greater the reward. Hill also stressed the importance of authenticity in characters, and being true to those characters. Batman does not kill his enemies, and that could've been seen as a drawback in the development of Rocksteady's games. But instead they took advantage of that unique character trait. "Celebrate and explore the limitations of the character," said Hill. "It's what makes them unique, and if you embrace those limitations it will make your game unique."

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