Batman: Arkham City Creator Sefton Hill On The Secrets Of Successful Game Design

At the Design, Innovate, Communicate, Entertain Conference in Las Vegas, Sefton Hill, game director and co-founder at Rocksteady Studios, developers of the popular Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City games took to the stage to talk about the video game development theory at Rocksteady, offering up the five simple strategies of their studio that helped shape these two licensed games for Warner Bros. Interactive. While designing games isn’t something that can be easily be picked up from reading a list of key components, these building blocks should be helpful for anyone out there looking to get into game development.

Read on for Rocksteady’s 5 simple strategies for people looking to develop games.

Rapid Prototyping

Everything they do is in-game, rather than using pre-viz or storyboards. Instead, they do everything in the game engine itself so they can sit there and pull it apart, work with it, change it, and move forward. In their opinion, gameplay needs to be played and iterated quickly to move game design forward. They also believe that ideas have a life force, or their own energy and momentum. Rapid prototyping means that you get these ideas quickly into the game to see how well it works. You always run into problems with any idea, and at this stage it’s important to remember what got you excited about that idea in the first place. You want to crystallize this idea and get it into the game as quickly as possible.

According to Hill, slow iteration is a killer because you don’t have the “buzz” to solve ideas and make them work if you move slowly. The riskier the idea, the more problems you’ll have, and the more momentum and energy you need to push those ideas through. So the shorter the gap between your ideas and their implementation, the better your game. How you take ideas from meetings and put them into games is up to you, but the key is to do it quickly. Hill told the audience, “If you do shorter that gap, your games will improve.”

Smart Foundations

You are in control. Players will except the rules in your game as long as they are consistent, fun, and fair. One of the most important things is to chose foundations that allow you to focus on what is important in your games. For example, in Arkham Asylum, Rocksteady streamed together a series of rooms as areas, rather than approaching the entire layout of the Asylum as a whole. That allowed them to look at each room in isolation to see if it fit into the game, almost like LEGO bricks, and make changes to them accordingly. In Arkham City, their goal was to create a rich and intense gameplay experience, and what they ended up with was something that they jokingly called, “The World’s Smallest Open World Game.” Every square foot of the game can be filled with handcrafted content, but it can still be broken down into sections and they can see what works or doesn’t work.

Choosing a premise can make a massive difference to the amount of effort you have to put into designing your gameplay. Batman is so powerful, so that the puzzles they tried to create in Arkham Asylum were almost too easy. But when they came to Arkham City, they wanted to introduce more puzzles which is why they brought in the Riddler Rooms as it seemed like a perfect match to the gameplay, and it works with the fiction. “All of our efforts translated into the gameplay.” Hill said, “Making games is hard enough, so you should create rules which allow you to focus all of your energy on what counts.”

Constantly Re-Evaluate

Every game is made up of varying features of different quality. The standout features are what you’re excited about, but you also have weaknesses or features that aren’t quite there yet. You might be behind the competition in these areas. This leads to decision time. What will be your strategy moving forward? What usually happens is that your best features get a bit better, your bad features improve a bit, and you’re left with a fairly middle-of-the-road game.

Rocksteady does the opposite by focusing only on the standout features. Often they will just design the weak features out. With the Arkham games, some gadgets were combined together, while others were just eliminated. Focus on your strengths, not your weaknesses. Improve or remove. You do need to have an understanding publisher for this, but you can help with this by explaining how things will get better after you remove certain features. The features that you don’t do are just as important as the ones you do. If it’s going to take away from the game, then not doing that feature is an important decision. “When you’ve got a great feature, make it better! These are the things that make your game stand out.”

Psychic Powers

How do you understand and second-guess what your audience will want? This requires playing the guessing game. What does the market want? You do this by trying to channel different types of gamers. What does the casual player think? What will a hardcore gamer want? This ends up making you creatively paralyzed while you tie yourself in knots trying to please everyone at the same time.

You need to ask “What excites me?” You want to make the game that you want to play. This creates passion and pride both in yourself and your team, and it will translate directly into the game. Hill said, “In my mind, this is what really resonates in player’s minds. When they pick it up and play it, they can feel that passion and pride in the design.” You have to remember that you’re making the game you want to play, but as if you weren’t involved in making the game. This is an easy trap to fall into. It has to be a version of you that doesn’t know about the game yet.

The Arkham Recipe

These are the elements that Rocksteady used to make Arkham Asylum and Arkham City:

  • Constantly Fun and Accessible: This is to draw the player in immediately
  • Deep Core Mechanics: Once they’re drawn in, how do we keep them in? We introduce new enemy types that require new mechanics to beat them. It’s challenging, but fun at the same time, and has a reward as well as it keeps moving the story forward.
  • Complementary Orthogonal Design: What we’re really looking at is a series of mechanics that complement each other, but don’t step on each other’s toes. In the Batman games you have Predator gameplay, Riddler gameplay, Story gameplay, Navigational gameplay, and Combat gameplay. All of those things are designed to push the player in different ways, but they don’t supersede each other. “Designing the components of your game to complement each other is really what you want to do.”
  • Authentic. “Authenticity is a massive driver in every decision we make.”  You want to embrace your restraints and remain true to them. Batman can’t kill anyone, and this means that they had to come up with ways of making him feel powerful without killing anyone. As game designers, you should celebrate and explore the limitations of your character as this is what makes them unique. This matters whether you’re making a licensed game or not. What made the character exciting to you? What attracted you to them? You can choose the history and background of your character. Make it special in a way that creates special gameplay. And if it happens to be licensed, make it special in a way that captures that magic.

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