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Not Really Artists: The Creative Team Behind Dishonored
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Not Really Artists: The Creative Team Behind Dishonored

July 20, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

Raf Colantonio and Harvey Smith came together out of a shared love of "very immersive first-person games with mixture of action elements, role-playing elements, stealth as a component wherever possible [and] emergent situations instead of everything hand-scripted," says Smith.

The two are co-creative directors on Dishonored, an upcoming PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC game from Bethesda, which puts you in the shoes of a supernaturally-powered assassin framed for wrongdoing. The game offers multiple solutions to its missions and takes place in a sprawling steampunk city.

In this extensive interview, the two talk to Gamasutra about the kind of game they want to make, and why; why games such as theirs center around violence and conflict; designing for emergent gameplay; and why they're "not really artists," but instead designers.

The first thing I want to talk about is world-building; you seem very determined to build a very distinctive world. First, why build something so specific and unique, and how did you go about that?

Raf Colantonio: Well, when you create a new IP, there's always a question of what kind of gameplay do we want, the values that are part of our goal, and our taste. Also, there's always what kind of game world, what kind of setting we're going for.

A lot of us have passion for trying to come up with things that we've not necessarily seen before. That's kind of how it started, and really even back then, when we really started, it was not as steampunk and crazy as it ended up to be. When we started, we thought of going traditional Europe, or New England, as an inspiration. That's how it started.

Even that was not very common, as opposed to so many games. They all have have the usual clichés that we didn't want to do. But that's just usual for us: Let's try to find a context that hasn't been seen too much. And from there you add our art director, Sebastien Mitton; you add Viktor [Antotov, visual design director] to the pile, and you're off with something very different.

Which came first: the direction of the game, or the direction of the world? How did that play back and forth?

RC: We look at the game first: the power fantasy, the nature of the game, the nature of actions you will do; that came first. We knew from the get-go that you would play a supernatural assassin. From there, we had a variety of possibilities.

Raphael Colantonio (left) and Harvey Smith.

You just used the phrase "power fantasy," and very often games are criticized for presenting power fantasies. How do you look at that, and how do you look at your job to provide that kind of thing?

Harvey Smith: The game is definitely built around the appeal of being very powerful in different ways. We cater to it, but we also cater to the opposite of it. You can play the game like guns blazing and kicking in the door, literally. That sort of thing. But, also, you can feel a different type of power: the power of sneaking, and observing people who don't even know you're there, hidden in the shadows. You're a killer, observing them as they go about their lives. Then there's even a further approach to our game where, even though it's a game about an assassin, you can literally finish the game without killing anyone.

So I guess on one level we do offer the kind of power fantasy that games are often criticized for, but we completely go above and beyond that in terms of putting choice in the hands of the player, in terms of how he wants to express himself: brutal violence or ghost-like stealth. The non-lethal track is running through the game, as well.

Do you think that the average player sitting down to a game like this is sitting down to it to live in a power fantasy -- to feel as though they're that character? Because I don't 100 percent buy that idea all of the time; at least, I don't think that it's every player who does that. But I'm curious about your thoughts on it.

HS: We have always believed that people approach games for a variety of reasons. If you talk to different people, some of them are way into the action; they don't even see the fantasy part of it as much.

A lot of criticisms of games are totally off the mark, because they focus on the fiction elements. They look at the characters; they look at the plot; they look at the setting. For a certain type of player, those things are almost irrelevant: an abstraction. I'm moving my vehicle through the obstacle field using verbs like "get to the exit" or "defeat the opposition," and that's a challenge in the same way that playing Go is a challenge. Or Chess. Nobody gives a shit about the story in Chess, right?

And then there's another type of player that cares very much about exploring the world; for them, this is a good fiction that they like -- a good setting that they find from a novel series, like their favorite series of fantasy books. They're there: they're on the ground, they're looking around, they're eavesdropping, they're reading notes left behind by people. Then there are all kinds of people in between. Players approach games for many different reasons.

Is that just a gut feeling that you have from talking to people, or talking to each other? I don't know how much of a budget this game has, but it certainly looks very robust and "triple-A." Is there a point where you have to figure out catering to these different constituencies, just to make it work as a commercial product proposition?

HS: I think we go with our intuition a lot, because we love games, but we also have a team made up of very many different types of people. They are into different aspects; some of them are way into stealth games. Some are into action games. Some are into role playing games. Some are playing games for achievements. Some are anti-achievements. Again, I think there's a variety of personalities involved, and desires, and intuitions.

I know some people have done -- not quite super-rigorous academic work on the subject -- but there are several papers on MMO players, for instance, and different types of players, and surveys of players, and what they come to the experience looking for. There are the socializers and the power-up people, and the showoff people who want to demonstrate what they've accrued over time. So I think it's partially intuition and partially observation.

Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

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John Courtwright
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It would be much more effective to write a normal piece based on this interview rather than transcribing the entire interview verbatim.

Luke Skywalker
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Effective for who?

Ole Berg Leren
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It wouldn't be as effective in bringing out their personalities. When I read a piece like this, that gives me the context the information was delivered in, and not just the hard statements, it drives my interest in the piece.

Ali Afshari
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I always enjoy what these two gentlemen have to say. It's cool that they're including a true non-lethal method to complete the game. While I loved what Eidos did with most of Deus Ex: HR, it was really off-putting to take a non-lethal approach in the boss fights, only to watch a cutscene where the boss character is bloody and dying. I've been excited for Dishonored since I found out Colantonio and Smith were on the project.

Innovation through baby steps seems like the best case scenario due to the amount of money and investor expectations in AAA titles moving forward. My lack of experience may be telling by this thought (and this may already be obvious to everyone else), but I think that the independent scene is where most of the innovation will take place, and then AAA game projects will simply glean and interpret the best gameplay features from those titles to infuse into their next blockbuster FPS. Great interview!

Keith Burgun
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It'd be cool if there was some explanation behind this "We're not really artists, we're designers" statement. To me that sounds like "I'm not really an artist, I'm a songwriter" or "I'm not really an artist, I'm a painter". How are designers not artists?

Brent Gulanowski
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The fact that we have different words for things is usually a strong indication that we use them to name different things.

Are you suggesting that a designer is a specialization of artist? Are you a designer who feels that artists get more esteem, and you envy them?

"Artist" is a term of very little use in meaningful discussions. It is a throwaway. Arguing about it is a waste of time and tends to only make people sound silly.

The idea of the artist is mostly obsolete, because it doesn't help us to communicate better. It carries too little information. It could even be called a myth. It suggests a naive understanding of how people think and create. Even "designer" is only useful as a means to distinguish from implementer, a distinction which is, as often as not, imaginary.

Once upon a time, people believed that creative people went into their studio, dreamed up genius, and then bestowed it upon a grateful world in a wholly formed artistic statement. That's not how it works, not how it ever actually worked, and it's time to let that myth pass away.

Vincent Hyne
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I really hope Bethesda spends some big marketing dollars on this game.

We need more Deus Ex's, Thiefs, Dark Messiah's, etc.

The game looks top tier, and it would be a pretty great thing if it succeeded financially. It's stuff like this that should be drawing in Call of Duty revenue... in an ideal world anyway.

Brent Gulanowski
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Enjoy your exceptional tastes! Appreciate the fact that your tastes are exceptional. Because it's likely you yourself are exceptional, too. In an ideal world, the laws of probability still hold.

Of course, there are economic laws that could be exploited by game publishers to solve this problem. Would you pay an exceptional price for an exceptional game? Does it strike you as odd that a game marketed at an audience of 100 million is sold for the same price as one marketed at at audience of ten million, or one million, when the production budgets are similar?