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Rocksteady's Sefton Hill Unmasks Batman: Arkham Asylum
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Rocksteady's Sefton Hill Unmasks Batman: Arkham Asylum

October 19, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

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.

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Tim Huntsman
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Great article. Interesting insight into how you approached the essence of your character and made design decisions based on what supports what core.

It's also good to see the argument "Less is More" reiterated--that can be a hard notion to get across to certain groups.

Sylviano Dolce
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Funny he mentions a cutscene mustn't show some action because it would frustrate players, that's exaclty what happens in the last cutscene : we as player totally wanted to do ingame what batman did :(

Eddie Vertigo
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Batman: Arkham Asylum was a fantastic game, one of the few games I will keep in my collection permanently, and I truly hope they make a sequel.

Chris Ainsworth
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"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."

I love that idea.

Trent Kusters
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"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."

Well, that just makes me want to end it all right now. In the time they were prototyping we'd released four games for 5 different platforms.

What I would give to be in a position to be able to have that much attention to R&D. Phenomenal. To all those at Rocksteady; please realise how extremely rare this is and be appreciative, always.