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Interview: The Surprising Challenge Of Balancing Batman
Interview: The Surprising Challenge Of Balancing Batman
July 1, 2011 | By Frank Cifaldi

July 1, 2011 | By Frank Cifaldi
More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing

Batman as a character has seen many interpretations over the last 72 years, but it wasn't until 2009's Batman: Arkham Asylum that a video game incarnation stayed true to the flawed, human nature of its source material.

Two years later, London's Rocksteady Studios is set to release Arkham City, a vastly expanded sequel that not only further explores the character, but a bulk of his supporting cast as well, putting the studio into a delicate balancing act that forces them to consider how to best implement Batman's iconic rogues gallery in a way that makes sense from a gameplay perspective.

We recently sat down with Rocksteady's enthusiastic marketing manager Dax Ginns to discuss how the studio handles such an iconic franchise, its relationship with Batman's IP holders and creators, and its strict "interviewing schedule" for including characters from Batman's universe in the game in a way that makes sense for a video game.

Batman is an incredibly iconic, sort of holy brand for a lot of people, one that is open to a lot of interpretation and is easy to get "wrong." How is the IP maintained and handled in your games, and what is your relationship to Warner Bros. in that regard?

There's sort of three pieces to the puzzle. There's Rocksteady, there's Warner Bros. and then there's DC Comics. The great news for everyone is that there's a lot of energy and a lot of passion from all of those three groups about Arkham, and the creative decisions that we're all collectively making. So it's not a question of us coming up with stupid ideas and then trying to get them approved, we have pretty much developed a sixth sense for the stuff that is right for us and right for Batman as an iconic brand.

So we do the conceptual development, we present that to Warner Bros. and DC comics and if there's any issues that are too contentious or aren't appropriate, then that discussion is had in a very polite and respectful way, you know? This is not a red rubber stamping process. We have pretty much constant creative collaborative discussions and conversations between the three of us. We work through issues and we get great results.

Batman as a character has been interpreted in a lot of ways across just about every medium. Can you speak to Rocksteady's specific vision of Batman, and why it's right for an interactive experience?

Across the board there's different kind of criteria for that interpretation. Obviously Batman has got some pretty rigid pillars. There's certain principles that we abide by, not because we have to but because that's what makes Batman, Batman.

So it's brilliant to be able to rely on the things that make him such a brilliant character and explore them; not just Batman as a man, Batman as a hero, but also Batman as this quite traumatized adult with his very difficult childhood that still kicks up these demons in his day-to-day existence. So there's a lot of incredibly interesting stuff that comes out of that.

Speaking of Batman's traumatized past, if I'm not mistaken you are the first game developer to really delve into the psyche of the character. How do you balance showing that while also making the player feel like an unstoppable badass?

It's definitely a balancing act. We know that the combat system that we developed for Arkham Asylum just works beautifully moving out into the streets of Gotham, so feeling like a badass is a really important thing. Feeling powerful, feeling like you can dominate any situation that you find yourself in, is a great sort of set of ingredients that we aim to achieve whenever Batman finds himself in a combat scenario.

But this is not a fighting game, you know? This is a game where the atmosphere changes, the pace changes depending on what you choose to do and how the story is unfolding. So we've put an incredible amount of work into backstories that describe how these characters got into Arkham City, what their relationships with Batman are, what their agendas are within the prison.

And so we look to those back stories, those sort of narrative paths that don't necessarily appear in the game, but we've written them so that we can guarantee ourselves that everything that we do is consistent.

How about the supporting cast? Are you able to supplant any Batman character into your universe and make it a video game character, or do you have to carefully choose which ones work? What is that process like?

Yeah, we definitely do have a pretty rigorous interviewing schedule for these characters, you know? We don't just draw villains in just for headcount. The question that we ask ourselves is what do they bring? And if that doesn't have an interesting answer then there's not a lot of reason for us to add that villain.

Someone like Riddler is obviously doing very different things in a place like Arkham City when compared to someone like Two Face, so unless the presence of that villain can draw interesting gameplay out of Batman, then there's no further consideration given to their inclusion. If I think about what Riddler's done in Arkham Asylum, his strategy of verbal abuse didn't really work then, and he's extracting his revenge against Batman for the humiliation that he suffered.

We are, through him, giving ourselves the flexibility to spec out a whole new range of much more physical, much more threatening mortal challenges that he's constructed that lay on top of the verbal challenges, the puzzles, these quizzes that he sets on Batman. So that personality interpretation of Riddler opens the door to new gameplay opportunities for us, and characters have to meet that criteria before they'll be included in the game.

Something that you've discussed in the past with this game is that you want to bring the player a little closer to the marquee characters, to actually interact with them as opposed to have them locked behind walls or confined to cutscenes. Is that something that you determined was sort of lacking in the last game?

It's something that games often have difficulty doing simply because a big character like Penguin or Joker or Riddler or whatever is usually treated as boss encounter. And you don't just walk up to a boss and floor them with one punch, but in actuality if Batman was going to throw a punch at the Riddler, he would knock him out. So we wanted to design around that problem so that we could still offer up that intimacy, that connection between Batman and the villains that he creates without just completely ripping the guts out of any gameplay potential that would be born out of that encounter.

So we use a number of different techniques in order to achieve that. In the case of the Riddler, he's got such incredible presence for someone who has no presence, right? If you're in his realm he'll be projected on the side of a wall, and he's just taunting you all the time. I think that's kind of a nice, very emotional connection where you really cannot wait to get your hands around his neck. That's the sort of things we're talking about, that's the intimacy we're really talking about.

They're humans. They're mortal. Batman's a mortal guy, but he's a total badass, so we've got to make sure that all of a sudden someone like Riddler doesn't just develop superhuman strength because it makes gameplay sense. No. Riddler is a smart guy but he's not a powerhouse, and so the combat between Batman and Riddler exists on the intellectual level.

[Batman comic and animation veteran] Paul Dini is writing your script, right?


Can you describe the world building on Rocksteady's part versus the writing on his part? Does he come up with scenarios, or do you feed him scenarios and he writes the dialogue?

It really is a marriage. There's no point doing either of those two things in isolation. We've obviously got some pretty good gameplay ideas that we feel pretty confident that we can make great gameplay experiences, but it's important that the authenticity is there, so working with Paul Dini, we've got ourselves a great situation.

We can say look, this is what we want to do. How can you make that work within Batman's universe? And so he will then give us narrative and give us backstory that allows us to do what we want to do, but in a way that is absolutely genuine and true to everything that he knows about Batman's world and there's no one better than him.

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Nick Harris
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A lot can be done to convey a strong protagonist (Batman / James Bond / Samus Aran) by an ergonomic layout for the gamepad providing the player with easy access to movement and combat alternatives. This is enhanced by responsive feedback from the enemies in the game so it is absolutely clear you affected them. Hit animations may produce exaggerated rag-doll responses, histrionic screams, or spattered alien ooze in order to persuade you that you did something less abstract than squeeze a plastic trigger or thumb a button.

Third-person perspective games should allocate extra time in the project for orchestrating the movements of a dramatic free-floating camera, or bring it under the player's control in such a way that it is not placed in awkward opposition to frequently used controls that require the use of the same thumb (e.g. RS vs. the face buttons).

HUD elements break immersion by reminding the player that they are in a game, so avoid showing a score for killing an enemy (Call of Duty), the hit points that it lost due to your spell cast, or XP gained. Make the player remember how many bullets are left in their pistol, or have some way of checking the chamber or, if using an automatic, pulling out the magazine. Alternatively, put an ammo counter in the gun itself (Halo). It is, however, always acceptable to have a HUD if you have a HUD - i.e. you are flying a fighter jet or Apache helicopter, or are wearing battle armour with some special visor (e.g. Metroid Prime, Halo, or Dead Space).

With the core mechanics polished and laying claim to the "best" buttons / triggers / sticks / gestures all that remains can be used for the remainder of the game - which may be the most important part from a story perspective. Batman's detective mode, or Catwoman's night vision may require a comparatively awkward Back button to toggle it on / off (NOTE: I don't know what gets used here, I'm saying what should be given the likelihood that everything else has been already allocated to those actions where good ergonomics is an imperative as to do otherwise would be to make the protagonist seem inarticulate and clumsy). Somehow, Master Chief goes through the entire Halo trilogy without needing to open a door, this is because (unlike 007 in Goldeneye), other priorities took precedence and Bungie ran out of buttons. James Bond cannot crouch "orthogonally" to the unrelated action of Aiming, largely due to the lack of buttons on the N64 gamepad, but Rare didn't make the mistake of regarding this as more important than Action / Reload or Cycle Weapons. DICE's Battlefield: Bad Company has RS click for Crouch, whilst another of their games unusually uses LT so that you can use the face buttons for sliding melee attacks (Mirror's Edge).

The ramifications of these core gameplay choices have an immense impact on whether the player feels disabled, or empowered - and it is always better to pick the latter and then compensate by having multiple enemies, flanking AI, patrols that go on general alert when one of their squad fails to check-in, even retreat in the face of the stealthy attrition from an unseen adversary. Finding them too hard? Call in the helicopter gunship. Use gas. Seal the doors and flood the submarine...

So, in summary:

Core controls first and then those needed for the gameplay after the mechanics get polished.

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As a fan of the comics/graphic novels since the 90s, it was truly a blessing to get a game like this. Can't wait to play Arkham City. I remember when Rocksteady was still working on Urban Chaos ^_^. Really great to see them get the spotlight.

Eric Kwan
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Arkham Asylum is an amazing game, and while I am stoked for Arkham City, I wouldn't mind seeing Rocksteady's interpretation of other DC characters (one thing I've always wished for was a bonus mode in Arkham Asylum where you can play as Superman. It would be over in seconds, since Supes could just fly through the electric wall and grab Joker, but it would have still been fun to see, I think).

Aaron Truehitt
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I'm sure Joker would have some ghastly tricks and jokes for Superman involving kyrptonite.

Richard Vaught
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Aaron, I know this is off topic, but I love you avatar. One of my favorite games.

Cheers for good taste!