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Analysis: How  Batman: Arkham Asylum  Used The Element Of Surprise

Analysis: How Batman: Arkham Asylum Used The Element Of Surprise

September 28, 2009 | By Kris Graft

September 28, 2009 | By Kris Graft
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[Batman: Arkham Asylum director Sefton Hill says that skepticism of superhero games helped Rocksteady and Eidos take gamers by surprise. Gamasutra's Kris Graft examines the curse of the licensed superhero game and the effects of hype and expectations.]

Like stringing up a thug from a gargoyle using an inverted takedown, Eidos and Rocksteady's Batman: Arkham Asylum took a lot of people by surprise. And that says something about hype, expectations, and the state of the licensed superhero game.

Just try Googling "Batman: Arkham Asylum Surprise", and you'll see game reviewers make comments like this: "Batman: Arkham Asylum a welcome surprise" (sfgate.com); "Batman: Arkham Asylum a very pleasant surprise" (vsuspectator.com); Arkham Asylum has pleasant surprises to spare" (nytimes.com); "Arkham Asylum is the surprise game of the year" (thunderboltgames.com).

Why is everyone so surprised? Batman was created decades before the conception of video games, yet the superhero embodies so many components used in modern interactive entertainment -- stealth, shooting (though not firearms), puzzle-solving, hand-to-hand combat, and a persona of general badassery. He's the perfect centerpiece for a multi-faceted video game.

But hardly any game developer has got him right. So many Batman games, outside of Traveller's Tales' recent Lego Batman and Sunsoft's 1989 Batman for the NES, were pretty forgettable. Other Batman games like Electronic Arts' 2005 Batman Begins, Ubisoft's 2003 Batman: Rise of Sin Tzu, and Kemco's Batman: Dark Tomorrow from 2003 (to name just a few) didn't exactly set a strong standard for Batman games. Batman games haven't typically been disgustingly bad, but just woefully uninspired.

People had no high hopes for a genuinely good Batman game. Batman: Arkham Asylum developer Rocksteady thinks it inadvertently benefited from that apathy. "I think [skepticism] did help us to a certain extent," said Sefton Hill, Batman: Arkham Asylum's director, in a phone call with Gamasutra.

When a publisher announces that they're working on a game based in the Batman universe, there's no sense of excitement. We've been conditioned as gamers to routinely expect a good amount of superhero fodder that's meant as more of a brand name cash-in for a publisher than an engaging interactive experience.

But when the first images of Batman: Arkham Asylum emerged, even at an early stage, webgoers were pleasantly surprised by the game's detailed graphics and Rocksteady's unique interpretation of Batman characters. About a year later, the demo hit Xbox Live, PlayStation Network, and PC, and forum denizens commented on the tight combat mechanics. From those initial screenshots to gamers' hands-on reactions to the game, it was word-of-mouth buzz that really pushed Batman: Arkham Asylum into gamers' collective consciousness. Then the game launched in August.

Surprise! It was not only decent, but actually really good. Reviews arrived, and Batman: Arkham Asylum is now garnering a review average of 92 percent on Metacritic.

That's not to say that Batman: Arkham Asylum got rave reviews and sold 2.5 million units simply because people were expecting a steaming pile of guano. It's an exceptional game that delves into Batman's world-class detective skills, his psyche, and his relationships with other characters, as well as his oft-visited penchant for martial arts.

"I think it's always a pleasing thing when you get your hands on something and it's actually better than what you thought it would be," Hill said. "That's always a really pleasant experience. When people got their hands on Batman: Arkham Asylum, they were pleasantly surprised that there was a lot more there -- that it was a Batman game, but it was also a good game."

It's not just the preceding parade of mediocre Batman games that lowered peoples' expectations for Batman: Arkham Asylum. It's the curse of the licensed superhero video game that has permeated through some of the worst pieces of interactive entertainment -- the curse that has afflicted everything from Iron Man and X-O Manowar In Heavy Metal and Fantastic Four on PlayStation to the embarrassing Superman 64. These days, the influx of blockbuster superhero films each come with a video game tie-in that was developed under very tight time constraints -- and those games often wouldn't stand up without their movie license. So it's no wonder people are surprised when a licensed superhero game comes out and it's been crafted with real care.

It brings up old questions about expectations and the hype machine -- if marketers have the ability to build up hype for a game to insane levels, should they do it? Would Batman: Arkham Asylum's reception have been as good if gamer expectations were substantially higher? It's not as if Eidos didn't try to hype up the game. The publisher was able to get the game on several video game magazine covers, there was an interesting viral campaign, and the game certainly had a presence in the media.

But expectations among gamers were still tempered. When Eidos head of UK marketing Jon Brooke said in April this year that the game "is as close to perfect as we've ever come," people didn't believe him. It was a licensed game from a developer whose only other game was the solid yet relatively obscure Urban Chaos. It was a scenario where gamers were thinking, "Yeah it looks good so far -- but there has got to be a catch. It is a superhero game."

From a developer's standpoint, how much hype is too much hype? "I think it's a fine line to walk," Hill said. "You want people to be excited as possible about the game that you're making. I think there is a natural skepticism maybe with superhero games generally not living up to expectations in the past."

Now people have big expectations for Rocksteady. "Obviously, whatever Rocksteady does next, it's going to be a really big challenge for us," Hill said. For now, his studio is enjoying the success of Batman: Arkham Asylum. Hopefully developers and publishers of superhero games are watching this game's reception, both critically and commercially, and taking careful notes on how to carefully craft a superhero game that hits on all the strengths of the superhero at hand. It's time to end the curse.


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