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'Feels like a different life': Arkane's Colantonio on going from  Arx Fatalis  to  Prey

'Feels like a different life': Arkane's Colantonio on going from Arx Fatalis to Prey

February 15, 2017 | By Alex Wawro

February 15, 2017 | By Alex Wawro
More: Console/PC, Indie, Design, Production

Arkane Studios' Raphael Colantonio is probably best known among developers today for his work on Dishonored with fellow co-creative director Harvey Smith. 

But by the time Dishonored shipped in 2012 Colantonio had already been working at Arkane for over a decade, leading development of games like Arx Fatalis and Dark Messiah of Might & Magic. 

These games, made back before the French studio was acquired by Bethesda parent company ZeniMax and expanded with a sister studio in Austin, failed to achieve high-profile commercial success -- to this day, Colantonio is quick to acknowledge Arx was "full of bugs."

What they did achieve, though, was attracting communities of players passionate about the games' mechanics and systems-driven design.

As Colantonio now prepares to ship Arkane's latest project, Prey, Gamasutra sat down with him to briefly chat about the projects he's shaped over the years, and how they've in turn shaped his approach to making games. 

So you gave a presentation at the 2006 Montreal Game Summit -- this was ages ago -- and you talked about your experience building a small indie studio in a world of big-budget game companies.

Colantonio: Yeah, with Gamasutra, actually.

So it's been over a decade since then. Arkane is pretty big now, and split across continents. How does it feel?

"We seem disorganized and like we don't know what we're doing, but I think it's part of a process and I really think that it's something that we now embrace and accept."

Feels like a different life. Well, it feels yet so far, and at the same time so recent. It's funny how time works in people's head; in many ways we still feel like this little unknown company that just started a few years ago. Even now, like people say, "So what are you working on?"

"Oh, Dishonored."

"Oh, yeah, I played that game!"

"Yeah, sure." That's how I feel. You're just saying that to be polite, you know?

But yeah, it took a while, but it's great. It shows that with determination and believing in what you do, eventually it works out.

How has the working environment changed? I think fellow devs would be curious to know what it was like, going from one studio to two, each with their own separate projects.

I think it works out for us because it was such a slow incremental process. It took us seventeen years to go from one game - one studio, to two games - two studios.

So it's been a very very meticulous adding one piece at a time. You look at how many people we add a year, it's really not much. So at the end now it's very different even though it felt natural, because Dishonored was made between Lyon and Austin; that was probably the weirdest move for us.

I can't remember exactly how many people we had in Austin and how many we had in Lyon, but it was like two teams -- slightly bigger in Lyon. That was a real weird move and then after that, once we were done just adding people on both ends started to almost feel like you were managing two different studios at that point.

But we're still sharing the same DNA for game design; it's like the cousin that went to a different country and evolved their own way. Because you can still recognize the styles in both games, right? In Dishonored 2 and Prey, even though they're not the same team behind it.

Do you miss having that small studio focus?

Sure, yeah. It's different; when you're ten in the same room and just yell across the room because you need some file or whatever, it's not the same thing as when you have to input it in some software that goes into a list of tasks that maybe one day will be read by someone on the other side of the building.

So I do miss it, but I think we still manage to maintain the same culture and passion because we -- I think we have a very strong culture and we know why we're doing what we do, so we hire people that embrace the same values and they hire people with the same passions. So if you ask anyone at Arcane, most of them know why they're doing what they're doing, even though it's a pretty big team now.

Do you have any specific techniques or processes that you put in place to maintain that sort of culture? 

Yeah, I can think of two things -- well three things. One, recruiting is very, very important. We are very, very picky.

I think the second thing is, we have a few values that are important to us. One of them is player choice, for example. So for each game that we do, Dishonored was the same and it's the same now with Prey, we have some little posters that we place everywhere in the office with the name of those values and an example and why it's important to us. Like mantras, almost. Then people wherever they go for a break or lunch or something they see this thing on the wall that would say "multi-solutions" or--

Motivational posters.

Yeah, motivational posters. That's two, and three I would say the leads, who you choose to represent what you want for the team and the game, making sure that they are really in alignment with you and they will perpetrate that culture.

Sure. I know some team leaders who do things like regular team lunches or dinners to help build studio cultures they can rely upon. But that's usually with teams of like ten or twelve people. If you have thirty or forty in your studio...

Yeah, you can't. And funnily enough we've never been so much into those things at Arkane. Like you know there are those big corporate companies that take everybody to Disney World or something. We're just, everybody does what they want to do. Some actually gather together because they want to play some RPG -- you know, Role-Playing --

Tabletop games, yeah.

But this is nothing we enforce. It's strange, we don't do the lunches and all this stuff.

Ahh, everybody's different. Do you yourself ever play tabletop role-playing games?

Not anymore. I used to play Cthulhu, actually, more than Dungeons and Dragons.

You played Call of Cthulhu?

Uh-huh, yeah.

I'm impressed. That's a rough game to play; everybody loses at the end.

Yeah, exactly. Maybe that's why I like it. The tensions between wanting to progress and not wanting to progress because you know that you are a cooler character now, but you're sooner to die.

Playing those games, did that inform your approach to videogame development at all? The way you run teams or the way you design levels or anything like that?

Probably, yeah. Yes, because, in fact, even to this day, if I design a piece of level because I want to highlight a situation that is important to me, I will actually use -- how do you say?

Graph paper.

Yeah, I will still use that with the same kind of iconography that you do on the Dungeon and Dragons.

I think that stuff's fascinating, but before we fall down that rabbit hole I should ask: now that you're wrapping up work on Prey, what have you learned from it that you'll take forward to other projects?

In the specific case of Prey? There's many lessons...on the positive side, I do think that it's really confirmed our approach to multilayered system development where we just develop a system out of context, just with the tools, and we drop it in the simulation and let it live and see what happens. Usually it spawns new ideas.

So you have an AI, for example, that you did not have before and you just give it a few rules and as it's in the game and starts to interact with the rest of the simulation and something weird happens. It pushes objects, for example -- you never thought of that. And because of that it creates some new gameplay, some new opportunities.

So we rely a lot on that and it's actually a really cool way to make games because it falls back to player expectations, I think, in the way that when these things happen, "Oh, you know what? Since this thing happens maybe we should support it and actually do this, this this." As opposed to having some sort of plan from the get-go and then just follow the plan.

So I think that's a technique that...we seem disorganized and like we don't know what we're doing, but I think it's part of a process and I really think that it's something that we now embrace and accept as mythology for us.

Yeah, like the Mimic enemies early on in Prey -- Is that an example of a thing you tested, a creature that can crawl and hide and transform into objects? Where did that even come from?

Initially, it was just we thought it would be cool to have a creature that actually turned into things to hide because we have full ecology for our aliens and how they work and each of them have a role. So the role of the Mimic was to be a scout: it scouts around to gather energy, hides, turns into things. Turning into things came as a later idea. Like, "It hides." 

"Okay, how does it hide?"

"Well, you know it goes into corners and it waits for you to show up and jumps you."

Okay, that's a cool idea. Then someone had an idea, I don't remember who. "What if it turned into objects? If it actually picked an object in that room and turned into the object?"

"Oh wow, that's awesome." So we did that. Then that led to another thing because as we were developing this game we also started to think, "How are we going to acquire the powers?"

"Well, what would be really awesome would be if you could steal the powers from the enemies." So we started down that route of, "You can steal this or that." And sometime in a meeting we said, "Hey, hold on. If we can steal the powers, really we should be able to turn into objects as well."

As we said that, half of the room was terrified by the idea because it means, "Oh god, this is going to be -- maybe ridiculous, maybe silly, maybe super-hard to implement," because now you are a small thing in the world are the physics going to handle that? The other half was super-excited about that and people started to laugh about it. So that's what I mean by the game designed itself.

It's like a painting where you know where you're going more or less, but not exactly, and as you're painting and you realize that the blue of the sky over there should actually reflect on that corner over there. And so at the end the painting becomes really defined as you go.

So how do you balance the needs of that creative process with the demands of operating a business?

I think if you look at the leader, you will know what is the culture of the company. In our case it started with game design, game designers, so our very first game [Arx Fatalis] is very game design-oriented. Not very technological. It crashes all the time, is not very production-ready and full of bugs.

I remember thinking it was very neat, though, with stuff like the gesture commands for casting spells.

Right, right. It's neat, but it was not very marketable. It was not ready for the market, and I think as we grew we started to accept other disciplines a little better. So now I think we've reached a balance where we have strong production, strong art, strong tech, while at the same time still maintaining the strong design.

I still think design will always win at the end of the day if there's a conflict between, "Should this game be polished or should it be designed?" I'll still push for the fun thing, rather than the polish. And maybe it's a mistake. It did bite me in the ass a few times, but at some point as you grow you have to...well, now we are also part of Bethesda. So there's a lot of money involved in these games. We cannot just make games in a vacuum and not care about it. So I had to give more and more power to production and et cetera. But unfortunately for everyone I am also the president of the company, so.....

It's tricky. It means that I will always have a personal push for creativity over any of the other disciplines. But I also try to be mindful about it and not run the company against the wall.

I think a lot of devs face the same problem. I should ask also, I notice it's not the same engine as Dishonored 2. You went with CryEngine, right?


Why choose to go with someone else's engine rather than something you build yourself?

Because in fact, when you look back to when we started Dishonored 2, which was a little before we started Prey, actually, we were faced with a few challenges. In the case of Dishonored, our biggest challenge was to make the technology work. Because we knew what game we were going to do, but we did not have an engine for it. Back then the CryTek engine was not ready.

So we said, okay, this is our try is going to be to make our own engine. Because we know what the game is and and we have to make a new team. So that was enough challenge already.

And then you look at Prey, we were not wanting to add some more burden on the Dishonored 2 team because Dishonored 2, we had to to make our own engine there. Now with the same engine if you have to make two games, that would be multiplying the challenges. So [for Prey], the challenge was more like, let's take an engine that we know exists and is solid that we have and tackle a new challenge which is inventing a game.

It's essentially a new type of game, even though it's Prey, it's still a new IP in a way. So it's just risk management, and choosing the right thing. So, you know I was saying your company culture informs how you work, like in my case it's all creative, but at the same time, in this case it was a lot of production calls. We have to be logical.

Yeah, but I do think it's surprising you'd want to avoid having everyone working on the same tech. Whereas I feel an organization like EA, which is obviously much bigger, they're making an effort to bring all of their stuff into one engine.

Yeah, I'm not sure why because it's only a million dollars for those -- It's nothing secret here. The cost of an engine is about a million dollars. Any engine that you can buy and I honestly can't remember how much we payed on the case of CryTek, but it doesn't justify -- It's not a big win to say, "Well, we're going to unify all our games onto one engine." It seems more risky and more of a constraint for teams.

In fact, the entire Bethesda organization, everytime we try starting a game, they never care. They always ask us, "What engine do you want to use?" It doesn't matter if we want to use our engine, some new engine. It's a cost. If you make your own engine it's going to cost you something. If you buy one it's going to cost you something. There is a cost -- I can understand why some people want to unify everything because this way they can have their teams that know how to use their tools. Once you know the production pipeline of an engine you can reuse that for every time. So there is some sort of a save.

But at the end of the day there are so many constraints as well to use -- I know a publisher that now went under who were obsessed with using the unified engine across all their teams all their studios all over the world. It drove them to their death, because it's more constraint on the developers than there is any benefit.

I honestly think it's an ideology and it's a political idea that sounds beautiful. "Well, we'll put our efforts combined into one thing. Then we can share technology between studios." It sounds beautiful, but it never works.

So let's talk about beauty, for a sec. What is one thing you hope fellow game developers see in this game? Is there a certain level, or a mechanic, or a little production trick you did somewhere?

Well, your question has multiple facets to it. One could be, "What is it that they will praise us for?" The other one would be, "What there is that hopefully will inspire them?" So the inspiring thing -- As a player, I want to play more games that are real-life simulations and let me play the way I want and give me an experience that I feel I own, as opposed to something very directed. There are some games that do that, but there's also a lot of games that go somewhere else.

So I want to see more and more games that allow me -- Because that's the difference between a movie and a game, I think. So the more games that are simulations, the more fun it is to me. So I hope some future generations are going to go deeper in that genre.

As far as the thing I hope people recognize, I think it's the complexity of making a new world. Everything is designed in this world. The chairs, the tables, everything is designed -- The fashion. So I'm sure the artists and storytellers will have a chance to appreciate the amount of work that was put into the researching the background of the world and how it works.

Yeah, you had the idea for this long before you decided to use the Prey name, right? Do you remember any of the names you were originally going to use?

There were many and I think one of them was after the name of the alien race themselves, which is the "Typhon." So then we started to think, "Hold on, people aren't going to know if it's with an i, a y, is it ph, is it f?" So at the end of the day Prey was actually a pretty solid name.

Yeah, it's easy to spell, short. So if you had to give one piece of advice to fellow game developers, given your time in the industry, what would you say now?

You know, I think we're at a fascinating phase because there's way many more propositions than there ever was before. Now you can play mobile, different types of formats of games, like the indie games for $20 or the AAA for more. I think it's a great time to succeed. Better than when there was only one channel.

Now, there's more noise as well so it's hard to get through this noise. And also the other thing that I notice is that people give less importance to how amazing is your graphics. That I think is a great, great opportunity for developers to focus on their message, whether it's artistic message or gameplay message, rather than the form so much. Because we've been so blinded by trying to get the latest technology, the latest shader, the latest detail that costs a fortune. It's a big distraction from what really matters in the game. So I hope people focus on the art intentions and the gameplay intentions more than the technology, and how amazing the graphics are.

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