Studio co-founder Sefton Hill on arrogance, humility and the Arkham ethos
POW! It’s the trumpet-accompanied sound of a haymaker punch to the face made famous by the haunting Batman TV series in the ‘60s. It’s also the noise of a sudden, powerful explosion – one which, as it happens, is a far more suitable description for Batman Arkham Asylum developer Rocksteady Studios.
The games market had been subjected to an astounding chain of mediocre Batman games throughout the late eighties, nineties and beyond. While the movie world’s Caped Crusader rose, froze and was born again in the space of sixteen years, the Batman games were dependably poor.
Even Christopher Nolan’s grand revival of Batman cinema wasn’t enough to immediately spark a creative approach to the interactive tie-ins. Batman games were themselves becoming a definition, of poorly-handled movie licences and missed opportunities that in this day wouldn’t have escaped flowchart mockery.
And then, POW! Rocksteady Studios delivers Arkham Asylum squarely onto the face with one of the most unexpectedly enjoyable movie-games since GoldenEye. The London outfit goes on to win triumphant review scores and numerous accolades, and last month added two Develop Awards to its trophy cabinet.
Rocksteady has exploded onto the scene since its calm beginnings back in 2004. The studio’s co-founder, Sefton Hill, tells us that the first Arkham project started with 35 staff. Today, now owned by Warner Bros, the studio has twice the workforce in place for the game’s sequel, Arkham City. In the Q&A below, Hill takes us through the studio’s design philosophy and how it is dealing with rocketing expectations.
Rocksteady has won a string of awards, including two Develop Awards, since the release of Arkham Asylum. How do you feel the studio has achieved this?
As the developer it’s always really hard to explain why; we just put our games out there and hope people enjoy it.
I think what people really appreciated was our respect for the Batman licence and the character. We felt our game was a chance to really experience what it was like to be this amazing Batman character.
I think that’s what we did that’s a bit different from other superhero games. We didn’t have any excuses because we were designing a Batman game. We simply wanted to show you what it is like to be this powerful, and vulnerable character. And it’s that duality of Batman that’s really fascinating, he’s powerful but he’s a person. He’s vulnerable. I’d like to think we were authentic to that character trait.
How big an advantage was it to not have the Batman project tied to the film licence?
It was great for us that we weren’t tied to the film licence. There’s just so much Batman history beyond its films, and we drew ideas from all of that.
Warner Bros said to us, ‘there are decades of Batman history, go and embrace it.’ That was obviously very liberating. There’s obviously a lot of things that Batman can’t do, but those sort of things aren’t restrictive to the development of the game like a film licence is; those sort of things more define him more as a character.
Batman’s own limitations made us approach the game’s design in different ways. Batman doesn’t kill, he doesn’t use guns in a gun fight, so we thought hard about how we were going to make the player feel powerful.
Now that can be quite a limiting factor for a designer, but it takes out the easy option, makes us think harder about what we’re doing. It makes you come up with ideas and play mechanics that are more interesting.
What’s the biggest difference that Arkham’s success has brought to the team?
Well, as we were designing Arkham, our confidence as a studio had begun to grow. After the release it grew even further. Now I’m really excited, because, as a developer, I look at our team and I don’t think the studio has hit its peak. I still think we have places to go.
I’ve seen us grow as a company – and I mean in terms of confidence and ability – and I genuinely can see us grow further still. I don’t think Arkham Asylum is going to be the best game we make. We’re growing and developing as a company all the time.
How important were review scores to the studio’s growing confidence?
Ultimately, you don’t know what reviews are going to be like, but they are really important to a studio’s confidence.
A confident developer takes more risks, and that ultimately leads to more innovative experiences. A good review score will make you think, “you know what, let’s have faith in what we’re doing because we believe we can make something special”.
That was true in Arkham; the boldest decisions we made were the ones that paid off the biggest. So, in a sense those review scores are important because they end up justifying those risks.
But, as well as confidence, you need to take on board criticisms. You need to try something different, of course, but if you realise it’s not working you need the humility to go back to the drawing board.
So you need to be arrogant and humble as a studio… obviously, you can’t expect both those qualities in one person [laughs], but that should be the make-up of the studio – daring creatives that have great, innovative ideas, as well as those who can spot mistakes and aren’t afraid to cite them.
That’s what I’m delighted with regarding our studio; we have that right mix.
What lessons from Arkham Asylum are you taking on board for your next project [Arkham City]?
I think it’s more to do with humility during development. Sometimes you have wild ideas and sometimes we just can’t have them in there. If there’s too much arrogance you can push through bad ideas. It tends to be the quieter people who have something really important to say when a big decision is about to be made.
Don’t get me wrong! Christ, I was really pleased with the final product! Arkham Asylum was a fantastic achievement for us.
Is there a long-term studio strategy hidden behind that ethos? Is it that, if you don’t take risks as a studio, you eventually fall behind the pack?
To some extent yeah, but the overriding factor is the studio’s desire. Developers always want to make something new and fresh. With Arkham Asylum, that was the very first third-person action game we ever made – we had only worked on an FPS before then. So it was in fact that leap into a new genre that energised the team, and so in order for us to work at our best, we need to make that leap again.
How did the studio get on with Unreal Engine 3?
We’re not really big on technology at Rocksteady because our passion is creating stories and games. Actually, designing Batman’s cape was a big technological investment, but that’s because his cape is so expressive and central to his character. So we invest in technology if it’s important for the game, and not for the sake of technology.
Unreal Engine 3 allows us to get our ideas in this game as quickly as possible, and that’s so important to us – the lack of hassle, the quick prototyping of ideas. I think there are studios that create fantastic engine technologies, but that’s not our strength, our strength is creating stories and worlds. What we don’t want to do is have people look at our games and see the technology, that’s not what a game is supposed to do; we want people to be absorbed in this world.
Finally, what does it mean these days to be a UK studio?
We’re all excited to be based in London, which is a fantastic, buzzing, exciting city. For us, it’s a shame that there are not as many studios as there once were in the UK, or as many publishers. Even in London there isn’t that many studios as there should be.
London should be this great hub of studios but there’s only a few of us. Ultimately, it’s because it’s expensive to make games in the UK. It’s expensive to live here too.