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AusGamers Video Interview with Arkane Studios on Dishonored
Post by Dan @ 02:23pm 16/08/11 | Comments
During QuakeCon 2011 and after a demo presentation of Dishonored, AusGamers had the fortunate opportunty to chat with Arkane Studio's Creative Directors Raphaël Colantonio and Harvey Smith

Watch the full interview with Raphaël and Harvey above, or click here to watch it in HD

AusGamers: Hey guys, welcome back to AusGamers. You’re here with Stephen Farrelly and once again I’m coming to you from QuakeCon. I’ve got the Arkane Studios guys here: Raphaël [Colantonio] and Harvey [Smith], obviously legends in the industry. Everybody has wanted to know what you’ve been doing and we found out a couple of weeks ago.

The demo looks fantastic, but there’s so much information to deal with in that. Obviously there’s a lot to convey and you’ve got a lot of really good ideas in there. I’m just wondering, for you, what’s the process going forward from here and how did you choose to... I guess just give us that slice, because it seems like there’s so much there?

Raphaël Colantonio: In terms of the process from now. What is interesting for us is that we released all of this material and seeing how all the people respond to the various features is definitely comforting us or influencing us on which places to emphasise.

So for us it was really interesting to see how people reacted and responded to the choices and the chaos system, and we think “OK, that is validating”. Because when we thought of those things, it’s a lot of investment and we just wondered if people would really respond well to them and indeed they do, so that’s really cool for us.

Harvey Smith: Yeah, I would say watching to see what resonates is the most fascinating thing for us. We through like fifty things out that we know that the game touches on and people really ask about fifteen of them or something more commonly than the others.

AusGamers: I think what stood out for me the most was -- that you guys talked about in testing -- instead of worrying about the QA guys breaking the game, rather embracing that and utilising that as an actual game design tool.

I’m not sure too many studios would do it that way, in fact most of them would probably rein in a lot of the design elements and the level design and stuff like that. Is that an internal philosophy that you’ve just always kind of had?

Raphaël: Yeah, we’ve always done that. It’s kind of crazy, but it’s the way we do it. We design the systems -- and I think Harvey has the same approach in his previous games -- we design the systems in a way that they... kind of are out of context, so they work as a logical system; and then we add other systems, then we let them interact. As long as it doesn’t crash or doesn’t create something really nasty, we leave it in for a while. We let it evolve and we grow and experiment with it. Then either we fix the bugs or we go deep on the cool emergent things that go with it. So that’s been our way to develop the game so far.

Harvey: We’ve talked about things like, we have a possession power and we have a spin stopping time and the first thing one of the testers did was a guy shot his pistol at the player and the tester stopped time just as the right moment and the bullet was hanging in the air. He possessed the guy that shot the gun, walked him around in front of the bullet and then de-possessed him and when time resumed, the guy got killed by his own bullet. You know, like suicided himself.

We were just like “oh my god, we had no idea this would work; we had no idea you could do this” and that kind of magic moment for the player -- creativity and plan-formulation is what we really love.

AusGamers: Even when writing tools like that, the idea that when you can possess, do you say “alright, well you can’t just possess a rat, you need to be able to possess anything living”. Is that how that works, and therefore down the track someone exploits it in a way that works better for them and you guys go “woah, I can’t believe somebody actually did that”. Because, it almost seems like an accidentally brilliant thing to happen.

Harvey: Well, we can both speak to this, but Raph touched on it a minute ago. It’s more of like a fundamental byproduct to the way we want to work. To make anything work in a game, you’re exploiting the way things work and the properties of them and you’re taking the shortest, easiest, most bug-proof way normally, right?

But there are certain shortcuts that you can make that would really mean that this power works only in the context that you intended it. And what we’d rather do is back up a layer and say “no, no, no, it works on pawns” and pawns include humans and rats and fish. That leaves you with some bugs, some locomotion bugs or whatever -- now you’re down on the ground and “oh, we didn’t build the table so that you could look at it from under it, because why would we?” -- but it’s worth fixing those bugs because we’d rather it generally work.

Raphaël: Yes, and because of the possession for example, it’s not that we said “OK, let’s code the rat possession, then let’s code the human possessions”, we just said “well, let’s code the anything possession, anything that moves and has eyes”.

Then at this point, what you do is that you position the player’s view-cone onto the eyes of the possessed target and eventually what happened is that kind of worked, then of course, one of us tried to possess a tallboy and it worked! Because before that, we were joking about that and everyone was like “that will never work; it’s going to be a disasters” and it worked.

Of course it’s not perfect, you can’t see your feet or whatever at this point, but it’s cool. We did not believe it would work, it just worked magically. So at this point then we can polish it and make it work better. The first impulse is always to let the system live and explore with it for a while and then polish later.

Harvey You know, aside from our core values that overlap at Arkane -- immersive simulation first person action game with RPG features -- aside from that, Dishonored is a first person action game about a supernatural assassin in a retro-future industrial world. And really, our whole belief around the game -- our core-mechanic -- is that the game mechanics work with each other in combinations we didn’t predict; they work together creatively.

So the player can actually improvise. A player can get to an area, see a problem, formulate a plan, execute on that plan and so something we never predicted and that’s a beautiful moment. That’s Dishonored in a nutshell, those three bullet points I think.

AusGamers: Do you guys think... this is a bit of a weird question -- it’s a bit esoteric I think, having worked in the industry for so long -- but it feels like there’s a bit of a renaissance going on in the first person genre at the moment. And I think that the genesis for this might be -- and I don’t want to scold any of the military shooters out there, but they took so much of the limelight and streamlined so much of that kind of gameplay that now you’ve got games such as yourselves and you’ve got Prey 2 and obviously Skyrim you could put in there; BioShock Infinite.

And it just feels like this stuff should have been happening a long time ago, but now it’s really blossoming and we’re actually going to get some fundamentally important games coming out of it. And it’s great that you guys... this was the game that I was most looking forward to when I came here, because I was a massive fan of Dark Messiah.

So I guess I wanted to get your view because I know a lot of developers shy away from the idea that “oh, we weren’t paying attention to what they were doing and we weren’t paying attention to what they were doing”, but the industry does feed off itself in one way, shape or form.

Raphaël: The thing that is not necessarily obvious from the gamer’s standpoint is that at the level of the industry, making those games is very complicated. Not only because they are hard games to do, but because they have a lot of invisible value. There are a lot of features that are hard to sell from marketing people, from sales people in those publishers.

So for years, if you wanted to make a game like BioShock or Dishonored or Fallout -- I’m talking about the new incarnation of Fallout -- it would have been impossible. You would always get the same answer from publishers “nah, those games will never sell. Those games are too complicated. They are between two genres. Nobody wants to buy them”, etc, etc. Because they are very hardcore or whatever. And for us as gamers well we started to believe it ourselves “maybe we’re screwed, from now on we’ll never play those cool games anymore”.

So for us, when the first BioShock came out and then Fallout 3, it was like “wow, I think we are back. Let’s go there again”, which is awesome; they sell; they broke the rules. Those games actually can make tonnes of sales while they are fairly hardcore and deep and interesting and different. So that’s why we’re so excited as gamers, and you’re right, this genre is blossoming right now in many different genres.

Harvey: You know the best thing about games is that the player’s in control. The best thing about games is the dynamics, right? They’re dynamic systems. I’ve been playing From Dust and it feels so organic and so dynamic. You pick up lava and drop it in the river and it forms a solid rock-wall. Then you pick up more lava and pile it on top of it. It’s a bunch of dynamics you know and the player expressing themselves. That, I think made a generation of publishers really nervous because it means uncertainty. If a game is a bunch of systems and you can’t predict what’s going to happen every time, the player might not give themselves a good time. He might back up down the hall not looking at the set-scene or whatever. He might miss the drama, right?

But that’s part of the pleasure. When the drama does happen then you feel like you authored it. When something clever does work, you feel like you authored it. By the way, we both play a lot of first person games and other games too -- From Dust is a good example. We both love those games though, there’s something to learn from each one of those. I’m a big fan of Left 4 Dead, which is not a military shooter, but it’s got so many cool mechanics.

Raphaël: Even military shooters, it’s great that there are such a big variety. The last thing I would think we would like as an industry -- as gamers -- is that every game look alike at the end and people try to mimic the games that sell so well. So for us as gamers, it’s great. We can play the Call of Duty kind of game, we can play the more open kind of game, we can play all different games that are first person shooters and that’s really cool.

AusGamers: For you guys -- I guess this is probably a better precursor question to what we just spoke about but -- since the acquisition, just being folded into the Zenimax family, what’s changed for you guys internally and from a culture perspective? How long has this been cooking as well, this game?

Harvey: Well the game has been going for two and a half years, something like that.

AusGamers: So you came to Bethesda with that game? Or...

Raphaël: Bethesda came to us.

Harvey: Bethesda came to us and said “we want to work with you guys, because this combination of first person...”

Raphaël: Imagine how shocking that was.

Harvey: Yeah, for sure “...combination of first person and immersive simulation” and we were like “wow, that’s fantastic. That’s what we’re known for; that’s what we love. It’s what we’d rather do above and beyond all things”. And we went round and round with them about what we were going to work on for a while until we all settled on Dishonored. It was a while back... I can’t remember the other part of the question.

AusGamers: What’s changed for you guys internally?

Harvey: Absolutely nothing has changed. Arkane still feels very much like Arkane.

Raphaël: We are our own unit and it’s the best of both worlds at the end of the day. It’s like our culture... I think also the reason why it works so well is our cultures are very, very close. We are lean, they are lean. It’s not like there is an army of middle-management or anything and both companies really understand those first person immersive games.

So we’re still us, but we are more us because we have the horsepower and the support of Bethesda as a publisher. It’s really cool.

AusGamers: Well, I’ll step it back a bit really quick. I just want to go back into the game. A couple of things stood out to me. Obviously art direction - and for obvious reasons; it looks fantastic. I think I love that sort of re-imagined parallel universe type stuff that you’re going with there and a lot of the engineering that’s gone into that as well. Like the boat at the beginning had a completely different design and the mechs are mechs, but they’re not really mechs.

Harvey: Yeah, thank you for noticing them both. Our Art Director Sebastian Mitton worked side-by-side with Viktor Antonov and they have a big art team in Lyon and man, Raph you just point it out all the time, but everything in our world was designed by those guys -- a cup, a coin; when you pick up a coin.

AusGamers: I noticed the coins. The coins are completely different shapes and...

Harvey: So the boat, that whaling ship where they go out and collect the... the whales in our world have many flippers down the side and tentacles hanging off their mouths and they harvest them for the oil which is volatile which led to this alternative industrial revolution. It powers the high-tech security devices that you saw. But anyway long-story short, that ship was like an industrial design.

Raphaël: It’s designed - and that’s the thing with Viktor is that he doesn’t come from illustration, he comes from industrial design, that’s the school he’s done. So everything he does is real in a way, because it can be used. It’s thought for being mechanically correct and that’s why it resonates with people and looks so real.

Harvey: It looks functional.

AusGamers: Yeah, it’s kind of a weird thing but I remember in an interview that [Shigeru] Miyamoto did many years ago now, one of the things he said was -- I think it was for Metroid Prime actually -- that he basically sat down with a designer and said “from an engineering perspective, everything in this game needs to be alien, but it has to work. It has to have some functionality”. So even Samus turning into a ball makes you feel like it can actually happen.

And it’s great to see games doing that and that’s the first thing that stood out to me when I saw the demo. I was like “everything here feels believable and lived-in”.

Harvey: Well, the first time we saw that ship, we put in the order for it basically. We were like “alright guys, we have this whale-fiction and here’s the industry behind the city of Dunwall; we need a ship”. So the first one that came back -- the first version of this ship that came back -- there’s a model and there’s this cool totally never seen it before but it looks like it would work. And the neck of it is this long prow that comes in and out and if you added more weight to the ship, it would give the ship a fore-weight or whatever, so it wouldn’t fall back, I guess.

But it also has on the sides of it, two slots or one slot, where you could hook a whale through the tail and drag it up a ramp to get it on to this thing over it. And they had an animation of it all working and very well thought out about how you would get this giant beast up into it. And it was like... we were just sold immediately.

Raphaël: It’s crazy, it’s ridiculous if you think about it, because you know, you spend dollars on things that most players won’t... I mean they will understand it, but they won’t notice that they understand it. See what I mean, they will intuit it.

So it is very counter-intuitive from a development perspective, which is “why, why are we spending so much money and so much time on a boat” and well, you know it will have some impact on people.

AusGamers: Now the other thing that stood out to me was the UI...

Harvey: There was the other guy that wrote the 800 page novel about the captain of the boat that never actually even shows up in the game -- I’m joking about that obviously

AusGamers [laughs] But no, the UI I thought looked a little crazy. I mean we didn’t know what was going on in there. Time was being slowed down, people were jumping through space, you know rat possession and all that sort of stuff.

For you guys: again it’s one of those components where the game is very different to what’s kind of normal as well at the moment and the UI is indicitive of that. What’s the process in terms of I guess putting the gamer into that world? Because it was all like symbols and kinds of crazy stuff?

Raphaël: Yeah, when you play the game it will come slower. This is a demo where people have to be able to have a fifteen/twenty minute demo and understand what the game is about, so we really feed you with a lot of stuff in a short time, so it is going to be introduced slower.

But yes, there is some exoticism in there which comes from the supernatural world, which you’ll be introduced to a little later. And then there’s the technological world of course and all these different layers. So that’s probably what you’re referring to in the interface.

Harvey: None of that is final. We just hit alpha, so the UI we think is going to change a lot. Like Raph said, you’ll scale it up. You’ll slowly get your weapons and then you’ll upgrade them and then you’ll get your powers -- or choose your powers -- then you’ll upgrade them and all of that will change over time. So you’ll only get a little bit at a time.

That’s one of the luxuries, we have so much stuff from the game where we actually talked about a dramatic arc where instead of giving you all the stuff right off that bat, it’s kind of nice to just let you play the game for a while as a stealth-combat game.

You can either go full-out combat or sneak and be very surgical -- and no one even knew you were there-- before we actually even start introducing the powers. And then after that it gets crazier and crazier, but it’s nice to have core-mechanics like combat and stealth -- the block and the parry; the sneaking, hiding in shadows and then all these movement things like mantling, sliding, leaning, peeping through keyholes. Our full suite of motion and combat and stealth is fun on its own if we didn’t even have powers.

Raphaël: And then we take it to the next level with the powers.

AusGamers: You guys are having your cake and eating it too basically.

Harvey: Well, we hope.

AusGamers: Now I’ll finish it up because I know you guys are pretty tired. I’m probably the last interview you’ve got for all of QuakeCon, so thanks for sitting in on this.

Will we see any live whales in the game?

Raphaël: Hmmm, yeah. This one if you notice was still alive. [laughs]

AusGamers: So in theory, we could posses it right?

Raphaël: Ahh, no. Well you could if you could get close enough to it but... [laughs]. That was a nice trap actually.

Harvey: Yeah we want to use that in a couple of places, because it’s such a sad, somber thing. You know, if a society figured out tomorrow that they could have amazing levels of power and industry by killing off one of these things a week, they would do it right? We’d just start killing them and to some extent, that’s the way it’s got to be.

People can’t be allowed to freeze to death. They have to eat; they have to survive. But at the same time, this impact on nature is tragic in and of itself. We don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on that, but we just feel the inherent sadness of it I think.

AusGamers: Well, we’ll leave it there. Thank you so much, it really does look fantastic.