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Rocksteady's Dax Ginn Talks Opening Up Batman's World in Batman: Arkham Knight
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 01:18pm 11/06/15 | Comments
Friend of the site and all-round top Aussie bloke, Dax Ginn, has been the articulate and passionate voice of Rocksteady Studios since forever. He sat down with his favourite gaming site and favourite games writer, me, to talk all things Batman: Arkham Knight. Read on for what he had to say...

AusGamers: So, a tired old question up first, but with the delays was there any one component that was holding the game back? I mean, there were two separate delays…

Dax Ginn: Yeah, and it’s all -- thinking back to it -- down to the core values of Rocksteady and that’s: Quality. You know, we have a reputation for making high-quality games and when you’re put into a position where you’re looking at the production schedule and you know that the game is being created where that quality starts to come in, and if you start to feel like the date that you’re currently targeting is not going to allow us to put the polish in, then you’ve gotta make a difficult decision. And for us, I think in five years time gamers aren’t going to be thinking about what the release date was or wasn’t -- it’s the quality of the gameplay experience they’ve had.

AusGamers: Did you bring any new outside talent in based on the idea that a): not only is it a more open sandbox but b:) there’s all the new Batmobile stuff which you guys had never done before? Or was it still just the core team?

Dax: It’s still the core team, and I know that sounds stupid to say but, like, Adam Docherty who’s our director of game code -- so for Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, he coded all of Batman’s movement, and then we decided right, we’re going to put the Batmobile [in Arkham Knight] and we didn’t even think about going to find a specialist vehicle person, we were just, like “Adam, you’re coding the Batmobile as well” and it’s because it’s an extension of Batman -- we didn’t want it to feel like “here’s Batman and now here’s a totally disconnected vehicle”, we wanted the two of them to feel the same.

So his workload just doubled and you should see him now man, he’s got this crazy big beard and he’s just such a critical person on the team [and] what he’s been through to create man and machine and what it does is just insane. And super-exciting to think that was the work of just one person over three and a half years.

AusGamers: Can you tell me a bit about the mission wheel, because it sort of seems like that is gamifying the experience a bit more than in the last two games where it was more about Batman just detecting Batman stuff, but now it sort of seems more directed. What’s the philosophy behind its inclusion?

Dax: Well we found on Arkham City that you had the core story and then you had all of these side missions which weren’t really connected to the core story, at all. And [we found] that as people were playing they were ignoring the side stuff, so people were sticking to the main path -- and that’s great -- but we’d built a huge world that was full of stuff and there wasn’t enough signposting of the other stuff.

So the way we’ve structured it in Batman: Arkham Knight is the main story takes you through the first instance of all of these side-missions, so if you stick to the main path you’re still going to get a taste of Two-Face and The Riddler and Penguin, etc, etc, but then it’s up to you how deeply you want to go into that side-mission stuff, but at least you’re getting a taste of it. So that’s why the mission wheel was integrated because if you go beyond that entry point and you want to come back to it it’s very easy to access it because the game-world is so much bigger and hoping that people just stumble upon that just wasn’t an option.

AusGamers Is there more reward then, outside of expanded story and collectables, for doing all of the side-missions and then doing the main story?

Dax: It’s very much a completist reward. But the upgrade tree for Batman and the Batmobile this time around are a lot deeper than anything we’ve done before, so that’s sort of a secondary reward in that you are a more powerful character and the car is more powerful with that. And then the augmented reality challenges are in there as well, so there’s lots of ways you can beef yourself up as you’re going through. If you just want to straight-line it and stick to the main path, then I think you’ll find things start to get a bit tough the further you get into the game, so there’s definitely motivation to get involved in all the side-mission stuff.

AusGamers: Is there a disparate design principle behind the Batman and the Batmobile missions, or have you gone for a more dynamic approach where you might not always need the Batmobile, you could just go off on your own and achieve something in-quest?

Dax: I think you’ll find when you play the game that there’s occasions when it’s very clear that the Batmobile is the solution to this problem. The choice of Batman or Batmobile comes more in just navigation throughout the city. Like, how are you going to approach this? And there are a few instances where you need to be on the streets, but above the streets, so gliding a couple hundred metres above the street if you’re tracking a vehicle for example, you wouldn’t be able to do that in the Batmobile because you’re not inconspicuous. So you’re still sticking to the streets, but you’re sticking to them as Batman.

I think it would be false of me to say every mission is completely open and you can attack it as Batman or the Batmobile -- the game is not designed that way.

AusGamers: What’s the highest point in the game?

Dax: I think it might be Wayne Tower.

AusGamers: And can you leap from the top of Wayne Tower and not encounter a load screen? Just, like, get all the way down to street level?

Dax: Nope. The whole game is all in-memory, all the time.

You could be driving along in the Batmobile at super-speed and all of a sudden eject out and a second later you’re gliding across the skyline of Gotham and the entire game-world is in view. It’s phenomenal that you can do that and there’s no problems, the game just handles it. The streaming technology that we’ve developed for this is just mind-blowing.

AusGamers: Now you’ve talked about the Rogue’s Gallery and that they’ve come together to work in unison to take down Batman, which is at odds with Arkham City’s more disparate gang-separated approach to the baddies, and we know that there are no citizens again, for whatever contextual reason, but will there be scenarios where [Batman] will still come into contact with others -- similar to incidents like the one with Vickie Vale in Arkham City?

Dax: A part of that is this emergent writing system, which we’ve never had before. So as you’re driving or gliding through the streets, you’ll see riots just begin and they kind of escalate and cars get turned over and windows get smashed and ATMs get ripped out of walls and stuff like that, so there’s a non-predictive way of life populating the streets, which we needed for this game because we can’t just predetermine and script everything.

In terms of “others”... well we have made any announcements along those sorts of lines -- we’ve announced a lot of characters though. But what I like about the way that we’ve approached the Vickie Vale-sort of of characters, to take on the Arkham City reference, is they add life to the game-world, so the ambient narrative system we have where [story] components are piped to Batman where you’re sort of gliding around, there’s a lot of really lovely narrative touches that you’ll pick up on with characters that aren’t bad guys, or good guys, it’s sort of Jack Ryder kind of character or Aaron Cash -- you know, these sort of ‘support’ characters that actually do have significant roles to play.

AusGamers: Is Azrael’s role much larger this time around? I mean the trailer was basically alluding to his prophecy from [Arkham] City coming to fruition.

Dax: This is so difficult being so close to launch, because we just don’t want to spoil anything for anyone [but] I think the design of Azrael is awesome and, you know, there was a lot at the end of Akrham City about what’s coming next -- the streets of Gotham being aflame and that sort of thing… and even from what we’ve shown already you can see that that’s coming together, so I’m gonna duck that one [smiles awkwardly].

AusGamers: Alright, fair enough.

One of things myself and other ‘purists’ from the first two games always wanted to do was, when you were on Arkham Island, you wanted to be able to reach Gotham, and then when you were in Arkham City, you wanted to be able to reach Arkham Island. Now, given the size of Arkham Knight, is that a part of the open-world this time around?

Dax: Negative. I feel like I’ve let you down.

AusGamers: Yeah, a little bit, but that’s okay. Can you talk at all then about how you’ve barriered the game-world?

Dax: Well there’re three distinct islands, so a barrier formed by the sea is natural enough on lots of sides, but then there’s hard, physical barriers of bridges and roads that have been physically cut-off, so… we’re not trying to create a fiction about why you can’t travel in one direction infinitely, that’s not the sort of game we set out to make -- we’re all about intense detail, you know; intense life in a compact space and the kind of claustrophobia of Arkham Asylum that eventually expands out to feel very intensive. So yeah, a point has got to come in any sort of open-world game where you say “look, this is the hard-edge and you can’t go beyond that”.

AusGamers: Okay, and finally combat this time around: I wasn’t sure you could possibly one-up [Arkham] City at all, in terms of its complexity. Now, I’m not sure that that complexity has been one-upped, but the inclusion of things like Nightwing, and being able to perform dual takedowns together and have that dance, if you will… how deep does that go? I mean, I managed a fight in my hands-on where I didn’t get touched purely because I’m a bit of a pro at Batman fighting, but obviously there’s a lot of new inclusions I wasn’t using such as picking up dropped weapons and environmental takedowns now -- basically, how has the new system shaped the combat and the Challenge maps this time around?

Dax: Well it’s definitely made it a lot deeper. If you’re a freeflow combat master like you, as soon as you pick it up it’s going to feel very familiar. And there’s all these new things that I think are gonna get your rocks off getting your head around and integrating them. The objective has always been to evolve it, but not turn it into a very complex system you have to understand on a systemic level -- it should feel very natural, very intuitive and be a visual spectacle more than anything. I was standing over there watching you play and thinking “damn that looks good”, like, just watching someone else do it looks very exciting.

[But] we’ve integrated a scoring system at the end of every fight so you can see the breakdown of everything you’ve done which is something we haven’t done before… to me, I mean like you, I’ve been playing these games for a long time and I still go back to the basics of countering and, you know, using quickfire gadgets, but when I know there’s a weapon I can pick up and go to town, you know, three or four strikes with a baseball bat, then “hell yeah!” I’ll do that. But it doesn’t take it to another ‘league’ of complexity where all of a sudden I don’t know what I’m doing -- it still feels like a natural extension of the core, basic values of freeflow.
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