Looking back to 2009, the year of Batman: Arkham Asylum’s launch, the age of the superhero as a cultural titan was just beginning. Recent years had featured such cinematic flops as Spider-Man 3, Hancock and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. But things were looking up. Iron Man had hit it big in 2008, opening the door to the Marvel Cinematic Universe we know today. Meanwhile Christopher Nolan’s Heath Ledger-powered The Dark Knight was garnering highbrow critical recognition for the genre.
Superhero games meanwhile remained undervalued and under-resourced. The previous decade had seen little of note – Neversoft’s Spider-Man way back in 2000 being the last stand-out exception – with just the usual half-hearted movie and TV tie-ins. Thankfully, Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham Asylum had no such licensed baggage to carry.
MANY BATS IN THE BELFRY
“The most important thing for us was creating a vision of Batman that works in the context of video games,” Jamie Walker, studio director at Rocksteady, begins. “Stories in TV, movies, and comics, all need to flow and develop in ways that suit their respective media. Likewise, video games need to have their own style that fits with how people are experiencing them. We were very lucky to have the freedom to focus on making a Batman story that works in its own medium.”
That is to say a Batman game that was free to create its own Dark Knight, not be hamstrung by someone else’s interpretation and narrative.
Although with Batman, more-so than practically any other superhero, that creative freedom has to respect, or at least understand, the many decades of Batman stories and interpretations that came before it.
“Even when we started working on our pitch for the game that would become Batman: Arkham Asylum, there was already 60 years of history to go through. In the beginning that felt quite overwhelming!” Walker admits. Though all that source material obviously has its upsides too.
“Once we decided on the broad strokes for the story we wanted to tell, it was liberating to have all these great moments to reference from the comics, movies, TV, and more.
“All of that research turned into the subtle references and Easter Eggs that ended up populating the world, which I think helps to make it feel more detailed and alive. Plus, we love reading comics and watching TV, so it’s probably the easiest part of the job!” he exclaims, instantly making millions of fans green with envy.
And Walker is very much one of those fans, he tells us: “I worked in a comic shop early in my career, so for me personally it was like walking with giants being able to make a Batman game.” The studio as a whole was drawn along too, he adds: “What really struck me was how the excitement and awe rippled across the studio: it quickly became clear that we had a lot more Batman fans on the team than I thought!
“That ended up being very important for the project, because we wanted to create something that felt completely authentic and having lots of expert perspectives on the team really helped with that. One of the great things about Batman as a character is how so many different people connect with him, and that wide range of perspectives on our team really helped to inform the design once we started prototyping.”
Sefton Hill, Rocksteady’s creative director explains how the key gameplay elements for Arkham Asylum, and its Rocksteady-made sequels Arkham City and Arkham Knight, were present even in the first pitch the team sent to Eidos back in 2007.
“Mechanically, the structure that would come to define the trilogy was pretty much right there in the original pitch. We had the idea to focus on four key elements that for us represent Batman’s approach,” Hill tells us.
“First, the way Batman traverses through the world, using his cape and grapnel gun. Second, the idea that Batman is the world’s greatest detective, which was an aspect of the character that we felt hadn’t really been explored much in earlier games. Third, a combat system that would feel choreographed, cinematic and rhythmic. Back then I was a bit obsessed with Yuen Biao’s movies,” who choreographed fights and action scenes for Jackie Chan’s greatest hits, among many others. He continues: “The way those fights are structured creates a real sense of power, of one man taking on a group of thugs. It felt right that Batman should be able to deal with bad guys in a similar way.
“Crucially for us, it needed to be simple to pick up and play,” Hill adds. “It shouldn’t be difficult for players of any level to reach the stage where they really feel like Batman.”
A sense of empowerment that the game undoubtedly achieves.
“The last of the four components was drawn from the idea that Batman was able to stalk his prey and take down armed thugs by being smarter and more prepared than they were. That became the invisible predator system,” Hill concludes.
Arkham Asylum, and its sequels, then blended those four gameplay pillars to great effect. Though it’s notable that it’s the games’ locales that are forwarded in their titles. Most game characters have environments that are devised around their protagonist’s capabilities but Rocksteady’s take on Gotham’s madhouse, and later the city itself, remains a masterpiece example of anchoring a character within their own world.
Batman, possibly in part due to his lack of traditional superpowers, is defined as much by his enemies as he is by his abilities. And while there’s generic thugs aplenty to takedown in Arkham Asylum, it’s the boss battles that really stand out, drawing on the character’s arguably unmatched lineup of villains.
Even after sharing his life with Batman for a decade, Hill focuses on the bad guys: “Having Batman inside your head is strange enough, but I think it’s the villains who stay with you. The DC Universe has this amazing cast of villains, each with their own personality, motivations, style, strengths and weaknesses.
“The ecosystem that the Dark Knight exists in is one of the many reasons why he’s such a great character to work with,” Hill continues. “As a game designer it was particularly rewarding to explore those relationships and how they can create tension for the player.”
He goes on discuss a particular favourite, arguably the best the series has to offer, though there are many contenders: “My favourite has to be the Mister Freeze fight in the Gotham City Police Department building in Arkham City. Thematically, I think that fight really captured the idea that Batman understands that he can’t always beat his opponents head-on, and sometimes needs to be strategic to win.
“The great thing is that some players described their approach to that fight as being creative and improvised, while for others it felt methodical and structured. Both are valid interpretations of Batman’s methods, and it’s great that those different elements came through for different types of players in just that one section.”
Speaking of Arkham City, while any team relishes the opportunity to improve upon its first outing, that’s more of a challenge when your debut franchise title was as complete and well-rounded as Arkham Asylum.
“I think the amazing team here was happy with the success we had on Asylum, but it’s impossible to work on a passion project like that without thinking of ways to improve or expand on it,” Walker explains, though the switch from a largely linear story to an open world was a more ambitious one than most game series ever attempt.
“Getting the chance to make a bigger world, with more villains and more tension was very inspiring. We certainly felt the pressure of Batman: Arkham Asylum’s success, but we also had a clear plan on how we wanted to push the envelope,” Walker recalls.
Hill then adds: “For Arkham City, we wanted to tell a more action-orientated Batman story. That was a conscious choice, and we loved the idea of expanding the personal conflicts between Batman and The Joker into full-blown faction warfare, as the supervillains and their criminal gangs vie for power.”
Fans and critics seem divided on whether they prefer the more linear Asylum or the open world City, but both are held in equally high regard, an incredible feat given the two-year turnaround that Rocksteady had between the titles.
And the team’s ability to advance plan for City was limited, as a sequel to the first game wasn’t a definite until late in the process, Hill explains to us:
“Late in development on Arkham Asylum, we decided to add a hidden room that would hint at the next game in the series. That was long before we had approval on making a sequel. Looking back, I suppose it was a bit of a shot in the dark. So as a team, we definitely had ideas for where we wanted to go with the series, and it was brilliant when we realised the game was successful enough that we would get the chance to make a sequel and to develop those ideas further.”
To our knowledge there are no real secret rooms at Rocksteady’s north London office. Though given the secrecy around the team’s current project – we weren’t allowed to visit in person for this interview – you could consider the entire place top secret. We ask Hill whether working under such conditions is rather like having your own superhero alter-ego to protect?
“Secrecy comes with the territory in our line of work,” Hill replies. “Our fans know that we won’t start talking about our projects until we’re ready. That said, the fan theories are always very entertaining: it’s amazing what people will come up with and try to pass off as insider information!”
After that comment we certainly won’t be throwing our own DC-related speculation into the mix, though we do expect to see something of the team’s latest work in the near future. Coming back to the studio, it’s a shame we can’t visit, as it’s undoubtedly one of the few, large non-mobile studios in London.
“I suppose we are fairly large by London standards, but compared with other triple-A studios we’re actually very small!” Walker clarifies. “London is a big part of our identity here at Rocksteady. It’s difficult to quantify, but I think the creative culture that we have in this city has been enormously influential in shaping our output and approaches over the past 14 years. London is a very cosmopolitan city, and our team is from all parts of the world – I love how many different nationalities and walks of life we have and believe that diversity helps shape what we do.”
The team at present looks to be an ideal size, large enough to create a triple-A game without spiralling out over multiple locations, Walker tells us: “Right now we’re just under 200 strong. Even at that size, we still have our dev team all on one single floor, and no one has an office, which suits our approach: we’re a single-project studio so it’s important our team can all feel that closeness and connection.
“We’re always looking for amazing people to join our team, which we see as a family, and we pride ourselves on being a great place to work: we’ve won a few awards for our studio culture over the past 12 months and are always working hard to improve every facet of Rocksteady.”
If the final product of that hard work can live up to the quality and consistency of the team’s Batman titles then we should be looking at a huge hit. As we go to press, the team has just advertised for brand artists to undertake marketing work, so if you fancy getting a look at the studio’s next game before everyone else, you know where to apply.