It wasn't that the game was a surprise at all – we'd seen the trade show booths and the preview videos showing people playing it – but Batman: Arkham VR came a bit out of nowhere. Launching for the PlayStation VR in October 2016, Batman: Arkham VR is a standalone Batman adventure by Rocksteady Studios designed specifically for virtual reality.
Around the start of 2015, the studio was putting the finishing touches on what was going to be the final game in the Arkham series. Batman: ArkhamKnight, and many critics were wondering what was going to be next. It was around that time that Project Morpheus, as PSVR was then known, was beginning to make its way to into the hands of developers.
Philosophically, the Arkham games have always been about making the player feel like Batman
Sefton Hill, Rocksteady
“Toward the end of development on Batman: Arkham Knight, some memebers of our engine team started playing around with a couple of VR devkits," explains game director, Sefton Hill. "The game grew quite organically out of those early experiments. I think that just about everybody who really ‘gets’ what modern VR represents has a defining moment where they realise what the tech is capable of - and how awesome it can be.
"Once enought people at Rocksteady had experienced that moment, we quickly became very interested in exploring what was possible and what it would take to create a totally immersive VR Batman game.”
BEHIND THE COWL
Designing for VR was a new challenge for everyone in the industry. For Rocksteady, there was the added difficulty in transposing the style they were known for to this new medium.
“When we decided to go into full production on Batman: Arkham VR, we wanted to stay totally faithful to the established feel of the Arkham games,” says Hill. “Our vision of Gotham City has a particular flavour that has evolved over the course of our games, and returning to that world for our setting helped us to focus on the kind of story we wanted to tell.
“Philosophically, the Arkham games have always been about making the player feel like Batman, and working in VR gave us the chance to supercharge that sensation in a way that was never possible before."
So, faced with this new technology, Rocksteady set about designing a game that could match the high quality bar for storytelling, without tripping over any of the legacy they had created with the Arkham series.
“When we started exploring how Batman could exist in VR, we found we really liked the idea of telling a deep, psychological mystery story. The Dark Knight’s mind is his most powerful weapon, and putting players inside that mind felt like the most intimate way of experiencing his world. I think there’s something awesome about the sense of presence that VR can create, and how powerful it can be in placing you into a totally different world.”
BECOMING THE BAT
There are now many tales from VR development that highlight the common pitfalls for designers like redesigning assets to work in VR, tackling movement and getting the field of view right. These are just a few that immediately spring to mind. Rocksteady were very aware that the expertise they had in creating third person viewpoints for their games would need to be readdressed for Batman: Arkham VR.
“Working in VR from a design perspective, it’s particularly important to be aware of how the player is experiencing the environment,” says Hill. “It’s very different compared to third-person games. In VR the player has to have complete control over the camera, so you can’t directly influence where they’re looking.
“We had to learn and refine a whole new set of skills to help players to focus on where the action is taking place and we spent a lot of time setting up the environments to subtly guide players. But where we lose control over the camera, we’re able to gain some back through audio.
“Most VR players use headphones, so there’s a lot that we can achieve using binaural sound design to direct attention and create a more intense atmosphere. One of the most interesting things about VR versus third-person game design is how players experience events within those games.”
Batman: Arkham VR is full of interesting, almost essential gaming moments (No spoilers but the ending of the game is a phenomenal experience that really utilises the VR medium perfectly). However, the game and the success of the experience rested on one moment – suiting up as the Batman.
“We had great suit-up sequences in Arkham City and Arkham Knight,” explains Hill. “In both, we cut to a cinematic camera and spend 20 seconds showing the player that the bat-suit is totally badass.
“In Batman: Arkham VR, the suit-up isn’t 20 seconds of cinematics, it’s eight minutes of gameplay and it’s some of the most powerful work we’ve ever done.
“On paper, putting on a costume in a game doesn’t sound all that impressive but when you’re wearing the headset and you feel like you’re actually wearing the cowl, I think the experience can move you in totally unexpected ways. That’s the magic of virtual reality.”
Batman: Arkham VR has won many plaudits since its release, including two Develop Awards. The arrival of the game may have been a surprise to all, and it may have come out of nowhere, like the Batman himself. But for Rocksteady and Hill’s team, its success is a nice reward for just trying out something they enjoyed. “Batman: Arkham VR was a real passion project for us,” Hill concludes. “We did it because we wanted to push ourselves and experiment with new tech. But it’s awesome to think that other developers enjoyed what we made.”