You can learn a lot about a person by watching them fight. In the case of Batman, though, you’ll learn a lot more about the people behind the person. In Rocksteady’s Arkham games, Batman is precise, disciplined and isolated. A counter-puncher, he can be motionless mere frames before impact and back that way before the camera’s even settled. He wastes neither energy nor attention – the odds against him won’t allow it.
Rocksteady is a studio of roughly 100 people making games that in other hands would require hundreds more, and making them better than hundreds of others do. It is precise, disciplined and isolated, making its games “in kind of a vacuum for a couple of years”, explains game director and studio co-founder Jamie
Walker. “Then eventually we release something and hope people like it.”
The studio doesn’t focus test, is deliberately selfish about the games it wants to make, and knows how to pick its battles. When game director and co-founder Sefton Hill jokes that Batman: Arkham City is the “smallest open-world game ever”, it comes with serious undertones.
Arkham City was a game that would test its creator’s principles from the outset. Conceived “about 12 months” before the completion of Batman: Arkham Asylum, it challenged the studio’s one-team, one-game philosophy. “Most single-project studios have a 1.5-team structure, with two games running
concurrently, one in the middle of development as the other is being finalised, [and] transitioning team
members between the two as required,” explains Hill. “This looks great on a spreadsheet, but while
it may seem counterintuitive, we believe it’s much more efficient to focus on one game at a time. There are no issues with transferring people between projects in order to try to solve problems, with one project always getting negatively impacted to put out the fires on the leading one.”
So over those 12 months, the team put together the basic outline for Arkham City’s story and added hooks into Arkham Asylum, such as the famous blueprints found – or rather not found until Rocksteady pointed them out – in the office of Warden Quincy Sharp. The rest of Arkham City, though, would have to wait.
When its time did come, however, there was never a conscious decision to make a ‘big’ game. “It was just that the first thing we sat down and said was: ‘What’s the best Batman game we can make?’” says Hill. “And, in a sense unfortunately, that was a big game. It would have been a lot easier for us if it hadn’t been.”
“How did we do it? I still ask myself that now,” Walker laughs. “We always class ourselves as a gameplay studio rather than a technology studio. Our skillset is very much gameplay mechanics, story [and] character, which is why I think we had such a good fit with Batman. But, yeah, doing something like a city as an open world was challenging. It was a huge technical undertaking.”
“We broke one of our original rules when setting up the company in a sense, because we didn’t want to develop technology; that’s never been our goal. Our goal was to develop games,” says Hill. “Technology can get in the way of making good games, because you get obsessed with it. With Arkham City, it was, ‘We need to take on a technological challenge, but is it worth it? Will it deliver the Batman experience we want?’ And, yes, it was pretty trying. It wasn’t fully working until pretty much just before we shipped. There was a lot of faith put in, and this was the first time we’d really worked on something with so many moving parts.” Indeed, no part of City moves quite as much as Batman himself in his struggle to keep up with its plot, tossed as he is between a who’s who of series supervillains.
“We wanted to try to tell the story of how supervillains would react to being put in a super-prison together. We felt that was really interesting, and that we’d deliberately take the story relatively quickly through a number of supervillains,” says Hill. Never, he insists, was it about merchandising or flexing creative freedom. “If we’d had a story based around one character that was a better story, we’d have gone with it.”