Interview: Rocksteady Talks Batman Arkham VR, Life After Arkham Knight and Mark Hamill
At EGX last month, we had the opportunity to sit down with Rocksteady Studios Dax Ginn, to chat about the forthcoming Batman: Arkham VR, life after Batman: Arkham Knight and the legend that is Mark Hamill.
Whose idea was it to make Batman: Arkham VR? Was it something you wanted to do when the PSVR was announced or was it something that Sony had proposed to you?
The decision to make a Batman Arkham VR kind of immerged amongst the team, when we had finished making Batman: Arkham Knight, we had made the decision internally that we weren’t going to do anymore Batman games. But when we started talking among the team on what we are going to do next and it was at that time that VR was something that everyone was beginning to talk about, there were a few members on the team that were keen that Rocksteady gets involved in VR.
We then received some PSVR development kits from Sony and as we had so many assets related to the Arkham games, we thought let’s use some of those resources, and very quickly we discovered that we could make a very capable crime scene and forensic investigation using the PSVR, like a proof of concept that was awesome. It was then like a virus in which everyone within the team had a play around with this concept and it took a life of its own, we then realised that we had an opportunity to tell a murder mystery story that we’ve never told in Batman (Arkham) before and it granted us an opportunity to really tell a tale of Batman as the world’s greatest detective and that was when the decision was made when we thought we’re going to really do this.
I loved the crime scene investigation segments in the Arkham series, so how does the PSVR maximise these moments?
You’re really making the most out of these crime scenes (using the PSVR), it’s so much more immersive in VR, it’s mind-blowing and you believe that you’re in there. You can even forward and rewind fight scenes and you pick clues out of that as you go along. As you’re in the crime scene and you have characters like Nightwing fighting around you, you feel in amongst it, it’s a sense of immersion that no other technology has ever been able to do.
The strengths of VR really gives you that sense that you’re in that place. The combination of the power of the VR and the concept of being the world’s greatest detective as Batman and using crime scene forensics to create gameplay, go together so well and the entire game has really been built around that concept.
When in a crime scene, can you miss clues which may cost you later in the story or do you have to solve every clue to progress?
The narrative, much like the stories of our previous games has been designed to be an experience to make you feel like Batman. So the question about success and failure, generally Batman does crack the case. It’s more about the narrative, rather than various different outcomes. Our games have also been about making the most Batman-like experience that we can make.
Does Kevin Conroy reprise his role as the Caped Crusader in Batman: Arkham VR and if so, is he like a voice in your head with the game being in first-person?
Of course (Kevin Conroy returns as Batman). Batman’s monologue has always been a system that we’ve used since going back to Arkham Asylum. So when you do get to a point when you might be a bit stuck, Kevin/Batman is always there to guide you along.
The first thing we do when developing a Batman game isn’t getting Kevin in the studio. We build the mechanics, we build the game world and we’re writing the script at the same time. Until then we use our voices (the dev team) as placeholders. As a team we’re used to a certain level of quality, then we get Kevin in, we do a recording session and get all the samples back and put him into the game. The quality of the game when his voice hits it quadruples; it’s incredible how much of a difference he makes to the quality of our games.
Does Mark Hamill and Tara Strong feature as The Joker and Harley Quinn in Batman: Arkham VR?
I’m not going to say anything (Dax provides shifty eyes and a mischievous grin). Well, Mark came to the studio to record the voice in the trailer that we used at E3, and that was the first time he’d ever come to the studio to see where we work, and it was awesome! Everyone nerded out, it was weird, it was really wild! We thought he had only half an hour with us, but he ended up spending like four hours at the studio with us. He talked with everybody; he told us the craziest stories from when before he was an actor. He’s such an amazing dude and so fascinating.
— Dax Ginn (@DaxGinn) June 19, 2016
Does Batman: Arkham VR tie-in to Rocksteady’s Arkham trilogy?
Its part of the Arkham continuity, but because it’s a murder mystery, the how, where and why of the story is part of the mystery itself. So, we haven’t really talked about that at all, because it’s really important to us, as players play our game, they unravel the mystery. The plot is revealed to them as they play along, so I don’t want to spoil anything. It’s pretty awesome.
Not that I’m expecting much to be given away (but it’s worth a shot), are there any new characters that we’ve not seen before in your games and will there be some returning familiar faces?
All the villains that you come up against have been chosen for a particular reason and they all serve a particular purpose.
I hope the Mad Matter features, which would be insane using VR?
That would be wild (laughs jokingly).
What particular challenges did you face developing a game for the PSVR?
It was nothing but a challenge, because we’ve never worked on a VR game before. As a technology, it’s completely new to us and it’s in first-person as well, when all of our games previously have been in third-person. We had to design from scratch; much of our mechanics from previous games had to be thrown away (so to speak). The way you navigate in VR, the way you convey information to the player, all of these things change in VR because of the nature of the technology. So that was massive challenge.
The other side is narrative, which wasn’t difficult. We’ve been writing Batman stories for quite some time now and that was something that the team is very comfortable with. Here’s the story we’ve told from Arkham Asylum to Arkham Knight, if the story was going to be extended in any other way, what would we do? We had loads of ideas right off the bat on how we could create a new narrative thread that would serve Batman: Arkham VR as a game. So all of the challenges for us were all technical and conceptual design challenges.
Is it possible to explore the city in Batman: Arkham VR? Is it an open or more linear experience in that respect?
The thing is with VR, is that movement and navigation is a real challenge because as a developer we have a responsibility that everyone is comfortable playing our game. So if you moving around in VR, but you as a person is not, the human brain is like “what on earth is going on?” and that’s what causes motion sickness.
The way we navigate within a location is through teleportation, you see Bat symbols around the place and you can leap towards those locations. So there’s no noisier within that type of movement. What that means is that we can’t have you gliding and grappling as you have done in previous games. But those previous games still exists, so if you want a grapple and glide experience, Batman: Arkham Knight is the best out there.
I have no doubt that Batman: Arkham VR will be a successful game, is this something that you’d want to explore within the world of VR again in the future? Could we have further chapters or episodes in this particular VR series?
I think that’s definitely an open question, we’ve now developed a lot of expertise within Rocksteady that we didn’t have before we started development with Batman: Arkham VR. We said at the end of Arkham Knight, that’s it for Batman and Rocksteady. We then had this opportunity to make one more Batman game, so that’s what we did. What we do from here? We honestly don’t know.
As a team, as a studio and as part of the Warner group, that conversation is going on about what we’re going to do next as a studio, but we’re in a very lucky position where we’re in a time and space to make that decision. We’re not under pressure to get another game out next year. You’ve got to take the time to make the right decisions for a team of our size with a lot of experience and a lot of very talented people.
So what we do next, we’ve got to ensure that it really plays to the talents of Rocksteady as a studio and also challenges us in a way that Arkham Asylum felt like such a mountain to climb, we kind of want to be in that situation again. So that means taking some risks and doing things differently, so that’s a part of the bigger conversation of what we do next as a team.
Well I think if anyone could make a quality Man of Steel or The Green Arrow game, then it’s definitely you guys.
That sounds tough (laughs jokingly).
That concludes our interview with Rocksteady Studios Dax Ginn and we’d like to thank Dax for the awesome conversation and to Mark Ward for making this fantastic opportunity happen.
Batman: Arkham VR releases at launch with the PlayStation VR on October 14th. Also as we learned last week, the game will be exclusive to the PSVR until March 31st 2017.