Interview: Dax Ginn from Rocksteady on the psychology of Batman: Arkham City

Later this year, Rocksteady Studios will launch its second adventure starring the Dark Knight. As I noted in my preview of the upcoming game, Batman: Arkham City enhances the experience by spilling the crime out of the asylum and into the streets of Gotham City. Following the hands-off demo of the game, I spoke to Dax Ginn, the marketing game manager at Rocksteady Studios about the psychology of Batman, the expectation of Arkham City, and whether or not the team at the London-based studio is walking around the office with DC Universe-sized egos following the success of the first game.

"The fact that Hugo Strange knows Batman's true identity means that Batman has more to lose than ever." - Dax Ginn on the psychology behind the mask in Batman: Arkham City

Shacknews: I think the obvious first question is that since Rocksteady has garnered critical and commercial acclaim after the release of Batman: Arkham Asylum, is the entire team just walking around the office wearing gold chains and constantly high-fiving each other? Dax Ginn: (laughs) Uh, no. We're really focused on making really incredible games. That's the most important thing to us as a studio. The success of Arkham Asylum, in terms of the response from gamers and fans, has just given us a lot of confidence to take risks with the design that we create and really push gameplay in ways that we never thought we would as a studio. So, no. There's no gold chains. There's just a swagger in our step. Shacknews: When you're creating the first game--whether or not you had any intention of continuing the series, although there was the hidden room that teases a sequel--were you already mindful of what you wanted to add to a second installment? Dax Ginn: The thing that's important to us is making sure that the stories we tell and the characters that we fill out within those stories make sense, kind of longterm. When we're devising a piece of the narrative, we don't just think about it in the "here and now." We think about what happened before and afterwards. So that moment exists within a narrative arc for it all to make sense, for that character or that situation. We're always thinking about the future in the same way that we're always thinking about the past. It's an important part of our narrative, creative process. Shacknews: In the demo I saw, there was an emphasis on the enhancement of Batman's new gear. Some of the coolest stuff from the original was later unlocked through the game's progression but it seems, based on the size of the world, Batman is going to have to come into this situation already prepared. When gamers first play the game, will they be able to explore the world easily from the beginning? I ask because the first game was very much an action-centric title, but this game has switched perspectives a little to an action and traversal experience. Dax Ginn: We hope so. That's something that's been core to the gameplay design, to make sure that gamers don't feel like they are in this big world and they're totally lost. That just goes totally against a genuine Batman experience is. That lies at the heart of everything we do. We make sure we ask ourselves everyday, "Does this fit Batman? Does this make me feel like Batman?" Batman never finds himself with no idea of where he's going next. So, there's mechanisms within the world to ensure that players don't get that sense of having no idea of what they should be doing or what they can be doing. What we're offering is much more freedom for the player to decide what they'd like to do and the order in which they do the missions available to them. BOOM video 7415 Shacknews: There was an immediate fascination with the first game, before gamers had a chance to try it, because the Arkham Asylum was a big surprise. It's no secret that Batman's video game history is pretty messy. Now, that surprise is gone. People now expect this game to be as good or better than the original. How does that affect the execution of Arkham City? Is the team more mindful of those extremely high expectations? Dax Ginn: We feel that expectation everyday. For us it isn't a negative pressure. I mean, we're not crumbling underneath that and thinking, "Oh my God! How can we do better," like we did a few years ago. We feel really confident as a studio and we're really, really sure that what we're making as a studio is something that people are going to be really blown away by. It's a positive motivation for us. We know there's a lot of expectation for the game and by the same token we know that we can meet that expectation. Shacknews: When you look at the change between Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City, what are the things that you feel the studio has evolved that you really want people to pay attention to? Dax Ginn: The big addition for us, from a developer's perspective, has been the game world itself. Making the decision to take the action out of Arkham Asylum and onto the streets of Gotham City has meant that we've had to fundamentally rethink every aspect of Batman's navigation, his combat, and gadgetry. Everything. There's not just the one thing that we've added. We've added this huge game world, which has affected everything. So if there's anything that people are going to notice or that we want them to pay attention to, it's everything. Everything within the game world has been redesigned in light of our decision to create this huge game space, in order to give players that sense of freedom that Batman really deserves in a game like this. Shacknews: Now that Rocksteady is a part of Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment [purchased in early 2010] do you feel that there's more freedom to play with this universe from a story and design perspective than you had before as an independent company? Dax Ginn: DC Comics are obviously a really big part of our process and we worked with them really, really closely on everything that's in the game. That relationship was brilliant during the development of Arkham Asylum as well, so not a lot has changed. We make sure that everything we want to do, they're on board with it and they give us great insight. So, some of the crazier ideas still fit within the incredible Batman universe. Now that we're part of Warner, it has just made that legal. We're still working as closely as we ever did.

"Making an action-adventure game, which is just about running and punching, wasn't going to be enough." - Dax Ginn on designing a world fit for The Bat

Shacknews: Rewinding back to the original title. Maybe the answer is just, "Hey, it's Batman!" but I wonder, what was it about this franchise that enticed Rocksteady to get involved? Dax Ginn: The focus for us was really to think about what made Batman such an important character and build the design off of it. For us, Batman is an amazing hero because he's a mortal man. He's a man with an incredibly complex past; his childhood especially. There's a lot of vulnerabilities that he has as an individual. So, we saw that as something we really wanted to explore: the dark psychological aspects of his personality. There's something that we thought, "Look, there's incredible gameplay potential in this." Making an action-adventure game, which is just about running and punching, wasn't going to be enough. It wouldn't do justice to Batman as a character. I think the reason why Arkham Asylum was so successful was that we really aspect every aspect of his personality, not just the combat and navigational side of it but also the forensics and investigation. All that along with his dark psychological aspect--his personality. Shacknews: The Spike VGA trailer seemed to have more of that aspect since Hugo Strange has admitted that he has learned Batman's secret. It seems to be going to a level beyond the cape and cowl. Is that an indication of what players might see? Is that torment the underlining theme in Arkham City? Will we see Bruce Wayne? Dax Ginn: The underlining atmosphere is that everything is on the line. The fact that Hugo Strange knows Batman's true identity means that Batman has more to lose than ever. So, the situation is really, incredibly dire as well. Batman saves Catwoman here [as part of the GDC 2011 demo] and the situation right across Arkham City is that everything is on the line for everyone. The future of Gotham City is at stake. No one feels that more than Batman. That's why Hugo Strange is such an important character for us because he brings that ultimate trump card into play. Batman: Arkham City is a very, very personal story for the character of Batman.