Believe the hype. Dishonored is on track to being 2012's Game of the Year, and it's all down to the intricate game design and philosophy at developer Arkane Studios.
Co-creative directors RaphaŽl Colantonio and Harvey Smith came from backgrounds that inspired them to believe that a multiple-path, steampunk-themed adventure game was possible. When you consider that such inspirations - Deus Ex
and Arx Fatalis
- are games that Colantonio and Smith have worked on, you know that Dishonored
is going to be a real treat.
At Gamescom, I was able to chat to Colantonio about the vision for the upcoming title, and the processes behind working on a massive open-world project.
SPOnG: Youíve spoken of your influences in the past - Deus Ex and other open-world, multiple-choice games. What is it about those titles that you find so inspiring?
Well, I think the very first game I played in that vein was Ultima Underworld
. I was 16-18 years old back then, and it was very first time I felt a real environment there. Life in this world was almost a true simulation, and I could solve things my own way, by my own choices. Just being able to kill the good guys is something... I mean, I wouldnít kill them, but the fact that I knew I could was a powerful element. It made my choice of not killing them much stronger. It felt real instead of fake.
I think that experience marked me forever, in the same way as it did with Harvey (Smith, co-creative director). It was an interesting experience for him too. When Harvey worked on Deus Ex
, and when I worked on Arx Fatalis
, I think we both injected our own versions of Ultima Underworld
into them in some way. We met ten years later, and realised we had the same values in game design.
SPOnG: That level of freedom has always been a core reason behind a lot of massmedia negativity towards games. Youíre allowed to kill the good guys, so youíre conditioned to commit violence in the same way. What do you think of that sentiment?
I see that the people who cause violence are the ones that are actually enforcing violence. I mean, our games never enforce violence. Particularly with Dishonored
, youíre actually encouraged to be non-lethal, and thereís a better ending to see if you manage to play through the game whilst sparing everyoneís life.
For me, violence is more of a simulation approach. If you throw a grenade at a door and it explodes, itís satisfying because thatís what you were expecting it to do. And say, if you chop somebodyís arm and it severed off, thatís in name of simulation rather than a glamorising of violence. I think the fact that we allow people to kill good guys or not is like... there are more ways for players to express their morality, which i think is a powerful emotion.
And even if some people did try to kill the good guys they would eventually stop, reload and try to be good eventually. I donít think a lot of people like to be evil. So I would say the opposite.
SPOnG: Was it difficult to design a main character without making him look generic?
Well, it took forever because... yeah, it took forever [laughs]. With the mask itself and the overall look, we spent a lot of time deciding whether he would have a cloak or not, or a hoodie... We tried a lot of things. It was hard.
SPOnG: How deep do the skill trees go and your superpowers, and how have you managed to balance that in the world you play in? Is there a chance of being overpowered?
Itís a very iterative process. We donít plan for it so much. We donít mind the player being overpowered at first, as a first draft. When we thought of the list of powers we brainstormed about 20 of them and only kept the 12 best ones. All of them are powerful - but thatís okay. We want think about how to be a badass, as opposed to how to be balanced.
At first, the plan is just to go really crazy. Give the player teleportation, the ability to stop time, do all of these things. Then, you throw it in the game and see how it all gels. First and foremost, it has to be fun, thatís the most important thing. Difficulty is another thing. If itís fun and easy, it can be boring in the long run. But if itís fun and hard, it can be frustrating. So you balance that.
In any case, if you donít have the fun, you might as well just stop right there. We had the fun, but we found that with all these powers the game was just too easy. The way we ended up balancing it was, firstly, putting a limit on the recharging of powers. Performing actions costs Mana, which is a resource you have to collect. We also tweaked duration of spells. The first time we implemented the power to stop time, we allowed for a ten to fifteen second window, for very little Mana cost. Now weíve limited it to five seconds at a high Mana cost.
Another way to balance things is to add some special AI. Like, enemies that cancel out magic powers. We have this one AI character for example, that starts cranking a music box and cancels out your magic if it detects you. So thereís a new challenge - youíre encouraged to either be stealthy or shoot it from a distance. So itís very organic as a process. Just drop it in, and test the environment. Testing is really key to the solution to our balancing act.
SPOnG: Do you take the same approach to map design and quests?
No, at a very high level we plan the theme of the world - like, Ďwouldnít it be cool if this building looked victorianí, that sort of thing. Then we draft up a vague mission brief - thereís a target inside this building that you must kill, but you donít know who it is. Thatís literally all we plan from the start. As we write our story to map the missions, you start to build a bigger narrative - so we may decide that killing this target will help you find the identity of this other person that youíre ultimately tracking down.
We give those basic briefs to the mission designers and level architects, and they talk to each other to come up with this environment that is cohesive, along with some space for new ideas later on. Then, we really just leave that particular area alone for a long time, until we start plugging it into the larger game world.
SPOnG: Thatís interesting to know, because planning an open-world game like this must be so complex to design.
It is a headache. The hard part is to stay cohesive - but things tend to feed themselves. Itís the same with art. When you have something that is cohesive like world that makes sense, you start to link things together and itís super fun.
SPOnG: Back to inspirations - going the other way, what did you and Harvey strive to not become? What have you avoided with Dishonored?
Itís a really good question, because we had a phase during pre-production where we were trying to figure out what this game was exactly. And thatís the risk with these kind of games, that are somewhere between FPS, RPG, Adventure and Sandbox - what are we, and how do we communicate that? How do we gain the attention of the FPS and RPG audience, for example, without either diluting the experience or turning both audiences off at once?
So we decided that we definitely did not want to be a slow-paced RPG with linearity, where all your upgrades give you Ď+1í numbers and all of that stuff. We did not want to compete in this area. The risk there would be that weíd be heavily criticised if we did that. Also, we did not want the powers to nullify the difficulty of the game. Combat was hard as well, because we did not want to be a first person melee-combat game.
And that was a big battle - due to our past with Dark Messiah
, a lot of people assumed we would be a first person melee-combat game. With combos and special buttons you need to press. No, this is more like, Iím close enough Iím gonna assassinate that guy. But there are risks and rewards for doing that, or going for an alternative. It was hard to work against that expectation.
SPOnG: Has this game ever been compared to Assassinís Creed? If so, how do you feel about such a comparison?
Weíve been compared a lot to Assassinís Creed
- mostly when the trailer came out. Like, [people were saying] Dishonored
looked like a dark version of Assassin's Creed or something. On the one hand I understand it, because I think people need references. Whenever something new comes up, people have to label it and say, Ďoh, itís just like thatí because itís comfortable.
However, when you get to play it, you'll know that itís very different from Assassin's Creed
. Our game is all about simulation - itís more systemic, thereís very little [that's] scripted... And there are other differences too. Oneís first person, the other isn't... so it doesnít bother me. I understand it, the fantasy element is very similar because you are an assassin in both games, but thatís about the extent of it.
SPOnG: There seems to be something of a renaissance of cyberpunk and steampunk themed games in the industry as of late. Do you think thatís a good thing? Was there an intention to design Dishonored in this way from the outset?
No, we did not try to be like this originally - nor was it a conscious marketing approach. When we started development, we really wanted something grim, dirty, a little bit sad, and ultimately intimate when it comes to combat. We wanted to be like historical London - set in 1666. There was nothing steampunk or cyberpunk in there at all, originally. It was all very realistic.
It was only when we tested the gameplay, and realised that it was going to be boring infiltrating the buildings in this world without any hi-tech security devices of some kind, when we started thinking about placing turrets and other such things.
SPOnG: So it wasnít even going to be steampunk? It was originally going to be a much more historically accurate game?
Yeah. In fact, we started to think of famous historical people that would be the heroes of the game, in order to make it something very real.
SPOnG: Thank you very much for your time.