Some day this past summer, Sefton Hill was browsing the Internet, reading comments about the demo for Batman: Arkham Asylum. He came across an acronym he didn't know: GOTY. The lead creator of Arkham Asylum, he would learn it.
Feedback about Arkham Asylum has been illuminating and, yes, even educational for Hill in 2009. This was the year he and the rest of the British underdog team at the little-known Rocksteady Studios developed and released one of the leading contenders for Game Of The Year.
Feedback was helpful, but it also was a little weird.
Imagine the beginning of Hill's 2009. The development of Batman: Arkham Asylum, an adventure featuring Batman's one terrible night trapped on an island prison/asylum overtaken by the Joker and the Dark Knight's worst foes, was more than a year under way, yet almost no eyes aside from Rocksteady's and its publishers' were on the project. The public didn't have the game on its radar, nor did much of the gaming press. "I think we felt at the start of the year that a lot of people didn't know much about the game," Hill told Kotaku in a telephone interview. People in the studio thought the game was shaping up. But who could be sure they weren't fooling themselves? "When you're working on something for so long it's quite weird," Hill noted. "You're sort of isolated from the outside world and you sort of lose quite a lot of perspective."
So for Hill one of the most important moments of his 2009 — "a nerve-wracking time" — were the few days in March that Arkham Asylum was made playable for the gaming press during the Game Developer's Conference in San Francisco. Rocksteady and publishers Eidos and Warner Brothers let game reporters try some of the challenge rooms, the contained areas in the game, one made for Batman brawling against thugs, the other built for "predator" criminal-frightening stealth.
"We sort of decided to go with a slightly different approach, showing the challenge rooms rather than the story because we were confident in the story we had but we didn't want to approach it in a way to show off flash cutscenes or cinematics to try and sell the game. We thought: Let's show people there's real substance to the gameplay."
Hill stayed back in the Rocksteady offices in England during GDC, plugging away on the game with his team. An Eidos representative e-mailed him feedback. Slight problem, though: "Games journalists can be a bit cagey. Sometimes you guys like to be too cool for school. So you can never be 100% sure." This unwashed horde of gaming reporters playing through the demo (a group that may or may not have included the author of this story) may not have been able to verbalize feedback that would be useful intelligence for Rocksteady, but the way the demo was played was good feedback enough.
"One of the things we were really happy with, with the initial feedback, is that a lot of the journalists played it and then played it again and tried to do it in different ways," Hill said. "One of the design philosophies [of the game] was to sort of create your own Batman stories: You did something a particular way and saw these cool things. It was really great to get that particular feedback to come through."
In theory, the game would then be released a little later, but Arkham Asylum, originally slated for a June was delayed until late summer before it showed up at E3 in Los Angeles. For E3, Hill crossed the Atlantic and dared to get some feedback first-hand. The good news was that he was bumping into developers at E3 and getting the insights of people from Naughty Dog, whose single-player balance of action and story in Uncharted was comparable to the design of Arkham Asylum, as well as from Ubisoft folks, whose Assassin's Creed and Splinter Cell series were, like Batman, exploring the gameplay of aggressive stealth. "Developers tend to be more generous with feedback because making any game is really hard — even bad games," Hill explained. They know the way things work, and they can relate to the struggle of making this stuff. "You put your life and soul into them."
Oh, but for Hill there was also sort of something bad — or uncomfortable — about being at E3 to get that firsthand feedback. "To be honest, I hate watching people play the game," he said. "It's watching your baby. It's nerve-wracking. I would kind of watch but I could only watch for a certain amount of time and then I would walk away. But it's nice because you can watch in anonymity and see where they're enjoying it and also where they're struggling."
Hill flew back to work in England and then back to California in the summer for Comic-Con. Also in the summer, the demo came out, the one that inspired people on the Internet to start using that term GOTY. Hill wasn't sure what kind of feedback the demo would get, because he was aware of the awkward fact that this demo, a thing theoretically made to sell a game, was, well, inferior to the game it was selling.
"I think we all felt the game was better than the demo," Hill said. "It's a hard game to do a demo of because it's a journey rather than a staccato experience. The story is important. The characters are important. Sometimes that can be hard to get across in a demo. We were really a little bit worried when it went out... So when people really enjoyed the demo, we felt, well if you like the demo, you'll definitely like the game, because it's a lot better."
Batman: Arkham Asylum was released in late August. Hill had just crammed three weeks of vacation into his August, days banked to take off as soon as the game disc went gold and was out of Rocksteady's hands. He was back in the country the day the game was released. Reviews were out, another odd sort of feedback. "It's such a weird experience making games because you kind of go two years with almost no feedback," he said. "And then suddenly you get all this feedback on what you've done for the last two years in one mad hail of comments. And then nothing again for two years."
He remembers about 40 reviews hitting the Internet almost all at once. He was on his laptop, not back in the office yet. He was calling in, and the team was "shouting the review scores to each other. It was really exciting and really crazy."
But the time warp would continue. As the fall arrived and people were playing the game, many gamers were saying, yes, this is the Game of the Year. They were in the mode of showering praise and awarding rhetorical trophies. Rocksteady was in a different mode. "We're sort of trying our best to enjoy it," Hill said, "But obviously by the time the game comes out we're already a couple of months into the next thing we're doing." Hill's interview was conducted before the announcement of Rocksteady's "next thing," but today we know what that is: Arkham Asylum 2.
"Hopefully whatever we do next," he had said, "People will be excited about as well."
And so the feedback from Rocksteady will abate. Hill and his team are now working on something that no marginally helpful reporter, no more generous developer, no eager demo players will likely be able to provide some feedback on for a while. But maybe, it would be nice to let Hill offer some feedback of his own. What did we think of the game? After all, we've told him in many ways. It's his turn:
Why did he think Arkham Asylum was a special game, a special super-hero game?
"One of the things the team did that was successful was make a game that was uniquely a Batman game," he said. "It wasn't another genre that just happened to have a character with a cape in it. It was uniquely Batman in terms of the gadgets, the detective mode, the predator aspects and the combat. All those elements were built, designed and created to reflect Batman himself.
"Not just with super-hero products, but with licensed products, I think what tends to happen is you get a genre rather than a license and you kind of shoehorn the license into the genre. And you don't get the best of the license.
"I think Batman is quite challenging in some ways. There are some things he obviously can't do. He doesn't kill people. He never uses a gun. And there's a lot of genre conventions which you have to approach in a slightly different way. Your options are to embrace that or not. And if you embrace it, it means you have to come up with more interesting answers. I'd like to think that's what people responded to as well. If you can't kill people, what can you do? [We presented] this whole element of creating the fear and changing the way people behave because of this character and this persona he's created.
"If you can get those elements into the game, I think it's really going to resonate with people. And I think that's what happened. "
That seems on target.
Concluded Hill: "We wanted to make a great game, but also a great Batman game. … Thanks everyone for the great feedback."