Batman: Arkham Origins Multiplayer Interview
We chat to Alastair Cornish, creative director at Splash Damage about the multiplayer component of Batman: Arkham Origins.
Published on Jul 31, 2013
Batman: Arkham Origins Online, unlike COD, say, wears its complexity on its sleeve, seems to have a higher cost of entry. Have you found that a difficult thing to balance?
The firs thing that we looked at there was the hero component. We wanted to makes sure that people playing the single player could make the transition smoothly and easily to the multiplayer. For it to create a nice on-ramp for them. The controls are consistent from single-player to multiplayer. That’s that half of the equation.
When it came to the Gang Elites, that was a kind of new entry into the franchise. Method of control; taking cover, firing, throwing grenades is – obviously – new. With that in mind, we’ve tried to offer the player lots of variety in terms of control schemes.
If you’re coming at this from other games that feature [multiplayer] shooting mechanics – third-person, first-person shooters – we hope that there’s a control scheme in there for you.
We’ve tried to look at the way other games may have used their button mapping and tried to make sure there’s something that everyone will feel comfortable in there for them.
And what about in terms of the overall mechanics of combat itself?
In terms of the moment-to-moment gameplay, it was very much about trying to layer things. Initially, for the gangs, all you really need to know is, ‘If I stay alive and I’m killing off the enemy gang, then I’m contributing to victory’. And that’s obviously the natural instinct of anyone playing any kind of online mode.
If you want to go beyond that and start understanding the use of control points, or the best use of your abilities, there’s lots of tactical depth there.
But initially, if you just take cover, fire when the opportunity presents itself, then I think the only critical-from-game-one additional level of complexity is the use of the enhanced vision, which is very, very central.
But again, that’s something that you’d understand more when coming from single-player, because detective vision will be known to players by that point. It’s been a fine line to walk and that’s what we’ve done to smooth the on-ramp.
The heroes (when you’re not one) are difficult to kill and often visit insta-death on the majority gang players. How have made sure that’s, you know, not annoying?
There are a couple of ways we’ve done that. First of all it’s quite interesting that you say that they’re hard to kill, because it’s one of those perspective-based things. When you’re the heroes, the map suddenly feels small. You feel like everyone can see you from everywhere.
You feel quite vulnerable if you’re not careful about where you position yourself in the game. But when the shoe’s on the other foot and you’re one of the gang members, suddenly it feels like they could be anywhere in this vast expanse.
So they’re not hard to kill?
They’re pretty straight-forward to take down if you see them coming. So what they really need to do is move around the environment, use their gadgets and come at the gang members from different angles.
They’ve got gadgets for every different kind of situation. So if gang members cluster together, which they should do, they can blind them with smoke, things like that.
But in terms of the gang members weapons and abilities, they are very, very capable of taking down the heroes. They can stagger them; if a hero’s trying to charge him from the front – which is ill-advised – successive shots will stagger the hero and prevent them from closing in on you.
And there are takedown nullifications. That’s something else that these elite gang members can do, which is different to the AI [in single-player] since the player has to be aware.
The other thing you can do is carefully cover [floor] grates as well as ledges and edges. That can frustrate the heroes, forcing them to move around the map; they have to break off their attack. Lots of small factors come together to balance things out.
Being competent as a hero becomes a factor then?
We do actually find that it’s very balanced, but it’s also a perspective shift. So when you’re the gang members, you’re like, ‘I’m getting one-shotted by Batman, he can come at me from anywhere’. But when you’re a hero, you suddenly feel quite vulnerable.
The fact that they go over and under everything and use the map in a completely unique way must add to the complexity of your map design no end from a development point of view. Have you had to iterate each map a lot more than you normally would?
Definitely. The biggest challenge with the project was bringing everything together. There was no single element that was any more or less challenging than another.
I’d say it was having them interlock and work together, though. In terms of the scoring, in terms of the balance. But also as you mentioned, in terms of map layout. Because there’s so much verticality to it and there’s also the concept of stealth.
Lighting’s important in any level, but because of the way the heroes strike from different vantage points, strike from the shadows, how the levels were lit to work both for the heroes and for the gang members was another consideration.
You can think of it as two or three maps-worth in terms of the thinking that has to be applied to that single space, because it’s a truly 3D space.
The verticality isn’t there just to be pretty. Batman can be flying above you and Robin can pop up from below you. Staircases, ladders, all sorts – a huge amount of vertical gameplay in there.
Some people don’t like multiplayer added to their traditionally single-player franchises. Are you conscious of that feeling among fans? Are you going into this eyes-open?
I do totally understand. It why we do make it a point that this is being developed independently by Splash Damage: multiplayer specialists for over ten years now.
I do think that if it’s the same studio doing both single-player and multiplayer, I can imagine some people think you’re robbing Peter to pay Paul.
You’re working on one thing but distracted by another. But when they’re developed in parallel, completely independently, by studios in their own specialist fields, then they really haven’t taken anything away.
We’ve worked with [Warner Bros. Montreal] to get the consistency of tone, but otherwise it’s been completely independent development tracks.
The other thing is that people want to see a series evolve. Again, it was very important to us that it was a natural extension of single-player, so we thought a lot about, ‘What could the mode be?’ ‘How could it work?’
When we struck upon taking the invisible predator [mechanics] online, it just clicked, it made sense. It’s something that’s uniquely Arkham, it has that Arkham DNA running through it.
It feels like a natural extension. It’s so much fun, the predator experience, and the AI [in single-player] is great. But ultimately, it’s all about using your gadgets and outwitting your opponents.
As soon as you throw other humans into the mix, it suddenly becomes this infinitely replayable game. No two games are going to be the same. And not two teams are going to be the same.
Some people use incredible teamwork, some are awesome lone wolves, scatter round the level. Which gadget to use in the right situation and how to deal with groups that stick together or how to hunt down a lone wolf; it changes up all the time. Not just game-to-game.
It cycles between hunter and hunted depending on the relative positions and strengths and ammo counts and everything else. It was really just this natural growth.
For the single-player component – I can’t speak too much for those guys – they’re been looking at how to push the product forward and they’ve got some fantastic ideas and additions that build on the franchise.
It just seemed like a natural extension. People love challenge, people love the sense of being the predator and trying to take down prey. What could be a more dangerous prey than another human intellect?
So before you decided to include the invisible predator stuff, were you looking specifically for something that would make Arkham Origins Online stand out as unique?
Massively. That was probably the driving force, because we understand that sometimes there can be cynicism. About adding multiplayer to single-player.
BioShock 2 comes to mind. Not that there was anything inherently wrong with it, it just seemed to have no reason to exist. Getting people to play it and to keep playing it, we’re guessing you’re conscious of that?
That feeds into your last point about having something that stands out. Not having a me-too product. That’s one of the reasons that was at the forefront of our thinking. You don’t want to play Batman, then go, ‘So what have we got for the multiplayer?
Oh, it’s another team deathmatch, or another capture-the-flag mode’. We don’t want it to feel like it’s something that’s unnaturally shoehorned in or feels like it’s ticking the back of the box.
Splash Damage didn’t want to do that. You know, we’ve got no interest in doing that. Warner didn’t want that. It had to be something that was distinct and uniquely Arkham and that you couldn’t get anywhere else.
I think that’s part of what we hope will grow a thriving community; that this does have very distinct gameplay. If you’re going to draw parallels at all, on the team, we feel you have to look all the way back to the original Alien Versus Predator on the PC or Spies Versus Mercs [Splinter Cell].
Those are the kinds of games that we hear people drawing parallels to after they’ve played [Arkham Origins Online]. Some of the people who worked on Spies Versus Mercs are actually on the team.
It’s these types of experiences that do build strong communities, because they are unique and because there are these deep tactical layers.
In the single-player component, people are used to having challenge rooms, being able to come out of single-player and being able to play free-flowing combat challenges and predator challenges. So you can think of this as another challenge room initially (I guess), against what is essentially the best AI in the world [real people].
We hope that when people experience what invisible predator can be like, what it’s like against human opponents, and see that it’s not a me-too mode, that its distinctly Arkham and that it has these layers of depth, they’ll stay and they’ll form tactics and groups, clans. We really hope that a community will grow up around it.
Bringing out something so high-budget, high-polish right at the end of a console generation; do you think that’s beneficial, good, bad, what do you think?
As an end user, I always think it’s a very exciting time in the life cycle of a console. I love seeing what comes out right at the end. Often there are some stone-cold classics. I think the timing is good for this.
25 October is the launch date, so we hope there are enough machines tucked under enough TVs to reach as broad an audience as possible that will want to see just what you can milk out of that generation right at its end.
So, from a professional standpoint it’s great to have such a broad audience so you can enjoy it. From an end user [gamer] standpoint, the two most fun times are the launch titles – what’s coming out on the new consoles? – but also the swan songs: what are the final few products tht the system’s going to be remembered for?