The first two Arkham games were developed by Rocksteady, and they were phenomenal. They sold well, were reviewed well, and are remembered well. They hold up both in terms of gameplay and as a vehicle for Batman stories. That’s pretty much a best-case scenario. Sure, you can nitpick the games (I sure did) and talk about how they could be improved, but at some point you’re kind of wishing for the moon when you’ve already been given the sun. They are not perfect games, but they shine bright compared to their contemporaries.
So it was kind of surprising to me when Batman: Arkham Origins was handed off to Warner Brothers Games Montréal. Note that since Warner Brothers is also the publisher, the result is that this newest game is more “in-house”, from the perspective of the people that own the Batman franchise. I’ve read some rumors, but they don’t say much and don’t really hint at the “why” behind this move.
Why change developers when the series was doing so well?
I imagine that WB handed the already successful title to another team in the hopes that they could simply copy what Rocksteady had already established. Meanwhile, WB gave the team at Rocksteady the task of creating gameplay for (say) Superman, in the hopes that they will “get” Supes just as well as they did the Dark Knight.
This makes sense according to the risk-averse thinking of publishers. Sure, this can still end badly. Maybe a new team won’t copy the formula properly and we’ll end up with a malformed Batman game, and maybe the lightning won’t strike twice at Rocksteady. Still, if you’re never looking beyond the next release then this move makes the most sense.
Further conjecture: I’d predict that Rocksteady is either working on Green Lantern or Superman, since those two are the ones that have been turned into movies recently. Superman is problematic because the guy is so amazingly powerful that it’s hard to design a game where the player can fight “mooks”, or needs to hit anything more than once. Green Lantern is problematic for other reasons.
I wasn’t crazy about the idea of making the next Arkham game a prequel, but I understand why WBGM did it. It let them hide all the seams between the old and new. We could talk for ages about the external factors that sort of painted this new team into a design corner: The departure of key voice actors, the way Mark Hamil’s Joker stole the show last time around, the scope and lore of the previous games, the influence and expectations of the Christopher Nolan movies and the New 52 being blended with the classic Bat-lore in the minds of the public. All of these forces – mixed with general expectation that the scope of the game needs to keep expanding with each iteration – really trapped WBGM with regard to what the game needed to be about, where it needed to take place, and who could be in it. Moving into prequel territory freed them from some constraints. Most notably, it let them use Joker.
I’d complain about the Joker over-use in this series, but it was sort of inevitable:
Arkham Asylum: Well of course we have to focus the first game on the Joker. It’s a game set in an insane asylum and he’s the craziest of the bunch. That’s his whole character. It would be strange to not have the game revolve around him.
Arkham City: Mark Hamill was retiring from the Joker role, and the team needed to give him a fitting send-off. You couldn’t very well let the most popular actor of the most popular Batman villain retire in a subplot. Like the death of Robin or Bane breaking Batman’s back, this isn’t the kind of thing you do in optional side missions. If it’s in the game, it’s got to be part of the story. And if it’s in the story, then it has to be central because nothing else can top it.
Arkham Origins: WBGM was new to the series and had some big shoes to fill. After the event’s of Arkham City, Ra’s al Ghul, Hugo Strange, and the Joker were off the table, since they were the major players of the last game. Harley Quinn was the DLC villain of Arkham City, so they couldn’t use her again. Riddler has been established as the “collect the secrets and hidden items” guy of this series, so they couldn’t use him as the central villain.
Bane is a big one, but remember that while WBGM was writing Origins, the Dark Knight Rises was still an upcoming release and it was already known that the movie would feature Bane. The last thing this new developer would want would be to stand in the shadow of BOTH Rocksteady Batman and Nolan Batman at the same time. Moreover, the Bane of the first two Arkham games isn’t a mastermind with waves of henchman to fight, so building a game around him would have been difficult.
Penguin, Two-face, and Poison Ivy have been demoted to second-tier gang leaders in the game, so fighting them would feel like a step down. Sure, it could be done, but WBGM had their work cut out for them before they even started, and the last thing they wanted to do was show up with Batman’s B-list supervillains.
So who’s left? Catwoman? Mr. Freeze? Batman’s rogue’s gallery is pretty big, but a lot of names are off the list and there aren’t many others who are really “famous” to the general public. Mad Hatter, Zsasz, and Killer Croc just don’t have the kind of ambition and name recognition to carry a game on their own.
(The pre-Nolan Batman movies had this same problem. Batman has THE JOKER, about a half-dozen secondary foes, and a hundred obscure tertiary ones. Once they play THE JOKER card, writers start throwing secondary foes at him in groups in an attempt to keep the stakes high. But if you’re burning through second-stringers two or three at a time then you’ll run out fast and find yourself stuck with guys like Calendar Man.)
I think WBGM could have made a run at it with a Scarecrow / Bane story, but that would have been risky. They would have needed a lot of confidence in their writing to go that route. In the end they decided to play it safe and jump back in time so they could use THE JOKER.
WBGM knew they would be following two smash-hit games and the conclusion of a popular movie trilogy. Which is probably why we see this game show such a lack of confidence. They wanted to open with the big guns, which is why we have THE JOKER, plus Penguin AND Bane AND Eight! Deadly! Assassins! All this, plus we’re trying to introduce almost every major character in the series, all in one night. What we end up with is a conveyor belt of fanservice where the game stops every few minutes to shout WELL LOOK WHO IT IS! DO YOU REMEMBER THIS CHARACTER? HUH? FROM THE COMICS? COOL, RIGHT?
I’m going to use this series of posts to go over Arkham Origins in high-resolution nitpick mode and look at what WBGM did differently, what worked, and what didn’t. I’m not doing this because I disliked Origins, I’m doing it because this transition from one developer to another is a really interesting opportunity. We can see the same basic design doc as interpreted by two different teams. That’s like hearing the same music played by two different musicians, or the same play as performed by two different theater groups.
Tune in next week, same Bat-time, same Bat-blog.
Crash Dot Com
Back in 1999, I rode the dot-com bubble. Got rich. Worked hard. Went crazy. Turned poor. It was fun.
The Opportunity Crunch
No, brutal, soul-sucking, marriage-destroying crunch mode in game development isn't a privilege or an opportunity. It's idiocy.
Do you like electronic music? Do you like free stuff? Are you okay with amateur music from someone who's learning? Yes? Because that's what this is.
Silent Hill Origins
Here is a long look at a game that tries to live up to a big legacy and fails hilariously.
The plot of this game isn't just dumb, it's actively hostile to the player. This game hates you and thinks you are stupid.