Dark Futures Part 4: Raphael & Harvey Arkane

By Kieron Gillen on July 9th, 2010 at 1:00 pm.

Raphael Colantonio and Harvey Smith are game designers who are currently co-directing an unannounced project at Arkane Studios, working across offices in Lyon and Austin. They’ve been making games professionally since 1993, with a keen interest in first-person games with detailed environments and RPG features. Colantonio is the founder, CEO and Creative Director at Arkane. Under his direction, Arkane created Arx Fatalis and the PC version of Dark Messiah of Might and Magic. Over the years, he has worked with Electronic Arts, Valve, Ubisoft and 2K. In 2005, Colantonio expanded Arkane, opening a new office in Austin. At Ion Storm, Smith was lead designer of the award winning game Deus Ex, which received a BAFTA ward in 2000, and project director of Deus Ex: Invisible War. He was lead designer of FireTeam at Multitude and studio creative director at Midway Games (Austin). In the early 90′s, Smith worked at legendary RPG studio Origin Systems. Both Colantonio and Smith have spoken at numerous game conferences, and are passionate about immersive, highly interactive games with simulation elements.

RPS: Deus Ex was in 2000. We’re a decade on. I find myself thinking about what happened to the Immersive Sim. How would you characterise the 00s? What was the themes? What worked? What didn’t?

Raphael Colantonio & Harvey Smith: If Ultima Underworld is your favorite game ever, as with both of us, you had this experience in 1992: You’re looking out into the gloom as the lighting falls off. The goblin watching you is visibly going through AI state changes based on distance, time, or your actions. You might leave the “critical” path and end up falling into a river, far below. You drag yourself out onto the bank, pull some plants and eat them. You throw a line from your fishing pole because you need more food. Later, trying to cross a pit, you figure out how to mix jump and your levitate/hover spell in a way that is not scripted, but lets you improvise to cross the pit. Just amazing stuff, and it feels like our industry has stalled out in many areas, instead of advancing on all of those fronts. Of course, it’s not like that’s what developers (or players) want, stalling out…it’s just that moving those elements forward is expensive, time consuming and technologically heavy, in order to accomplish alongside the race toward photo-realism and the push for safe (ie, low experimentation, low iteration) financial investments in the form of game projects. At some point, the two of us have to believe (in order to stay sane in the commercial game industry) that those dynamic, expressive, deep gameplay values will rise to the surface again.

After that period you’re alluding to, around 2000, we both hoped that game worlds would keep getting more detailed and interesting…filled with gameplay-relevant useable objects that make sense in the environment, Ultima-style NPC schedules or Sim-like needs/behaviors, and non-plot-relevant gameplay and exploration. We assumed that we’d see a greater emphasis on meaningful consequences to narrative decisions, more opportunities for player-driven goal setting, and game systems that allowed for improvised solutions to problems. Looking at Far Cry 2, Bioshock, the Rockstar games, and cool anomalies like Eve Online, some of that has happened, for sure, but it’s the exception not the rule. Mostly, it seems like games have specialized, which makes sense from a production standpoint. Games like Mass Effect have gotten creative with plot branches and overt NPC factionalization, but have traded off simulation, plus non-combat AI behaviors, environmental physics and non-linearity. Those games are all amazing in some way, but they don’t feel like the gestalt experiences that the two of us, as passionate players who are always chasing a particular experience, were hoping for. Admittedly, there are monstrous challenges we all face as developers, and any success at that level is astounding. It’s not like we’ve got it all figured out.

The immersive values–not in the general “engagement” sense, but in the “you are there” sense–continue to appeal to some developers; Mirror’s Edge, Bioshock, Fallout, Far Cry 2. Even if the first Mirror’s Edge was otherwise flawed, it did amazing things with first-person movement. Even if Far Cry 2 was really frustrating at times, and even if some of the narrative dynamics didn’t pay off, it was one of the most fascinating shooters ever made.

The simulation values seem to have taken the back seat for now, with the exception of physics; many game elements are now static instead of functioning as a dynamic system with very analogue player input. Game developers have always played with simulations and very dynamic elements to great effect. Early on, there are examples like the terrain in Populous or the input controls of Lunar Lander. Thief’s AI was a big leap forward in terms of awareness states and how they were communicated to players. There are great examples every year…the physics in Half-life 2, the fully-explored rewind in Braid, the zombie population/drama management in Left4Dead, the population/wildlife simulation in Red Dead Redemption (and the shallow, but fun dynamic vignettes). The fire sim in Far Cry 2 was amazing. But mostly game environments feel more static than they should. When some game event feels dynamic or systemic, it just feels better. Even something simple feels good, like a character pathfinding through the world and finding the player, regardless of where his or her avatar is at, and initiates a conversation, instead of just standing there until the player walks up and clicks on that character…suddenly the experience feels more like you own it. This is a critical value for games.

RPS: Putting words in your mouth, the one theme I’d bring forward would be Entryism. The idea being, how can we take this genre and make it sell enough to justify doing. Deus Ex’s 500K wouldn’t be enough to justify the ever-growing budgets. Would you think is true? How do you think of the tactics?

Raphael Colantonio & Harvey Smith: We believe strongly that any game done well enough will make tons of money. People trick themselves into believing all these false rules about creative success. Some publishers try to predict the future based on past trends because it’s easier to operate that way. It makes people feel comfortable to believe they can project future sales figures accurately. “First person doesn’t sell,” or “RPGs don’t sell.” They’re afraid of unusual settings, new gameplay features, or in cases something specific, like, “post apocalypse.” Then Fallout 3 or Bioshock comes along, the perfect examples of awesome games that, according to common industry thinking, had every reason to fail: Cross-genre, weird world, slower-paced, story-oriented titles that took gameplay risks and gambled creatively in general.

However, for sure, the problem has come to pass that people have predicted for a long time, that games would get so expensive that only a few publishers would be able to fund large games, and that these would get super conservative in terms of taking creative risks…megalithic, tent pole events as Don Simpson describe in the sickening, but prescient film production book High Concept. Despite that, a few groups every year manage to awe us and deliver: Bethesda, Valve, Rockstar. The games are a different beast in general, but Nintendo went in the opposite direction with the Wii, making games less expensive, less graphics driven, less realistic, and more built around a single set of hardware innovations. And the indie games movement is another answer, providing less realistic, more interesting, more personal experiments. (The game Sword and Sorcery is high on the list of “could be super cool.”)

RPS: If I was going to say a flaw of Entryism is that it ends up alienating the previous hardcore. They don’t want it cut down, even if that’s all they can get. Was there any way around that?

Raphael Colantonio & Harvey Smith: It’s the valid conflict between very experienced players who want games with highly interactive, expressive, meaningful decisions vs realistic graphics winning out at the market vs production costs. At times, it feels like we’re forced to choose between the hardcoreness of Dwarf Fortress or the accessibility and graphical polish of World of Warcraft. It’s a problem, finding the right balance between new players and veterans. In part, the answer will be found a greater proliferation of games and platforms….a wider range for the industry. And getting closer to the end of the graphical arms race. Hopefully, what matters to hardcore players are the underlying values, not specific implementation details, setting, platform, or style. So, for instance, the two of us value simulated environments and meaningful player choices…as long as a game provides those experiences, we’re both interested in checking it out.

RPS: And looking forward to the next decade… what now. How do you think it can be pushed? Bioshock showed that a game in this lineage could be a blockbuster. What do we do now?

Raphael Colantonio & Harvey Smith: Practically speaking, it would be great if games stayed on this round of console hardware for another 5 years, just so we could see what happens, creatively. How will AAA games differentiate if they can’t rely on “more polish,” or on just leap-frogging toward photo realism?

In terms of the next 10 years, for us it’s about pursuing the same values, regardless of how hard it is, how many “near successes” we have, or how much we struggle. We’d love to play more first-person games that try to simulate elements of the game in ways that create a primal response to players’ actions, with more persistent consequences for decisions, that spill over into other parts of the experience. Ideally, game characters should have a coherent place in the world, and impact…they should change things, react, and behave in interesting ways beyond combat tactics. We want to make games that constantly remind you that you have an effect on the world…personalized outcomes so that your experience is different from someone else’s. We want to give the player non-linear paths, both spatially, stylistically and morally. Hopefully, it’s not surprising to hear us say that their games should always shoot for depth-through-game-systems; allowing the player to improvise and experiment, creating moments where strange, unplanned things happen because of the simulation, when various rules and entities interact.

It’s our belief that, as developers and publishers, we should have more faith in the player and the player’s drive to own the experience, to figure things out. So many games put the player in a room, with a big navigation arrow floating overhead, pointing to the door, with text flashing on the upper left that says, “WALK THROUGH DOOR.” Near the text, a small animation shows the controller stick being pushed forward. We should all just relax…it’s not like you’ve got to go the opposite way and print out a keyboard overlay, but let’s give the player room to explore, more control over the pace, and multiple ways to do things.

Of course, we’ve both made mistakes. Development is hard. It takes a long time to understand what really drives you, where your heart is as a game designer, plus the commercial nature of the games we make add a lot of complexity. And then there’s the difficulty of software development on top of that.

Hopefully, 10 years from now, playing games will feel more personal, more meaningful.

It’s always very hard to talk about what it means to play a game, to experience it. Why do we like standing on a hill or on top of a skyscraper in some games, watching the sun rise? Why is it satisfying to see a ruined building in the distance, reach it, find a way inside and explore the rooms…to figure out who lived there and what happened based on the environmental storytelling clues left behind? First-person games that allow for exploration often provide the childhood thrill that came from sneaking into an abandoned house or a building at the edge of town.

People get a lot of things out of games. Some of it overlaps with movies and books. Those parts are important and can be satisfying, but let’s ignore them. Some of what people get out of games overlaps with physically “doing things” in the real world. (Imagine going down a wall with a hammer, driving 100 nails into wood. There’s a repetition and a manipulation of objects toward a goal that might be satisfying.) Lots of it is an abstraction of some real world situation, but rendered safe. Beating someone else in Poker, driving a car down the wrong side of the road, breaking into an apartment. Sometimes it’s a condensed form of accomplishment; winning a match is a little like being the person who solves a difficult, important real-world problem and is acknowledged. Some of what we get out of games is screwing around with a system and watching the rational, but interesting reactions. Some of it is a kind of mythic narrative…the way stories make sense to us, satisfying our sense of justice or right/wrong-ness, in a way the real-world usually doesn’t make sense.

In the end, it comes down to providing an interesting experience, but this can be done in so many different ways that it’s difficult to even discuss: The Modern Warfare games made by the incredibly talented Respawn Entertainment guys provide a perfectly-crafted, perfectly-staged single-player experience and a totally ruthless, pounding player-versus-player experience, but the Rockstar games throw the player into an open-world sandbox with lots of layered systems, and players can have “fun” either way. The game we’d like to play would let us explore a highly crafted world from first-person, and emergent simulation events would either be exploitable by the player, in a very intentional way, or they’d have persistent consequences.

The two of us were looking at a screenshot the other day, depicting a long highway running through the desert. It was gorgeous terrain, but obviously made for the player to blaze by in a vehicle. We started talking about leaving the road, setting up a little campsite, planting certain crops, living on hunted animals and occasionally protecting travelers from bandits in the area….the animal population eventually dwindling due to the player over-hunting the area, and the civilian population increasing, families moving in, as a response to the player’s suppression of the highway robbers. Lots of people are going to make driving and shooting games in open environments, and those games will be sexy and fun. But these additional dynamics are the stuff we dream about. Not easy to do, but just talking about it gave us a strong shot of excitement. The people paying for development will bend to whatever winds blow, because they optimize for competition and profit. So if players demand it, developers will get to make it.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

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54 Comments »

  1. ReallyFackingSubversive says:

    Question I’d like to ask Smith someday: “Do you think first person perspective is mandatory for immersion?”

    • bill says:

      I’ll copy Harvey’s comment up from the bottom of the comments, incase you didn’t see it. Reply doesn’t seem to work for him either:

      “Definitely not. I just finished RDR and found it highly immersive.

      It might sound obvious now, but my eyes were first opened up to immersion not as a graphical or camera thing but as a design thing by Rob Fermier of Looking Glass, in a GDC talk. Before that, I guess I understood it intuitively, as a fan of the Ultimas. But Fermier articulately broke down immersion into three components: completeness (the player can do what he expects to be able to do), integrity (the illusion is never broken, the player is not jarred out of the game) and investment (the player cares about what happens).

      I think first-person-perspective games with realistic spatial representations take this a step further, adding a familiar visual component; players immersed in first-person perspective games often physically dodge projectiles or lean in their seats when attempting to see around the corner.

      So first-person is just a preference. Games of the same style as STALKER, Bioshock or Far Cry 2 are more…I love them as much as or maybe more than the best pop music in my life or favorite novels.

      Btw, the captcha on this site nearly defeats me every time.”

  2. Lars Westergren says:

    Thank you so much RPS for posting the Dark Futures series, it is some of the most interesting writing I’ve seen on the site in a long time.

    Dark Messiah of M&M is sadly overlooked action RPG imho. If it comes sale again and you have some money to spare, consider getting it.

    Didn’t know it was the same company behind Arx Fatalis. Bought.

    • bwion says:

      Wow, neither did I. I’ll have to pick it up now, as Arx Fatalis was, I thought, fantastic. (Though it remains one of the very few games I was never able to finish specifically because the final fight was ridiculously impossible.)

      I’ve only been skimming these interviews thus far, but based on this installment, I shall have to find the time to go back and read them properly.

  3. Freud says:

    Many of my most immersive gaming experiences have been more about sense of place than any clever mission design. Skulking around on maps in Deus Ex, using sniping to kill guards (completely ignoring the AI being silly because it didn’t prevent me from enjoying the game) or more recently with Call of Pripyat. The genius of that game is that it was so scarcely populated. Most games put so many enemies in the levels that you learn to expect to have to deal with enemies all the time and adopt to it. In Call of Pripyat, it was more about experiencing the environments and now and again bumping into something. I found it very meditative and tense at the same time.

    I do think first person perspective is superior in creating a sense of place.

  4. Xercies says:

    You know since this console generation seems to be staying for the next 5 years and the PC will be two(since the advancement of PC graphics seem to be tied to the consoles now a days) One thing i think they should change is this whole AAA or nothing mentality.

    You know you don’t always have to be AAA you don’t have to use the latest graphical engine available. and this is where this kind of immersive sim game would come from. They would be the B-Movie equivelent of games..spending not a lot of amount but enough to get it done. Maybe using older engines to get it done. it doesn’t always have to be AAA or small 2d indie game. There is a whole range in between. if i remember rightly back in the older days of PS1 and Dreamcast aa lot of companies would gain ther money from just this thing. Not contantly trying to compete with the mega bucks of the publishers but making there own style of really great games that were a bit on the cheaper side of things.

    There is an audience for this just look at RPS just look at people clamoring for these style of games. Games shouldn’t because its all high graphics and mega corporations be AAA or nothing. There should Be AAA to F games.

    • Xercies says:

      And to further that i think some of these mega corporatios should have sides of there company that make these B level games. Kind of like how the film industry in the 1970s used to use some of there big cash to finance some of the smalelr movies. Movies that to this day were still hailing as classics!

    • TeeJay says:

      I get the impression that making an “AAA” title is also used to creating and promote a brand new IP. Smaller games, “DLC” and sequels are then released after the initial “splash” has been created.

    • Mad Hamish says:

      I completely agree and I think it’s going to go that way, what with all the top quality engines easily available these days and the momentum indie developers are gathering at the moment I think more and more publishers are going to start to take these smaller companies under their wing. Once they all wake up to the fact that they can make a few quid on low budget games that are digitally distributed.

      I mean so many of these mega budget, so called low risk games completly bomb and they suffer huge losses, often taking the developer with it(I have this stat floating around my head that the average developer lifespan is 3 years, don’t know where I got it or whether it’s true). It just doesn’t seem sustainable.
      This is my optimistic view point anyway. Either this happens or I’ll resign myself to a lifetime of unemployment.

    • Xercies says:

      Hmm you could be right but to be honest i have a more cynical view of it.

      Rightly or wrongly they think the big bucks are in the big megablockbuster AAA games and well there going to stick with them even when there haemorrhaging money and of course they won’t think “maybe we got it wrong” no they’ll go even more stupidly by maybe pushing up the price so your paying silly amounts for each game or doing other things like you paying for a smaller and smaller games…paying monthly for the “online” mode and stuff like that. i actually think there could be a crash because of this and the only games that would be left are the “casual” Wii type games that basically will go away once people are bored which to be honest is already kind of happening.

    • Mad Hamish says:

      Man, that’s sounds horrific. But I think the best we can hope for and probably the most likely is a model similar to the film industry. Where still dominated by a load of bollocks blockbusters and churned out cookie cutter comedies with whoever is popular at the minute(complete with title in red block letters), the odd few of which can be amazing but rarely original or ground breaking. But within that there is plenty of room for smaller productions by indies or put out by small publishers and even arms of the big guys dealing specificly with low budget stuff. Which is where most of the creativity is. But it can be only a loose comparision because of the medium of games itself and the culture around it is very different. Wildcards like the internet, piracy, digital distribution and the like(known unknowns, as an utter bastard once put it) coming into play so very early in the mediums existance could take it anywhere. Tis a brave new world an all that shit.

  5. gumbomasta says:

    Great article. Of all the interviews so far, these guys seemed most interested in the joy of the experience Deus Ex and its forebears provided. The previous three interviewees, great minds all, had opinions which seemed guided by by external factors: market analysis, overarching gaming trends and highfalutin philosophy. These two, on the other hand, seem guided by gameplay first and foremost.

    =g

    • LionsPhil says:

      Yeah, this was certainly one of the least depressing of these interviews. ;)

      I didn’t know Harvey and Raphael had fused together into a single consciousness, though. We have grown, but there is still much to be done.

  6. John says:

    Fascinating to read what Harvey Smith and others at Arkane have to say about this topic. Very heartening too, it makes me even more excited about what that company produces next. I really liked Arx and Dark Messiah, and their next project should be really interesting.

  7. gumbomasta says:

    PS… you have two Interview 3 mastheads

    • TeeJay says:

      @ Kieron Gillen

      It is helpful that you introduced this with “…first-person games with detailed environments and RPG features…” and “…immersive, highly interactive games with simulation elements…” in this one.

      Thank you for doing this kind of series of articles by the way.

  8. Sobric says:

    Far Cry 2 is a painful game to play, not really due to the annoyances of the game but how close the damn thing comes to greatness. It’s also crying out for mod tools.

    Reduce the re-spawn times of guard posts, expand the “cease-fire zones” across all of the map (tweaked slightly), add a range of NPCs who could turn out to be friendly, neutral or enemies. Then you’ve got a game.

  9. jackflash says:

    Awesome interview. Long live Harvey and Raphael!

  10. Mad Hamish says:

    I just clicked that Sword and Sorcery link.
    Frank Frazetta died? Bummer.

  11. Frank says:

    “Why is it satisfying to see a ruined building in the distance, reach it, find a way inside and explore the rooms…to figure out who lived there and what happened based on the environmental storytelling clues left behind?”

    Because it is awesome.

  12. LionsPhil says:

    It’s our belief that, as developers and publishers, we should have more faith in the player and the player’s drive to own the experience, to figure things out. So many games put the player in a room, with a big navigation arrow floating overhead, pointing to the door, with text flashing on the upper left that says, “WALK THROUGH DOOR.” Near the text, a small animation shows the controller stick being pushed forward. We should all just relax…

    SO VERY MUCH YES. The constant “hey hey hey go forward this way go go go hurry hurry” ruins some of the quieter parts of Call of Juarez 2 for me, and it’s a goddamn plague across modern gaming.

    • Mad Hamish says:

      Yeah, all this hand nolding crap is awful. Treating the player like an idiot who’s never played a game before. Even if they haven’t played a game before a breif glance at the manual will give them the info they need. I mean as far as I remember HL2 didn’t tell you to pile up cinderblocks on the board to get you to the higher platform. There’s a certain buzz you get figuring out stuff for yourself. Or when you’re half way though a game and accidentally hit a key that does something you had no idea you could do. Well that would have been handy to know on the last level.

    • Arathain says:

      The hand-holding I can kind of ignore, and it can often be useful in pointing out gameplay features that I can sometimes miss if I don’t read the manual. When it’s accompanied by any sort of pestering or forward pressure it can feck right off. If I’m learning a game I want to take my time to muck with stuff.

      I bought Red Faction: Guerrilla in the latest Steam sale, and I’m really enjoying it. It has a great opening area, where you are given your hammer and explosives and told to go trash some buildings. It’s a perfect introduction where you get a little playground to have fun and appreciate the excellent destruction physics. It’s rather spoiled by the NPC at the door radioing you once in a while to tell you to hurry up. Why? Let me play. I’m having fun trashing stuff. Leave me alone.

      Designers seem torn between creating a tense atmosphere by creating pressure from the time you hit the ‘New Game’ button and trying to teach you all the stuff you need to know. I think it’s more important that the player can learn what they need, and play with their new toy, without interference.

    • Alphabet says:

      RF:G is wonderful, and only pressures you during missions (and in general that makes the missions exhilirating rather than artifically pressured). It’s odd that Tom Chick loved it (I bought it based on his advocacy) but hated Deus Ex, given that I loved both games largely for their overlap (i.e. making you a powerful agent-in-every-sense in a world that you could influence, rather than the sort of game character who just does the next obvious thing, repeat)

  13. LionsPhil says:

    Yeah, Valve are somewhat the masters of guiding the player subtly, rather than going “HEY HEY HEY YOU’RE IN A GAME HEY PRESS THIS BUTTON NOW”.

  14. Arathain says:

    “The Modern Warfare games made by the incredibly talented Respawn Entertainment guys…”

    I see what you did there.

  15. Kab says:

    Dark Messiah of Might and Magic was a hugely underrated fun ride. I replay it every year or so and still has not got old… so many ways of killing things with physics and magic :)

    Just saying.

    (and testing my new registration – the evil CAPTCHA finally broke me :( )

    • jeremypeel says:

      I have to say, I think I enjoy Dark Messiah more as a Looking Glass and Valve tribute game rather than on its own merits. It’s clearly a game informed by a lot of my favourite things and there were moments of the same greatness, but too much was poorly implemented and its physics gimmicks were too contrived.

      I remain, however, a dedicated supporter of Arkane. I used to regularly check for updates on The Crossing, it’s a real shame that project went under. I’m sure we can expect wonderful things in the near future from Raphael, Harvey and their respective teams.

  16. Alphabet says:

    What an extraordinary example of the benefits of thinking about something for a long time and articulating it well. This was one of the best essays on the sort of game that so many of us love that I’ve ever read. Bravo.

  17. Tim Ward says:

    STALKER STALKER STALKER STALKER STALKER STALKER STALKER STALKER STALKER STALKER STALKER STALKER STALKER STALKER STALKER STALKER STALKER STALKER STALKER STALKER STALKER STALKER STALKER STALKER STALKER STALKER STALKER STALKER STALKER STALKER

  18. Ragnar says:

    Ha, Now there was a mention of Dwarf Fortress!

    Good interview.

  19. jaheira says:

    Sobric: Not right on. Far Cry 2 is the 2nd best FPS ever made, IMO. I never understood why everyone moaned about the checkpoints, or that everyone on the map is hostile. Why complain about having to shoot guys in a shooter?

  20. Vinraith says:

    @jaheira

    I happen to agree that it’s a great game, but it really is a travesty that they didn’t release mod tools with it. The people that didn’t like various aspects of the game could have tweaked them, and those of us that enjoyed it as it was could have left it alone. Plus, there would have undoubtedly been some great additional user-made content, so everybody wins.

  21. HarbourMaster says:

    It’s not a bad game, but it doesn’t make it into the great category. It’s another great attempt, something to be applauded like Mirror’s Edge.

    I enjoyed some of the time I spent with it; just not all. Emergent combat gameplay is great. Same for immersive environment. Consequences and context – that does not really work, and too much naked hostility, shoot on sight everywhere. And the guard post mechanic does get old after a while.

  22. jaheira says:

    @Vinraith

    Good point well made.

  23. Harvey Smith says:

    Definitely not. I just finished RDR and found it highly immersive.

    It might sound obvious now, but my eyes were first opened up to immersion not as a graphical or camera thing but as a design thing by Rob Fermier of Looking Glass, in a GDC talk. Before that, I guess I understood it intuitively, as a fan of the Ultimas. But Fermier articulately broke down immersion into three components: completeness (the player can do what he expects to be able to do), integrity (the illusion is never broken, the player is not jarred out of the game) and investment (the player cares about what happens).

    I think first-person-perspective games with realistic spatial representations take this a step further, adding a familiar visual component; players immersed in first-person perspective games often physically dodge projectiles or lean in their seats when attempting to see around the corner.

    So first-person is just a preference. Games of the same style as STALKER, Bioshock or Far Cry 2 are more…I love them as much as or maybe more than the best pop music in my life or favorite novels.

    Btw, the captcha on this site nearly defeats me every time.

    • bill says:

      Wow. I have something in common with Harvey Smith!! Capture and reply failure on RPS!

    • negativedge says:

      “Immersion” seems to me to be a bit of a buzzword. It’s so much empty verbiage. The three games you mention–Bioshock, Far Cry 2, and STALKER–break the illusion all the time. Sometimes they do it on purpose, sometimes they simply fail, and sometimes they were misguided from the beginning. Making the player “invested” simply sounds like code for “making a good game.” There are massive barriers (structurally, mechanically, within the penned narrative, etc.) to what the player can or can expect to do in all of these games. These things describe your own Deus Ex as well. And yet I can say with extreme confidence that Deus Ex is excellent, STALKER is a glorious mess, Far Cry 2 is smart and well intentioned if tedious and bland, and Bioshock is borderline awful.

      I understand the idea of meaningful choice and player ownership of a game world being important, but I think your love of Ultima Underworld betrays a desire to attribute these ideas to one specific, narrow (if successful) design philosophy. In many ways I feel like I own Deus Ex or Stalker, but I also feel like I own Mario or Street Fighter–games with extremely obvious and hard limitations on the player.

      The problem here is with the terms of engagement. We have a difficult time describing and quantifying the parameters of successful and interesting video games. I’m inclined to believe all games come down to little more than the intuitiveness and validity of their mechanics, and the fluidity of their level design (which can and does refer to more than simply the level layouts). For all its technical prowess, high minded design principles, narrative and social justification for its decisions, etc., Far Cry 2 has a massive problem because the shooting in the game is mediocre, and the system of reward and punishment is, for all the talk of a broken and chaotic Africa, all out of wack. Bioshock has terrible combat and gimmicky level design that is reflected all the way up and down the design document. Deus Ex has masterful level layouts and a deft character development system that both reflect and expand on the game’s design goals. If the nuts and bolts of your game are good and your design raison d’etre is kept in-line with them, you’re going to succeed. What we need is a better way of identifying and communicating the nuances of these foundational aspects of design–of highlighting and focusing on what the player is actually doing from minute to minute.

  24. bill says:

    I definitely feel a need for games with more things to do, other than combat.

    It applies to FPS things like Bioshock, or RPG things like KotoR, or even RTS things like, er…. Warcraft 2?

    It’s something that games seem to have been struggling with for years. We’ve made some good advancements (bioware with it’s decent, meaningful dialogue, general implementation of physics), but it’s still something that developers struggle with, leading to things like escort missions.

    I don’t really feel the need to fish, or cook, or things like that, but I’d like to have the freedom to do things that heroes in movies and books do. Most of which is not combat, and not mundane tasks (which don’t get mentioned), but is the sort of creative or inventive use of their environment and friends that we rarely get to do in games.

    I think the problem is that many non-combat tasks quickly become repetitive, as they rarely have the dynamic element that combat has. See: Bioshock’s hacking.

    • bill says:

      As an example, people with a medic skill should actually have to patch up their patient, responding to dynamic complications and using hand-eye coordination to fix the problem. Rather than shooting them with a medic gun.

      Hacking a vending machine could involve pulling it out from the wall, opening the panel, cutting and re-connecting wires in real-time. With unpredictable results that you have to respond to.

    • Thants says:

      You’re making me want a No Country For Old Men game.

  25. Thants says:

    Hand-holding the player too much can be very annoying. I remember a moment like that in Modern Warfare 2. The screen has blood all over it, it’s flashing red, and the player is grunting and wheezing; Putting the text “You are hurt. Get to cover” in the middle of the screen just seems like you’re being intentionally patronizing.

  26. James T says:

    Not right on. Far Cry 2 is the 2nd best FPS ever made, IMO. I never understood why everyone moaned about the checkpoints, or that everyone on the map is hostile. Why complain about having to shoot guys in a shooter?

    To quote a very old post: people make these complaints because the checkpoints are boring, purgatorial filler battles that merely slow you down when you’re heading across vast distances to get to big, ‘real’ battles which have narrative/lucrative consequences, and are set in interesting places. An FPS doesn’t become a more joyous experience just by having more targets crammed into it.

  27. Bart Stewart says:

    Thank you RPS for another great interview.

    The ideas and goals described by Harvey and Raphael are exactly what inspired me to come up with that “Living World” game concept I’ve yapped about previously. I’ve love to make that game myself, which is intended to enable experiences exactly as they described in their last paragraph. But I frankly don’t care who makes it as long as someone does.

    There are games about kinesthetic sensations. There are games about overcoming rules-based challenges to collect status markers. There are even a few games that try to tell a good story with interesting characters. But there are so painfully few games that are designed to reward perceptiveness and creative thinking, or — best of all — that support and encourage all of these playstyles in a single coherent gameworld.

    “…players immersed in first-person perspective games often physically dodge projectiles or lean in their seats when attempting to see around the corner.”

    That is *exactly* what I experienced when I first played Ultima Underworld and realized that I-the-player was physically leaning to keep my balance as I-the-character rounded a corner while running away from an enraged enemy. I have never forgotten that feeling of being so immersed as an actor in a secondary reality, from the physics to the story to the skills systems to the perceptive/creative problem-solving opportunities. And I keep wishing for more such complete games that capture some of that magic.

    So here’s to the folks like Harvey and Raphael and the other developers who are still trying to make games that deliver on the promise of the lost Origin: “We Create Worlds.”

  28. TheSombreroKid says:

    Dark Messiah is in my top 5 games of the decade, it makes the environment interactive like nothing before, it also understands how hardcore and accessible are not mutually exclusive in interactive media, which is something I’m focused on in my projects.

    • innokenti says:

      Too true. It’s a game that I would probably rate a sort of 75 or so, but one that I come back to play again and again and again (I think I’ve replayed it some 7-8 times at regular intervals).

      It’s got a great feel to it and though there are lots of problems and imperfections, they don’t take away from just how much fun you can have. Actually, I’d draw parallels in terms of the quality of fun and joy you get from it to Alpha Protocol. Neither are games you’d say are fantastic/great/best ever, yet the joy you get from playing them again and again is something special.

  29. jeremypeel says:

    Thanks a lot for this latest in a series of talks with my favourite people ever, Kieron. As others have echoed, I was expecting a single Harvey and not an Arkane hive mind, which is an even more exciting prospect.

    The most interesting slant here over the other interviews is the focus on technology in bringing about highly interactive games. More specifically, the effects of an apparent end to the usual 5-year console cycle. Whilst the unpredictability might be currently putting shareholders off, I was wondering only yesterday about what fruits reaching the end of the graphical arms race of current consoles might bring in terms of interactivity (not to mention the benefits of developers actually fully understanding the tools they’re using). Fewer Perfect Dark Zeros and Halo 3s, more… who knows?

    “Of course, we’ve both made mistakes. Development is hard. It takes a long time to understand what really drives you, where your heart is as a game designer, plus the commercial nature of the games we make add a lot of complexity.”

    That’s quite an admittance, but then I’ve always been impressed by Harvey’s way with self-analysis. More than anything, these men are talented designers whose hearts are very much in the right place; I for one will be watching eagerly for more news on their work (make it happen RPS!).

  30. mrrobsa says:

    Wow, every idle game idea tossed out by these guys in the interview sounded great, basically an emphasis on everything I love in games like modelled systems and simulations, emergent opportunities, interactions of a non-bullet nature. Hurry up with that unannounced project! Great read.

  31. In the fresh says:

    It seems Harvey has returned from…the dark side. Well done, Harvey. I don’t forgive easy but *flexes knuckles* I think you’ve learned IW’s lessons. Sin ye not like that again.

    Pseudo-threatening tone aside, these guys are gold. The industry needs people like this in positions of power and influence. If Harvey, Rafael and their ilk die in “tragic accidents”, I’ll know exactly who to blame: The Kotick Squad! :)

  32. wholesale beads says:

    What you are you do not see, what you see is your shadow.

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