Batman Meets Metroid In Arkham Origins Blackgate
We’re spending all month shining the spotlight on Batman: Arkham Origins, but this month also brought word of another game in the Arkham fiction. Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate serves as an accompaniment to the console game from Warner Bros. Games Montreal. Designed by the team at Armature, Blackgate is a 2.5D Metroid-style game coming to Vita and 3DS that sends the Dark Knight swooping through the corridors of the infamous Gotham prison. While you may not be familiar with Armature, you likely know them from their previous studio job; many of Armature’s developers were the team leads behind the original Metroid Prime games from Retro Studios. We talked with game director Mark Pacini to learn more about the upcoming game, as well as his studio’s ties to one of the most acclaimed Nintendo game series of all time.
GI: Tell me about Armature. Who are you, and what brought you to this Batman project?
Mark Pacini: We were established five years ago by some ex Retro employees – myself, Todd Keller and Jack Mathews. I was the game director of the Metroid Prime Series, Todd was the art director, and Jack was the tech director. We broke out from Nintendo, started our own thing five years ago, and we had established a relationship with Warner Bros. They had come to us with this opportunity that they were looking to make a 2.5D-style Arkham game that was in the Metroidvania flavor and they thought we’d be a good pairing to it, since we were really familiar with that style of game. We made three of them, so it was a great fit and we were huge fans. I’m personally a huge fan of the Arkham franchise, so it just seemed like a really good fit.
How long have you been working on this project?
Since spring of last year.
What are some of the mechanics that you have transferred over from the console version?
That was actually kind of challenging in the beginning, because we wanted to give the player enough tools to unlock and progress in a world just like in a normal Metroidvania game. What we did is we went through the back log of the past two Arkham games and looked at the things that we thought would work well in our game. Climbing the grapple is our jump, so there’s no jumping in the game, you use the grapple to get up higher. We have glide – you know the glide allows you to go down over longer lateral spaces. Crouching and climbing and things like that are all from the console game so taking that small kernel of abilities, we are actually able to do quite a bit, and then we just supplement it with the gadgets that we thought would work well in a more 2.5D perspective. Things like the batarang and the gel launcher. The gel launcher is a slight adjustment to the explosive gel that’s in the console version, where Batman sprays it against the surface. We’re using it more like the movie version, where you can shoot it over more of a distance, so you can utilize the space on the screen a little bit more. Along with that there’s a bunch of gadgets that he has that we will reveal at another time.
You have a mechanic for targeting a particular person or location on the map – how do you handle that in terms of control mechanics?
We’re actually still working on that part. Basically, determining how much control and pacing we need for the player to have. Do we allow them to point at an exact place? Do we allow them to use more of soft targets in the world? Right now we are exploring a bunch of different opportunities – nothing’s absolutely locked in just yet.
How have you integrated Metroid-style gameplay?
It’s a very good blend of the two – of Metroid and Arkham. The one change that we did end up making it that there’s no XP in the game, so everything is item-based. The reason we did it that way is to give the player more of a sense of collection in this game. That was a design decision. If you unlock an ability based on experience, you might not have necessarily traveled to that place and gotten something. It’s the general overall experience that you have in the game, it’s that experience of getting that XP to buy that item, but what we wanted to do is put everything into an item-based system that you place into the environment, that gives you the motivation to explore the areas of the building. So that it gives you that flavor of: “Oh, I want that ability I can get up there,” rather than “I need to beat up some more guys to get the XP to unlock this thing.” I think it fits well for our style of game.
How have you brought in elements of the free-flow combat system?
We had to build that from the ground up. We made it so that Batman is still moving right to left, but the enemies have depth to them; they can be in the foreground or the background. So all of the free-flow system will still apply, but it’s just scoped for the handheld. What we wanted to do is make sure it felt more like Old Boy the movie than like Old School the game. That it wasn’t just enemies lined up behind each other – that you still felt like that you were encompassed by enemies that were around you but you still have the limitations of right and left. Again, that’s something we are continuing to polish right up to when we’re going to be finished with the game. I think that we are going to have a really good, true feel of that free-flow combat system even though the application of it is different.
What are some cool things you can do with the predator-style system?
We wanted to stay true to what was cool about previous Arkham games and their predator modes, which is kind of luring people around and picking them off one by one, and see a sped-up stealth aspect to the game. So because you can’t look around in 2.5D, we had to add a few more layers of feedback to the player. For example, you can see the sightlines of the enemies, which immediately allows you to know whether you are seen or not by enemies. When Batman is in detective mode, you’ll change color based on their proximity or based on how close you are to being seen. We have the same sort of vantage points, floor grates, silent takedowns, glide kicks, weapon use, and breakable walls – a lot of the same complimentary things that were in the console game, that you’ll be able to play in this game. But obviously the feel of it is a little bit different because of the perspective.
What was attractive about Blackgate prison as a setting for your game?
It made sense [laughs]. A prison’s very easy to understand how it would link together. The way we are developing the game is the exact same way we developed the Metroid Prime games. Almost to the tee of how rooms are constructed and snap together and everything. So it’s something that we are very familiar with how it goes. And that’s how we were able to do it in such a short period of time, is that we already knew how to do all this stuff. However, this isn’t using any technology that’s being used in the console, so we had to write it all ourselves. All of the predator stuff, all of the movement – all that was done from absolute scratch, so luckily we knew how to fundamentally make a game like this without having to figure that out. We had a leg up there, but then we had a leg down on the tech side. Where we are right now is a really good place to finish out the game. Yeah, a prison absolutely makes sense for the game.
[Next up: Pacini discusses leaving Metroid (and Nintendo) behind]
Another feature of Metroid-style games is the save room. Are you doing save rooms, or a different structure?
There are no save rooms. We’re not restricting you to save stations or anything like that. It’s more of a checkpoint system. There are checkpoints, but there’s also a system where you can save anywhere. It’s very forgiving.
How is the game world structured?
One of the one big things in our game is that you can go off to do any boss in any order. So that’s an innovation that we are really trying to push in this game. You can pursue any of the major bosses in the game in whatever order you wish to; you aren’t forced to go in a particular way. We don’t want you to break the game, but if you can exploit it in a certain way that we haven’t thought of, that’s awesome. So it’s conceivable that players will have abilities that don’t necessarily jibe that great with the boss.
We’ve kind of taken some cues from other games where if you have a particular item against a boss, you’ll just rip them a new one, but we don’t tell you what that item is. That is something really cool that hopefully will encourage players to play the game more than once to try and find different ways of getting through the game either quicker or exploiting things like that.
The game is coming to both 3DS and Vita. On the 3DS are you still scanning by touching on the bottom screen, and then it projects on the top screen?
Some features are different. They function a little bit differently because on the 3DS the play screen’s on top, but there will be some differences for sure.
What is your mechanic for storytelling moments?
They’re going to be 2D animatics that we’re doing in-house at Armature, but they’re very stylized, and they’ll be fully voiced over.
Does Blackgate take place before or after the console Arkham Origins game?
After. We worked closely with the Montreal studio. We want players to play in whatever order they want. If you want to play the handheld first, console, whatever it is, we’re not spoiling anything in their game, or vice versa.
What can you tell us about the storyline of the game?
Basically, there’s an uprising in the prison created by some big-time characters from the lore, and Batman has to go in and figure out what’s going on. And obviously there’s a lot more to what’s going on than just a straight up prison uprising.
But a strong majority of the game is taking place in a prison?
Yeah, the intro level is not in the prison. For the remainder of the game – there are a lot of different areas of the prison.
Stepping away from the game for a minute, why did you leave Retro? Do you want to talk about that story a little bit?
I was there for eight years. When you work for Nintendo, Nintendo’s an awesome company. They’re great to work for. It’s hard, challenging work, but it’s rewarding at the same time. But given that regard, there’s a limited amount of things you can do in Nintendo. You can’t work on other platforms. You kind of work on games that they would like you to work on, so after doing three of the same games in a row, we were kind of like, we’d really like the flexibility to do other things.
And that’s really what it came down to was we didn’t have anything against Nintendo or Retro or anything – they’re all great people, we still talk to them all the time, and we still have a great relationship – but having an independent studio, one day you’re working on Batman, the other day you’re working on something else, and that’s kind of what we wanted to do. We would have never been able to work on Vita, or 3DS – it wasn’t something that Retro was gunning for. And Armature as a studio, we’re hopefully able to make some announcements later this year on what we’re working on next, and those are, again, forward thinking on consoles, and things we weren’t able to do before.
Starting Armature when we did was a very difficult time in the game industry. And the game industry continues to be difficult. Right now as a studio we’re in a really good position and there are a lot of opportunities that we’re going to be able to pursue that we wanted to five years ago.
How big is the studio at this point?
Right now we’re over 30 people. We started off with 10 five years ago.
Your team has been one of the big mysteries of the gaming industry in the last five years. You have this great team, and people wondered: What are they working on? Do you want to talk about that gap?
As a short answer, we’ve been a heavy victim of the game industry as it is right now in terms of the shift from social, then to mobile, then to micro transactions, then to large publishers not wanting to fund large projects with independent studios – we’ve been a victim of all of that.
And we’ve had great opportunities that have slipped off of our fingers that had nothing to do with the quality of the things that we were doing. [Editor's Note: After this interview was recorded, it was revealed that Armature worked on a cancelled Mega Man project] However, we’ve learned a lot as a company in terms of where things are going and how to continue growing; it’s a very volatile environment. Hopefully later this year we’ll be able to announce some original things that we’re doing.
Console specific things?
I can’t say what it is. Right now we’re concentrated on our relationship with Warner Bros. They are so awesome to us, and this journey that we’ve had so far with the Arkham stuff has been awesome. They’ve given us a ton of creative freedom, and nothing but support. This has been a really great experience for us because it’s been so horrible the past couple years, not from the things that have happened to us, but just the opportunities that just evaporated.
The Metroid Prime series remains popular with fans. Do you feel like you can look back at that series now and appreciate it from a distance?
Yeah. I never played any of the Metroid games after they were done, just because I was just so sick of them. When you work on something for two years straight, and play it for two years straight, it’s really hard to go back and distance yourself from it. When you’re in it, you don’t understand what you’re making, you’re just kind of trying to get it done and try to make the best decisions that you can. It’s hard to step back. It’s been a long time since we produced something, so for me I want Armature to be not the company that used to do Metroid Prime. I don’t want us to be just the guys that did that. This is going to be the first game that is truly an original Armature game, although it’s based on the property of an existing franchise. It’s our first step, and I think that from there we can continue on with making interesting games. What’s kind of cool now is that more independent games that are not mainstream are being looked at more seriously now, not by publishers, but by other alternate funding. There are a lot of other developers and other publishers that are wanting that sort of content that aren’t the $20, $30, $40 million games. They want to have these smaller games and I think that right now is a good opportunity to be an independent studio that has the potential to make those types of games. Not the indie games, not the big games, the in-betweeners. I think that’s it’s the right time for us.
Even though you don’t want to be seen as the ex-Metroid Prime guys, fans are going to be excited when they know ex-Metroid Prime guys are going to be making a Super Metroid-style game.
I hope so. I hope we don’t disappoint them. That’s always my fear, because I think everything we do sucks. But that’s just me because I thought all the Prime games suck. At the end of the day all I see are all the bad things. Prime 2 was a blur to me. It was so quick, it was so fast. That thing just went out the door and it was a very divisive game. People either liked it or thought it sucked, and I can completely agree because I couldn’t tell you what that game was because it happened so quickly. Prime 1 was the best designed game. Prime 3 I feel is the most fun one to play. Prime 2 is divisive. You either like it or you don’t. That’s kind of the way I look at it.
It is the same thing here with the Arkham game. All I see at this point, because we are knee deep, we’re in the woods right now in development, and all I see is all the crap that’s wrong with it. In my gut I feel like, yeah, it’s going to be cool. I’m excited for it. But at the same time, I hope we don’t disappoint people and I hope that they like it. We’re trying our hardest. I would like to play a game like this, so hopefully everyone else will, too.
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