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Dishonored AMA with Harvey Smith

JAlbor July 25, 2012 User blog:JAlbor
Harvey Smith
Harvey Smith and Raphael Colantonio , Co-Creative Directors of Dishonored at Arkane Studios are currently, right now, holding recently held an AMA (Ask Me Anything) about the game on Reddit. You can find the AMA right here.

If you miss it, never fear. Just come back here later after the AMA where I will repost the questions and answers!

Edit: Questions and Answers are up! There are a ton of them! Spelling errors may abound as I did not go through and edit each and every one. Some of these are really interesting and enlightening. Enjoy!


Questions & Answers

Question:
Firstly, much has been made of the superlative visual design of Dishonored but relatively nothing has been said of the soundtrack, what can we expect of it? Is it orchestrated or more synth-based? Persistent or triggered at certain moments? And what is the philosophy behind the sound design on Dishonored?

Secondly, The Life of the Party in Thief II remains, to my mind, one of the greatest achievements in level design in terms of scope and freedom, whilst it's apparent that Dishonored features dense and open level design, is there any map that has a comparable size or variety?

Thirdly, how much reactivity is there to player agency, outside of the discussed 'Chaos' system, for instance, in the Golden Cat walkthrough video, if you do make an assassination look like 'an accident' (windblasting someone out of a balcony unseen), will it be regarded as such in terms of narrative or NPC feedback?

Fourthly, outside of Dishonored, what upcoming games are you both excited or would like to know more about?

Answer:
First question is awesome and...four parts. :) If you like Life of the Party in Thief 2, you will like the Dishonored missions in terms of depth, combination, etc. Our missions follow the model of games like Thief or Deus Ex. It's part of our core values and our design lead - the amazing Christophe Carrier, who worked on Arx Fatalis - really shares those values. Another thing Raf and I (and our leads) pushed for was breaking the patterns...making sure that each mission has its own character.

Question:
Has a publisher ever interfered with or overruled creative decisions regarding one of your games?

Answer:
HAHAHAHAHAHA. Yes, in the past we've all worked with publishers who did that. One of the things we actually love about Bethesda is that they believe that a team must have its own creative vision.

Question:
1. How is working on Dishonored different than Bioshock 2?
2. Did you draw influence from the work on Bioshock 2?
3. Is the gameplay flow like it does in the trailers? I've been really excited since I saw the debut trailer, and it just blows my mind if it is that fast paced.
4. Is Dishonored open world, or linear with a variety of options? How is it working with Bethesda? I'd assume they'd be great to work with, but one never knows!

Answer:
1. We only participated to the making of Bioshock2 in the level design field. The work process itself is similar (art pipeline, level design editing), but the game has it's own player tools and values that makes the level design guidelines very different, plus we also are heavy on the stealth aspect of the game, which wasnt the case for Bioshock 2.
2. Not really. I mean, obviously the experience is carried over, and we share some values.
3. Totally, the trailer was deliberately thought as a game sequence. No, Dishonored is not open world, it is mission based. Each mission is built as a mini sandbox, so the missions are open and offer several paths and approaches.
4. Bethesda is great, they have been very understanding of the kind of game we wanted to make, and very suportive. A great collaboration.

Question:
What was the most obscure idea that got rejected from being in the game?

Answer:
Hm, Raf and I just consulted across the room on this one... Probably the power where you could become a shadow, 2-dimensional, and slide along walls.
Reddit user responded: "Sounds like a game itself." Harvey responds: "Exactly"

Question:
Favorite RPG of all-time?

Answer:
Harvey: Dungeon Master? Underworld? There are so many great games, but I love games that mix first-person action and RPG features.

And I cite really old games because there's a point in your life where, for the first time, you play one of those and it's entirely novel. Those games blew my young mind.

"The golden age of SF is 13..." as they say.

Raphael: Definitely Underworld for me, then probably the Fallout serie, and the Ultima series.

Question:
What did you think about Fallout 3 and New Vegas compared to the older games (Fallout, Fallout 2, Tactics), better?, worse?

Answer:
I love both for different reasons. Converting the serie from turn based/2D to realtime 1st person with VAT was brave, and I think they rocked it.

Question:
What game are you looking forward to most this year and next year? (apart from Dishonored of course? :P)

Answer:
The Unfinished Swan. Bioshock Infinite. God of Blades.

Question:
Just how open world is Dishonored?

Answer:
Hand-crafted missions. Not open world. However, within a given mission, things are fairly simulated, with various pathways, powers, approaches and styles available. So you to evaluate the situation, choose an approach and a path, and execute. It feels like your story, rather than simply "following the trail of breadcrumbs left by the designer."

Question:
How long did it take you to break into the industry and if you had no limit what type of game would you make

Answer:
About 6 months and honestly games like Dishonored.

Question:
Can the game be completed with zero kills? How long would a total stealth play-through take (average, estimate)?

Answer:
Yes, you can complete the game without killing anyone. (It was a goal of ours.) And the world reflects that to some extent.

The game is about 12-24 hours in length. The variance there is related to how directly you play (vs side quests, exploration, etc).

As players we're always trying to do things we didn't do last time. Our programmers were all trying to do crazy weird variants this week. "The Falling Angel playthrough," where you only kill by using drop-assassination.

Question:
Seeing this answer I had to ask: why are studios making games so short these days. I've actually stopped buying games that'll take less than ~15 hours to finish.... I miss 30+ hour games, but the only ones these days are jrpgs....

Answer:
Our answer would be something like this: We are into a very specific gameplay experience that we love above all. The atmospheric hybrid of first-person, stealth, variable powers, etc. And this combination brings by definition some replayability. We squeezed everything we had into this game...we're rather make one highly variable game that takes 20 hours and can be replayed. Dishonored is just the result of our creative drives.

Question:
When did you realize this field was your calling?

Answer:
Video games?

That's an interesting question. On one hand, I grew up enjoying (actually needing) escapism and activities that allowed for the "mastery of monsters." I was into role-playing, comics and such from early on, but somehow it never occurred to me that you could set out to do that stuff professionally.

After getting out of the military, I moved to Austin. I (mistakenly) believed that Origin had created Underworld, so I made it a mission to work there. I was 26 yo.

Question:
How much will free running come into play? I know a lot of people including myself do enjoy acrobatic maneuvers in video games (Mirror's Edge). I'm looking forward to this game!

Answer:
We're not a free-running game, per se. But we've got run, sprint, slide, lean, climb and some supernatural movement options.

Question:
How much liberty do you guys have in creating games? Do the studios put a lot of restrictions and demands or let the creative juices flow?

Answer:
We've been very, very lucky in this regard. Dishonored is a first-person stealth game about an assassin, where you can avoid killing anyone, and it's our own take on steampunk, not set on Earth. Think about that...Bethesda is awesome for supporting our creative exploration here. And for giving the game such great support. We absolutely love Dishonored because it's our style of game and we've put our hearts into it, honestly.

Question:
I'm learning to be a programmer and I've always wondered with video games, what do you start out with? Are you coding basic stuff in C? Do you use a SDK or an established engine? How much planning goes into it before you get to the actual crafting of the game? Do you plan on having the game be closed with a set idea, or do you intend to allow things like modding?

Answer:
I don't think there's one answer. I'd recommend modding or making small prototypes focused on a single gameplay mechanic. Also, meet with local indie dev groups. In Austin, we have Juegos Rancheros, a great creative social group.

Question:
How did you do it for Dishonoured?

Answer:
We started with the Unreal Engine and a large team of tech and gameplay programmers, prototyping specific systems, playtesting and evaluating, homing in on what we wanted.

Question:
What is the progression system like?

Answer:
Multi-pronged! (I love the word "pronged.") You can collect coin to buy upgrades for weapons and gadgets. Bone charms give you minor supernatural perks, like "you can possess white rats for longer."

Runes are the currency that you use to buy active major supernatural powers, like Bend Time, and passive supernatural enhancements, like Shadow Kill, which turns enemies to ash upon death.

Question:
What's your favorite type of bagel?

Answer:
I try to stay paleo/primal. When that fails, which is does often: onion...toasted. With tons of cream cheese, salmon with lemon, capers...you're making me hungry.

Question:
What is most exciting for the creators of this game that you want the players to experience?

Answer:
Atmospheric pleasure, exploration; playing at your own pace; experimenting with your own goals (like playing on Very Hard nonlethally, which often forces you to get creative). Also, that little magic moment where something action-oriented happens and you feel like your decisions drove it.

Question:
I was just wondering whether the actual world for dishonoured will be a free-roam/open world or have a more linear structure? Also will be there any veichicles if the world is free-roam?

Answer:
Hand-crafted missions, not open world. But inside each mission there's a lot of variation and different pathways. Rooftops, swimming, etc.

No real vehicles, per se. Twice you can ride on a cart...

Question:
a) Regarding the marginalization of videogames as a media: Why do you think games and game experience are underrepresented within the media and academia? When will NPR (for example) have a show dedicated to talking about games, or even correspondents that cover them? When will games and the philosophy of games become a part of media classes in the same ways that film and literature are?

Should this cultural shift occur in your opinions, or are games safer or better served avoiding the spotlight (despite being nearly mass-market)?

If so, what are ways that the industry could shift the perception of games as marginalized, or at the very least, encourage a dialogue about games and their importance or role in our culture at large?

If not, how do we promote rigorous discussion of the experience and philosophy of games in a non-insular way. That is to say, outside of the relatively small circle of gamers and game makers. Do these questions actually matter?

b) How're you guys liking living/working in Texas? (particularly Raphael)

c) I appreciate the time you guys are spending to answer these questions, and I hope you aren't crunching TOO hard to get this title out.

Answer:
I believe it took photography 100 years to be considered an art form. There's great art in the system dynamics of classic games, of course. Video games are very young. Currently, we're seeing them widen in terms of audience and goals. I have faith that over time games will continue to fragment into different sub-genres related to gameplay, subject matter and artistic ambition. The world has great novels and trashy-but-fun novels. I think games will eventually have that range.

I'm in favor of the spotlight for games. And such questions help the medium, imo. For comics, we still have Spiderman, but we also have Alison Bechdel's amazing Fun Home. Btw, NPR does periodically cover games.

But part of this could be aimed back at your examples: When a new literary novel comes out how does it fair in terms of public attention compared to a new Harry Potter novel? I read Winter's Bone last year and it made me weep, but I have trouble getting anyone to read it. Ali Smith's novel, the Accidental, is amazing. But how does it sell compared to Fifty Shades of Gray? Which has been discussed on NPR more? Some of this is a "by definition" thing; great media works are rare...at the end of the bell curve. And "readers" gravitate toward things based on their interests. Making great work that is also accessible and advances the medium is not easy. (I bet it's easier in a new medium than an established medium. See Sterling's commentary: "Writing has been around a long time. My books have to compete with Homer and Shakespear.")

Answer (Raphael):
a) 1. Games are still considered entertaiment. Personally I think the attention gets stronger every year. Also, we're probably only one generation away from having a president that plays videogames, so sooner or later, all decision makers and taste makers will be familiar with games. 2. 3 and 4. it will naturally I believe, based on 1/ 5. Of course, but at the end of the day, we can't force perceptions. b) I love Austin, it's a very open/laid back /art oriented city.

Question:
Can you tell us about how player's actions and Chaos affect the world and narrative? Is it pre-scripted or more dynamic like low and mid-level gameplay?

Answer:
Great question!

It's a bit of both. For most players, the effects over the course of the game will be fairly subtle. The mission checks the current level of Chaos so far and the following can happen: More pools of rats, more people with the plague (weepers), lines of dialogue/attitudes changed, additional scenes here and there, and different endgames. Things like the rat pools feel like "mid level gameplay" as you say. Lines of dialogue are obviously a scripted reaction.

There are two main endings, but each has variations based on who lived or died. Some of the Chaos effects are meant to be 'felt' more than overtly identified as they're happening.

It's a weird hybrid system. We tried to make it matter some in terms of making the experience your own, but we also didn't want it dominating the game. We're hopeful people will like the game.

Question:
How'd you get into the gaming industry? What kind of eduction did you receive?

Answer:
Harvey: I moved to a city with a game company I loved (Origin) and started applying. Once I got an interview, I shared (verbally and in written form) analysis of games and some creative writing samples. I talked at length about what games should be, imo. Also, after the military, I had management experience. It took 6 months to get on.

Technically, I'm a drop-out.

There's no one way. Most people these days go to school, dabble in various related disciplines until one sticks, and experiment with making small projects and prototypes (or mods) with a team. (The team component is a huge component...) Universities provide a great seeding place for such pursuits and training. Conversely, others just start working on indie titles or mods with friends.

Embrace the "fail quickly" mentality while experimenting. And remember that "great artists steal." Don't hold yourself to the standard of "unique/never been done," because it's paralyzing. Sometimes you get close, if you work long enough.

Raphael: Got lucky, it's actually a really funny story: I responded to a competition in a videogame magazine to win a trip to Texas to test a game (Ultima). instead I won a job with EA (it was a trick from EA to find employees to start the french office, there was no trip to win)

Question:
In dishonored, how many endings the game will have? Also, what kind of replayability the game will offer?

Answer:
We feel like the missions are very re-playable because there are different pathways to take, powers to use, styles (stealth vs combat), finding hidden areas, a few side missions, morality (lethal vs nonlethal), etc.

One of the things we love most is that this matrix of "stuff" plus our systemic approach to simulating powers and AI equates to little mini-stories that are unique to a specific player's experience.


Question:
I was wondering how did you guys come up with the concept for this game? Also what made you want to do this in first person?

Answer:
For the game form itself as you're asking - first-person stealth - the truth is this: We're very specifically passionate about a particular type of game that mixes first-person, RPG features and more fuzzy enemy awareness. We love games like Thief, Bioshock, Deus Ex, Arx Fatalis, Far Cry 2, et al. So for us Dishonored is a natural creative course.

Question:
You've mentioned that the campaign can be completed without killing anyone, and I love that. If I choose to take that course of action, will I be missing out on any particularly satisfying skills or abilities?

Answer:
Well, by definition, yes. You'll miss the assassination anims and a couple of powers like Devouring Swarm and Shadow Kill. But playing nonlethally (and with total stealth, on a higher difficulty) often forces very tense cool moments...sublime tension as my friend Randy Smith (from Thief) likes to say. So it's a trade-off.

Question:
Is there anything that you specifically kept a secret about the game in order to make sure its a suprise to everyone once the game launches? Is there any unique feature that you guys are really proud of that we wouldn't expect?

Answer:
Story, mission encounter setup, little puzzles and interactions. Things like that.

Question:
About Dishonored, if you stop time and bump into a character, do they start moving again and stop after you break contact. If so is this an amusing way of messing with them?

Answer:
Initially, yes, but it was frustrating, moving around and accidentally triggering people. Now, it's "anything you interact with moves into your time" in the words of our lead programmer, Stevan Hird. Dynamic objects fall again briefly if you bump them, but for enemies they don't move again unless you attack; then an enemy frozen in mid-swing will hit you.

Question:
How varied are the enemies? I have noticed in the trailers a lot of similar looking guards plus the tall boys.

Answer:
We're not the "million enemy types" game, to be honest. But there are rats, fish, river krusts, various types of human enemies (and sub-types), hounds, plus lots of specific named characters. Among the human enemies, there are different weapon and attack types. The strong variation in Dishonored is found in what can happen and what path the player can find.

Question:
So, how would a relatively experienced video game writer get a job at your company?

Answer:
Apply, show off prior work, interview.

Question:
Do you think the downloadable bonus content spread out among distributors will have a negative affect on gameplay? Will players be missing out? I'm not saying this is your fault by the way--it probably isn't. Just curious about your take on it.

Answer:
We don't think so. The game stands on its own without the extra bone charms and other benefits found in those packages. We'd fight tooth and nail if we thought this hurt the game.

Question:
What is something truly unique to Dishonored that you think gamers will love?

Answer:
For me it is the way the systems generate unique moments that feels unique to the player: Everytime I am surprised by the game, I gain points of happiness.

Question:
Being in the creative sector of video games sounds like a fun job, what are some of the "hidden" drawbacks that might make someone not want to work in the video games industry? Also, what would be desirable for you guys to see from someone who is applying to work in the creative sector of video game development?

Answer:
Raphael: Creative director is definitely fun, but it also comes with challenges such as: federating the team when everybody doesnt always agree, representing the game to the full organization, making decisions that can go against the group, etc...

As far as what's expected: other than the obvious creative skills, I would say good communications skills, decision making, taking responsibility for your acts, problem solving...

Question:
As creative director are you also responsible for the script and dialog writing? I assume the story is mostly your baby, but what about the actual legwork of screenplay and voice over direction?

Answer:
Ultimately, we're responsible for that too. In some cases we authored bits of story, but we also worked with writers who were part of the project. And we directed VO, along with Blindlight.

Question:
I was just curious, is there going to be any modding capabilities for PC? Say, if somebody wanted to make their own custom maps and missions?

Answer:
There is no explicit plan to release the tools yet, but it is not excluded.

Question:
As co-creative directors, how do you make the relationship work? When did you know it was the right person? What do you do when you have creative differences?

Answer:
Great question. It is incredibly hard to find a creative fit for a co-creative director. In our case it comes from the fact that we both were influenced by the same games when we were kids, and we carried these values over with our own games. Also, strong friendship and respect, we've known each other for 15 years. the result is that we usually agree 80% of the time. Whenever we disagree we usually come up with a better solution that we would have on our own, and occasionally we disagree so one of us has to compromise, but it's rare (we take turn ;).

Question:
How hard is it to implement an idea into a game and make it work? Take for example the ability to possess rats/fish; is planning how it's going to work and what the general concept is more time consuming than actually turning it into a gameplay mechanic and making it work within the game?

Answer:
The way we like to work is very organix and iterative: we design our systems 'out of context', just based on generic rules and expectations. Then we put them in the context of game, we let them live with other existing systems and see what happens: usually new ideas emerge from the unplanned interactions between the systems (and bugs of course), we fix the bugs, support the cool ideas, suport more context, and iterate this way until the end. It's a methodology that freaks out many developers at first because it relies on the unexpected.

Question:
With consoles likely being your bread and butter, are us PC gamers going to see any delays or lesser features as has been the case with so many other games?

Answer:
Absolutely not! :) a good portion of the team is big into PC

Question:
I love that some of the objectives can pop up in different locations per play through. How far are you taking this randomized element in Dishonored?

Answer:
We do that in some of the missions, whenever it makes sense. It definitely adds to the replayability. Also, in some missions, based on your play style, the target might hide in a different room (if you triggered the alarm for example).

Question:
Firstly, I am a little concerned about the game's advertised length. I applaud Arkane for rejecting the path of useless filler content, but 12-20 hours doesn't seem very long for a game of this type. I remember that Deus Ex 1 took me 28 hours at a considered pace, and Thief 1 also certainly took a while. Rather than put the length in terms of arbitrary hours, which of course vary from gamer to gamer, could you suggest how long the game is relative to something else? Deus Ex would be a good starting point, as I know that game's timeline pretty well.

Secondly, for a slightly more odd question: are quest objectives always explicitly marked in the quest tab (or whatever they are referred to in in-game vernacular), or are there some that can be stumbled upon without being told to? My favourite part of Deus Ex 1 was unquestionably when JC is dropped into Hong Kong with no idea who to trust or what to do, and must piece the truth about Tong/Chow together through detection. Is this kind of uncertain morality ever a facet of Dishonored? I always like having to root around for what to do, and who to trust.

Finally, I must ask about the size of the levels themselves. Obviously I would never ask you to state a specific example, or comment on any other game team's work, but this was my principle disappointment about Human Revolution (which was still a great game). I felt that, apart from the hubs) levels were too constrained, and tended to fall into multiple, discrete paths rather than a simulationary space. Are there any levels in Dishonored that resemble in size and complexity the sprawling ones we got back in the Imsim days of Thief and Deus Ex? I appreciate that 7th gen console RAM limitations are an issue, but other games find clever streaming ways to get around this, including of course Bethesda's own Skyrim. Moreover, are there exfilitration as well as infiltration objectives? I always love to break out of a place, as well as break in.

Answer:
1. Considering that you won't be able to see all the content in one playthrough (some of it has mutually exclusive content) and that the game is replayable, you could actually end up playing way more many hours. 2/great question: some of the objectives are only revealed if you 'stumble' into them. Good for the explorers.

3. Another very good question, specifically the multiple discreet path vs simulationary space: we're definitely more into offering a space where the player creates his own path than offering a space with 3 obvious linear paths. As far as the size: some of the missions are huge. it's hard to give references to other games, but we've litterally had to reduce some of the missions because they were too long.




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