• "Batman: Arkham Asylum"
    [BAFTA Game of the Year] - Production Focus, 6 October 2009

    Early last year, word got out of a Rocksteady Batman game that lifted the bar for character action. What appeared in the market was a symbol of new hope for the artist's place in games, for stories in games, as well as believable characters and spectacular environments in games.
    Voted Game of the Year at the BAFTA Game Awards, Batman: Arkham Asylum stands out as a spectacular success for Rocksteady, Eidos and all who worked on the production.
    Rocksteady Studio finds the best way forward by asking,
    'What would Batman do?' Lead Character artist gives
    CGSociety a look inside Eidos Interactive's Arkham Asylum.

    CGSociety :: Game Production Focus
    1 April 2010, by Paul Hellard

    Game Director Sefton Hill made the directive right at the beginning of the 'Batman: Arkham Asylum' project that every aspect of the project - from the game design through to the art had to be true to the Batman Universe and to Batman's own personality characteristics. "We based all our decisions around this simple principle," says Hill. "This made life a lot easier for us as it gave us a touchstone that would let us know if we were ever going off track, all we had to ask was, 'What would Batman do?' This resulted in the final product being true to the Batman brand, and produced a rich authentic experience for both the Batman disciple and those new to the caped crusader."

    Lead Character Artist for the 'Batman Arkham Asylum' game, Andrew Coombes, walked in from a traditional fine arts background, even training as a sculptor. Over the years, he's worked in a variety of art fields from a bronze foundry in East London, sculpting ten metre high street floats for Disneyland Paris Millennium Parade, then working on the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy. "I have been in the games industry for the last seven years," says Coombes, "the last four years spent at Rocksteady. When I started in 2005 there was thirty staff which has steadily grown to over seventy."

    On the art side our process began with us scouring the graphic novels for inspiration. We looked at the Batman comics down through the decades paying close attention to the Arkham specific books like the beautiful 'Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth', and 'Arkham Asylum: Living Hell'.

    Arkham had never been visualised in its entirety before so the environment team had the big challenge of creating every nook and cranny of the island for the first time. Arkham Asylum is an amazing place to set a Batman game. It gave us not only an environment, that from a technical and game play standpoint was suited to our design, being of a finite, contained size with believable borders, but it also gave us a setting so rich in creepy, foreboding atmosphere that it was an artist's dream location.

    The Art Director Dave Hego had a very strong vision that Arkham should be like a living breathing character in itself that changes as time passes, that slips from dark reality to darker nightmare as Batman slides into the Scarecrow sequences, and that evolves as The Joker's plan unfolds.

    Arkham is an island with a history and its buildings reflect this in the way they have been adapted over time to suit the needs of the Asylum, the architecture of one era juxtaposed with that of the next. This layering of architecture creates the richness and uniqueness you see in the game, from the Gothic architecture of the Main Hall, to the Victorian style of the glasshouses, to the dingy industrial warehouse feel of high security.

    "We tried to use real places where possible as reference for our environments," explains Dave Hago, "an example of this being The Arkham Botanical Gardens which are inspired by the Palm House at Kew Gardens in South London.
    The environment team spent time there gathering reference material in the beautiful Victorian glasshouses. We found this type of exercise invaluable in creating highly detailed environments that had a feeling of authenticity. We also used Alcatraz the real world equivalent of Arkham as another source of inspiration."

    Rocksteady Studio was opened in 2004. The company is based in Highgate, North London in a converted factory, purpose-built for making games. "It is by far the most enjoyable place I have worked and much of that is down to the efforts of the directors Jamie Walker and Sefton Hill, both industry veterans, who make the studio a place where you want to be," explains Coombes.

    "The studio is fitted with a motion capture stage including full facial capture capabilities, and a sound studio. This means that we can produce every element required for our projects on site when we need them, without having to rely on external support. This allows us to prototype and experiment with ideas very quickly and produces a more refined final product as a result," adds Coombes.

    "There is a strong emphasis on smart scheduling and constant self reflection to keep our projects on course and on time, this is a major factor in Rocksteady's ongoing reliability and success."

    The main work area is a huge open-plan plant filled space where the entire team works together. The open plan approach helps people from all departments to communicate more effectively.

    Rocksteady used the Unreal Engine for 'Batman Arkham Asylum'. They've been using Unreal for a year and a half on an unreleased title before starting on 'Batman'. During this time, they worked out how to get the most out of the engine and set up a solid pipeline.

    So they hit the ground running when 'Batman:AA' came along, and moved quickly from preproduction into production."It was a pleasure to work with Unreal," says Coombes. "It allows a level of freedom to experiment without code assistance that I haven't experienced before. In particular the material editor is very powerful, and the node based system has a huge amount of scope."

    Creating the characters for 'Batman Arkham Asylum' was both daunting and exciting privilege for the team. There is such an enormous history to these characters."We combined the stylisation and exaggeration of the graphic novels with highly detailed realistic rendering and lighting," Coombes explains. "We tried to be as true to the comics as we could while at the same time making the characters fit with the dark gritty atmosphere of the Asylum that we envisioned."

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  • Arkham is a dank dirty place, and the characters had to show the wear and tear of life, to have costumes that suited the Asylum setting. The crowd at Jim Lee's WildStorm Productions were really into the idea of a fresh take on the designs that grounded the characters in the context of the Asylum. So Rocksteady sent them a load of images of environments and characters they'd already built, capturing the mood of the game.

    WildStorm artist Carlos D'Anda then took these images and developed the final concepts for all the DC characters used in the game. Examples of these Arkham specific designs can be seen in most of the villain designs with good examples being Mr Zsasz's asylum restraints and Harley Quinn's kinky Arkham nurses outfit.

    We wanted there to be a strong distinction between the characters we built from those of the film franchise. Our Batman was that of the graphic novels, underpants on the outside, yellow belt, idealised form with big defined muscles and a square jaw. We made him big as we wanted a heavy imposing quality to him with a strong physical presence. His suit design has been slightly modernised, with details like high-tech fabrics and armoured sections, but it still holds true to the fundamentals of his comic book heritage.

    The cape was an aspect of Batman's character that was a major challenge for us. The cape in the graphic novels is like a character in itself. It is used to help with the composition of the frame as well as adding to the mood of the situation and expressing Batman's state of mind. To make the cape give us what we wanted from it required a dedicated physics programmer for a good portion of the project. This gave us a cape that ran well with physics but was not as visually expressive as the cape from the graphic novels.

    To improve on this the animators created iconic poses that made the cape look great at a specific point in an animation. We then blended from the physics to these poses and then back to physics and suddenly the cape had more personality. We also used panning normal maps to simulate cloth movement that would intensify and accelerate to create strong ripples when Batman was at full run and fade away to nothing when he was at rest.

    The Joker had to be fun, but with a scary and menacing undercurrent, his strength coming not through his physicality but through his cunning. He is rail thin, dapper and dastardly.

    "We looked at a lot of the graphic novel incarnations of him drawing influence from many of the greats in the comic industry," Coombes describes. "We had initially thought about going for a completely new Arkham based costume but felt that his whole outfit was to iconic to change drastically."

    Harley's redesign sprang from a meeting with Paul Dini the script writer for the game, who is also the original creator of the Harley Quinn character. He suggested that since Harley has infiltrated Arkham posing as a staff member it would be great to portray her as a twisted sadistic nurse. We went for a kind of makeshift outfit that she cobbled together from bits and pieces she could find in the Asylum.

    We found with a lot of the characters that although they had predefined sizes that they were meant to be from their comic book history these had to be adapted to work in the game setting. In the real world if someone is a foot taller than you they seem huge, in the game we found this didn't come across well and we had to make more drastic size variations to get the desired effect. This was the case with Croc. He began life at around eight feet tall, but when seen in game he just didn't look imposing enough so we had to increase his size by quite a large amount to make him feel as big and scary as we felt he should.
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  • The Scarecrow is involved in some of the most memorable sequences in the game. He is an emaciated nightmarish wraith wrapped in a costume of rags and sacks scrounged from the Asylum. He is a good example of how when making games you have to be willing to adapt.

    He was built when his game-play was still in flux and his design with the hand full of syringes did not have a defined purpose, this feature ended up influencing his game-play where it is used to summon skeletons from the earth.
    He was also initially meant to only be seen as a normal sized character but due to the game design requirements he ended up as an enormous spectre that towered over Batman.

    This guy was one of the most fun characters to build. In his original design he had a metal structure that had been implanted into his body that when triggered by the Joker would cause him to mutate and the metal elements would burst through his skin. This can be seen in concept for this character. This didn't fit with Titan storyline so the metal was replaced by bone in the final model.

    The Titan transformation was a technical challenge for us that required a combination of morphs, bone scaling, mesh swaps and animated shaders, as well as some crafty camera cutting. We were really happy with the end result that seamlessly blends from the generic henchman through the transformation process to the Titan Infected Henchman model.

    When creating the characters we used a pipeline very similar to that laid down by Epic. We use Zbrush to create our high res models. We then optimise this mesh and take it back to 3ds Max to extract the normal maps. We then create the different maps the model requires diffuse, specular, specular power, transmission, reflection, and color masking.

    We generally paint our textures by hand and avoid using photographs as this allows us to have greater control of the details. When we are happy with the textures we import everything into Unreal and hook up and apply the shaders The characters ranged in tri counts from around 7,000 for thugs and other characters that appeared in large numbers, up to as much as 25,000 for some of the more detailed villains such as Bane. Most characters used two shaders, one for head and another for the body with map sizes of 2048 x 2048.

    Batman is not all about brute strength. Due to his mortality he is not resistant to bullets and will quickly die if shot. This is where Invisible Predator comes into play. Using skill and stealth players have to take down rooms of armed guards using a variety of takedown techniques and gadgets.

    The quiet stalking skill and calculation of the silent predator areas contrasts nicely with the lightening fast ferociousness of the FreeFlow Combat system. Invisible Predator is where detective mode comes into its own.

    When Batman switches to investigate mode he can see through walls and through people revealing the skeletons within his opponents, he can also see when thugs are carrying weapons and important strategic objects within a room. This visual effect is achieved through a mixture of post processing and tricks with the draw order and stencil buffer to get the skeletons to render in front of the walls but not in front of Batman's character.

  • Batman: Arkham Asylum

  • Rocksteady Studio Ltd.

  • Eidos Interactive Ltd

  • WildStorm

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