Sean Barton - Game Developer

How do you make the best Superhero game ever?

22 November 2009

Hi there! This is an old post that may reference technology or views I now consider outdated - or maybe even a little embarrassing. Enjoy at your own risk.

Sefton Hill, game director behind the super-polished Batman: Arkham Asulum recently granted an interview to Gamasutra’s Kris Graft. I want to do better at my job, so when a developer behind a hit game shares his insights, and the formula behind their success isn’t simply this industry standard …

Batman: Akham Asylum Logo

  1. Overspend by millions of dollars.
  2. Overextend your schedule by years.
  3. Overwork your talent to death.
  4. ???
  5. Profit

… then I pay attention.

Incidently, I think it’s pretty cool that a developer like Rocksteady Studios can crank out a game this good frigging amazing. They’ve only been around for a couple of years, and the first (and only other) game they made was a title I never heard of (Urban Chaos: Riot Response). Now they’re holding their own this season against the best efforts by Bioware, Valve, Activision, and Ubisoft. Not bad, eh? It gives me hope.

So how do you hang with the big boys and make a contender for game of the year? Here’s what I think stood out from the interview:

  1. They concentrated on doing two things very well (combat and detective modes).
  2. They employed a suite of trusted, battle-tested technology (Unreal Engine) instead of rolling their own.
  3. They took a strong stance against feature creep.
  4. Their game was fun and functional before it was pretty.
  5. They stayed true to Batman’s character (he doesn’t use guns, he doesn’t kill people).

In short, they realized their constraints and worked within their limits. There’s something about constructing software that makes this is a very difficult thing to do. For video games I think it is even more challenging because of the enthusiasm we have for the medium. And it doesn’t help that programmers and designers have a bias that meets limitations with disdain – because we want to feel smart and creative.

But I think the true secret to masterful design, as exampled by Rocksteady, is to let the limitations and constraints guide you. For game directors like Hill, it forces you to make real decisions (in other words, be a leader) and find your true game, as opposed to perhaps an uncompromising visionary who doesn’t want to hear about budgets and schedules and hardware specs. That stuff’s a drag, man. Can’t you see I’m trying to make a great game here?

No doubt Rocksteady Studios is already back at work on what must be a sequel to their new hit game, and I’d imagine there’s new pressure on them to do more and more stuff this time around. (I for one wouldn’t mind tighter boss battles in the next game, for instance.)

That’s the curse of success, I guess, but I hope to see them stick with their less is more approach and maybe (please?) evangelize it to the rest of the industry.


Hi! My name is Sean Barton (aka Seanba).

I’m an American-Canadian software developer working in Austin, Texas where I never have to shovel snow. :fire:

My career focuses exclusively on video game software and tools. You can read more about me here.


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