Arkham Asylum art director on rebooting Batman

GDC 2010: Rocksteady's David Hego explains the approach taken to polishing up the Caped Crusader's tarnished image in games.

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Who Was There: Rocksteady art director David Hego delivered a presentation on last year's hit Batman: Arkham Asylum, titled "Rebooting a Super Hero Video Game IP."

What They Talked About: Hego kicked off his talk with a warning.

Rocksteady strived to nail the gothic look.
Rocksteady strived to nail the gothic look.

"I'm a bit French," he said, asking the audience to forgive his accent.

Hego ran down a bit of background on Rocksteady, saying the studio started with 40 people but ramped up to 65 by the height of Arkham Asylum's development. The team is an experienced group, he said, with a strong belief that attention to detail is what makes great games.

With Arkham Asylum, Rocksteady inherited an existing intellectual property with a lengthy history. Hego said it was tricky to do because the developers weren't starting with an empty canvas, and they had to keep true to the license. That made for a considerable amount of pressure, as Hego explained by adapting a different hero's truism.

"With great characters come great expectations," Hego said.

When the team started preproduction, Hego said they tried to expose themselves to as many treatments of Batman and read as many of the comics as they could to properly get a feel for the character and iconic settings like Arkham Asylum. Hego said Arkham was always going to be dark and gothic, which meant the developer could incorporate features like architectural gargoyles and really emphasize lighting in the visuals. Despite the generally dark tone of Arkham, Hego wanted it to be colorful at the same time, with lush plants, flowers, and weather effects helping to expand the game's palette.

Hego said he wanted a hyperrealistic visual style for the game, with exaggerated light and shadow. Hego pointed to fashion magazines and movies like Avatar as being hyperreal and said the goal for Arkham Asylum was to mix that sensibility with the stylized portrayals of the comics. In the models, that meant focusing on the skin, facial features, hair, and lighting, from "getting the wetness of the eyes" just right to the virtual makeup characters wore. One of the biggest advantages of incorporating the stylized look and fantastic characters into the otherwise realistic visual style was that it sidestepped the issue of the uncanny valley, Hego said.

Hego showed off some original concept art of Batman from the game, pointing out touches used to give the costume a more "real" feel, with hints of a military theme. He pointed to the textures used for the fabrics on Batman's suit, as well as details like little rivets in different parts of the suit.

The Joker was a bigger leap from concept art, Hego said, since the comic book version of the character is almost always grotesquely stylized. His sidekick, Harley Quinn, was also a fun character to tinker with, Hego said, because rights holder Warner Bros. allowed Rocksteady to play with the design in more significant ways. They pushed her more gothic, he said.

As for the environment, Hego said the developers tried to include a variety of architectural looks with Victorian and Gothic styles, corridors and gardens, newly built medical wings, and more ancient catacombs. The developers also tried to slant the player's perspective, making environments extremely vertical to give the asylum an imposing feel. They also tried to take straight things and make them crooked where possible, be it a pipe on the wall or a tree in the courtyard.

Despite the variety, the game isn't that huge, Hego said. He said the entire game broke down into 40 rooms, 34 corridors, three exteriors maps, and three special Scarecrow maps.

Hego also wanted to give players a lot of contrasting environments. Even if someone lives in a beautiful seaside home with a spectacular view, it becomes normal after a short period of time, Hego said. To keep gamers from normalizing their surroundings, Rocksteady mixed up the types of environments, as well as the balance between warm and cool lighting. Varied lighting not only breaks up the monotony of a scene, Hego noted, but also makes it less obvious when the developer uses the same textures and models.

Quote: "She could be working in London, in Camden Town. That's the kind of people who work there." --Hego, on the more gothic design of Harley Quinn in Arkham Asylum.

Takeaway: Batman: Arkham Asylum looked great, but it wasn't just a matter of talented artists and technical horsepower. The development team at Rocksteady had to be clever in the way it used both of those to create a cohesive gameworld that appeared to have a wide variety of locales, all with a relatively small team of artists.

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