Report: Lessons Learned from Dishonored
by Stephen Wark
An in-game first-person assassination attempt isn't terribly different from a first-person game demonstration: you have to pick your target (a duchess in a steampunk masquerade | a room full of eager IGDA members), choose your approach (stealth vs blazing guns | live demo vs prerendered video) and, in either case, get out alive after accomplishing the mission.
After his second in-game death during a live game demo of Dishonored , Arkane Studios president Raphael Colantonio told an appreciative Montreal audience “You know, I usually finish this game at HARD, but I'm going to stop now.” The audience laughed the way gamers often do when somebody else's mission goes wrong.
Raphael was better prepared for his presentation: the lessons learned by his studio during the development of the soon-to-be-released Dishonored, a first-person stealth game set in an original steampunk setting.
He described the game's creation as a “strategy of the miracle,” where a small group filled with enthusiasm and what he described as “wilful naivety” made the creative decisions on the project. The team can only plan for so much while waiting for creative lightning to strike.
Following this approach also highlighted the value of identity in the team, and in the company. The game's developers agreed to maintain their creative direction at all costs, and this persistence of vision attracted more like-minded individuals to the company, helping improve the final product. And, over the life of Arkane Studios, Raphael noted that sticking to a specific genre of game helped communicate to the rest of the game industry what kind of game the studio was good at.
In terms of the development of Dishonored, Raphael described how the team relied on organic system design, because it allowed for an unpredictable combinations of game events and player inputs that could create unique payoff moments for each individual player. This approach also dramatically increased the risk of bugs, he admitted.
Along the same lines, he argued that simulation and immersion were other key elements of the game development process. In early versions, the developers wanted to rely on the game systems, such as AI behaviours, player detection and collision physics to provide all the information that the player needed to play the game, and so do away with abstractions like the traditional HUD system. However, Raphael says that the team discovered that playtesters were having more fun with the game when the debug information – essentially duplicating the HUD – were turned on. So, the HUD was brought back in a later version of the game. Immersion, Raphael said, is not the same as obscurity.
Over the course of developing Dishonored, Raphael said that the team learned the importance of discarding material and approaches that either do not work or clutter the game. Much like it is impossible to plan for everything, it is impossible to know what is fun on paper. In fact, the difference between fun and terrible can be as simple as tweaking a single variable in the game, but finding that magic change can be difficult to discover.
Raphael concluded his presentation with a trio of business-level lessons: First, make the world of the game bigger than the game itself, to allow for future inspiration and expansion. Second, try to have game producers report to the creative director in order to keep the team's focus on the intangibles of the final product, rather than the tangibles of bugs, costs and deadlines. And finally, seek external feedback and advice from outside parties...but try to stay consumer-oriented instead of consulting fellow game developers, who are forever naturally trying to “help” with new design suggestions.
Reviewing what has gone before with an eye to future success is an essential part of any mission.Chapter Sponsors