These days, it’s not uncommon for a games developer to have branches in several geographically diverse locations. Rockstar Games currently has eight individual studios, many of whom collaborate on any given title, while 2K Australia and San Francisco-based 2K Marin are currently working across hemispheres on BioShock Infinite.
Dishonored is another game that moves beyond physical boundaries: While Julien Roby is hard at work in his French office in Lyon, his colleagues are more than 8,000 kilometres away (and seven hours behind) in Austin, Texas.
It’s been quite challenging because of the time difference, but also the language difference – as we speak French and they speak English. It’s been very interesting because we get people with different views and different cultures on the team – it helps us to make things different, more appealing to a lot of different countries because of the influences we all have.
Throughout development of Dishonored, Arkane Studios‘ two co-creative directors – Raphaël Colantonio and Harvey Smith – were based in Austin, leading the design from there, joined by a handful of gameplay programmers, programmers, designers and a few artists. The bulk of the team (50 people, by Roby’s count) remained in Lyon, covering everything else: “Design, production, animation, art, level design, programming, all of that.”
Thankfully though, through the wonders of modern technology, the solution was simple: Video conferences, and plenty of them. Cameras were set up “like an open window,” says Roby, and used to communicate between the two offices, for international meetings and general day-to-day chats.
Those chats, by the way, were in English. While the Lyon team was – predictably – predominantly French, many of the developers in Texas couldn’t speak a word. Despite having the majority, it was the French side that had to compromise, learning English “through necessity”. All of the design documents, notes and internal communications were in English rather than French.
The first game we did (Arx Fatalis) was just with a single team in one location, so it’s really been very different to work on this game… it really changed the way we did the game, I think.
But the studios weren’t always divided by an ocean or two – whenever possible, the teams popped over to visit for some “face time”, with Julien explaining that it’s much easier to work with people at a distance if you’ve also worked with them close-up.
Just the fact of meeting with someone for a few days, when you get back to the offices after that, it’s easier to work with them, because you know them.
Obviously, this sort of co-working simply would not have been possible ten years ago, before the technology was widely available (and airfares so cheap!). In addition to the studio’s central video windows, individual developers and groups would dial each other up on Skype, to talk together about things and ensure everyone was on the same page.
Despite my questioning, Julien didn’t admit to any major French/US arguments. “It was more about the individual, rather than French vs American,” he said (while pointing out that the French “won the war”…). Instead, he says that each team had fairly similar ideas of what they wanted, and were “quite aligned” from the beginning. Dishonored is the sort of game that Arkane was created to make, he says.
There are elements of Half-Life tucked in there as well, thanks to the games’ shared art director, Viktor Antonov. Hints of BioShock, Deus Ex and Thief also bubble to the surface, but Julien drew inspiration from somewhere a little more post-apocalyptic.
Something I feel inspired me a lot in terms of creativity is the Fallout series of games – they really laid it down in terms of “What is Fallout”, giving a lot of options to the player in terms of morality and how you want to approach things…
In the Fallout universe, there are a lot of quests, where you can see that people that seem to be good are not that good! Everybody is not black and white, it’s more in shades of grey. It was interesting to see what decision you make, what the consequences are and that sort of thing.
It’s not a new direction for games to take, but recent years have seen an influx of titles focussing on morality and placing more weight on in-game choices. In Dishonored, there are no clear “good” and “bad” characters or decisions, but instead a blur of “bad” and “less bad” (or perhaps “bad” and “more bad”, depending).
There’s one key element which sets Dishonored apart from Fallout, BioShock, Mass Effect and the other morally ambiguous games it’s been compared to: It is possible to complete a full playthrough of Dishonored without killing a single person.
It’s funny, because a lot of people assumed that you couldn’t do it [play through the game without killing people], because probably they are too used to killing everybody in other games.
But most of the people, when we tell them that you can finish the game without killing anybody, they are really surprised, and it’s something that they really like. They really like it as an idea, and then they try to do it as well.
There is actually an achievement for that – it was one of the goals when we started the project, that we wanted to really make sure that people can play the game they want, and this includes not killing anybody, because we didn’t want to enforce the killing people to our players.
Of course, if you want to go in, all-guns-blazing, taking out bad guys, civilians and innocent bystanders alike, the floor’s all yours. Just remember, there are consequences to your Dishonored decisions, and some of those choices might come back to haunt you.
Dishonored hits shelves for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 on October 9th in North America, October 11th in Australia, and October 12th in Europe and the United Kingdom.