When Prey was announced this summer, people didn't know what to expect, but since then we've learned some more details. You're surviving alone on a space station, and the player can use several weapons and abilities on board, but other than that there aren't too many details. We sat down with Arkane's Lead Designer Ricardo Bare and co-Creative Director Raphael Colantonio at a recent event to learn a bit more about Prey, then, and discuss how development is going, with Colantonio revealing that there's already been a lot of testing:
"It's the phase where you have people test the game and [...] you want to ship a great game. It's the first time we have testers when the game is finished [...] so at this point something major can come back, like they don't understand it or they don't like it. Hopefully not, but if something like this happened it's more than minor."
We also talked about how the team tests internally too. "Yeah, we don't test the same things though," Colantonio said. "There's nothing that can replace the fresh eye of somebody who has never seen the game and doesn't know anything about it, so I think it's a combination of both." He also said that "people who join the team, they play the game every time for the first time, so it's like having a new player for us, and then we get family to join, come for a few hours, go into the test room and we watch them."
"It's a hard game to test. There are a lot of possibilities and certainly people will find some technique, some strategy, that we don't have in mind, or some configuration of events that they did in some order that led to something [...] In a way it's actually desirable, because we like that players find ways to screw up with the game and find some faster shortcuts, ways, to do something."
He then gave an example of a case where a player found something unexpected: "There's an area which in infested with aliens and you're on the top of some rafters and you have to go down there, and the way the designer expects you to do that is to start shooting or use some powers or whatever. The reason it's so complicated is because then there's a corpse in the middle that has a key that allows you to unlock a door at the end of this room and then you can go, so that's a lot of work if you play the regular way. Ricardo had something called remote manipulation which allows you to do things at a distance, and so he dragged the corpse to him from down there, looted the body, the key, and then he started to fly with his propulsion system, he flew over to the door, which opened immediately and he managed to escape everything. It's not legit, but at the same time it is. The systems allow to do that, the designers had no idea he was going to do that, but that's cool."
Balance is also key for development as well, both in terms of narrative and gameplay but also in terms of navigation and how many shortcuts to have: "These are games that are hard to tune in a sense, and that's the nature of the beast so we accept it. It's more like we test it and test it and test it and every time we adjust. That's why it's so iterative and so long. We can test it, and if it feels too easy then we start making the monsters a little harder or we have less ammo or we play with the resource until every playthrough feels like it was a challenge without being impossible."
All of this delicate work hasn't stopped the process from being enjoyable, however, and Bare used the example of the aliens specifically. "One of the fun things about the way we've chosen to integrate the aliens and the mechanics that they have is that it does give you more flexibility to try crazy things like 'hey, what if an alien could turn into a chair and ambush the player', and 'what if the player gets their power from aliens and that means the player can turn into chairs, yay!' So yeah, that's super fun."
Staying with the powers, we asked about what limits the powers had. "You can use the powers as much are you want," he explained, "but you do have several limitations. One of them is the kinds of things you can mimic. So you can mimic anything that is roughly your size or smaller, and it has to be a free object, so something that isn't bolted to the ground. Typically, most of the physics objects in the games are objects you can carry in your inventory, you can mimic those. But then you can upgrade the power so eventually you can mimic more complex things like operators, which are what we call the helper robots that exist on the station." Turrets are also included in the space station, which can be mimicked as well.
Bare also revealed that "while you are mimicked as an object you can still use other powers, so that lets you do some really cool combinations, like blasting yourself across the room or sneaking past somebody [...] you could be in the form of a coffee mug while you are hacking a computer that's 30 metres away from you. The possibilities are really cool."
Colantonio described a bit more about who the player is and what their goal entails in Prey: "'Who am I? Why am I here? S**t this place is infested with aliens, I'm going to die. I have to escape.' That's pretty much the base, primal player motif that we give you to start the game. These are very strong motifs, easy to connect with [...] with something as simple as this you can still do something very deep [...] then you can peel the layers of the story and find about your past and why you're here."
In terms of how you control this player, the subtle things are important for Arkane. "We put a lot of effort into feeling of being in a body," he continued. "The way the camera animates when you jump and land, or the slight tilting when you run. There's a lot of making you feel like you're in a body [...] that is something we spend actually much, much more time than people believe."
Prey also lets you choose between a male or female protagonist as well, which "is primarily a way of identifying the player to the character. So [the purpose] is flavour mostly, the story itself doesn't really change if you're a woman or a man, but what people tell you is a little different." The move to put both genders in, however, was motivated by the fact that there are male and female gamers.
Staying with how the game plays, it's not just your character that's important, but the whole first person experience, as Bare told us that Arkane prides itself on deep first person experiences, and that's what Prey shares with Dishonored in that sense. Many different aspects of the game work as a whole, Bare explained, to create this so-important depth. Writing "definitely helps with the world building", Bare said, but depth "comes from all the departments of the game, like the artists, for instance, contribute a tremendous amount to the feeling of depth, and the feeling that it's a real place, but it's not our world, which is one of those things that I look for in video games. Like games that I really love are games that transport me to another reality [...] that comes from all the departments on the team."
"Prey has many things in common with Dishonored," Bare continued, "because they share a lot of the same values, but it's definitely a very different game at the same time [...] we try to make the games that we love and that we're good at making. So you can detect a similarity in Rockstar's games, right, even though one is a Western and one is a more urban game. That's the same with Dishonored and Prey. They're the same genre, it's an immersive simulation, a first person action game with depth, lots of player creativity, but completely different in their settings and the kinds of game mechanics we get the player to play with."
One subtle feature in particular that carries over from Dishonored is the inclusion of some randomised elements. Bare revealed to us that, much like things such as character placement in Dishonored, some things like monster types will be randomised in the same way in Prey, meaning that each player will get a slightly different experience while also giving players a reason to go back and see things slightly differently.
Of course we had to ask about the space station and whether players can leave the confines, and Colantonio revealed that "you can actually fly outside. The station is actually entirely modelled and you can fly outside and all around and find some alternative ways to get back inside in case you don't want to go through that section over there. And also there are some areas of interest outside," he teased, "that might contain some secret stuff or some goodies. Some of them are more hidden than others. There's even like a little shuttle that was damaged, so that's outside in space and you can go there and find some stuff."
VR is also something we made an enquiry about, but it doesn't seem like that's in Arkane's plans for the immediate future. "We don't have anything concrete planned at the moment," Bare said, "but we do have a lot of people on the team who are extremely excited about VR." Not very positive, but also not a definite 'no' on the question of VR in the future, so take from that what you will.
Lastly, we asked whether fans can expect to see references to Dishonored or any of Arkane's other games, Colantonio said "yes, there are a few things like that," but didn't give any details on what they were, so we're going to have to wait until next year to find that out for ourselves, something we're very much looking forward to. Prey will be released for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
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