Next month will see the release of Arkane Studios' game Prey, a title that carries certain expectations. The studio has fans that no doubt expect great things after the breakthrough success of the studio's 2012 game Dishonored and last year's sequel. One of the first things people found out about the project (albeit through leaked emails) was that the developers hoped to make a spiritual successor to cult classic System Shock 2, setting a high bar for themselves with fans of that game. And presumably, some people who enjoyed the 2006 first-person shooter Prey have their own expectations for what a follow-up would entail.
As lead designer Ricardo Bare told GamesIndustry.biz at the Game Developers Conference last month, he's not overly concerned about creating a game to fit the expectations of all three groups.
"I don't think it has to fit all three," Bare said. "I think it just has to fit one more than any other, and that is that it's true to an Arkane game. And that means it's the kind of game we love to make, the kind of game we love to play."
Some people call that kind of game an immersive sim, but Bare thinks of it more as a first-person game with depth.
"I would not see it as a Prey game. I would see it as a game from Arkane that is called Prey. The name is a really good name, and that's the part that matters."
"It has a really well-constructed, deeply imagined universe so I feel like I've been transported somewhere cool, combined with a richly interconnected web of game mechanics that allows players to feel like they have creative expression in how things go down in the game," Bare said. "I think that's the most important thing [Prey] needs to be true to."
Clearly, he thinks Prey needs to be truer to that than to the Prey franchise. Arkane's Prey will lack the original's characters and its key portal gameplay mechanic, and Bare went so far as to say that while he thought Human Head's cancelled Prey 2 was a cool concept, Arkane didn't take any lessons from its development.
"It's not a sequel," Bare said. "It's not fictionally connected. It's like, movies and books come out that have the same title all the time that have nothing to do with each other... I would not see it as a Prey game. I would see it as a game from Arkane that is called Prey. The name is a really good name, and that's the part that matters."
That's not to say the game has no proper predecessors. Like Bare said, it's part of a tradition of immersive sims that has been trending upward in the last decade. Bare acknowledged that 2007's BioShock sparked the genre in a big way, but prior to that, Arkane was one of a handful of studios carrying the torch with titles like Arx Fatalis and Dark Messiah of Might & Magic. When asked why the genre fell out of favor for a stretch, Bare said it was at least partly because immersive sims are just really difficult to make.
"They're hard to communicate to people exactly why they're special," Bare said. "It's not something that's super obvious. Because the games ask a lot of players; it's like playing an instrument. To get the most out of this kind of game, you have to work a little harder as a player. It plummets depths. It's not the Michael Bay of games, it's a little more complex. And it's harder to develop. There are more difficult problems to solve. And then if you take into account bigger teams, and higher art fidelity and budget, transitioning platforms, it sort of took a while for all those things to converge where we were like, 'OK, we know how to do this really complex game and manage the high art bar that there is for games, and the long development cycles and things like that.'"
Fortunately for fans of the genre, Bare doesn't see the genre's profile sliding that low anytime soon.
"Even if a pure immersive sim--whatever that is--does [fade], we are seeing other kinds of games," Bare said. "There's a philosophy behind the immersive sim, and other kinds of games that aren't even first-person games do those things. Some do them consciously. Some are just unrelated to immersive sims but have those properties. So we're seeing that stuff in other games. There are more first-person games right now that have interesting RPG mechanics layered onto them that allow more player expression. The Bethesda guys have been doing that stuff for the same amount of time. Skyrim and Fallout have that cool open-ended design to them."
"Players are going to forgive some glitchy animation if that means they get this vast, open world that's beautiful with lots of depth to it that not a lot of other people are doing as well."
"Cool open-ended design" isn't the only thing you're likely to find frequently in immersive sims. It's not uncommon to find bugs and exploits and a general lack of polish in the genre.
"There's definitely a trade off between the more features you want to jam into a game and the more complexity," Bare said. "And if you still want to ship at a specific point and you only want to spend a certain amount of money, then there's going to be a priority. This feature is going to get more polish than that feature, just out of necessity."
That friction between the genre's push to have complex interacting systems and the AAA industry's insistence on polish crops up from time to time, but Bare suggested much can be forgiven if the right things have been polished.
"There's a lot of stuff players are willing to forgive if the right things scratch the itch they're looking for," Bare he said. "Players are going to forgive some glitchy animation if that means they get this vast, open world that's beautiful with lots of depth to it that not a lot of other people are doing as well."
Immersive sims have also been thriving outside the AAA space. Bare said plenty of developers who worked on bigger AAA immersive sims have since brought those design philosophies into the indie world and are making "more stripped down, concentrated versions" of the larger scale counterparts. He referenced Fullbright Studios (Gone Home, Tacoma) as one such example, and pointed to 2D games like Gunpoint and Mark of the Ninja as pushing the immersive sim approach into new forms.
Arkane is unquestionably dealing with a lot more competition in the immersive sim genre than it was a decade ago, but Bare clearly wouldn't have it any other way.
"If you rewind time 10-15 years, even further back, a very small, privileged subset group of people could even make games," Bare said. "Not everybody had access to that kind of stuff. So now, because the ability to make a game is way more accessible, and I think it's going to become more and more accessible as time goes on, it does necessarily make this glut of games. There's this detritus out there, but there's also so much good stuff. I think it just follows that the more diversity of developers means the more diversity of games, and that just means there are way more cool ideas in the ecology. And I think that's why we're seeing cool little indie games pop up all over the place. Some of them are retro throwbacks, but some are really fresh, cool ideas."