Such esteemed company – the legacy of Deus Ex and System Shock...
Harvey Smith: It's worth nothing that I was only a tester on System Shock, that was the very beginning of my career. Raf and I both tested the game when we were with Electronic Arts. But to be fair, the team is fantastic, those guys at Looking Glass – we learned so much from them. We both got into the industry because of Ultima Underworld, their previous game. We're big fans of those games.
Has the development been a fairly organic process?
Raf Colantonio: Sure, one thing we knew is that this game is going to be about a supernatural assassin, and the other thing we knew is that there would be older values that organised it. As for the setting, we did not know quite where to go, so we had a few ideas about a modern world, about this, about that, but eventually we all agreed that Old Europe in the 1600s would be an interesting setting, that's how we started. But then it becomes organic, because at some point very quickly in the process Harvey and I were like "man, it'd be cool if there was some kind of gadgetry in there", so how do we do that?
Smith: The only thing I could add to that is to allude to what Raf said - the fact that we share values makes that co-operation possible. I think if you got two people together and one hated this type of game, it would be a disaster.
This Possession mechanic in the game – what kind of duration do you get with each use?
Smith: Well first, it costs a lot of runes to buy it at level two, so it's one of the more expensive powers to buy. Second of all, it consumes a lot of essence - the mana in the game - so it's not cheap. Night vision is very, very cheap. Blink is fairly cheap. Possession costs a lot of your resource. And lastly it is timed, so for a fish, it lasts – I don't know – 18 seconds? Because a fish, you can't do much, right? A rat, it lasts less, because rats are actually pretty valuable in the game. If you get to the beginning of a place and you possess a rat, the guards will be like "where did he go?", and then, the rat is pretty fast, but the rat can't open doors or pick things up, so the rat is a little bit shorter than the fish. But people are even shorter. We're constantly playing with that number, and we're not sure what the final number will be. But the number is something like 10 seconds for humans right now, something like that, so a human is very powerful because you can collect things, open doors, you can move around behind another guard, then eject out of this one and kill them both. So it's a good question and it leads to something – I don't know, maybe Raf wants to talk about this – but we didn't want to nerf the player.
Colantonio: The challenge here was how to give a lot of power to the player without telling him "no" all the time.
How important is humour? This seems to be a brutal world, but also there's a lightness to it?
Smith: I'm so glad you say that, because we work with this very talented team in Lyon and Austin, and you have to get the whole team understanding where you're going. You have to get the publisher to understand. So early on, some people found it odd that we had little touches of lightness and humour, but I think it's just compared to who we are as people. We're both very serious, very driven but laughing constantly, if that makes any sense? We've got these brutal, ape-like draconian dicks of guards, they'll punch you if you get too close, they're very crude.
There's this one moment where there's this Victorian-looking piano in this posh mansion; long story short we have distractions, so guards are on very predictable control routes except if they see a fire – a place where they can warm their hands on sometimes. If they see a work of art, they'll go comment on it. If they see a rat, they'll leave their posts to stomp the rat. Well, one of the distractions in the world is that if there's a musical instrument, they'll have to go strum a harp, or play a piano, so we have this dumb-looking guard that goes over to the piano and he goes "bam bam bam bam", and it's so awesome to be hidden in the room, under a table watching the guard, and it just happens.
Sometimes it brings them close to you, and sometimes that's in a position where you can assassinate them, so yeah, that's a keen observation that we had to make everyone understand, basically.
Have you allowed for Dishonored to become a franchise?
Colantonio: Yes, we've designed a world that is bigger than the game. We like to have a universe that is bigger than the location you're actually exploring, just for courtesy purposes, and this does allow potentially for a sequel.
Has an external studio designed your boss fights?
Colantonio & Smith: [Laugh] No.
How has the cultural merger worked between the teams in Lyon and Austin?
Smith: You know, Raf founded Arkane 12 years ago or something, and I think we first met when he was taking a tour of Origin, and I was giving the tour, because we both worked for EA and we both were into the same kind of games – Underworld, System Shock, that kind of thing. Then we got to hang out off and on at conferences, and sometimes Raf would come to Austin and we'd hang out. We'd show him what we were working on with Deus Ex games, he'd show us what he was working on with Arx Fatalis, so the best thing is there's a shared value there, everybody wants to make the same type of game, more or less. Then you get the cultural worldviews of multiple places, we had Italian guys, Spanish guys, American guys from various places in America; let's not pretend all Americans are the same, because it's the size of Europe. We have influences from other places as well.
And then there's some disadvantages too, we have to work a lot through video conferencing and email, which makes communication really hard at times. There's a time difference, so when we arrive in the morning in Austin, we have to slam through a bunch of meetings because our lunchtime matches their leaving time. So that's an overview of it, that's how it works. One thing that I'll say that I learned with these guys when I started working with Raf is that they don't just use video conference for meetings, they leave it up in the background. If you just use it for meetings it's one thing; "everyone sit down at a table, we'll talk this issue through" – but it's kind of a waste. If you just leave it up in the background on a cart; our lead level designer goes past and I say "hey, what was it about this thing that we wanted to do yesterday? What if we do this instead?". It's more conversational. It's like a window.
How does the difficulty scale?
Colantonio: We're working on the difficulty now, so it's still not totally set. There's the fact that characters will deal more damage to you, and we're working on other parameters like their response time, so they'll detect you faster. Or whenever you drink a potion, it gives you less mana, or less health, and some other parameters that are still up in the air.
With such a strongly willed team, particularly with the art style, there must be many conflicts?
Colantonio: All the time! [laughs]
Smith: I can pick a weird one. At one point, we had horses in a painting in the background, we were going through a phase where Raf and I were saying that even the animals in Dishonored would be different. There's some animal heads hanging on the walls in places, and you know, we do have fish, and birds in the distance, so we wanted it to be grounded and familiar. For it to look like old Europe, or whatever. But our whales have multiple flippers and tentacles hanging from under their chins, so they're like whales but mutated, that kind of thing. They do – at a distance – look like whales, and we have this, like, gazelle head on the wall which is really long and skinny. It looks a little abnormal, but you'd recognise it as a gazelle. We also have this ox thing, we call it a "blood ox", it has sharp teeth so the implication is that it's carnivorous, or at least omnivorous, and at one point we thought that there really shouldn't be horses in this world. But the art director really, really wanted a horse, so we were back and forth and I think we eventually cut it, but now it's back in the presentation you just saw. So at the end of the day it doesn't really matter if there's a horse in the game or not, but it does matter in general that we get our general direction and vision through, of course. One detail isn't going to make or break the game, but that was a pretty intense argument that came up over and over for several weeks.
Anything that didn't make the cut?
Smith: We eventually abandoned the idea, because it wasn't much fun, but an early idea was that when you used magic, it wasn't going to use mana, it was just going to drain your health. I still kind of wish we had that as a mode, for the super-hardcore player who wants to use magic possession, teleportation and all that, every time he does that his health bar goes down. But it's something that one percent of the audience would like and everyone else wouldn't.
Colantonio: We should do a super-hardcore mode for that.