“Prey,” Arkane Studios’ upcoming first-person shooter published by Bethesda, created quite a buzz at E3 with a mysterious and eerily beautiful trailer. Since then, there’s been an abundance gameplay footage, which often left us with even more questions than answers. At GDC 2017, we had an opportunity to sit down with Ricardo Bare, the game’s lead designer, and learn more about “Prey” in exhaustive detail.
We were thinking about the brand “Prey.” It’s not really a huge brand, and the last game was ten years ago. What prompted you to continue the use of this brand, the use of this IP, instead of launching a new IP? The decision to drop the “2” suffix, instead of having “Prey 2”: was that influenced by Tomb Raider or DOOM?
I’ll start with your very last question, and that one’s easy. There’s no “2” because it’s not a sequel. It’s its own game, that happens to have the same name. That sort of connects back to your first question, which is, it’s not on the basis of the franchise or the prior games, it’s on the basis of the fitness of the name. The name is a really, really good name for the video game that we’re making. So that’s why we’re using it.
Of course, that makes a lot of sense.
Just to give you a little more detail, we were already working on a science fiction game that’s true to Arkane’s style and values. It’s very similar, in fact, to a game that Arkane already worked on called Arx Fatalis. It was a very open-ended RPG first person action game that had a structure very similar to Prey. So, we already had in the works this science fiction game on a space station with aliens. It was a first person action game with depth that was very much inspired by System Shock, and then Bethesda said “hey, we can use Prey if you guys think that fits.”
In terms of marketing Prey to fans of the original, but also bringing in those new players who haven’t really heard of the franchise before… what’s your strategy on that?
Well, I’m the lead designer on the game, and from my perspective, our goal is to just make a game that is true to Arkane’s values. We only make one kind of game at our studio: the kind of game we love to play. I wish more studios made games like this so that I could play games that other people make that are the same kind of game. It’s what we love, and it’s what we’re passionate about. To briefly summarize, it’s a game that has a super deep sense of place. That’s combined with tons of interesting layered game mechanics, so that players really feel like “I’m in a believable world, and I have all these possibilities. I don’t want to just have to follow this linear track.”
From a development standpoint, were there things that you were trying to bring from [the original] Prey into the reboot that you thought were essential to fans?
No, not at all. Like I said, it’s not a sequel, it’s not part of the same universe, it has no connection.
So really, it’s just a hard reset for Prey then.
Yeah, that’s a way to look at it. In the movie industry, in the book industry, titles come out that are the same and nobody has a problem with it, but for some reason it’s weird with games.
Have you thought about the Twitch and Youtube audience when you were making Prey. Is Prey conscious of those audiences and what they like to play, or is it really just its own thing where streamers and youtubers are irrelevant?
It’s definitely a more current trend that people experience games vicariously a lot now, and they hear about games that way. My son, he’s a gamer, big time, but I think he probably spends more time watching other people play games than actually playing games. So, that’s how I hear about a lot of games, is from him: “I was watching so-and-so play on stream, and this game looks cool.” Then we can play it. We’ve done a couple of streams now of playing Prey, and that’s actually one of the most fun things to do, is to show the game off by playing it with people. I think it’s super cool.
I don’t know that we specifically designed anything in Prey with that in mind. I don’t know enough about it to say if there’s a specific kind of game that’s better for streaming or not. It seems to me like I see and hear about streams of pretty much every kind of game out there. It’s the kind of game (immersive sims, first-person action games with depth) that asks a lot of players (it’s not a very simple linear shooter). It’s probably better to be exposed (I would imagine, I’m speculating) and introduced to it, and to see somebody else go “see, this is what’s possible with this game.” You don’t just have to kill the monster by shooting the red dot with this one gun, and everyone has to do the same thing the same way. It’s like, “Look, I did it this way, but let me reload and show you how you can do it this other way.”
In the gameplay trailers, you really showed off the chaining of different abilities and equipment together, and the ways that can be used creatively. Is that such a core part of the game that you can’t beat it without utilizing those things? Can you just run-and-gun, blasting your way through? Or is it more contemplative, where you really have to think everything through first?
It’s definitely an action game, but it does reward taking a step back and thinking strategically, and thinking about combining the different game mechanics that you have, especially when the game puts pressure on you. You could play the game by deciding “I’m gonna find the shotgun, and I’m gonna upgrade all my skills related to the shotgun, and then I’m only gonna craft shotgun shells!” You could play like a soldier. You could do that, but it’s a deliberate choice, it’s not the default way of playing. There really isn’t a default way of playing.
I think if you don’t invest in those things, and if every time you see a monster (one of the Typhon aliens) you just run up and smack it in the face… that’ll work at first. Eventually, you’re just going to die over and over. One of the cool core combat loops is that typically, the aliens are much stronger than you, therefore you need to figure out a way to disable them first, and then suddenly they’re really weak against you.
That’s really cool. I like the idea of forcing players to become creative with the system that you’ve built. On the subject of the enemies, there’s already so many that we’ve seen in passing just in the gameplay trailers. I’m assuming there’s many more types (or there might not be). How do the player’s strategies and tactics change depending on the type of creature we’re facing? Can you give a few examples of the differences?
I’ll talk about two of them. One of our favorite things is that a lot of the behaviors of the enemies are rules-driven; they’re systemic instead of scripted. We have some scripted moments, like some reveals at the beginning of the game just to introduce you to concepts as you’re learning the game. Then, past a certain point in the game, the game’s just running and the AI’s are falling back on their systemic behavior.
The “mimics” are one of my favorite examples: that’s the one we’ve probably showed off the most. What’s cool about them is, as everybody who’s seen the trailer knows, they have this ability to disguise themselves as items in the room. None of that is scripted: that’s just part of the AI’s behavior. They see you, and they go “oh, there’s only one of me, the player is kicking my butt, run away!” Then they run into a room… if they ran into this room, they would go, there are two coffee cups, two phones, a trash can, three chairs: it would then randomly pick one of those and mimic it. Even as the developers, we don’t know what they’re going to be. The level designer didn’t set it up that it’s always the coffee cup.
Even with multiple playthroughs, loading a save is going to be different when you go into the room. That’s all systemically driven. As the player, you start to learn things about the mimics. If I walk into the room and I see three shoes, I know something’s up, because nobody has three feet. If I see two trashcans next to each other, that’s suspicious. You can pay attention to those things and try to get the drop on them instead of them getting the drop on you.
On the other extreme, the biggest monster we have is this thing called the “nightmare,” and it’s really cool. I think we showed a glimpse of it in one of our trailers. It’s really huge: it’s about twelve meters tall.
I know the one you’re talking about: it picked up an object and threw it at the player.
Yeah, it’s really huge, but it can squeeze through small spaces. Coming through a door like this, you can’t be like “haha, I’m hiding in a room!” It can pour through the door and emerge on the other side. The part about it that is systemic is that it was designed by the Typhon (the aliens) to specifically destroy you, the player. The other ones are there because the alien ecology is evolving, and they’re taking over the space station, but the nightmare’s purpose is to kill you specifically. There are actions you can take as the player to cause the nightmare to appear, so it can happen anywhere, at any time.
One of the things you can do is the more alien upgrades you put into your body, it’s almost like that generates heat, and that causes the nightmare to detect you, and then it spawns in the level. That happened to me the other day. I was doing a playthrough of the game, and in the space station you have an office that you can find. If you find some allies and help them out they’ll show up in your office. I came back to my office because it has some crafting stations that you can use, and so I’m like, “I’m going to build some more ammo, I’m going to upgrade myself,” and I forgot about the nightmare.
I picked three new alien powers because I had had acquired all these “neuromods” (which are what you use to upgrade). I was upgrading, upgrading, upgrading, and I was like “sweet, I’m going to go do my next mission!” As soon as I exited the upgrade screen, I heard this [terrifying noise] and the screen shook, and I was like “oh shit, the nightmare!” It actually came up the stairs [with heavy footfalls] and poured through the doorway into my office, killed all my allies, killed me, and game over.
There’s not a safe place from it, but it was my fault. I should have known better than to do that. Later, when I reloaded, I said “OK that was pretty cool, but I’m going to go somewhere else to upgrade so I don’t get all my friends murdered.”
Are there different difficulties, like an easy, medium, or hard difficulty?
When you climb up in difficulty, does that mean more mimics spawn in a room and you have to watch out for more, or do enemies just have more health? Is there a different strategy depending on the difficulty?
It’s pretty simple. [Difficulty] mostly governs how much damage they do, you do, and it also lowers how beneficial items like med-kits, psy-hypos, and food are, which by necessity means you’re going to have to spend more resources, and you’re going to have to craft more.
You’re going to have to use the resources you have in a smarter way.
Yeah, and the combat becomes increasingly lethal: there’s enemies that one-shot you.
Is the crafting the main way to get ammo in the game, or is it that you find boxes of ammo and craft them in tandem with each other to create new ammo?
It’s both. There’s two device in the game, the recycler and the fabricator. You can find tons of scrap items in the game, or if you find an extra shotgun that you don’t want you could take all that stuff to the recycler. It crunches everything down into the four components, and then every item in the game has a recipe. As long as you have the fabrication plan for it, you can make that item. Then you go to the fabricator and you pop in the ingredients, and if you have the fabrication plan… you can use it to customize your playstyle.
Can you tell us more about the Gloo gun?
We were watching the gameplay trailer and thinking, “this is awesome, look how many different things it can do: the traversal, covering up the pipes spouting flames, freezing enemies.” Is there anything else it can do that we haven’t seen?
I think you just mentioned them all! Originally, the object wasn’t conceived as a weapon. On this space station, it’s something that the scientists used to restrain either prisoners or the aliens by freezing them in place. When you find it, you can use it for that, because one of the things you’ll do if you want to use alien powers is use a device called the Psychoscope. When you put it on, it lets you scan the aliens and acquire their powers. Well, it’s way easier to scan an alien if it’s not trying to hit you in the face at the same time. The gloo gun is good for that, locking everybody down. You can use it to build improvised climbing pathways; you can seal breaches with it if flaming pipes burst. You can also extinguish fire on the ground.
Can you block off doors if the nightmare’s chasing you?
Yeah, the aliens will break it eventually. If they’re not frozen by it, they’ll attack it and break it but it will slow them down.
Are there any other weapons (or equipment or abilities) that perhaps we haven’t seen yet that are along the same vein of being a multipurpose tool, or is it mostly a combination of individual pieces?
There’s the recycler charge. The machine I was talking about, the recycler machine: there’s a portable version of that. It’s almost like a little mini black hole. If you throw it into a room, anything that’s not bolted down will get sucked in and crunched down, and then it pops out the ingredients, the same ingredients that a stationary recycler does. What’s cool about that is you can use it as a weapon. It’ll crunch monster and robots down, but it also will clear paths. Sometimes, because the station was being overrun, there were people who tried to survive by barricading places. So sometimes, you’ll run into a fridge and three couches in front of a door, and you didn’t take the upgrade that lets you heave heavy stuff. If you have a recycler grenade, you go stick a recycler on that and it’ll smash it down and open the path for you.
Are there a lot of little puzzles like that which force you to be creative with what you have?
Yeah absolutely, and that’s just one way. If I ran into a barricade, I could use the recycler grenade to crunch it down, which has the upside of “now I have some resources to gather.” If I had the leverage ability, I could have hefted those things out of the way. There’s an ability called “kinetic blast” which is like a huge physics impulse: maybe I could blast things out of the way. I could try to mimic something tiny and try to roll under the couch. Lots of opportunities.
Can you tell us more about the audio team? I don’t know how much you know about what they’ve done, but from what we’ve heard, all the different sound effects for the grenades and the various abilities are really cool. The shotgun just sounds amazing. Can you give me any insight on how they created these sound effects? Did they go to shooting ranges and record?
[Laughing] Those guys… I don’t know their specific technique. Our audio is done by Matt Piersall. His company GL33k did the audio, and then Mick Gordon is doing the music to our game. Those guys are all super talented and super creative, but they sort of hide in their “sound wizard cave” in our office.
I wish I could remember the name of the device, but Matt has this device that produces… have you ever seen any of those ghost hunter shows? He has this device that’s like, “oh, I can hear the electronic signature of this paranormal…”
That EKG thing making this weird theremin sound…
Yeah! I can’t remember what it’s called but it was something like that, and he was using that at one point to create some of the phantom sounds in the game, so that was pretty cool.
Can you tell us about how dynamic the soundtrack is? We noticed that at certain points, like when the nightmare showed up, there was that rising synth theme that’s really “horror movie” style, like, “oh my God, he’s here!”
There’s a system in the game where everything is tagged with combat intensity and a stealth intensity. The creatures have a growing awareness of you (or not), which is pretty typical in stealth games. They either don’t know about you; they have a little bit of evidence of you; they’re searching for you; they know exactly where you are, now they’re going to fight you. There’s music that’s keyed to those levels of awareness. If something stops and goes, “what was that?” then the music climbs in intensity a little bit, and then there’s combat music. Then, on top of that, some creatures have specific themes layered on top of that too.
That’s interesting, are they using mostly synths or do they have a lot of those weird EKG devices?
It’s a mix of both.
Definitely some really interesting sounds coming out of that team, and I have no idea how they were made. I’m going to have to wait for the GDC talk next year to learn everything.
And you’re going to find out that they made it all with their mouth.
[Laughing] Just a vocoder and a computer and that’s the entire soundtrack. Can you tell us a bit more about the backstory of Prey? When we were researching the game, we found that really interesting… the whole “JFK lives” scenario and the Art Deco influences on the space station. Can you tell us more about how the player experiences that backstory? Does the game just tell you, “this is what happened!” or is it more little bits and pieces lying around?
Just like we did with Dishonored and the city of Dunwall, we put our architects, our artists, our level designers… we spend a lot of time just on the world-building part alone. Only 20% of that makes it into the surface of the game, but there’s all that background that informs the choices we made. If you’re the kind of player who doesn’t care as much about that, and you’re just running through the main story of the game, you’ll just feel those things but you don’t have to know that stuff to play the game.
Players who care about it are going to notice things. In the lobby of the space station, there’s a museum, and you can walk through the museum and there’s these exhibits that turn on that say, “in 1963, the…” It’s almost like a guided tour, and it talks about the alternate history stuff with JFK, and you can see there’s a portrait of JFK hanging in somebody’s office where he’s signing some papers for the construction of the space station. You can look at it and see that, “oh, that’s the name of the space station.” It’s this invented alternate history stuff: there’s little details like that.
We’re almost out of questions here. How much of Dishonored inspired the gameplay direction of Prey?
There’s nothing that’s a direct transfer, but both Dishonored and Prey come from the same core values of Arkane. The kind of game that we love to make is a combination of two things. A game that has this really deeply worked out sense of place, where there’s tons of backstory, and tons of rich detail informing the construction of the world so the player feels like, “I’m really immersed in some place real and coherent even though it’s not the real world. I’ve been transported to a different place,” which is one of my favorite things in games, books, and movies. That feeling of “this really took me somewhere else that I didn’t know about before.”
The second component is the richly interconnected web of game mechanics that make players feel like, “I’m in a game where anything can happen. Anything I can think of, I can try to put together a plan and execute it, and I have this magic feeling when it works.”
Just dealing with any obstacle through creativity.
Yeah, player improvisation.
Are there plans after the release of Prey to do stuff like how “Dishonored” added new game plus, or do anything like that after release?
We haven’t announced anything yet… I can’t promise you guys anything yet, but we’re definitely planning things. We have things that we want to add to the game and release eventually.
So there’s a plan for longevity after release?
Good to hear. Can you tell us anything about what you’d like to see from Scorpio as a development platform?
No. I’m not a programmer, and I’m not a console connoisseur, I just buy whatever the next thing is and then I just play games. I don’t have specific thoughts on that, but I’ll probably get one if it’s cool!
So on the development side, is there anything you anticipate while working with Scorpio or that makes you nervous about Scorpio?
Not necessarily. It does let us make the game prettier, so that’s always cool.
Thanks so much.
Thank you guys, I appreciate it.
Prey is slated for release on May 5, 2017 on PS4, Xbox One, and PC. Interview conducted by John Sands and Jordan Aslett.
Image Credits: Bethesda; mick-gordon.com