Prey, despite being called that and made by Arkane Studios, isn’t a lot like Prey (2006) or Dishonored. It’s a different beast, using the name of the former and the design ethics of the latter to make a game about exploring a space station, defeating aliens through whatever means you like.
For our thoughts on the first hour of Prey on PC, Phil had a play last month.
Exactly how varied those options can be, as well as how involved Arkane’s other rather famous development team are, is the question. We put such to Ricardo Bare, lead designer on Prey and Arkane member since 2009.
PCGN: What point is development at currently? Smashing bugs?
Ricardo Bare: Exactly. We're releasing May 5, so all the content people are out of the pool, it's just programmers trying to kill all the bugs.
Let's go back to the start - when did development really kick off?
It's kind of a ramp up. It starts with just one or two people, and so after Dishonored finished it was just Raph[ael Colantonio] kicking around ideas, wanting to do something that was sort of similar to Arx Fatalis which is a game that Arkane made a long time ago. It was a totally different setting, it was a fantasy game, but the structure is very similar to Prey. It was sort of an open structured game, not a mission-based game.
The world of Arx Fatalis was this big, inter-connected dungeon that the player could roam so long as they could unlock everything. So we took that approach to the space station for Prey. That was about three years ago that it first started.
After that ramp up, did you have the whole Dishonored 2 team helping out too?
No, after Dishonored finished we sort've split off into two efforts. Some of us worked on the DLC content. I worked on Knife of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches, but eventually the Austin team was pretty small, there was just, like, 20 of us. The Lyon team went off and they immediately started working on Dishonored 2 stuff - they ramped up a little bit, they were already like 60 or 70 people. We had to grow massively, very quickly, to ramp up for Prey.
They were developed totally independently. Of course, we're sister studios though so we trade people back and forth every once in a while. We borrowed some of their UI artists, we give feedback to each other. [But] there was no all hands on deck moment [from both studios].
What elements of Dishonored did you manage to bring over, and which did you decide wouldn't work?
So the thing that's true to both games is the Arkane development philosophy. The thing that we love to do is the development of the world and the backstory. Why do things look the way they look? All that stuff is super important to us, it's like another character. So all the care that we took in creating Dunwall, we did the same thing with Prey. The backstory is based on an alternate history of our world where JFK survived - how would that change a bunch of things? That was our starting point.
The second thing is our game design philosophy. This has to be a game where the player has a bunch of really expressive tools, it's not just a game where you shoot people in the face or whatever. Give the player lots of ways to solve problems, to improvise, to feel like they have a lot of agency in that world. Those two things are the simulation, right? They're the same in any game that Arkane makes.
But where it's different than Dishonored, at least in one way, is Dishonored is a mission-based game. You go to this location, you take this guy out and then you're done, you leave, you go to the next location. There's 13 missions and then you're done - Prey is more... it's not quite right to term it an open-world game because there's no giant forest or whatever, but we do call it an open space station game. The game is one big-ass mission - people use the term Metroidvania sometimes - it's one huge interlocking world. Even the outside of the space station is something you can explore, one huge level.
In that way it feels very different because you're never stopping, you're never getting a mission briefing and then loading to the next level. You're just constantly moving through the space station. Some places you'll make your home base almost, if you want to, then as you come back to places things change over time.
In trying to make the Metroidvania approach work with Arkane-style systems, what have been the technical challenges?
It's crazy because fixing some of the bugs is a super arduous process. The repro steps for making a bug happen are like, 'Well, I played for 17 hours, I had these powers, I went here first, then came here, then crouched, then threw a grenade on the wall'. Do I really have to do the other 17 hours thing first? Isn't it just the last part? Nope, it doesn't happen unless you do this other stuff first.
And with game design as well, not wanting to limit the player while not breaking the game?
It's a little bit of a different beast because you have to take into consideration that the player could be in this level at any time, not just after chapter three or whatever. I could be here four hours into the game, five, 17, whenever. I might have any of the items in the game, or none of the items. That makes it really tricky.
How do you feel stealth fits into the game, versus being the central theme of Dishonored?
We always describe Prey as being more RPG-ish than Dishonored. I would definitely describe Dishonored as a stealth game, it's an action-stealth game, whereas Prey is a game with stealth. You can build your character, there's a bunch of ability trees and powers that you can upgrade yourself with, you don't have to play stealth at all but if you decide to make your guy the stealthy guy you can do that with the weapons and abilities that you choose.
The mimic power comes into it, but we do the same sort of thing we did on Dishonored with the AI, they have simulated senses. Vision cones, they can hear, stuff like that. You can see they have a little awareness meter [above] their head as they become more and more aware of you. You can play the sort of stealth game where you hide behind cover. There are upgrades you can take that make your footsteps quieter, and then there are powers. You can become an object, but if you do it right in front of [enemies] it doesn't work, they're like, 'I saw you turn into that can of trash!'
Specifically with Mimic, surely that must have been a massive pain to implement?
The way that came about was that we started with the creature. We were inspired by the old school Dungeons & Dragons creature, the Mimic, this thing that pretends it's a chest at the bottom of a dungeon and bites your hand off as you try to reach in. What if we did something like that but it's not just one object? it can be anything, and it's not scripted. That's the cool thing about them, it's unscripted behaviour.
The AI can decide to become whatever they want in the room, so long as it's a certain size or smaller. Even us as developers, we don't know what they're going to be, it's just part of the AI's behaviour.
Then, separately, the people working on the powers, [were suggesting] all of the players powers should come from the aliens. You have this tool called the psychoscope. You scan the aliens, you learn what they can do and now you can do [it too].
Then those two ideas came together and we were like, 'Wait a minute, you realise what this means, guys, right?' What's funny is one of our programmers had [the prototype] working in a day. They were like, 'Let's try it!' The first time we saw someone turn into a chair and start flopping around and hopping on the ground, everyone was simultaneously mindblown and laughing. We thought, ‘This is so awesome, does this work? Can we do this?’ There were questions of tone - is this going to be too silly? [We decided] it's so fun, who cares, we just have to keep it in the game.
You can do a lot of stuff with [Mimic] - there's obvious applications with stealth, like hiding from a really hard enemy that's chasing me, or sneak up on him and smash him from behind. You can do cool things too like, [say] the floor is on fire, so turn into something that doesn't burn and then just roll across it. Sneak into small places. Some players figured out weird things. One of our level designers early on [realised] that he could turn into something that doesn't break, like a metal chair, then you can use other powers while you're an object. So he leaped into the air, placed a power called Kinetic Blast underneath him and rocketed across the level.
Where do you draw the line on that sort of thing?
[Laughs] We don't. I mean, anything that players come up with that's super clever, as long as we can support it we try to. Otherwise, we try to uninvite [something] if it looks like it totally breaks the game or we just can't support it well enough. With a modern game, you want the experience to feel good too. Sometimes, somebody comes up with something where to really make it cool we have to come up with some more animations, more VFX, more blah-blah-blah, you know?
On the other side of things, how action-focused can you go? Are you embracing a run-and-gun play style?
Just like with stealth, you can spec your character to have all the security related skills, beef up your health, take the firearm skills. Also take the skills that let you modify weapons, max out your shotgun, upgrade it all the way. Every resource found devoted to crafting ammo, so you never run out - you can be that person if you want to.
It's still not going to feel like an infinite supply of bullets and it's [not] just a cakewalk to fly through the enemies. We've tried to design the enemies so that for many of them, going toe-to-toe with them isn't the most strategic way to handle it. They'll shut you down unless you find out a way to disable them first. So a lot of our tools, instead of being direct damage tools, are meant to be used in ways that give you an advantage over the enemy.
Like the GLOO Cannon freezes them in place for a short amount of time. The Stun Gun stuns them for a little while. There's null-wave charges that disable enemy abilities to use psychic powers for some seconds - you can use those little windows to get the jump on them.
How have you found trying to implement horror elements when you have no idea where on the combat-stealth spectrum people are going to be?
[Laughs] Oh man, it's difficult. Like I said, the player can be all over the place and your path through this space station might be totally different than mine. It's hard to account for how much stuff you have when you came to this location versus how much stuff did I have.
One thing we've always said is we wouldn't call the game a horror game, per se. That's not necessarily its goal. It definitely has thriller, suspense and horror elements in it. The Mimics, of course, provide constant paranoia and jump scares.
It kinda depends on your playstyle because we have some players who are the kind who just scour the environment. They'll clean out every single room, I can't do that, I'll just go crazy, I play organically and have fun, but some players are going to gather everything they can, dump it in the recycler because they're paranoid about running out.
So they come into a room with tonnes of resources and the game is a little easier for that style of player. It's hard to balance that, we'll see how we've done.
What's the craziest thing you've seen a tester do?
We had a tester recently - we have these turrets on the space station that, fictionally, are there in case a disaster happens, [and] of course it did. They shoot at the aliens. They're portable, you can pick them up and carry them around. We expected players to use them, of course, but this one guy played and that's the only thing he did.
He maxed out his repair skill and anything related to hacking. Every level he would go into he would fix all the turrets and leap-frog them, he was carrying around like two or three turrets. He would pick one up, carry it, drop it, go back, pick up the other one - he almost never fired a shot.
So this is a player who ended up with hundreds of bullets, he was just carrying turrets around. Eventually you find a plan that lets you make your own turrets, so then he would make turrets when he got to levels also.
So we called this guy the Turret Lord and it's a totally valid play path. The only thing that didn't work for him was he finally ran into one alien called the Technopath. Its whole power is taking over technology, so since he had put all his eggs in that basket this alien just destroyed him. Every time he would put a turret out the Technopath is like, 'Nope, my turret, now it's shooting you.'
Is there a worry there that someone might go all-in on something and then they can no longer progress?
Nah, I don't think you would ever get stuck because there's only one or two spots where it's like, ‘You must confront this one alien’. There's always a way around. We've tried our best to say these are the dominant strategies we're noticing, there should be at least one alien who counters that dominant strategy, just so players are forced to change tactics every once in a while.
Prey’s out May 5 - expect at least one more batch of info from publishers Bethesda before launch.