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Prey interview: Arkane talks about its ‘open space station game’

I spent a bit of time playing Prey back in February, and enjoyed the extremely brief demo for what it was. The game has certainly creeped up on the gaming world, set to hit Xbox One, PS4 and PC on May 5.

I had a chance to send some questions over email to Ricardo Bare, Arkane Studio lead designer, about the game, including its inspirations and challenges.

Fenix Bazaar: Arkane has mentioned that Prey is similar to — or is inspired by — an earlier game the studio made called Arx Fatalis. In what ways are the games similar, and how has the studio used that experience to inspire certain features/settings for Prey?

Ricardo Bare: I would say Prey is similar to Arx Fatalis in two ways. First, the structure of Prey is more like Arx Fatalis than something like Dishonored. Prey is an ‘open space station game’. That means the player is free to explore the entire space station, including the outside of space station, for the majority of the game. Of course, you have to work for it – discovering airlocks, finding keys, completing objectives, etc. But as long as you’re able, and you can handle the threats in each area, you’re free to explore. You’ll often come back to areas you’ve already discovered, either because you have your own particular goals in mind (maybe you want to craft something) or something new has happened in the story or a side mission you’re trying to complete.

Second, I would say Prey has more classical RPG features – a grid inventory system, lots of upgrade trees, and so on.

Fenix Bazaar: We’ve heard that this is essentially a hard reset for Prey in that it has absolutely nothing to do with the original game. What is it about the name “Prey” that stood out for Arkane?

Ricardo Bare: We were already working on a game that was science fiction themed – open-structure like Arx, space station setting, layered game systems, etc. It’s a great name for a video game, and it fit with the themes we were already working with.

Fenix Bazaar: In what ways is Prey different to other more recent Arkane titles, and how does it fit into the studio’s values?

Ricardo Bare: Any game we make will typically have two things in common. We put a lot of effort into making the setting as compelling as possible. We try to understand why every detail in the world is exactly the way it is so that when players are in the space they feel like they are in a place that could actually exist – it seems alive according to its own internal logic.

We also believe in creating game mechanics that allow players to set up situations that lead to incredibly satisfying and often surprising outcomes. We love seeing players combining their abilities and the environment against AI that live according to the same rules.

Fenix Bazaar: The Arkane style has always been about allowing the player to play their own way, without really imposing any real “default” way to play. What are some of the challenges in applying that to an action sci-fi game as opposed to a game that, say, actively encourages the player to avoid violence?

Ricardo Bare: Introducing players into the idea that there’s not just one prescribed way to accomplish their goals is always challenging in these types of games. There’s the temptation to just intrude into the game with the designer’s voice and say, “try this…” and we do that at times, but the tradeoff is breaking immersion.

One advantage is that Prey is a little more of an RPG. Players used to games with RPG mechanics already have the experience of ‘Oh I can build my character in different ways’ which comes implicitly with the idea that there are different ways to play.   

Fenix Bazaar: In my brief time playing the game, I noticed that aside from a handful of scripted moments, the behaviour of aliens is rather unpredictable and systemic. This made battling multiple mimics at a time, for example, extremely tough, because I needed to be constantly changing my strategy and approach. How deep does that really go? If I am beating up the mimics in a room, would they be likely to run away and change strategy themselves? Is it common that a battle might start in one area, then move to another, and for the mimics to then scan a room and take form of random objects there?

Ricardo Bare: Absolutely. Some of the early mimic encounters are more scripted because we’re introducing the player to the idea of how mimics work – but after that, the training wheels really come off. Mimics are extremely dynamic. They’ll change tactics depending on their numbers. So, a lone mimic is far more likely to use hit and run (or, hit and hide in this case) whereas large groups are more likely to be aggressive.

Fenix Bazaar: A favourite of mine is Alien: Isolation, which to me feels similar to Prey in that they’re both these non-linear, open-world action games. Isolation is obviously surrounded by decades of lore, whereas Prey is trying to establish an identity of its own. Has there been a conscious effort to keep the Prey experience grounded in its own universe, or as a team have you ever explicitly turned to other sci-fi works and thought, “Okay, this is something we need in this game!”?

Ricardo Bare: We’re very much gamers ourselves, so of course we’re paying attention to what other games are doing – taking inspiration, critiquing, learning. I remember playing SOMA for instance and really being impressed with how well integrated many of their puzzles were and how well they used interactive screens. There’s no doubt it inspired us in some ways.

On the other hand, everything we do has to be consistent with our game’s own internal logic. It has to fit the universe we’ve built. More importantly, Arkane has its own unique style and voice as a developer. Whatever we do, it can’t help but feel Arkane-ish because our design sensibilities and our history as a studio.

Fenix Bazaar: I feel that Arkane has put a really interesting spin on the first-person RPG. I’ve seen mentioned that the skill tree is similar to the one found in System Shock, which is both exciting and terrifying. What are some of the challenges in evolving and improving a genre that is so demanding of depth and detail, without making it so “hardcore” as to turn away a player that is after something a little more linear and straightforward?

Ricardo Bare: I would say one big challenge is discovery. Prey has so many systems! It’s hard to balance introducing the player to all of them without the game feeling like one long tutorial. It’s easier when all your game mechanics are required, but in Prey most of them are optional. But if players don’t pick something their experience will be diminished. So you have the challenge of letting the player know all these really cool tools & abilities are available, but also letting them know they can choose how they want to play.

Fenix Bazaar: Prey is a single-player only game. For a few years there leading into this decade, a lot of established, acclaimed single-player games went the multiplayer route. Dead Space and Bioshock come to mind. Mass Effect is another. Was there ever any discussion about a multiplayer offering for Prey, and if so, how might it have looked? What is it about Prey that made it not a multiplayer-type game?

Ricardo Bare: Not really. Adding multiplayer to a game is a massive endeavor. Our team would have to be much bigger, or we’d need to take much longer to make the game to support something like that. That’s just not somewhere we wanted to go for Prey.

Prey launches May 5 on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC.

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