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Dishonored's Harvey Smith on the risk of letting players break your game


There are a lot of choices available to players in Dishonored. At every player's disposal is an impressive array of weapons, gadgets and abilities, each offering a different way to tackle a given situation. Take the simple assassination mission I played at Gamescom, which just so happened to be the same mission we detailed earlier this month at QuakeCon. Tasked with infiltrating a posh party at a lavish mansion, freelancer Britton Peele chose to walk right through the front door. Me, I possessed a fish, swam into the sewers and worked my way into the mansion via the cellar. That's only two of many possible choices.

Allowing players that much freedom – the freedom to potentially break the game – must be a nightmare for quality assurance, I tell Arkane Studios' co-creative director Harvey Smith. "It's not just a nightmare for QA," he says, "it's a nightmare for us as well."

Gallery: Dishonored (QuakeCon 2012) | 11 Photos

"It's so much easier to make a game where you unlock things at the right time," he says. If, for example, a certain power is unlocked in the third mission, you know that players won't be able to use it in the second mission. You can "bullet-proof" against any game-breaking issues that way, he says. Creating this sort of closed, curated experience is simpler from a design perspective, and allows developers to spend "many many more hours polishing, making it more cinematic-like" says Smith.

On the other hand, with all the systems at play in Dishonored – stealth, a variety of powers, multiple entrances, numerous weapons, variable A.I. – it's a much greater development challenge to ensure that everything comes together. "You have fewer hours to polish, so games like this are inherently less cinematic in a way. They're inherently more player-driven. They're inherently harder to make, but, at the end of the day, the experience is something that you can play improvisationally," he says. "We're very passionate about that goal."

But games like Dishonored – and the original Deus Ex games, which Smith also worked on – aren't about their cinematic qualities. The baseline plot, the discrete story written for Dishonored, is what Smith calls the embedded narrative. The emergent narrative, meanwhile, is the sum of the actions taken by players – in other words, the stories players tell each other. Smith relates the story of one Dishonored player who evaded an alarmed guard by possessing a nearby rat and hiding under a table. She could have just as easily used an ability to freeze time and walk right past the guard unobserved, or she could have ignored that section of the level altogether. "Players can tell their own story through these micro, minute-to-minute events, because the systems work emergently."

With an October launch only a few months away, the team at Arkane is currently working to squash any remaining bugs. That's not as straightforward as one might think, given the free-form nature of Dishonored's gameplay. If a player manages to achieve an objective in a way that the developers didn't intend, is that really a bug? "That's the back end of our development process, is finding [bugs] that ruin the game or make it less fun or break it in some way," says Smith, and those are the bugs that get fixed. "But all the ones that enable an exploit – and you feel clever and you solve your problem in a way we didn't expect – or you get away with something that doesn't feel negative to the experience, then we support those. Sometimes we leave them as they are, and sometimes we add a little something to help them along, but we try not to fix them unless they're really bugs, and that's a judgment call."

Speaking of judgment calls, it turns out that carrying the unconscious body of a hostess through her own party is a very poor one. Something to keep in mind if you ever play Dishonored.

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