In the new video game “Prey,” an alternate-reality sci-fi thriller set on a space station, the character you portray unravels the mystery of their own identity. The first choice in the game for players, to make the point even more explicit, is whether to play scientist Morgan Yu as male or female.
Even the setting of “Prey” is shifted. The Kennedy assassination never happened; Russia and America have collaborated on a space station when a space alien threat is discovered; the Talos I of 2032 still bears Russian-inspired architecture and propaganda signage.
The theme of discovering one’s own identity is an interesting one for Arkane Studios Austin. An offshoot of a Lyon, France-based game studio, the Austin location was co-developer of “Dishonored,” a breakout 2012 hit that led to a well-received sequel released in November.
While “Dishonored 2” was being largely worked on France, the Austin studio took on “Prey,” a total reboot of a 2006 first-person shooter owned by parent company ZeniMax Media Inc. “Prey” is the first big-budget, high-profile game Arkane Austin has worked on completely on its own, and to make it, the studio hired on artists, sound engineers, animators, level designers and many more to build a full AAA game studio.
Arkane won’t say exactly how many employees it currently has in Austin, but so-called “AAA” games are those with the highest budgets. They can take years to develop and require anywhere from 50 to hundreds of workers to build.
With this new game, which is being released on Friday for Windows PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, the little Austin studio that at one point had fewer than 20 working on “Dishonored” has grown up and is putting out its biggest game yet after about four years of development.
“Lots of people are excited to see Arkane going in another direction,” said Susan Kath, producer at Arkane Austin. “It’s our take on a different setting and different than anything we’ve done before. “You’re nervous about putting out this thing that we’re excited for you to see.”
Check out a photo gallery from Arkane Studios Austin as it prepares to release “Prey”
As befits a big-budget, large-scale game of this sort, the fanfare ahead of the game’s release has been extensive. Visuals from “Prey,” dark and spooky, have been splashed on the home pages of sites such as review aggregator Metacritic.com. In a partnership with Alamo Drafthouse, an “Inspirations of Prey” film series has been running in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Austin, screening such movies as “Total Recall” and “Moon” that tie in with the game’s twisty identity themes. Mondo artist Tomer Hanuka created a limited edition poster for the game; copies of it signed by the game’s developers are being given out as prizes.
The studio has stoked excitement for the game with a free demo of the game’s first hour that was released last week for “Prey” for game consoles and press events including a play-through in early April at The Highball in Austin for gaming media.
Arkane did not send out review copies of the game early enough for reviews to appear ahead of the “Prey” release (a policy its publisher Bethesda Softworks instituted last year), but one “Pre-review” from popular gaming site Polygon found the title’s opening few hours to be compelling.
“’Prey’ has one of the strongest openings I’ve played in a game in years,” wrote critic Arthur Gies “It immediately asks questions and sows doubt, planting the seeds of a mystery I am fully invested in unraveling. There are ideas in place that games can be uniquely suited to exploring — concepts of perception, of self, of whether your experience is your own.”
The team at Arkane has traditionally playtested games such as “Dishonored” internally, streaming gameplay from testers to its employees and using two-way glass to observe players running through iterations of games like “Prey.”
But things have shifted in gaming from the time “Dishonored” debuted on the previous generation of game consoles; the rise of the streaming game site Twitch means developers, and anyone else, can spectate as players broadcast their gameplay in real time.
Arkane’s been paying attention.
“Before, it was reading forums” to gauge player reaction, said Ricardo Bare, lead designer of “Prey.” “Now it’s watching people live-play your game, and that’s so cool.”
Bare says he watched one player get to a trauma center level of the game that features a challenge too powerful for players to tackle early in the game. One gamer found a solution the developers hadn’t considered.
“I watched this player find all three turrets and carry them up to the medical area and let them do the work,” Bare said with admiration.
By taking heavy weapons from a different level of "Prey" and moving them over, the player was able to progress in the way that Arkane's designers had never intended, but which was perfectly within the bounds of the game's limits.
Seth Shain, a system designer and associate producer, said the era of game streaming and fan communities has begun influencing how the games themselves are made.
“We actually design to it now,” Shain said. “We ask, ‘what’s gonna be good streaming?’ We want to make sure we’re providing an experience that’s not just fun to play but that’s fun to be spectated. You want to make sure you’re evoking visible responses on their faces.”
The game’s menus were streamlined to be quicker to navigate because, as Shain puts it, “it’s boring to watch.”
The look of people in the game is meant to inspire fans and go beyond the play experience, too. “Even the character artists are thinking about making costumes that are easier to cosplay. Something people would be proud to wear at a game convention,” Shain said.
What makes a game Arkane
When “Dishonored” was released, it drew comparisons to “Thief,” a stealth game from the late ‘90s by Looking Glass Studios that had an Austin office. “Prey” has been drawing comparisons to “System Shock,” a horror sci-fi game from the studio that was published by Austin’s Origin Studios and that is also being rebooted by a different company.
That’s not accidental. While Arkane Austin is a mix of talent with 20-30 years of experience in the games industry alongside some brought in from the film industry, it has drawn some veterans from studios with strong historical Austin ties including Origin, Portalarium, Ion Storm, 2K Games and NCsoft.
“It’s a pretty good mix of people that are really old-school Austin and some on the team where this is the first game they’ve ever worked and everything in between,” Kath said.
Harvey Smith, co-creative director of Arkane, was a lead developer on the classic “Deus Ex,” another inspiration for “Prey.”
“It’s a long lineage of games like this from ‘Ultima Underworld,’ ‘Thief,’ ‘System Shock,’ ‘Deus Ex,’ ‘BioShock.’ It definitely fits in that wheelhouse,” Smith said.
As with “Dishonored,” “Prey” is what the studio calls an “Immersive simulation role-playing game.” Yes, there’s shoot-’em-up moments and special powers, but also very detailed environments filled with objects players can pick up and interact with.
At the center of the Austin studio is a gathering area where rules for Arkane Games are posted, tenets such as “Grounded Sci-fi” and “Say Yes to the Player.” Its games are often described as being “Open-world” within the context of a larger story, allowing players to explore and come up with their own solutions to puzzles and deadly challenges that even the developers don’t always account for.
“That is absolutely Arkane’s DNA,” Kath said. “We’re not going to limit you to a rail.”
In “Prey,” shape-shifting creatures called Mimics, which in their natural states look like creepy inkblots, can turn into practically any object in the game. That’s not scripted; the game’s artificial intelligence determines what shapes the Mimics will take and when they’ll pop out to attack players.
“Even three years in, people still get jump scares in the office because you’re doing something and you don’t realize there’s a Mimic next to you about to attack,” Kath said.
What’s next for Arkane
It’s too early to tell how successful “Prey” may be for Arkane Studios and whether it will continue the development team’s track record as a critics’ darling after the “Dishonored” series.
The studio has not announced any additional content for “Prey” that would continue its story or anything like a proper sequel to the game. (A sequel for the original 2006 game was in development for years but was eventually canceled in favor of this complete reboot.) It hasn’t said if its next game will be something related to “Prey” or “Dishonored” or something completely different.
In the week leading up to the release of “Prey,” Arkane’s staff, which now fills nearly an entire floor of an office building off Route 183 in north Austin, was working on tweaks, polishes and improvement it will continue to roll out as downloadable patches after the game goes live.
Smith, who was in France working on “Dishonored 2” while “Prey” was in development, has returned full time to work at Arkane Studios Austin and may be the most excited of all about the new game. He played early versions of “Prey,” but was able to approach it fresh without having worked on the title before offering feedback and tweaks to the story.
“To me it’s like Christmas,” Smith said. “Some of my favorite developers working on my favorite type of game. This is a game made for me, it feels like,” he said.
“It’s my personal game of the year,” he said before saying with a laugh. “I’m biased, of course.”
Below: the launch trailer for “Prey”: