For decades, videogames based on comics licenses have struggled with the perception of being low-quality licensed cash-ins. But over the past six or seven years that perception has begun to shift, helped in large part to the explosive critical and commercial success of the Batman Arkham series developed by Rocksteady and published by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.
What’s the secret to DC and WBIE’s success where so many others have struggled? With Batman Day looming large, I contacted Ames Kirshen, vice president of product development for the Arkham and DC Comics games at Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment to learn more about the company’s approach.
“You have to understand and respect the core essence of the franchise,” Kirshen explained, “but you can’t be a slave to every single aspect of its history or continuity in translating it for the gaming medium.”
“More importantly, you have to have the talent, vision, and passion from the development teams to make great games and treat them as they would an original IP. We’ve been blessed at WBIE with studios and talent such as Rocksteady, NetherRealm, and TT Games.”
Important points. Rocksteady, NetherRealm and TT Games have each been granted rare creative freedom from an industry noted for its exacting creative controls. Arkham, Injustice: Gods Among Us, and the LEGO Batman games have never felt like awkward extensions of a movie or comic book marketing campaign, but rather fully fleshed-out original universes that look and feel comfortable in their own videogame skins.
For Kirshen, who began his career in web design and video editing in Warner Bros.’ online division, the journey has been a personal one. “At that time, comic book centric video games were more of a novelty and weren’t taken very seriously by gaming publishers and, ultimately, by gamers.”
Kirshen had longed to produce games based on the DC Comics franchises he’d loved since he was a kid. “I’ve always loved watching these characters translated to the big and small screen, but those were passive, linear experiences and I saw video games as the one unique entertainment medium where players could actually BE the characters and actively live out the fantasy of controlling them and shaping the story.”
“If I could break into the business and work with development studios that loved and respected the characters as much as I did, we could change the paradigm and make great games based on these franchises.”
In the early 2000s, with increasingly powerful consoles such as PS2 booming, Kirshen made his move. “I helped develop Batman and Superman console games based on the beloved Bruce Timm DC Comics Animated Series with partners such as Ubisoft (Batman Vengeance and Batman: Rise Of Sin Tzu) and Atari (Superman: Shadow Of Apokolips).”
“I made a few stops at other game companies, but was drawn to come home to Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment in 2008 and I’ve been leading production on all DC Comics games we’ve developed ever since.”
Kirshen has the background to lead DC Comics’ into a new Golden Age in videogames. He describes his approach to game development as “take risks and bring unique innovations to the table.”
Kirshen doesn’t rule out taking on other DC Comics franchises in the future, either. “When choosing what DC Entertainment IP we might focus on for any game, it boils down to honing in on the IPs that map the strongest, genre-wise, to what fans are interested in seeing and playing. From there, it’s about getting the development studios with the strongest passion for those IPs to make the games.”
Kirshen’s biggest challenge might actually be the legendary roster of characters and franchises that span across the DC Universe and Vertigo. “It can be hard to choose what to focus on.”
For now, Batman remains the focus of WBIE’s current DC Comics game lineup. “Batman is one of the cornerstone IPs for Warner Bros. With the Arkham series, we were finally able to realize the full potential of the character.”
Today being Batman Day, maybe Kirshen can tease what’s next for the Caped Crusader? Pretty please? “We don’t have anything to talk about at this time, but the possibilities are endless with a character as dynamic and beloved as Batman.”