Bethesda Softworks’ Arkane Studios is comprised of two teams: Arkane Lyon and Arkane Austin. The first, and original, is situated in Lyon, France and was started in 1999, with a clear goal of trying to create a second sequel to Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss. The action RPG is set in a fantasy world that you explore in first-person — a USP for the developer that would become a hallmark. In 2002, a fresh-faced team had managed to put together the original Xbox game, named Arx Fatalis, but not without serious publishing trouble. One deal fell through, and though Arkane had a second publisher sorted, on release the game struggled financially in spite of good reviews. However, the team were clearly incredibly proud — it is still heavily featured on their website and would come to be a vital touchstone for future successes.
A major success, beyond staying afloat — which is quite an achievement in the industry — would take many years to realise. That being said, the 2002 to 2007 period was very fraught and full of odd happenings. It appears that the studio was kept afloat for a few years by slotting in with Valve for a source engine project thanks to some legacy Arx Fatalis love from the PC behemoths. It is a relationship that would purr in the background for years to come, resulting in a failed Half-Life spin-off called Ravenholm during 2006 and 2007. The project went over budget and over deadline, while other concepts fell through entirely.
Ubisoft made an approach in between the Valve work, seeing the talent at the studio. The result was the Xbox 360 title Dark Messiah: Might and Magic in late 2006. While on PC it was well regarded, on 360 it took a major critical hit. With technical issues exaggerated, simplified mechanics, and horrible graphical quality, it was hardly the version of the game Arkane could be happy with. Oddly, even on PC, there was a critical divide. The Metacritic score of 72 is made up of some strong 80s and a large amount of 40–70 scores, with little in between. Arkane’s first-person mechanics needed a bit of refining.
During the time Dark Messiah was in the final push, founder Raphael Colantonio made the move to Austin, Texas and formed an auxiliary studio under the Arkane name. As identified in a fantastic Noclip documentary, the studio back in Lyon had to do the bulk of heavy development work because production was cheaper. Austin was left to form relationships with studios and publishers, a smart move given its US location. It also gave the Austin team time to hire a team of developers that would eventually be capable of producing exceptional games.
Arkane entered something of a dead zone for several years. A $15 million game called The Crossing, which used Valve’s Source Engine, was an incredibly ambitious “cross-player” title set in Paris that was being developed from 2007. A mix of AI and online players would compete across a vertical map in a shared space. It was ambitious, but that made it a tricky sell for a studio that had yet to truly establish itself. Deals fell through over and over again, and PS3 ports of the game were going to make publishing an expensive chore for the team. In addition, the budgets being offered by publishers were becoming minuscule, so the project had to be shuttered leading to it being known as the “ex-girlfriend” — a passionate love affair best left in the past — by project leads and studio founders Raphael Colantonio and Viktor Antonov. Apparently, the game demo sat around the office for years after development had ceased. Seriously, check out this amazing interview with Blake Hester for Polygon if you are interested further in The Crossing, it is a fascinating read!
Arkane Studios needed solid money after being absent from major development for a few years, despite continued strong relations with Valve. Work for hire across Lyon and Austin were a given, but another major title also began production. EA was putting together a game with director Steven Spielberg at the time called LMNO. 1UP’s Matt Leone wrote that the project was “a mix of first-person parkour movement with adventure/RPG objectives and escape-focused gameplay, all based around the player’s relationship with an alien-looking character named Eve.” Work on the game started as The Crossing was cancelled entirely. Russ Pitts, writing for Polygon, suggested that EA was even willing to pay Arkane monthly in order to ensure the studio could stay on track. However, entirely outside of Colantonio’s control, EA cancelled the project because of its very experimental nature during a period when the industry was destabilised by the 2008 financial crisis.
Again, Arkane found itself with two studios needing work, so suddenly it became work for hire again. Activision got a hold of the team to work on Call of Duty: World at War for the multiplayer and 2K put Arkane Lyon on Bioshock 2. Across every article, documentary, and interview charting the history of Arkane, there is one recurring theme about this dark period for Arkane: experience. Over six years, the team found itself working on first-person projects that involved very specific movement styles and gameplay-incorporated level design over and over again.
When game designer Harvey Smith joined the studio, things finally began to click into place for the teams’ first own game since Arx Fatalis back in 2002. Bethesda Games made a move for Arkane by approaching the Studios with a project that was very similar to a pitch that the Austin team had been working on. Bethesda, it turned out, had actually been interested in nabbing the studio back in 2002, but the Arkane had been changing direction so rapidly and consistently that Bethesda felt it had missed the boat. Then, the aim for a studio capable of making something first-person, that was immersive and had heavy fantasy leanings, brought the pair together. Bethesda thought Arkane was the only possible developer for the project. That project was Dishonored. A few months into development in 2010, Arkane was acquired by Zenimax and incorporated into Bethesda.
Dishonored was released in 2012 to critical acclaim. A weird steampunk fantasy London was matched with a stealth/action gameplay loop that begged to be noticed. Player choice through gameplay was the big draw, earning the title a massive 88 on Metacritic for Xbox 360. While both Lyon and Austin teams has been working on this title as a unit, after release the pair split attentions. The first team to release a game was Arkane Lyon’s Dishonored 2 in 2016 to even more critical acclaim, with an outstanding 88 on Metacritic for Xbox One. Praise for the level design was a constant, with better developed and executed gameplay mechanics from the first title.
Meanwhile, Arkane Austin had been slaving away at 2017’s Prey, rescued from future Bethesda team Human Head Studios‘ failed Prey 2 project. Arkane Studios’ Prey, though, was a very solid effort. The title landed at 84 on Metacritic for Xbox One. The setting and open-ended level design were highly praised alongside the strong story. Combat, though, was regarded as a bit of a letdown. Arkane Lyon also released Dishonored: Death of the Outsider standalone expansion in 2017, which was well-received, though it didn’t quite match the consistent quality of Dishonored 2.
Work with another Bethesda studio, Machine Games, began. Arkane Lyon’s product was Wolfenstein: Youngblood, a standalone expansion for New Colossus released in 2019. Though MachineGames’ name is plastered all over the final product, it is generally believed that Arkane Lyon was the more heavily involved of the two studios. The game was not well received, with a 68 on Metacritic. Reviews primarily took issue with needless RPG elements and the co-op that made the experience a little too gimmicky. Arkane was also a co-developer on the VR title Wolfenstein: Cyberpilot, though that seems to have been primarily MachineGames back at the helm.
Arkane Lyon’s next effort was to be Deathloop, the PS5 one-year console exclusive looper-shooter that received rave reviews on release in late 2021. After the Microsoft deal brought the Arkane team into the Xbox Game Studios portfolio, the first project of a new era is on the horizon. The team in Austin has been tasked with the Xbox-exclusive open-world action-adventure single-player or co-op vampire-slaying Redfall, set for mid-2022.
It is worth noting that founder Colantonio has stepped away from the company after Prey in 2017, and Arkane Studios is now run by Smith. Romuald Capron, an Arkane Lyon figurehead of 17 years, has also left as of 2021. The studio also presides over the “Void engine” that allows the Arkane teams to build denser worlds for its specific type of game design. This really is a unique jewel in the Xbox Game Studios crown!