After a long wait, Starhawk releases this week. The game, a third person shooter and spiritual successor to the game Warhawk, features a rich single player campaign and a deep multiplayer experience. To find out more about the game, we talked to Dylan Jobe, president of Lightbox Interactive, who developed Starhawk for the Playstation 3. Read on to find out more about the game’s inspiration, why it’s the best shooter for younger players, and what Starhawk feature is the best addition to any shooter game in years.
Jobe: We had a lot of inspiration from classic westerns and classic sci-fi. We were privileged to work with a guy who worked on Star Wars characters with George Lucas, a concept artist named Ian McCaig. He designed Darth Maul and a number of other characters. We brought him in and he helped us on the world and universe in the early stages.
When we got into more nitty gritty development of the actual screenwriting with dialogue and the actual story, we brought in a writer from Austin, who had a lot of experience with westerns, a guy named Koen Wooten. His family helped as wranglers for Last of the Mohicans. He did prop work for True Grit and Appaloosa. He was very familiar with the genre, but we were fortunate to work with him because he loves games very dearly.
We often referred to classic westerns when we wanted to tell a story about a man and his family, even though it takes place in the vastness of the frontier. In many respects, the classic western tale pertains to a white half, black half kind of structure, isolated small town in the vast expanding west in the United States. So there were a lot of classic American western influences in the conflict between Emmett and his brother Logan to the industrial expansion of mines and towns throughout the frontier. There were many, many parallels to American history.
Banks: The beta’s been out for a while now and one of the great things about games, video games especially, is seeing all of the organic things that happen. Was there anything that you saw in the beta or didn’t anticipate people doing with the game?
Jobe: On the good side, we were pleasantly surprised to see people build and battle pretty quickly, so that was a good thing. One of the things that was tricky was that not all players were doing “good” building. A lot of players were excited to build, but they were kind of being dumb when they were building. When you’re playing the team mode online, if you go off and build stuff for your personal enjoyment, but not building with a tactical mind or a smart mind for your team, then you’re not doing well for the rifters or outcasts, depending on which team you’re on.
So, we decided to help combat this by changing the single player campaign. We added the concept of specific beats throughout the story where Cutter, your gear man, might give you a hint as to things you might want to build. We put a faint wire frame in the world, to give you an idea as to where structures should be built. Things like – “If I want to build a choke-point, this is a good place to do it” or “I can build my auto-turrets on the ground, but I can see the wireframes up on the top of the bunker, I could put them out of harm’s way.” So we decided to seed the single player with hints to help players build more appropriately for their teams.
The other thing was we saw in the beta was that some players didn’t build at all. They like to play purely as shooters. We would see these players get Starhawk and play online, reaping all the benefits of Build & Battle, even though they didn’t build a single structure. But their teammates like to build, so they get the benefit of it, which was a pretty cool thing to see. Truth be told, the fusing of RTS and shooter elements isn’t standard first person shooter recipe. So, we were concerned it would be off-putting to pure shooter fans. But to see pure shooter players enjoying the game and being successful, even though they weren’t actively building. It’s good to see those kind of players still have a home in this kind of game.
Banks: The wireframes are interesting. What else did you do with single-player that helped feed into the multi-player aspect?
Jobe: One of the biggest challenges we had during single player development was making sure that players learned how to play the game and be competitive online, but did so in a way that never felt like they were playing a tutorial. Initially, we anticipated doing more tutorial than we ended up doing.
We opted to make it very story-driven and you are linearly presented combat challenges that you can solve in a number of different ways. Then, at key points, we give the wireframe hints. We crafted the missions, we would never say “here’s a tutorial,” per se. Here’s an example: we know online that players need to know how to drive Razorbacks, set up fences, but also to be offensive and move from location to location freely.
At the same time, we wanted to promote how to work as a team. So we crafted a mission that has a big, vast basin that has multiple points that have to be built up and defended. We chose to payout the Razorback garage and the Outpost in that mission. The Outpost in single player spawned in allied units, but in MP, that’s the point where your friends can spawn-in.
So we created a mission that presents the player with both these parts and completely unbeknownst to the player, he just participated in something that allowed him to know how to do a flag run with someone as a gunner, or to get someone in his Razorback and protect multiple locations. We consider this a very well-camouflaged tutorial, even though the player will never feel like that was a multiplayer tutorial.
Banks: Through your Facebook page, you were soliciting input, listening to suggestions, and answering questions. As a game developer, how does social media affect you now and in the future?
Jobe: Even on Warhawk, we were in touch with our fans, rolling out DLC to try to enhance the experience. While it’s not exclusive to Starhawk, there’s a parallel in multiplayer gaming to the emergence of social media. There is the evolution of multiplayer games transitioning into services instead of one-off arenas where you go off and play your sport in. So, working with the fans makes good business sense.
Publishers, internally, want a product to be sticky. Warhawk was very sticky. We saw players log hundreds of hours and so we were very happy with that. Part of what makes people attached to your game is making sure they have a voice that’s heard. They understand that just because they complain about some aspect of the game, doesn’t mean it gets changed. But having a rapid-fire dialogue having a discussion helps make the community sticky. Ultimately that’s good for the product because they’re promoting it.
We saw all that happen with Warhawk and we amplified it. We’ve been incredibly lucky and fortunate that all of the new community and clan support, the calendar and clan battle system has garnered a lot of attention from professional gaming leagues. For example, Major League Gaming is already planning a Starhawk tournament with cash prizes and all of that stuff.
Banks: For those who played the beta or haven’t played at all, what do people need to know about the single player campaign?
Jobe: Two important things. One, there is a good story there. A lot of people’s first impression is that single player is a pure tutorial or multiplayer mode with bots. That’s not true. You’re going to play a linear story, where you see Emmett and his brother Logan have a confrontation. You see it span multiple planets in the frontier, there is a great set of cinematics that play out between each mission. It’s a compelling and cool story.
Even though Starhawk is at its core is a very mechanically-rich game, we don’t shortchange the story or character development of Emmet or his brother. And so, even though we focused a lot of energy on multiplayer, I think people will be pleasantly surprised with single player. I think the first thing you should do is play single player, even though I know some people want to just jump online.
The way Build and Battle integrates with shooter mechanics is very different and playing through the single player campaign steeps you in the universe and gives you a good foundation for having a better online experience. Single player is a great place to start for those who are new to the game. But there’s also a fantastic co-op mode that allows you and three other people to protect a rig using Build and Battle as the server sends wave after wave of progressively more difficult enemies.
Banks: Starhawk is very unique in the fact that it is a shooter with a T rating.
Jobe: We wanted to be M, but Sony wanted the game to have a broad appeal. So, we were careful to strike the right amount of blood, violence and language to get the T rating. It’s T in the US, but in some countries, it’s actually a 18+ game. At SXSW, we had a booth, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. At all of the kiosks, there was a very big age range playing the game and it struck me that the rating was right, because it appeals to a broad cross-section.
Banks: After playing the demo, one of the things that struck me as absolutely brilliant was when you regen with the pods, especially the ability to pod-kill. It’s absolutely one of the greatest additions to shooters in years. Was this intentional from day one or a fortunate byproduct?
Jobe: It was very intentional from the get-go. Certainly we had our share of happy accidents in the game, but base-camping is always a big deal. We felt a way to help combat that, was to make the act of re-spawning one of the most powerful weapons in the game. It works pretty well.
If you’re in my base, and I drop pod in, you can have three guys and a Razorback and my drop pod hits you in my home territory, I crush the Razorback and get all three kills in it. If you are in my base and you’ve built a small auto-turret and if my drop pod hits an auto turret that you’ve built, it blows it up on contact. So, it’s like respawn mechanism meets Swiffer. It’s a way to clean up your base.
Starhawk is available for the Playstation 3 now.