My first job when I joined PlayStation in 2008 was a piece of copywriting for Warhawk – if you received an email newsletter about the Operation: Broken Mirror expansion pack, then that was me. So it was with some nostalgia that I watched Dylan Jobe announce Starhawk – the spiritual successor to what is still a very popular online game, more than three years on.
The key innovation is Build & Battle, which lets the player place towers, launchpads, turrets and more wherever they like on the battlefield and in real-time, without ever taking their finger off the trigger or leaving the fray. This applies to both the full single player campaign and the 32 strong online multiplayer, the tactical implications on which are huge.
After the announcement, I sat down with Dylan to flesh out some more detail on one of the most exciting PS3 exclusives of 2012.
How has the online shooter landscape changed since Warhawk was released in 2007?
Warhawk was timed great because PlayStation Network was relatively new; it was online multiplayer only, which was rare; and our approach to games was fun and novel at that time. I’d describe it as the lovechild of Unreal Tournament and Battlefield.
Fast-forward to 2011 and the landscape is different, with a tonne of shooters out there. I wouldn’t say the genre is bloated because I love shooters, but it’s competitive and that was both a concern and a motivator for Starhawk. It certainly forced us to be original and come up with genre innovations. Ask any gamer out there and they’ll say that they want to see something new. Too often, the only difference between one shooter and the next is the visual style of the gun and the scene that it is pointing at.
What were the best things about Warhawk?
Two core elements spring to mind: multi-dimensional, fast-paced action, where you’re running and then driving and then you’re flying and it’s all seamless. A lot of other shooters relegate vehicle use to compartmental sections where you come down a tunnel, drive a tank from point A to point B, get out of the tank… that’s not what our game is. You can summon a Hawk on a launchpad wherever and whenever you want.
My second favourite element is the huge landscapes and a vehicle, in the Hawk, with which to get around very quickly. At one moment you could be creeping around a base on foot and seeing great detail close up, and at the next you can fly miles down the road at mach 2. We’re glad to have carried that scale over to Starhawk.
What other Warhawk qualities have you carried over to Starhawk?
Warhawk players like that addictive, fast-paced gameplay and Starhawk has it too – you can have a great experience in 20 minutes if you want or you can sink months into the multiplayer. You should never second-guess your fans but I hope that they see Starhawk as an improvement that serves them proud.
People were expecting us to announce something like Warhawk and the rumours about Starhawk have been doing the rounds for a while, but I think people will be surprised by how much of the game we have shown to media and, having spoken to many journalists, nobody predicted the Build & Battle gameplay.
Warhawk was multiplayer only but Starhawk has a full solo campaign with a story. What is the LightBox storytelling philosophy?
There’s a whole bunch of ways to skin that cat: there are many great ways to go about game storytelling and there are a few ways that, in my opinion, are recipes for disaster. If you have a story that is too grand then you might not be able to execute it properly. Our approach is to give the player a series of exciting and flexible combat challenges that are strung together with a tale about Emmet Graves and his brother, with missions blending into really cool 2D animation sequences.
It seems like every connected game comes with a set of ‘community features’, but what exactly is a game community and how should it be supported?
I think that there are a lot of people out there who think that if you create a bunch of features then you have a community and that’s just not true. Publishers need to know that if you don’t have a vocal fan base and a game that people are passionate about, then you don’t have a community. Sony understands this.
Our take on community is to listen to those passionate players to discover the kinds of things that they want to do, and develop those features. We develop community features that the players want and need; we’re not just saying, ‘here’s a bunch of community features… go be a community!’ That’s not the way to do it at all.
The in-game tournaments sound exciting. How do they work?
The tournament system in Starhawk is rad. In Warhawk we had a lot of people co-ordinating their own tournaments with third-party websites and gaming leagues, and they were successful, but we want to make it way easier for anyone playing the game to create a tournament. It’s completely integrated and allows players to choose from a variety of options.
To give an example: you want to have a tournament this weekend with your buddies to see who is best at flying a Hawk. You go in and create a private tournament and set it so that sign-up is on Wednesday but it’s going to begin on Friday, and it’s going to be based on Hawk kills in one particular environment. That sets up the server for the players you’ve selected as eligible and that server will automatically track results during the time window that you have set and then post the results afterwards. We also have the ability to create central tournaments that pay out little rewards, so you can go to your trophy room and see all the stamps that you got for participating or finishing in the top ten, and so forth.
As a new development studio, what is the LightBox ethos?
We’re a fun crew! We were originally a part of Incognito out in Salt Lake City and we wanted to have our own studio in a new location, so we moved to Austin, Texas, which is a really hip, fun town. We’re all very liberal and open-minded; we love music and, crucially, we’re all big gamers. We care deeply about our craft. A journalist asked me earlier about the Starhawk sales projections and, as the president of the company, I do care deeply about all that stuff. But truthfully it is Sony’s job to make sure it sells a lot of copies. My job is to make Starhawk a great game – the kind of thing that my colleagues and friends want to play.