Warhawk launched into a very different gaming landscape than what we've got today. PS3 gamers were practically starved for multiplayer shooters in 2007, and Warhawk filled that role. It also happened to be pretty damn good, with a unique blend of on-foot and in-the-air gameplay that's inspired a dedicated fanbase to stick with it over the years.
Now, though, we're practically drowning in online shooters. So for Starhawk, Warhawk's spiritual successor, fledgling studio LightBox Interactive—formed by many of the members from Warhawk devs Incognito—had to come up with a new angle. They've added a single-player campaign, created a black protagonist and a sci-fi western world for him to explore, and even shifted the focus away from the mech/fighter jet Hawks from which the games derive their names. And brand new "build-and-battle" elements allow players to erect walls, bases and vehicle launching points on the battlefield in real time.
Intrigued, we caught up with LightBox founder and president Dylan Jobe to chat about the challenges of starting a new studio and crafting a unique shooter in a crowded industry.
COMPLEX: What is it like starting a fresh studio in today's industry? In some ways it seems like it would be easier than ever, but at the same time, this space has never been more crowded.
DYLAN JOBE: Yeah, actually, that's a really good question to ask at this point, because there were a number of challenges that we faced starting the studio. When we first started, the biggest challenge was—actually, if you look back at when we started, the economy was in the crapper, and so that was actually pretty difficult. If you recall, there was all kinds of credit lines frozen up and all of this kind of financial constipation in the country. And there still is some to some degree right now, but it was definitely challenging for us to start a new studio. We had to do so without access to any small business loans or really any of the credit systems that would normally be in place for starting a new company.
And I think that is one of the very fortunate things that we were able to utilize with our relationship with Sony, is that they were very flexible in how they were making our milestone payments, so that that we were able to start the studio using advanced milestone payments, because we were starting a new company and moving from Utah to Austin. We got the entire fifth floor in this building, we had to tear it all down and build it all back out, and so we were able to utilize over a decade-long relationship with Sony to help us build the company in a time where it really wasn't all that great to do so.
What makes "Starhawk" stand out from the zillion other multiplayer shooters out there?
I think the point about the current texture of the gaming industry is right on, especially because Starhawk is a shooter. Our last game, Warhawk, was a shooter, and right now the shooter genre is just packed with mega-million dollar blockbusters, you know, your Call of Duty, your Gears of War, your Halo, Mass Effect to some degree (even though it's an RPG crossover). And of course we don't have that marketing budget, we don't have that development budget, and so that made us—what is that cliché? "Necessity is the mother of invention"?—that made us really have to scrutinize the direction we took with Starhawk. Because we needed to do something special and different. If we would have just done another first-person or third-person cover shooter on the rails with big drama moments, we would not have been able to compete. Flat out.
How did the "build-and-battle" elements develop?
I remember actually before we ever conceived up the universe of our story or our hero character, Emmet Graves, we were running around a little blue stick-man. And we were just working on mechanics. Camera, what it was like to place a structure, how the gameplay worked, how the AI were spawned in. Did you build in one phase and the AI attacked in the next phase? And then did you build in the next phase? And then? Back and forth. We probably did a year and a half of "build-and-battle" prototyping with Santa Monica, and it took us a really long time to get that visceral "build-and-battle" as kind of a weapony feel. But once we got that, then we thought: now we have something that is unique enough, that can draw people who may be shooter fans of the mega blockbuster shooters, but they want to see something new. They might want to jump into the game.
And we also were going to get our Warhawk fans to come over, too. I remember a tweet that I saw in the public timeline from someone who said, "Just picked up the Starhawk beta. Makes Call of Duty feel like a training session." And that put a huge shit-eating grin on my face, because we do have all the depth of shooters, with a variety of weapons, but we have all the vehicles that players might see in Battlefield. But then with the building of structures live during gameplay in multiplayer and in single-player, it really does feel like a shooter that's not out there right now. And that's exactly what we needed to be in order to be competitive.