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.
Can you describe the decision-making process you went through to have a black protagonist? Was adding diversity one of your goals as a studio?
I know it may seem disappointing, but we had no larger social agenda to promote. To us, it was just another aspect that we explored during the development of the character iteration phase.
…One of the things that actually started the exploration of our "hired gun character" was actually a two-page short story I wrote called "The Brothers Divided." It was about two brothers who had a rift claim, and it came under attack, and they were both hit with rift energy. One brother was fully transformed into this Outcast warrior, and the other brother wasn't, and then the story ends up pitting them back against each other. And that was kind of the fuel for this very long and drawn out character ideation phase. We filled hundreds of pages of actor studies and head sculpts and character sketches.
We actually worked with Ken Feldman, who was an art director on God of War, and worked very closely with him to help refine in some of the traits of the character. And so ultimately Emmet ended up being black really because it just fit his character. We had some concepts where he was a white guy and it just—he didn't really stand out. He didn't look unique enough, we didn't like the way he felt, we didn't like the way the rift energy looked on his skin, and we didn’t necessarily like the texture of his voice. You hear a lot of gruff white guys in video games. It's almost kind of a joke now. "Okay, I'm going to go storm the bunker." You know, you hear it in everything.
We also knew that we had the challenge that we needed a voice for our third person hero character needed to be differentiated from the character who was up on the drop ship. And at one point Cutter—who in the game right now is sort of this Australian western guy—Cutter was a woman, because we wanted the two character voices to be very unique. And so we were able to get this really strong voice of a black man for your character, but this Aussie cowboy kind of feel for Cutter, the guy up on the drop ship, and both kind of feel very unique in gameplay. The rift energy looks really good on darker skin, and we really liked the tale—the brothers' tale, I thought, felt better with having the character be a black guy. It was just really more about design stuff. It wasn't about, "Yay, let's be the first to make a black protagonist." It was just, you know, the design evolved and he ended up being a black guy. And it was like cool, let's roll with it.
The sci-fi/western genre mash-up—it's got that Firefly thing gong on—that could lend itself to a bunch of different genres. Why continue to stick with shooters when that space is so crowded?
Right, well, we didn't start off wanting to do kind of a sci-fi with a dash of western feel. We ended up doing the kind of sci-fi/western feel because we wanted something that could be our own. I love shooters, I'm an avid shooter fan, whether it's Gears of War, or Call of Duty, or Battlefield, or Halo, but we felt like just doing standard sci-fi or doing standard just military was not the right way to go. And we wanted something that could be on one side completely unique to the shooter genre, but on the other side, could support the mechanics and story and universe. And so the western musical elements, the materials, the kind of vibe and the textures that you can imagine in that world worked really well for our gameplay and story.
But also, when you think about a gold rush, when you think about oil barons, when you think about massive expansion into new frontiers and new territory, with limited traversal between these new and isolated towns and outposts and mining camps, all of that just perfectly matched with the universe and fiction that we wanted to create. Because you have—you know, not all these ships are faster than light travel. You have these massive tugs, like trains in the wild west, so travel between system and system is still very controlled and very isolated. So, hell, there are some missions in Starhawk that kind of revolve around, essentially, big space train robberies at their kind of metaphor level. So not only did it give us a unique vibe to the game, but the whole gold rush—you've probably heard me talk about the rush for blue gold, the rift energy—all just kind of works together. And so that's how we ended up on it.
Have you guys taken a lot of feedback from both Warhawk and from the Starhawk beta, which has been going on since the fall?
Yeah, we have. Both Warhawk and the beta have been incredibly influential. Because there's a lot of overlap, one of the things that we identified upfront was since Starhawk—Starhawk isn't Warhawk 2. But it is a spiritual successor, certainly, because of its recipe for fast-paced shooter gameplay. I mean, I've always in the past commented that what inspired us to do that type of gameplay in Warhawk was thinking, you know, if Battlefield and Unreal Tournament were to have hot sweet lovin', what would be the game output? That's kind of what inspired us to do Warhawk. So that, at the core, that recipe is still in play for Starhawk.
…And even though our 1.3 beta actually ends, I think tomorrow (I can't remember, the days are all a blur right now), but our multiplayer tuning will actually continue well past that. Because you basically finish your game for your publisher and the disc is all set, ready, and that goes off for testing and manufacturing, but then there's a really great time for us to dig into the additional meat of all of our gameplay data from the beta and do the final tuning.
Do you feel with everything you've added, the focus is shifting away from the awesome Hawks?
Well, I think to some degree, yes…there are some Warhawk fans that felt like, "Oh man, you've changed too much stuff," or, "The Hawk—the aircraft—is not the single most important thing anymore." And as painful as it is to say this, that was partially intentional. We found from Warhawk that, if you look at all the data, the best players in the game were pilots, hands down. Because the Warhawk was so overpowered, and the Warhawk learning curve was so steep. So those players who had the intestinal fortitude to stick with the game and get through that very, very steep learning curve really got to mine the emotional, or the fun pay dirt, out of it, and be great pilots. But unfortunately, because Warhawk was so unforgiving to new players, and because the Warhawk was so overpowered, I think we lost a lot of our player base, and our audience was not as big as it probably could have been.
And so what we tried to do in Starhawk is take an approach much like how a studio might approach a real time strategy game, where all of the units are balanced. Some units are more useful at certain periods of the game, you know, this unit might be more useful in an early game, this unit might be more useful at a late game, but we want the game to be fully accessible to all players, not just the hardcore Hawks. And so we have kind of downplayed it. We've added—especially with the turrets—we've added ways for players who may not have the same hand dexterity to be competitive. We've added ways to have them enjoy the game and still compete in the grand kind of war game itself without having the dexterity. But yet at the same time that still provides some fun stuff for the pilots to do, because they have to dodge flak and missiles and beam cannons and all of that stuff. So yeah, we have tried to shift the focus a little bit away from the Hawk, just to try to normalize and balance all the units, really in an attempt to achieve more balance across the game. Because we think that was something that we didn't do as good of a job as we could have on Warhawk.
Spawn camping was another big problem in Warhawk. Have drop pod spawns, new to Starhawk, alleviated that?
No. I think it helps, but I think early on—and this is one of the learnings that we saw in the beta—we were hopeful, very, very hopeful, that in the wild, players would find that spawn pods were a great way to protect against base-camping. And while that was true initially, players were able to find interesting "build-and-battle" strategies that were still able to do base-camping. And so spawn-podding alone, while that certainly mitigated the problem, did not eliminate it wholesale.
…Because in Starhawk, you don't just pick a guy to spawn in on or spawn in on a predefined location, you can look at your map and see the enemy blips and you can control where you spawn in at, you can react to the spawn camping that's happening. And so I think what you're going to see, in the final version of Starhawk, when we finish all of our multiplayer tuning, is that you'll see the initial base and the initial region for spawning will actually get a little bit bigger than what it is right now to help balance out that ratio of base-campers relative to the surface area that you have access for respawns.
Too many multiplayer games are leaving split screen out these days. Can you describe what Starhawk offers in that area?
Yes. Absolutely. And in fact, it supports split screen for the normal competitive modes, like capture-the-flag, and zones, and deathmatch and all that stuff, but it also supports split screen in co-op mode also. So if you want to play our prospector mode, where you and three of your friends basically defend a rift against waves of Outcasts, and using "build and battle," you can do split screen that way too. When you're playing split screen online, you get your XP, you can level up, you can do all that kind of stuff. You don't have to feel like "Ah, I'm online, but I'm not getting any of my XP," which is a problem we had in Warhawk. You could play split screen online, but you could never log in with a separate PSN account, and that's fixed in Starhawk. You can log in with a second PSN account. That way you get your XP, and all of your stats.
Big thanks to Dylan for taking the time to speak with us! And don't feel too bad if you missed out on the beta, because the full game is launching on May 8. Let us know your impressions in the comments or on Twitter.