Playing a game at an industry event like E3 or even PAX Prime is one thing but actually talking to one of the people behind that game is something that at times feels a bit unreal to me. There are literally hundreds of dedicated and talented people working on the various games we play these days which are headed up by a few central figures whose job is to keep everything in check and make sure we end up with a quality product instead of something we’re going to get $40 store credit for at GameStop. Among the many adventures I had at PAX Prime this weekend I had the great honor of talking to Harvard Bonin, the Sony Santa Monica Senior Producer on this little game you may have heard called Starhawk.
Ever since being formally announced in May I’ve been following Starhawk as much as possible and so far I haven’t been disappointed at all – even after dying in a brutal CTF match like I did at PAX Prime. Working with the talented team at Lightbox Interactive, Harvard is one of the central figures in Starhawk that is striving to make the game one of the best multiplayer games to appear on the PS3 if not one of the best multiplayer games period in the world of console games.
Harvard was extremely nice to set aside from time doing his MC duties in the Starhawk booth to chat a bit about what gamers can expect from Starhawk once it arrives next year.
Ian Fisher: What exactly was the evolution and genesis of Starhawk? Prior to becoming Lightbox Interactive the team behind Starhawk was Incognito (original Warhawk devs) so was the concept of Starhawk something that was always being kicked around or did it form as a pitch Lightbox made to Sony after officially starting up?
Harvard Bonin: Actually it was more of a partnership together with us at Santa Monica and Lightbox. I think we all kind of came to a natural consensus that we wanted to do something in the sci-fi/space kind of area. We wanted to do something beyond Warhawk because I felt like we wanted to develop a new fiction, that’s what we like to do as a job. When we did Warhawk we felt like “we don’t have a solo here, the Chernovans and Eucadians are interesting but they’re not classic sci-fi” and we wanted to do something a little more traditional sci-fi. And then we wanted to fly around asteroids [Harvard and I laugh]. And then the build and battle came later because originally the fans were like “oh you’re just going to do Warhawk in space” and we were like “yeah I guess so.” So the build and battle just kind of grew out of this metamorphosis of trying to allow the gamers to change the battlefield on the fly.
Ian: Now as a developer what is it like to develop a multiplayer centric game these days and not necessarily get caught up in things too deep feature wise? Obviously you want to do something unique and original but is it hard to stop in a way and not look at what other games are doing and be tempted to throw in some new features in the hopes of hitting the latest trends and things of that nature?
Harvard: With Warhawk we had a recipe that we really liked so we knew that going in. In the early days of Starhawk we actually copied everything from Warhawk, the feel of the vehicles and everything was identical. We also know that from a lot of games it really comes down to features vs. features and stuff. Warhawk was released in 2006 and even at that time compared to the PC the feature list was shaky. You had game lists but you didn’t even have quick patching when we launched and I think the consoles have come a long way even since then and I think what we’ve done is try to wrap in a lot of those kind of user friendly features and then add in other things we think are cool like our tournament system and niceties like a calendar system. We felt like something like solo was really needed so that the players could live in the universe a lot more. I was talking to people yesterday and they were like “I didn’t play Warhawk because I don’t like to play online games.” The online players are vocal and if you listen to them only you would think that is the only player out there but an enormous amount of people play solo exclusively so we have a great solo campaign not to mention the 1 to 4 player co-op.
Ian: From what I’ve seen of the solo campaign it looks amazing and I like how seamlessly the game transitions between gameplay and cutscenes. Is there any worry that people may not bother to check the solo mode out? A lot of other multiplayer centric games with solo campaigns are sometimes brushed off by gamers as being a mere training mode of sorts so are there any worries about that with Starhawk?
Harvard: I wouldn’t say it’s a fear for us but it’s definitely something we’re aware of. When we see other games, I’m a gamer as well and the entire team are gamers and we all buy games, we all know about “oh gee, I bought a game and the solo is all bots” and there’s no real experience there that’s separate from multiplayer – it’s just duplicated with an dumber A.I. opponent. We wanted to make sure that wasn’t the case and players will see it and they’ll see that it’s very story driven and there are a lot of different things to do in solo that will never be in the multiplayer. Yeah, it’s a concern but I think the game is addressing that concern and there’s not much we can do aside from saying try it. We don’t worry about it too much but we just want people to know that it’s not tacked on. I see things on the blogs and stuff like the PlayStation blog or our Facebook page and its like “Hey man, you guys are just tacking on solo and stuff.” That’s not what it is but I can recognize why they may think that because gamers have been screwed so much in the past so no wonder why they’re paranoid. I would be paranoid if I have $60 I want to spend and now I’m being screwed over by getting half the game I thought I was going to get. So we are not doing that but it’s understandable why people would come to that belief.
Ian: Now are the single and multiplayer campaigns directly tied to one another in terms of having shared XP or items you can in both modes or are they complete separate experiences?
Harvard: The XP you get in solo is transferable online. Actually what we’re not sure yet is if we’re going to incorporate our skill system into the solo component. I think we probably will since we like it but it comes with some oddities that we need to figure out how to deal with so it doesn’t break the game. But the nice thing is that when you go solo, and I think Brink did this as well, is that you’ve played the solo component and then you can transfer what you’ve invested your time in into the multiplayer and you can be like “cool, I feel like I made some progress.”
Ian: Well the levels found in the single-player and multiplayer modes be exactly the same and shared to an extent or will they just share a few common characteristics?
Harvard: They’re the same environments but not the same direct paths. There are a lot of different elements that you will only see in solo and won’t see in multiplayer because we made the maps and the experiences in solo specifically for that experience. So the answer is Yes and No.
Ian: This weekend you’re showing the first space stage for the first time to the public and I played the demo and loved it. Obviously this is the first taste of what Starhawk has to offer in terms of space combat but will we see space battles that aren’t set on space stations such as engaging in a battle on a small moon like planet or be exclusively set in space via the Hawks?
Harvard: That is to be determined. We are not ready to reveal that but we do have more environments that we are going to be revealing. We don’t call it Starhawk for nothing. I played it yesterday and when I was talking to people I was like “man, I’m getting my Colony Wars fix!” There isn’t really a real classic space flight sim which is odd to me since these guys [gamers] really like sci-fi space. I think right now we’re not trying to make it funky space but if you wanted to get your space flight fix and your dogfighting fix then you can get it here.
Ian: You may not be able to answer this but what will the ration of space and ground levels be like? Can we expect more stuff on the ground or will it be a nice balance between the two?
Harvard: Multiplayer will be even but the solo it changes depending on what the needs of the story are and the needs of the mission and that kind of stuff.
Ian: Lightbox Interactive obviously knows how to create some fun vehicle action but what has it been like with Starhawk in terms of creating new vehicles like the hover bikes or reinventing common things like a tank?
Harvard: They’re great at vehicles. They’re just great at vehicles and they’ve just gotten better. That was the least challenging part of the project. In fact I think we all kind of assumed they would be there. Well we didn’t know what they were since we were designing them, the jet bike is cool, but the aspect of the difficulty and the development of the project with the build and battle changed it up significantly, adding a solo component was kind of a new learning curve that we all went through. They’ve done beautifully and we’ve given them… it’s 2007 and we’re not going to be out until 2012 so that is literally just around five years that we’ve been doing the iteration. We’ve had the multiplayer going for months, probably since around November. So we’ve been playing it and now we’re just going through the refinements. We know that if we just stick it out there and it’s kind of mediocre it doesn’t do anybody any good – it doesn’t do Sony any good, it doesn’t do Lightbox any good so we need to have a kickass game so we’re going to make sure we have the time to do that.
Ian: Back in the day Warhawk was one of the many 1st party Sony games to heavily support PlayStation Home with a themed Home space and game launching support. So are we going to see similar Home support for Starhawk or is that up in the air for now?
Harvard: I don’t know. We haven’t really talked much about Home support or how we would do that. We have a number of other things but one thing we did like about Home is that it allowed gamers to experience the world in a different area. This time around we have a community site – our Warhawk community site was a joke but this time around we definitely learned our lesson so it’ll be more akin to a Halo or Killzone 3 has a great site so stuff like. Not only that but we’ll have the community app that you can take with you and keep track of your plans.
Maybe it’s a bit brash of me to say, but speaking to Harvard and hearing his enthusiasm and candid comments I really think Starhawk is going to be one of the few games that actually lives up to all our expectations. In the past four months Sony and Lightbox have been somewhat reserved in what they’ve shown of Starhawk since we haven’t seen integral stuff like the jet bikes, tank vehicles and even the Hawk weapon pick-ups. But even seeing what could amount to being a mere 10% of what the final game has to offer I’m incredibly excited by the choices that have been made thus far and what Harvard has promised that Starhawk will deliver.
One tidbit that may please gamers is that we may not have seen the last of Warhawk either. While talking to Harvard I asked him if we could see Warhawk return in some form down the road and while he said nothing is concrete or has been discussed widely, he can imagine Lightbox returning to that world once again since the level of fandom for the series is known. So perhaps after the potential greatness that is Starhawk we’ll see Lightbox return to the battle between Eucadians and Chernovans with yet another Warhawk installment – perhaps following up on the initial single-player vision the studio had for the project.
I would like to extend a huge thanks to Harvard for taking the time out to chat with me and just trust me when I say that Starhawk is a game that everyone should be keeping an eye on in the coming months.