Starhawk is a rare beast — a big-budget shooter with a story to tell. That tale centers squarely on Emmett Graves, a reluctant protagonist saddled with some serious baggage. I spoke with Harvard Bonin, Sony Santa Monica Studios’ Senior Producer on Starhawk, to try and get a grip on what makes Emmett Graves tick.
PSB: A gigantic multiplayer shooter that includes RTS elements has been seen as something of a gaming Holy Grail. Which part did you conceptualize first — shooter, or RTS?
Harvard Bonin, Senior producer, Sony Santa Monica Studios: At first, we just wanted to do a sequel to Warhawk and set it in space — just bring a new setting, story, and a solo campaign. But we realized that we needed to bring something extra, so when LittleBigPlanet came out, we thought, “wouldn’t it be cool to make your own shooter?” So, we tried it, and we actually have test levels back at the office. Instead of LittleBigPlanet giving you these macro tools, we gave you these almost jigsaw puzzle pieces — anything that you saw in a level, you could’ve built in this early prototype. It had this cerebral appeal, and game developers are geeky that way, so we liked it. But as we showed it to Warhawk fans, they asked, “where’s the bad-ass action and the running and gunning? Where’s the fun stuff?” So we thought that probably wasn’t the way to go.
We still loved this idea of changing the battlefield, but we needed to do it easily while retaining the speed of Warhawk. And that’s how we ended up where we are. Actually, we even had an older version where the camera would go top-down very much like a strategy game. Through working with LightBox Interactive, we got to the point where we decided to go real-time. We kept telling ourselves, “this is a shooter, and don’t forget it!”
PSB: Starhawk’s story is told using graphic-novel style cinematics. How do they transition into and out of gameplay?
HB: We’re doing the cinematics in a style that best matches the game. The cinematics that you’ll see are actually Emmett’s Rift visions showing the player what happened with his brother Logan, what happened in White Sands, why he got kicked off the planet Dust — that sort of stuff.
We don’t want to break the player’s concentration on the game. We want to keep it fast, and load times get in the way of the player’s immersion, let alone the fun! So if you come to the end of a mission, it will catch the last gameplay frame and transition into the Rift vision sequence. At the end of the movie, it transitions right back into the next mission. We don’t have classic load screens, so it’s very seamless. Our objective is to make load times completely invisible to players. We think its pretty elegant and you should really see it in action to appreciate it.
PSB: And so Emmett retains his humanity through this surgical regulator? Is Emmett in pain? Does that impact his personality?
HB: It does! He’s not Kratos (and he’s not full of vengeance). Emmett is a little more subtle, a little more cerebral. He’s been victimized, but he handles it in a different way than a character like Kratos. He’s not out to kill everybody. He feels bad about what happened on Dust and what happened to his brother Logan. He’s been ostracized from the Rifter society, and he’s not trusted. He feels abandoned and alone. He’s pretty ticked off about how he was treated and has a big distaste for the miserable Outcasts that he blames for his situation. That’s why he’s never been back to Dust since he got the boot.
The regulator helps him control the Rift energy. Emmett didn’t fully mutate after being exposed to it and nobody really knows why. Emmett is kept sane by the release of this energy that has taken over all of these other Outcast monsters — they’re psychos, fanatics, almost like crazed addicts for the energy. Emmett’s contraption protects him, though he’s in pain. Cutter is his partner and is pretty much his gear man. He created the regulator that Emmett uses to keep the energy at bay.
PSB: A troubled, vulnerable protagonist is a rarity in video games. The only other game that jumps out at me is Metal Gear Solid 4…
HB: Snake definitely has his demons and so does Emmett. He’s not a fantastical superhero, he’s just a guy who got caught up in a bad situation…we like to think he’s a bit like John McClane, kind of an “everyman.” Granted, the Rift energy does allow him to be a little stronger and a little faster than the other Rifters. I don’t think that a cookie-cutter superhero character is what sophisticated gamers are looking for. While we want to be a popcorn blockbuster type of action game, we also think there’s room for smart storytelling. Even Batman is a tortured guy, and you’ve seen how well that’s done.
We’re aiming the story, and the gameplay, toward a bit more of sophisticated gamer. I’ve been quoted as saying “This isn’t your mom’s game…it’s for gamers” and I stand behind that. While we are trying to make the fun in the game more accessible, that doesn’t mean we’re dumbing it down. We’re making this for shooter game players. It’s not going to be watered down to try and please casual gamers that don’t know no-scoping from a hole in their head.
PSB: Emmett has a foot in two different worlds, Outcast and Rifter. How does this impact his relationship with other characters?
HB: He doesn’t like other people that much. He was kicked off Dust because he became the representation of the thing that the Rifters hate — the Outcast, who are killing off settler families and taking over their claims. And now Emmett’s been overtaken by the Rift energy, through no fault of his own. The Rift energy is mysterious, they don’t know what it is, and the Rifters think Emmett could turn into an Outcast at any time. So he decides the best thing to do is get off-world. When he returns to Dust it’s many, many years later. He’s been out in the space systems making a living with Cutter and hunting down Outcast fanatics.
PSB: From what I’m hearing, Starhawk will offer a lot of multiplayer customization and flexibility. What’s your strategy there?
HB: Hells yes! We feel like a lot of games have been making choices for gamers; we’d rather have gamers make the choices. We’ll have matchmaking, game lists like Warhawk, party systems, tournament systems, and custom games where you can send out invites to bring your friends in. A lot of console games have gone to the “only matchmaking” solution. While it might streamline the game for new users, we think that our players are more sophisticated and deserve to make their own choice. You’ll be able to customize your skills, too, and you’ll gain skills as you level up. Character outfit customization as well…everything that you would expect in a top-of-the-line shooter. Some of the hardcore Warheads (the team’s nickname for Warhawk fans) are very concerned about the skills system and they think it’ll throw off the fairness of the game. We don’t think so and we also know that collecting stuff and making progress online is fun. So we’re going to do it.
Of course, it’s forefront in our mind to make this a very fair game. A public beta will be part of that. Our beta plans are being worked out right now, but we will have one for sure. Our hope is to take care of Warhawk players first.
PSB: Does that extend to weapon customization?
HB: We don’t do that because we like to keep an arcade-y feel. That can be fun in some games, but we prefer to keep a faster pace and keep your choices more macro. When you make a choice, it will be a big choice. The skill set that we offer will allow fans to drastically change the kind of player you want to be online. We’ll be rolling out the list down the line. Also, its not a “skill tree” exactly, but we do have a system for gaining skills. We’ll also talk about that later on.
PSB: In vehicle-centric multiplayer shooters, balancing infantry and vehicular combat is often a touch-and-go process. What’s the philosophy regarding infantry versus vehicles?
HB: I have experience in making RTS games so I’m very familiar with people being concerned about balance. My normal response is, “yes, that’s always a challenge but we’re working hard on it,” but my inside voice is saying “it’s cool, don’t worry about it, it’ll be fine.” There are so, so many dials that we can tweak in the name of balance. For instance, maybe your rocket launcher is weak but it fires quickly. And we have armor types, so maybe that rocket launcher is particularly strong against a certain armor type. There are cooldown times, speed of reload, all sorts of things. Our massive amount of testing should clean out oddities and we also learned a lot from Warhawk. We’re counting on our public beta to squeeze out a lot of issues as well.
In Starhawk there are a lot of weapons at your disposal and it’s up to you to find out which is the most effective against what. It’s a typical rock-paper-scissors approach. Honestly, I’m not too worried about it, and I think the public beta and play test sessions will be a gigantic help. If we see balance issues we’ll either tweak the knobs or even add new gameplay abilities. We actually just added a new anti-infantry attack for the mech, which is a stomp. It’s perfect, because we used to make you wade through these minions blasting away and it really wasn’t satisfying as they little guys are hard to hit. Now you just R3 for melee and they get crushed.
PSB: What’s your personal favorite weapon so far? Favorite vehicle?
HB: We have the Grinder, our flamethrower, which we haven’t really shown so far. But I’ve always been a huge fan of rocket launchers, particularly for multiplayer matches. As for vehicles, it’s probably the jetbike. You can do these crazy jumps and it’s so much fun riding over the plains of Dust, using it for Capture the Flag…its definitely today’s favorite. We’ll see what tomorrow brings.
PSB: What’s next for the Starhawk team?
HB: We’re going to be rolling out our Space level at Gamescom in Cologne, Germany on August 17th. I can’t wait till everyone sees it…Gotta love dogfighting in space! Also we’ll be at PAX in Seattle with the same demo the week after, August 26 to 28th, but there we’ll have our Observer Cam up and running so the crowd can enjoy the action too. It should be a blast!