As well having a through play with Starhawk I managed to have a few words with Harvard Bonin, Senior producer at SCEA.
Harvard has been working in the games industry for over fifteen years and has worked on Warhawk for Sony, and before that no less than six Command and Conquer games for EA.
I think there’s a link there but I just cant quite put my finger on it… so on to the interview.
Tuffcub: First I have to say… wow!
Harvard Bonin: Well that’s nice of you, that’s cool, I like you as the last interview of the day!
TC: Starhawk took me by surprise, completely unexpected.
HB: That was the idea.
TC: I understand now why you kept Starhawk under wraps for so long.
HB: There were a lot of rumours floating around, ‘Oh it’s Warhawk in space’ and just recently there were leaks and we’d say ‘But they never talked about the big feature!’
TC: When Dylan Jobe was explaining the back story to the game it seemed to have a Western theme, you have it set on the frontier, there is ‘the rush’ to mine, some shrines the Outcast have built seem Native American in design – would this have anything to do with Lightbox being based in Austin in Texas?
HB: Yeah they moved to Austin and all of a sudden here we are in Cowboy land!
TC: The music had a definite Western twang…
HB: There are aspects… it’s more of a theme though, you’ll see it in the story but you won’t find cowboys or classic places like Appaloosa. The miners are in a union so they are more like the oil rig guys from the movie Armageddon.
They’re kind of tough and they’re just out to make their fortune so that naturally fits in to the Western theme. If you listen to the music there are lots of influences, not just Westerns – I can promise you that during the game you will not see a ten gallon hat!
There is a certain other game that is a great Western, but we had lots of influences for Starhawk, working in Texas might be one of them.
TC: There seemed to be something missing today, the game is called Starhawk…
HB: But there are no stars!
HB: There are space battles, yes absolutely. There are big, epic space battles in and around planets and space stations and you can build in space too. We’re not showing all the stories in Starhawk just yet due to the production schedule but we wouldn’t have called the game Starhawk if we couldn’t deliver on the fantasy of flying in space, recalling some of those old Colony Wars games, that kind of stuff.
You will get your fix of space battles in Starhawk.
TC: The ‘Battle & Build’ system is obviously the biggest change since Warhawk, when I spoke to Sucker Punch about their user generated content they cited LittleBigPlanet as an influence and whilst Starhawk doesnt allow you to generate your own levels it still has a level of user creation making each battle different. Where did the idea for ‘Battle & Build’ come from?
HB: Starhawk has been in development for a long time, well over four years . We started with a small team of about fifteen people and built it up. We liked LBP and liked the nerdy aspect of ‘making my own stuff’ and we said ‘what if we did that in a shooter?’
We had a version – and probably still do in the office – where we were using building blocks to create buildings and bunkers that you could fight in and around, and the blocks had various properties and there you – I can make my own turrets. As we continued to develop the game, I don’t think we ever found the right way to implement it in terms of control and we didn’t think it would satisfy the Warhawk players who we have a great deal of respect for as they still play the game four years on.
We still wanted to modify the battlefield and bring something new and fresh to the genre so we went from LittleBigPlanet geeky to the complete opposite, we wanted it to be fast and furious, the same frenetic action you get in the battles.
We went through a number of different cycles and about a year ago we found the system you have been playing. It went through an incredible amount of development to get to where we are at.
TC: It’s very quick and easy to create buildings.
HB: That was critical, some shooter fans are going to hear about the game and think ‘Geez, that sounds awful, how am I going to figure that out?’ and I think we’ve been able to show it’s easy. In fact we saw it here today as I was worried I was going to have to walk around and talk people through what do, what the buttons are, but pretty soon I thought ‘well, I guess they don’t need me they picked it up straight away!’
TC: The levels I have been playing feature the Jeep vehicle and the Warhawks…
HB: They’re just called Hawks now.
TC: Not Starhawks? You don’t have Starhawks in game called Starhawk?
HB: We love stars!
TC: ..and Hawks?
HB: <laughs> To us the name refers to a recipe of gameplay more than anything. We felt if we named the vehicle a Starhawk then people would expect it to be the end-all, be-all thing in the game, the best vehicle you could get. We felt having any unit called a Starhawk would be disingenuous to what we were trying to do so they are just called Hawks.
TC: I presume other vehicles will be returning, jet packs, tanks?
HB: We’re not releasing all the information just yet but there will be some… variation… on the tanks from Warhawk. There will be a heavy vehicle, something that feels real powerful when you’re blowing things up.
We limit each map to eight types of structure because we found if we put any more on the radial dial used to select them it became a pain to use, but this means we have tailored certain portfolios of buildings for certain maps and we’re still discovering the best way to do this with many options we have.
As you go from map to map you will have a completely different set of buildings, vehicles, perks and bombs not to mention… <pauses> other stuff! There are so many toys! We want people to feel like we’ve given them the whole toy chest to play with.
TC: The shooter market is pretty crowded these days but you have a set of new features that have never been seen in genre before, do you think you’ll be able to tempt people away from other games?
HB: We’re not aiming to beat… you know, ‘Grandma’s Game’ we’re a gamers game created by gamers for shooter fans and hopefully we’re offering something special, we’re different. There are lots of shooters and to say we’re going to take over the genre that would be ridiculous but we want to give shooter fans something unique for their collection, that’s what we’re out to do.
There are other shooters out there, other multiplayer vehicle games but I don’t think anyone has put it together the way we have, made sure it has a massive fun factor – and of course there’s the building – nobody does that!
TC: You’ve given a release date of 2012 – can you narrow that down further?
HB: Well, before the end of the world.
TC: Nice answer.
HB: Well it’s honest! Else what would be the point, that would suck if we released on December 31st 2012 and the world ended. Whoops!
Thanks to Harvard and everyone at Sony for their time.