This past May, Sony announced a new title that has long been rumored — Starhawk. The game is being developed by LightBox Interactive, in conjunction with Sony Santa Monica, and combines third-person shooter combat, vehicular combat and aerial dogfights into one hell of a sci-fi package. We recently got a chance to chat with Harvard Bonin, senior producer at Sony Santa Monica Studios, about the ambitious project, covering everything from the genesis of the game, its influences, the goal of single player and exactly how hard it’s been to juggle such a wide range of gaming genres.
CraveOnline: This is a lofty question to answer right out of the gate, but why don’t you explain to everyone who isn’t familiar what Starhawk is exactly?
Harvard Bonin: Starhawk is a third-person fast-paced-action shooter that is the spiritual successor to a title called Warhawk, which we released in 2007. It combines the frenetic and epic action of on the ground firefights, vehicular combat, and air-based dog fights into one ridiculously fun package. On top of that we've included something called the Build & Battle system which allows players to quickly call down structures, equipment, and other support from orbit at the press of a button.
CraveOnline: As you mentioned, Starhawk is a pretty ambitious title from a gameplay standpoint. The game is part vehicle combat, part third-person shooter, part real-time strategy title all wrapped into one. Has it been an incredible challenge to pull all of those parts together into one cohesive whole?
Harvard Bonin: Yes, its been a gigantic challenge. Due to our work in Warhawk we pretty much had the multidimensional combat down – so we've spent a lot of our time tightening that up and improving on it. Warhawk, after all, came out a few years ago and the shooter genre has moved forward. We had to move forward with it. That said, just moving ahead to match pace with a crowded genre is pretty much the recipe for making a boring, expected title. We wanted to do something unexpected. Starhawk rumors have floated around the internet for years so we worked very hard at making sure the gameplay itself was surprising. Hence, Build & Battle. The B&B system caused us to rethink the design of our multiplayer modes and also dream up new ways to integrate it into our solo campaign. It's really been quite a ride, full of trial and error, but we think we've landed on something very special.
CraveOnline: Tell us a little about how did the project got started?
Harvard Bonin: After Warhawk we spent some time releasing expansion packs, free DLC, etc…. and this was very early in the PS3 life cycle when DLC was a fresh concept (at least on consoles). Warhawk was multiplayer only and, as anyone that has made a multiplayer game will tell you, those fans are rabid. They always want more. We really wanted to give them everything we could to satisfy that hunger. In the meantime we (SCEA Santa Monica) and the key creative minds behind Warhawk at our SCEA studio in Salt Lake City, Incognito, were deciding on what to do next. We knew we wanted to leverage all the learning from Warhawk, but there were so many unknowns. We spent a lot of time exploring and trying out new things.
Starhawk originally started out more like a LittleBigPlanet type shooter game! Over time our vision coalesced. We helped start up LightBox Interactive, an independent (and SCEA exclusive) studio in Austin, TX made up of all those creative minds from Incognito. Then we also hired a lot of talented people to help bring that vision into reality. And here we are!
CraveOnline: Like you said, this game is being joint developed by the newly formed LightBox Interactive in conjunction with your studio, Sony Santa Monica Studios, who are best known for the God of War franchise. How is the joint development process handled, and what role does Sony Santa Monica fill specifically?
Harvard Bonin: Yup, that's true. Here in Santa Monica we fund and helped build LightBox as well as Starhawk. All of the original LightBox members are former Sony employees from Incognito. This has been a huge advantage. There is a lot of trust and camaraderie between us. We are very open and honest with each other… unlike many publisher/developer relationships where mistrust and shenanigans can really ruin the mix. I think its worked wonderfully because our goals are aligned. Many publishers are in it for the $$$ only.
Here at SCEA Santa Monica we have a reputation for great games and its very critical for us to maintain that rep. There is no advantage for us to put out a sub par title. LightBox feels the exact same way. Sure, they'd like to make some dough on their game… but the most important thing is to make a quality title that players enjoy. The relationship also works well in other ways. We do all the sound design here in Santa Monica and handle a lot of the project management. We have access (and believe me, we abuse that access as much as possible) to senior technologists, artists, animators, etc. from the God of War team. That access isn't taken lightly and its been a BIG help. It's really been a partnership in the truest form of the word… from the business side all the way over to the creative side. Everyone is bringing something to the table. I must say, its been a refreshing and inspiring experience so far.
CraveOnline: You used the term “spiritual successor” earlier to compare Starhawk to Warhawk. Now, Warhawk took place primarily planetside, where Starhawk is a bit different, as the action switches up between space and land skirmishes. What we want to know is how did the decision come about to move the action to space, and why was that the route chosen?
Harvard Bonin: Why space? Because its the final frontier, of course! Actually, it's pretty much because we're all geeks at heart. Which original Star Trek episode would you like me to quote? Sci-fi is a genre that is so wide open for different possibilities that it's like being at an all-you-can-eat buffet where all they serve are ideas! Sci-fi also comes with a polarizing effect. Some people like it, some don't. Those that do like it really, really do and vice versa. We also looked at the current games out there now and the genre felt like it had room for a new universe to explore. On top of all that, we really wanted to fly a spaceship – ala Colony Wars. I can safely say that itch has been scratched and we plan on showing off our space flight experience in August.
CraveOnline: Since we’re on the topic of science fiction, can you name some of the studio’s sci-fi influences that helped shape the world of Starhawk? Having watched some of the trailers released thus far, it seems as though there’s a bit of the short-lived, cult classic Firefly series in there, with that same space western vibe.
Harvard Bonin: Firefly continues to be a favorite. That show is a bit more literal than us on the space western theme. We do love it, though. Other influences are the classics like Star Wars, Star Trek (the latest Abrams movie was epic… and we love the original series), etc. Even our Rift Miner characters have always reminded me of the oil rig guys in Armageddon. I think we've found a perfect mix that has made for a unique universe. After all, every creative endeavor is influenced by other creative endeavors. We're fans just like everyone else. To that end, our story is really about the personal journey of Emmett. Like all great tales, the real meat is about the human condition, the characters, and the relationships.
CraveOnline: That’s a great place to go next — single player. Fans of the original Warhawk may remember that that game lacked a single player portion. That is not the case with Starhawk, which features both single player and multiplayer components. Tell us why you guys are including a single player portion this time around and what you’re aiming to accomplish with it.
Harvard Bonin: I've often described Warhawk as hard candy. It has a really hard, protective shell, but once you crack it, the center is nice and tasty. Warhawk was a incredibly fun game. It was also very hard to get into. You really had to work to find the gooey center of Warhawk. When we began with Starhawk that was something we really wanted to address… and we've tackled it in a variety of ways. Our controls are now more standardized to genre conventions, the flying is easier, the in-game prompts are clearer, etc. One big way to get people to be engaged is to provide them with a really entertaining world to play in, and one they can play at their leisure without a hardcore online player beating the snot out of them while they do it. So, we wanted to make an even more entertaining game that appealed to more people with different tastes. The online portion is great and Warheads (Warhawk hardcore players) will be very happy and satisfied. But, we're simply trying to offer other types of players a really fun experience with plenty of value. I mean, why should the online head-to-head players get to have all the fun?!!
CraveOnline: Can you give us a plot setup for Starhawk’s single player?
Harvard Bonin: Starhawk takes place in the deepest frontiers of space and the story centers around a man named Emmett Graves, a gun-slinging salvager who moves from system to system based on contracts from the Rifter Union. As you'd expect, its all not fun and games as Emmett has been afflicted with the worst contagion in the galaxy. The very resource the Rifter Union is mining on these different planets and moons, Rift Energy, is the same reason that countless men are being transformed into disfigured and crazed creatures called The Outcast. Rift Energy, while a clean and immensely potent source of power, is also a wicked threat to mankind. Along with way players will find out a lot more about Emmett and his personal ties to The Outcast.
CraveOnline: We kind of do this to round out our interviews and put developers on the spot. Can you give us a haiku to sum up Starhawk (remember 5-7-5)?
Harvard Bonin: I'll see if I can channel my inner poet!
Thirty Two player
Grandiose solo action
Build & Battle rocks
CraveOnline: Well done, good sir. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us. Best of luck with Starhawk!
Harvard Bonin: Thanks a ton! I look forward to talking with you guys again!
Starhawk will launch on the PlayStation 3 some time in 2012.