Interview: Lightbox Interactive's Josh Sutphin Explains Why Starhawk Is So Awesome and Only Possible on PS3

If there was one point in time at E3 this year where I said ‘wow, I need to have this game,’ it was during my time at the Sony booth. And more specifically it was when I picked up the controller to play Starhawk (my personal pick for Best of Show). While I was playing, it was Josh Sutphin, lead game designer on Starhwak who would break down everything I needed to know about the upcoming shooter. We recently had the chance to interview Josh about the title — why it’s so awesome, and why it’s only possible on the PS3. Check out the full interview below and before you ask, yes, those are Josh’s emoticons throughout the interview. He’s serious about those.

DS: What is it like designing a game knowing you have such a strong (maybe rabid even) community?  Is it a labor of love?  Or is it more like “let’s just give them what they want”?

JS: It’s invigorating, actually. I think strong communities are the backbone of successful franchises. I know that sounds business-y but it’s true, and the reason it’s true has nothing to do with money and everything to do with energy. We can feed off our fans’ excitement, and their energy helps guide our vision. Stephen King wrote a book, “On Writing”, in which he talks about the importance for authors to have an “ideal reader”, that one person who must absolutely love what you write, no matter what, in order for it to be worth writing. You always have your own vision, but you’re also thinking about how that person is going to react. Is she going to laugh at this joke? Is she going to be confused by this scene? I think the same holds true for game design. In a strong community we find lots of “ideal players.” It really helps shape our vision, which in the end helps us make a better game.

DS: Warhawk was a great title at a time when the PS3 didn’t have much going for it, kind of like the decent chick in a bar full of ugly ducklings.  Now that the PS3 has a robust lineup full of AAA material whether it’s 1st party or multi platform hits, what is LightBox Interactive doing to really set Starhawk apart?

JS: Build & Battle is of course our big new feature—build structures in real-time, anywhere on the battlefield, and use them to defend a base, get weapons and vehicles, and shoot down enemies. It injects this little taste of strategy into our fast-paced shooter, smoothly integrated so that building stuff is just as quick and easy as pulling the trigger on your gun.

But there are other things that set us apart, too. To date, the only other game I know of that really hits ground, vehicle, and air combat all in the same game is Battlefield, but the two games are two very different experiences. Where Battlefield’s a little more tactical and deliberate, Starhawk is really fast, visceral, and arcadey. And we let you drop buildings from space. 😉

The other thing we’re doing that’s really cool is the connectivity between single-player and multiplayer. All the XP and awards you earn in single-player carry over into multiplayer, and vice-versa. And you can be playing a single-player mission and get a game invite from your friend, and jump from there straight into his multiplayer game. We’ve got in-game calendars tracking player-created tournaments and a mobile app that syncs up with that stuff so you can set up games or check in on your clan while you’re on your lunch break.

DS: What made the team at LightBox decide that they would add a narrative this time around?  Was there any doubt to say “maybe we should stay multiplayer only” at any time during the development process?

JS: We wanted to add a story because there are so many gamers out there for whom that’s the primary draw of games—great stories, characters, and exciting universes in these rich single-player experiences. We’ve got a lot of people on our team who really enjoy those kinds of experiences and have wanted to make a game like that for a long time. We’ve had our fair share of challenges coming to grips with the addition of a full single-player campaign, but it’s something we’re all really driven to do and to master, so there’s no doubt that it’s the right direction for us.

DS: It seems like with every shooter these days the lines are being blurred when it comes to being different.  For the most part it feels like everyone has the same game types across the board whether they are assault or capture the flag or domination (like the multiplayer modes found in the Call of Duty titles).  Is it easier to just go the safe route with what everyone else is doing?  Or are you gunning for something different?

JS: The safe route is always the easiest… but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best ;). What we’re really focusing on for our multiplayer modes is making sure that they fit well with Build & Battle, and vice-versa. We showed our CTF mode at E3 and certainly CTF is a bog-standard game mode. The advantage to that is that everyone’s familiar with it, so it makes a great entry point for multiplayer Build & Battle.

And as it turns out, building your own base to defend your flag and managing your presence on the battlefield in that way is really fun! We have other game modes in development and while we haven’t revealed what they all are yet, I can say that each one is very distinct, and they all make it rad as hell to drop buildings on people.

DS: Generally, console gamers and real time strategy gameplay mechanics mix like oil and water.  What gave you the inspiration to incorporate structure building elements into an online shooter experience?  Is Starhawk finally going to be the game that breaks open the RTS genre for console gamers?

JS: We looked at a lot of the other great AAA shooters and said, “what are these guys missing?” One big gap we saw was that a lot of these games, as spectacular as they are, are trending toward these really static worlds. You’re kind of running around on rails, and it’s just this fixed, indestructible space with some bad guys in it. So we said, “what if it wasn’t? what if players could shape that space?”

It took us a while to answer that question in a way that fit the popular shooter gameplay we had in Warhawk, which we always wanted to use as a foundation to build from. We weren’t really thinking about it in terms of adding RTS mechanics to a shooter, so much as putting the shooter environment in the player’s control. It just so happens that when we finally hit upon Build & Battle and started playing with that and talking about those matches, we found ourselves using RTS terms. We’re comparing “early game” and “late game” strategies, we’re setting up “rushes”, we’re “turtling” or “harassing”.

That just organically emerged from having the power to shape that battlefield. But when you’re actually playing, it feels like a more-polished version of Warhawk—it’s just as fast, just as visceral, and you’re screaming through the skies in a jet plane and then landing and building a base out of nothing in eight seconds flat.

DS: The first game was multiplayer only, and now that there is a clear narrative to the game, will there be co-op gameplay for the story mode?  Either in the form of two players on the same console or standard online co-op?

JS: We do have a co-op game mode planned, which supports both split-screen and online co-op, but you won’t be playing through the single-player story that way. The campaign is a very personal story about Emmett and his brother, and jamming a few extra players in there would upset that.

DS: Gamers are probably some of the most passionate people around when it comes to their hobby of choice, and because of this it usually leads to some intense internet fanboy flame wars.  We’d like you to fan the flames Josh.  Besides the obvious (being Blu Ray disc capacity), can you name distinct reasons why Starhawk is something only possible on the PS3?

JS: Build & Battle creates a very difficult AI challenge. You’ve got all this navigation data that describes the world, which in most games is generated by some offline process at the dev studio that might take hours to run for a single level. You process all that data and package it up and ship it on the disc, and your AI knows how to run around that level.In Starhawk, you can drop a bunker in the middle of that data, and the AI has to know how to deal with that.

It’s a simple problem if all he has to do is avoid it, but in Starhawk he needs to also be able to go inside it, or climb on top of it. If you link a bunch of walls together, he needs to be able to figure out how to get around them, or what to do if you’ve completely blocked his path. It basically means that you, dear player, can completely destroy hours worth of AI data generation with a single building!

So we had to figure out how to generate that navigation data a LOT faster. That means gathering up a bunch of world geometry around where you put that bunker, and shipping it off to the PS3’s very-fast bank of SPU processors, and crunching those numbers in a few seconds instead of a few hours. There’s really a lot more to it than that, but at the end of the day, the PS3’s unique hardware architecture is pretty much the reason Build & Battle even works at all. 🙂

DS: It seems like every developer out there is trying to make an experience for everyone.  Warhawk had a pretty steep learning curve for some.  Without abandoning your hardcore crowd, how hard is it to balance things out for the “weekend warriors” to enjoy themselves?  As people level up and progress how can that fun be maintained?

JS: This is one motivation for adding a single-player campaign, actually. In single-player you can set the difficulty level where you like it and have a good time. There are no difficulty settings for multiplayer: everyone’s out to get you, and nobody’s holding back. So single-player gives you a way less-confrontational experience, and it also gives you an opportunity to learn a lot about the game systems without getting headshotted and teabagged. We’ve also got the co-op mode for those gamers who like to be social, but are not necessarily super competitive or just want a less-stressful experience.

When it comes to full-blown online competitive multiplayer, one of the main things we’re doing is adding in a matchmaking system. Lots of our fans really liked that Warhawk offered classic PC-style server lists, and we’re still keeping those! But the matchmaking system gives us another way to get the right kinds of players in games together, especially for those players who maybe don’t have a dedicated server in their social circle. We’re looking at how other games handle matchmaking, where they succeed and where they fail, and we’re working hard to ensure that our matchmaking experience is as fast, smooth, and accurate as it can be.

Oh, and we’re fixing it so you don’t have to play for nine thousand hours to reach max rank. 😮

DS: The team over at Naughty Dog has gone on record to say that Uncharted 3 will be “the go to game for online gaming on the PS3”.  Is there any friendly internal mud slinging between the two companies?  Why is Starhawk the game to beat?

JS: We have a ton of respect for the guys at Naughty Dog (did you *see* that E3 demo?!) and we often look at them as the kind of studio we want to grow LightBox into. I don’t know if I could sling mud at those guys even if I tried. 🙂

But ultimately, I think Uncharted and Starhawk are two very different styles of multiplayer, and I think that’s a good thing for the PS3 and for the gamer community. Variety is what brought games from one college computer lab in the 60s to a multi-billion dollar worldwide phenomenon in 2011. I’d like to see both games be phenomenally successful.

…Not that I’d be crushed if Starhawk outsold Uncharted, or anything. 😉

Well there you have it folks. If the ability to drop buildings on people’s heads didn’t scream out “buy me” well then you may just have to get yourself checked out. We’ll be watching Starhawk very closely and we’ll definitely have some more coverage of the title in the coming weeks headed your way. Stay tuned.

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Joel Taveras

Joel Taveras is one of the founding members of DualShockers. He hails from New York City where he lives with his wife and two sons. During his tenure with the site, he's held every position from news writer to community manager to editor in chief. Currently he manages the behind the scenes and day-to-day operations at the publication.

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