Who was there: Lightbox Interactive creative director Lars DeVore was joined by writer Keen Wooten, as well as Sony Santa Monica studio director John Hight and senior producer Harvard Bonin. IGN's Greg Miller moderated the panel.
What they talked about: Rather than a sequel to 2007's online, multiplayer-only Warhawk, Lightbox is returning to the PlayStation 3 in a new direction with the markedly expanded Starhawk. Announced in May, Starhawk combines sci-fi and Western elements to tell a single-player story that augments the franchise's well-known online element. Taking to the Comic-Con 2011 stage today, Lightbox and Sony Santa Monica explained that from the outset, the team knew they wanted to go bigger.
According to DeVore, the team began with the idea that developing a deeper universe was the direction they wanted to take with the follow-up to Warhawk. However, they also wanted to keep many of the elements that make Warhawk what it is, including a variety of gameplay; large, open environments; and a central multiplayer formula.
It then took about a year to devise a direction for what would become Starhawk. One element the team initially struggled with was tone. Lightbox knew it wanted to stand out, so that precluded creating a generic military shooter or straightforward sci-fi game. However, the team did start with sci-fi premise and from there began to instill the universe with life by focusing on the conflict between two factions.
The nature of this conflict is where the Western elements began to come in. DeVore said that they began to study the American frontier to get a better sense of what creates conflict between two groups of people and then they layered sci-fi elements on top of that. To help with the art direction, they brought on Iain McCaig, who has done work for Hollywood on the new Star Wars trilogy and is now contributing to Respawn Entertainment's new game.
DeVore said that the lead character arose out of necessity from the single-player campaign. After experimenting with his appearance and style, the team began gravitating toward a strong black male. DeVore noted that this character design hit the right vibe, and they felt the universe would be postracial at this point in the future. DeVore also noted that they had help from God of War art director Ken Feldman to establish the game's look.
Wooten then took over to talk about the game's storyline, saying that the conflict centers on rift energy. This energy is like gold during the California Gold Rush, and prospectors--known as the Rifter faction in the game--seek out new planets to cap and mine areas. Though rift energy equates to money, it is also quite dangerous, and exposure to it is what created the Outcast faction. Rift exposure leads to the skeletal system pushing out through the skin, and it also corrupts the mind.
For those exposed to rift energy, it becomes a source of life, while Rifters see it as a source of money. Thus, the conflict in the game arises.
Emmett Graves is the game's primary protagonist, and he begins the story on the side of the Rifters. Some 10 years before the game begins, Emmett and his brother were in a mining accident that fully exposed his brother to the energy and partially exposed Emmett. Now, his brother leads the Outcast faction. Emmett is joined by his partner, Cutter, who operates a massive freighter in low orbit, which also provides the basis of the game's build-and-battle system, where players can call down armaments.
The conversation then shifted toward why fans of Warhawk should be interested in Starhawk. Bonin said that more than just being a spiritual successor to Warhawk, Starhawk has expertly incorporated strategy elements into shooter gameplay. Hight went on to say that much of the gameplay will feel very familiar to Warhawk fans, and the game's speed and accessibility will be immediately identifiable.
Returning to the game's story and design, DeVore said that much of the story will be conveyed through 2D cutscenes, in a vein similar to Sucker Punch's Infamous. This decision was motivated by the team's desire to tell the story through Emmett's eyes and to give the story a stream-of-consciousness feel. It also offered an interesting story-telling opportunity, as they were able to change these 2D elements as the game progresses to represent the deterioration in Emmett's rift contamination. DeVore also said that the 2D art design was inspired by artists like Shepard Fairey and Bill Perkins.
In the audience Q&A portion of the panel, DeVore said that the team is currently just working on the game's retail release. And while Lightbox does intend to support the game with downloadable content, the team first wants to see how people are actually playing the game before they commit to how they want to proceed with it. He also noted that the game was designed from the beginning to be more expandable than Warhawk was.
Other miscellaneous factoids that emerged during the audience Q&A included the fact that the game will support split-screen co-op, both locally and online. Additionally, Warhawk composer Chris Linux is responsible for sound on Starhawk.
Quote: "We've cracked the holy grail of light tactical elements with shooter elements."--Harvard Bonin.
Takeaway: Starhawk is shaping up to be a far larger game than Warhawk, with Lightbox layering on a sci-fi Western single-player campaign. However, Lightbox maintains that the single-player campaign will only be additive to what the Warhawk franchise was all about: fast combat, large environments, and lots of different ways in which to blow stuff up.