Harbinger Q&A

We speak with Steve Macomber of Silverback Entertainment to find out more about its upcoming RPG.

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Making the transition from a game like Postal to a science-fiction RPG isn't an easy task, but that's exactly what the development team at Silverback Entertainment--which is composed of a few members from the Postal development team--is doing with its upcoming game, Harbinger. The game is set on the backdrop of an enormous planet-dwarfing ship that scours galaxies for slaves and test subjects for experiments. But some of the inhabitants escape to deserted areas of the ship, where they form small resistance groups to free other captives. At the beginning of the game, you can select from three different character classes, each with its own unique attributes and abilities. As you progress through the game, the story changes, depending on the type of character you have and what actions you take through the course of the game. Plus, secondary characters whom you think are loyal to the resistance may turn out not to be. We had a chance to speak with Silverback Entertainment's Steve Macomber--art director for Harbinger--to find out more about the game's dynamic story, its gameplay, and what kind of features the development plans to add.

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GameSpot: Can you give a little background on the development team at Silverback Entertainment?

Steve Macomber: Andy Muir and I were members of a small, tight-knit group at Running With Scissors. A couple of years ago, the opportunity presented itself for us to break away and work for ourselves. We knew very little about running a business, but we knew the type of game we wanted to make, so we jumped at the chance.

Then we rounded up our friends and began designing the game that would eventually become Harbinger. We currently have six people working full time on the project. Besides Andy and myself, the staff includes: Steve Andrusyszyn, an amazing 3D programmer; Greg Miller, one of the [best] artists whom I have met; Jared Binder, a hard-core artist who received his BFA from the prestigious School of the Art Institute of Chicago; and Dale Bloom, our newest team member, who is responsible for our sound effects and a billion other thankless tasks.

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GS: How long has Harbinger been in development, and what stage is it at now?

SM: Harbinger has been in development for nearly two years. Most of the game's core is in place, and we're currently in the process of adding a lot of new content.

GS: Harbinger's story focuses on a massive ship that travels from galaxy to galaxy, collecting slaves. Does the story include the origins of the ship as well as what's controlling it, or do you find that out as you progress through the game?

SM: While the ship is a focal point in the game, the entire game does not take place within its confines. However, it is unlikely that we will release any screenshots of areas outside of the ship before we release the game. The origins and details about those that control the ship will be revealed through gameplay and not in the back story.

GS: It's been noted that Harbinger's main storyline is nonlinear, so what actually causes the story to branch off in different directions? Can you give a specific example of something that may drastically change the storyline?

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SM: Our storyline is event driven. These events are basically miniscenarios that have whatever levels and other required assets attached to them. The real power of these events is that they can launch other events. With this, we can have bad situations that, when not addressed, get progressively worse.

Let me run through a quick scenario. In our game, we have an ugly little critter called a herp. He's sort of a cross between a skunk and a sperm, but he moves like an inchworm. We also have an NPC [nonplayer character] named Wik, and he likes to eat them, so whenever you need a little extra money, you can always sell off some herp to Wik. Well, at one point, you come across some herp eggs and you take them with you. If you sell them to one of the more responsible members of the wasteland community, you make a little extra cash, and nothing else happens.

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However, if you choose to sell the eggs to Wik, he will hatch them in an attempt to breed his own herps. After this point, he will no longer buy herp carcasses from you because he has his own source. But this could also trigger another event. When you return to the wastelands, Wik will have eaten himself to death, and the herp population will have spread out of control. Other NPCs will blame you for the outbreak and charge higher prices for equipment until you kill off all the rampant herps. Of course, you can choose not to clear out the herps, and the situation will deteriorate from annoying to devastating, with the herps killing off other NPCs. That's one of our simpler events, but you get the feel of where we are going.

GS: Does the story unfold differently depending on the type of character you choose?

SM: The story will definitely be different for each character class. There is an overall story arch that will be consistent for everyone, but the player's role in that story will be different based not only on the type of character chosen, but also on decisions made during gameplay.

GS: Will there be nonplayer-controlled characters, and can they impact the storyline in any way?

SM: We have a number of NPCs, and they have a huge impact on the storyline. We are really using them as story elements, instead of as a front end for in-game stories. Some will die; some will be killed due to player actions (or lack of action). Some will betray the player and some the player will betray.

GS: Harbinger lets you select from three different types of characters--human, robot, and a unique species known as the Culibine. What sets these characters apart from each other? Do they have different skills that make them more useful in certain situations?

SM: The playable characters have different skill sets that set them apart. Also, there is almost no crossover between the types of equipment each character can use. For instance, only the human can drop cameras, which will let the player explore areas without putting himself in harms way. This comes with its own trade-off because generally it's not safe to just leave a character standing around in a room. Enemy patrols can come by and attack the player while he is controlling a camera elsewhere on the map. The human also has a number of traps at his disposal, and a lot of these are tailored to be effective against specific enemy types.

Unlike a lot of other games, there is no one-to-one matching of abilities between playable characters. For example, the Culibine does not have her own special traps and cameras. Her abilities and items are just as effective as the other races', but they are different in both how they look and in how they are used.

GS: Does the wasteland act as a central point where you can go back to buy new weapons and items?

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SM: There are areas in the wastelands where you can buy new weapons and equipment. When the game begins, there is a small area of the wastelands, which is a safe haven. These may or may not remain safe based on how the game is played.

GS: Is there an inventory system, or do characters just automatically equip weapons and secondary items?

SM: Andy is working on our inventory management right now. The players will have to equip most of the critical equipment and weapons unless they have an empty slot for them. We've focused our streamlining efforts on keeping the really annoying micromanagement to a minimum. For instance, health packs will auto-equip. If the player has enough inventory slots for a new item, the inventory will auto-arrange itself to make room.

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GS: Harbinger features a two-dimensional isometric perspective, but there are plans to include 3D-accelerator support. What kind of enhancements can we expect to see when using a 3D accelerator to play Harbinger?

SM: Harbinger requires a 3D accelerator to play. We use sprites so that we can squeeze as much detail as possible into our characters and background pieces. We then take the sprites and map them onto triangles and use 3D for our dynamic lighting. This way, we never have to look at fire and explosions, which don't light up the background around them. We're really just getting better 2D from 3D.

GS: Currently, Harbinger is only a single-player game, but it seems like Silverback wants to add a multiplayer mode. What's the biggest obstacle in implementing a multiplayer mode?

SM: This is a little bit of a touchy subject around here. We anticipated that prospective publishers would demand a multiplayer component, so we tossed around some ideas for it. The problem is that since the beginning, we have had a very concise vision of what we wanted Harbinger to be. We wanted to provide a fun, nonlinear, single-player experience, where the player's actions have a real impact on the gameworld. We are making a very playercentric game that is customized to the individual, and we don't want to dilute this by making the necessary trade-offs to accommodate multiplayer.

I don't want it to seem like we don't like multiplayer games. We play a lot of Tribes and Counter-Strike around here. Multiplayer just doesn't fit our vision for this game, and we won't shoehorn it just for the marketing bullet on our box.

GS: Any plans to release some kind of editor with the game or after the game's release?

SM: Obviously, this is a decision that we would have to make with a publisher. For now, though, we are planning on releasing our tools to the public. I can't wait to see what people make with them.

GS: What's been the biggest hurdle in developing a game of this type?

SM: While it's not really a hurdle, we've got a pretty rigorous approval process here. I mean, things get hammered on a lot before they finally get into the game. So we end up creating a lot of art that gets thrown away because it simply doesn't make the cut. Fortunately, we have a lot of trash piles in our game, and they're usually made from our throwaway pieces.

GS: Thanks, Steve.

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