Star Wars Vet Leading New 2K Studio Working On Mysterious AAA Project

Q&A: 2K hires LucasArts veteran Haden Blackman to head up Hangar 13; work begins on super-secret next-generation AAA game that uses proprietary tech.

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Borderlands and Civilization publisher 2K Games today announced the formation of Hangar 13, a brand new, San Francisco-based developer led by Star Wars games veteran Haden Blackman, who spent more than a decade at LucasArts in the 1990s and 2000s.

2K has big plans for Hangar 13, but the publisher isn't giving much in the way of specifics just yet about the studio's first game. All we know is that Hangar 13 is working on a AAA "next generation title," one that will allow players to "shape their own experiences." The developer even teases that the choices you make in the game will impact moment-to-moment gameplay, as well as the the entire gameworld itself, including characters and narrative. Sounds interesting. Blackman told us more.

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"The idea there is we want to make sure the players feel like they're contributing to the overall experience," Blackman said. "The player story and the player experience, not just the narrative, at both the micro level--the moment-to-moment choices they make--to the macro as well. How am I affecting the world, how am I impacting the characters around me. How does that in turn change my gameplay experience."

"So that's the biggest thing for me; making sure we get back to the spirit of why I got into games in the first place, which is this idea that it's an interactive medium and I could be a co-author of the experience in some way," he added. "And I feel like we only scratched the surface at LucasArts and now here I have an opportunity to really blow that out over time and make that our hallmark."

Making this possible is Hangar 13's proprietary technology, which comprises the game engine and various developer tools. On top of that, Blackman says Hangar 13 has hired an "all-star" team of professionals who have worked on such franchises as Dead Space, Assassin's Creed, Splinter Cell, and Star Wars to help the project really, truly sing.

We spoke with Blackman about Hangar 13, but were told the studio isn't planning to give official details about its first game for some time. We also asked if Hangar 13's game was a new IP or based on an existing franchise, but Blackman wouldn't budge.

You can poke around Hangar 13's newly launched website to look for more information. Let us know what you find.

Though details about Hangar 13's first game are being kept under wraps for now, we do know a lot more about the man leading the studio. Blackman spent 13 years at LucasArts, working in a variety of roles on games such as Knights of the Old Republic, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, and MMO Star Wars Galaxies. Blackman later left Lucas to co-found Fearless Studios, an independent outfit that was later acquired by Kabam. He worked there for around a year as the company's general manager, working on The Hobbit mobile titles.

To go a little deeper into what Hangar 13 is all about, we caught up with Blackman and picked his brain about the origins of the studio and what it aims to achieve. Again, we were told that Blackman could not discuss the studio's debut project. With that caveat out of the way, below are some highlights from our interview.

Where Does the Name Hangar 13 Come From?

"A lot of the 2K studios are named after where they were founded. So we are actually in a series of buildings called the hangars, up here in Novator. They're refurbished military airforce hangars that have been turned into development space. But there is no hangar 13. So for us, we picked that specifically for a couple reasons. One, to hearken back to the fact that it is a hangar and we were founded in a hangar, but it gives us the freedom to kind of move between the hangars without causing any confusion. And, most importantly, because there is no hangar 13, it's kind of mysterious. It's like the hidden hangar. And we're working on a top secret project here, so we felt like it was fitting. I also like the superstition part of it as well."

"I know everybody by name and by face on the team, which for me is a big deal and I want to always keep it that way." -- Haden Blackman

How Many People Are Working at Hangar 13 Right Now?

"We're not talking direct numbers right now in terms of our team size. I'd say we're large enough to get all the work done that we need to get done on a milestone by milestone basis, but we're still small enough that we're nimble and we communicate fairly well across the team. I know everybody by name and by face on the team, which for me is a big deal and I want to always keep it that way."

Challenges In Starting a New Studio?

"The biggest challenge is always hiring. We want to find the best people; we want to draw from across the industry. We've been trying to build a leadership team in particular that has come from a number of different studios and has worked on a wide variety of games in a lot of different genres. Hiring, and making sure we're bringing people from a diverse backgrounds is always a challenge."

More About That Mysterious Proprietary Tech

"One of the reasons I came here is because of a willingness to build proprietary tech. The 20 or so games I've worked on in my career, all but one have been built on proprietary tech. And for me that's incredibly exciting; it's very liberating. It allows us to essentially build the tech that we need for the vision of the game and not try to shoehorn or retrofit a game vision into tech, or overhaul existing tech to fit a game vision. That's obviously not without its challenges, too. Building tech from the ground up is incredibly exciting but it can also be challenging for people, so that's one of the things that we're really focused on right now."

"It's the engine, it's the tools, the pipelines, the workflows. Obviously, certain pieces of it might be off-the-shelf pieces or licensed tech that go into that. But the renderer, the game engine itself, everything that is driving the game systems, and game logic, and the tools, and the pipelines, and workflows are all homegrown and built from the ground up here."

Lessons Learned from Past Jobs

"I had a really great experience at Lucas for the vast majority of the time there. I think, for me, the importance of investing in tech up front, was a hard-won lesson from Lucas. And making sure we're putting just as much emphasis on the tech design and hiring for that. I think the other big learning for me, personally, I really want to work on games that I want to play. So working at Lucas, again, was a dream come true because we were working with Star Wars which is an IP that I love. And we were making the types of games that I enjoy playing. But over time, what became obvious to me was I really wanted to build games that allowed much more player authorship and making the player the co-author of the experience. So our mantra here is 'every player's story is unique.'"

"I want to live up to the expectations of 2K and make sure that we are delivering at the quality bar that they set." -- Haden Blackman

"The idea there is we want to make sure the players feel like they're contributing to the overall experience. The player story and the player experience, not just the narrative, at both the micro level--the moment-to-moment choices they make--to the macro as well. How am I affecting the world, how am I impacting the characters around me. How does that in turn change my gameplay experience. So that's the biggest thing for me; making sure we get back to the spirit of why I got into games in the first place, which is this idea that it's an interactive medium and I could be a co-author of the experience in some way. And I feel like we only scratched the surface at LucasArts and now here I have an opportunity to really blow that out over time and make that our hallmark."

Lot of Pressure to Live Up to Take-Two and 2K's Great Track Record?

"I want to live up to the expectations of 2K and make sure that we are delivering at the quality bar that they set. But that's the reason why I came here. Every time I've made a change in my career, it's always been driven by what can I learn and where can I go to work in an environment where quality is of paramount importance. That isn't the case everywhere, and that hasn't always been the case in my career. And I think, being able to come here [to 2K] is a huge opportunity because 2K does have that laser focus on quality and the game itself drives every conversation. Everybody's marching after the same thing, which is the highest quality game possible. And I never feel like there's any distractions from that, or weird politics, or anything that distracts from that quest for quality. Probably the number one reason I came here was because of that."

Why He Left Mobile for AAA

"I spent about a year at Kabam in San Francisco, which does fantastic free-to-play and mobile games. And I learned a ton. That was an opportunity for me to learn and learn about that space. And what I discovered about myself is I have to work on games that I am passionate about, and those are the games that I enjoy playing. Games that I enjoy playing are games that offer more immersive experiences, and we're just not quite there yet on mobile from my standpoint. Not to say that there's not any out there, but for me, most of them are on console and PC. And that's the space I wanted to be back in. And when the opportunity to come to 2K to start a studio and start a studio building console and PC games emerged, I jumped at it, because I really wanted to get back to making the games that I loved to play."

Lessons Learned In Mobile Space That Can Translate to Console?

"Absolutely. Even though we're talking about dramatically different team sizes, that nimbleness and that ability to shift gears quickly, is something that we're trying to infuse here. There's a lot of focus on getting things up and running on screen as quickly as possible. We had it to some degree at LucasArts, but not nearly what I see in the mobile space. So we try and champion that here and really focus on getting something up and running on screen and then iterate on it. I think that in the mobile space a lot of companies do a great job of onboarding players with tutorializing things, with introducing players to mechanics and concepts in a very engaging way. So we're obviously looking at that and learning from that wherever we can. I really think that it's dangerous … for either side to look at it and say 'There's nothing to learn from those types of developers' Because I think those guys have a ton to learn from each other. Over time, the experiences will probably converge. We're not quite there yet, but I definitely learned a ton in my time in that space that we're applying to what we're doing here."

The Culture of Hangar 13

"We are building a new culture here with this studio. Every studio is unique in its own way, and as we evolve over time that culture will evolve as well. A lot of it will have to do with the people that come on board. So now is a good time to join because you can be part of setting the foundation for the studio going forward. In terms of things like specifics around our culture, we are trying to be … one of our pillars is we're decisive. We make and we own decisions. That helps us provide a lot of clarity to the team. Which hopefully reduces the churn and things like wasted work, which I think can lead to slippages, which then lead to crunch. Everybody in the games industry works hard. We're no exception. We work hard because we're passionate about building games, and we're passionate about what we're doing and we want to make the best games that we possible can.

"I also believe that there are diminishing returns to extended crunch, and we're trying to be sane about that, and we're trying to plan in advance. And we're trying to build buffers into our schedules and make sure that people know when we'll be pushing a little bit harder and when we're gonna be taking a step back to focus on what we've just done and re-asses and iterate. And I think that's worked out pretty well over the last several months. The feedback that we're getting from everybody on the team is that it's been very measured and very predictable, which is good. I can't stress enough that providing that clarity to the team; being decisive and providing that clarity does a ton to cut down on that churn. But then one of our other pillars is we push each other to be the best that we can possibly be at our jobs. People are working hard, too, because everybody wants to do their best work and not let the rest of the team down."

Would Hangar 13 Consider Adopting Emerging Tech Like VR?

"Right now, we're focused on the core experience. But we haven't ruled anything out. We're always watching everything that's being developed, and trying to see how it might impact--or improve and enhance--the vision that we're working on right now, the game design that we're working on right now. We haven't ruled anything out. But we're really focused right now on the world that we're building, the mechanics that we want to bring to the fore, and the narrative, and our overarching game structure. Those are the core things that we're really focused on right now."

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