The game's relatively unusual "Build & Battle" system -- allowing players to literally drop strategic buildings and vehicles on to the playfield in real time -- provides what Sutphin describes as an "interesting challenge" for the design team.
"With a traditional shooter there's a lot of reference out there. We can grab a lot of the top triple-A games right now, and play them, and take all this information about what works and what doesn't -- but there's not a lot of games out there doing the Build & Battle kind of thing," he says. "So we've devoted a lot of time to doing a lot of prototypes, trying out a lot of different directions. We've steered all over the place with Build & Battle to bring it to the point where we're at now."
"We've learned a lot, for example, from playing in multiplayer where everybody's just doing a lot of weird shit with the buildings, and we're like, 'Hey, that was actually fun,'" he says. The team then takes that information and feeds it back to enhance the single player component. But what about the inverse? What has single player taught multiplayer?
"The visual language, mostly," says Sutphin. "We did a lot of work, for example, to focus the player's attention as we're going through the mission -- focusing the player's attention on where the enemy's coming in and where the objectives are. And some of the same visual language rolls over into multiplayer. That cross-pollination is really effective."
The biggest design challenge so far, says Sutphin, has been in balancing the three combat types -- up to 32 simultaneous players might be running around on foot, driving around a ground vehicle, or piloting an aircraft in the same frantic scenario.
"You have a huge scale difference across those three, and you have a huge speed difference across those three," he says. "When I'm the dude on the ground running around, I'm running relatively slowly. I care about things like the rock I'm going to hide behind, the doorway I'm going to go through... things on this scale. When I'm in a tank, that one rock, I drive over that. I'm not even thinking about it. Now I really care about the building that's in my way. I care about the big hill that I have to crest to get to the enemy base.
"And then when I'm in the Hawk and I'm flying around, I don't care about that stuff as much, because I'm looking at the whole battlefield stretched out underneath me. I'm looking for optimal strafing and bombing runs, right? I'm looking for a spot to land and start messing up an enemy base. I'm moving across the map in a Hawk in fifteen seconds, whereas on foot if I'm running it's going to take me a minute and a half, and so that's always kind of tricky."
There a lot of effort going into Starhawk. Certainly, it adds up to the triple-A level studio that Jobe hoped for, but it puts the design team at an interesting crossroads, with keeping its "indie" mentality in the face of developing a rather complex first-party Sony game.
"I don't know that we're seen yet as the faceless, corporate triple-A kind of thing, but it is kind of interesting the position we find ourselves in where we are kind of halfway between the two," says Sutphin.
Starhawk ships for the PlayStation 3 in 2012. With any luck, Sutphin and his pals will still be hanging out with the Juegos Rancheros crew well past then.