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 Starhawk  dev: 'Shooter genre is at a fork in the road'

Starhawk dev: 'Shooter genre is at a fork in the road' Exclusive

April 16, 2012 | By Tom Curtis

April 16, 2012 | By Tom Curtis
More: Console/PC, Exclusive, Design

Most modern single-player shooters follow a similar formula: they send players down a linear path where carefully scripted events give players an exciting, if homogenized, experience. It's a tried-and-true approach that has garnered commercial success, but Austin-based Lightbox Interactive will try to break away from that standard with its sci-fi third-person shooter, Starhawk.

This upcoming PlayStation 3-exclusive is the spiritual successor to the online-focused PS3 game Warhawk (itself a re-imagining of the 1995 PS1 game Warhawk) from the now-defunct Incognito Entertainment. While Starhawk's staying power will hinge on the quality of the online multiplayer mode, it will also introduce a new single-player campaign.

Speaking to Gamasutra in a recent interview, Lightbox president and Incognito veteran Dylan Jobe said the single-player experience in shooters is at a crucial creative turning point.

"My instincts say that the shooter genre is at a very important fork in the road," Jobe said. "It can continue to go down the same linear, blockbuster path or it can take a different approach. That's not to say that Starhawk is taking the right approach, but I think the genre is due for a next step."

Heavily influenced by Warhawk's dynamic 32-person multiplayer gameplay, the single-player mode in Starhawk will constantly offer an array of moment-to-moment options to players.

A more variable single-player experience helped give the campaign more variation, but Jobe said that approach introduced some real design challenges at the outset.

"The challenge in developing [Starhawk's single player] was that players can do things in so many different ways," he said. "You can try to recommend that players take a certain course of action, but as we saw in playtests, players won't always do what you want them to do -- they'll go and do their own thing."

These unruly playtesters caused the team some real frustration, but Jobe said they helped Lightbox create a campaign that didn't rely on pre-fabricated encounters and static action sequences. Even if a player's strategy goes against the developer's initial intentions, "those players should be allowed to have that experience," Jobe said.

Whereas a standard scripted game might force players into a mounted turret during a given fight, Jobe said Starhawk will let players forgo that strategy altogether, instead allowing them to snipe enemies from afar, or perhaps take part in a high-speed aerial strike.

"We eventually got to a point where five people would sit down to do a playtest, and all five people would take different approaches to the missions," Jobe said. "To me, I think that's a very successful moment, especially now, given the shooter genre."

"Right now, so much of the shooter genre is just a linear consumption of blockbuster moments, but we wanted to make something that was open enough where two players could talk about their different approaches to the game," he said.

Franchises such as Far Cry, Crysis and Red Faction have brought quality "sandbox" gameplay to the shooter genre, but Jobe admitted that this open-ended approach to single-player design is still a bit unusual in the grand scheme, particularly in an era where carefully scripted Call of Duty games rule the market. Jobe is excited to see how players receive Starhawk's campaign, but considering modern shooter players are used to much more predictability, he knows it's a considerable risk.

"Honestly, I don't know if this is what players want," he said. "Right now, you could argue that doing more of the same works, because people are selling a lot of product and their online numbers are still really good. But personally, I feel that we at Lightbox just want to try something new," he said.

Jobe hopes that when Starhawk makes its debut on May 8, players will appreciate its atypical solo campaign, because he eventually wants to see the shooter genre move in in a new direction. "This is our attempt at taking the shooter genre into somewhere fresh," he said.

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