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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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Nick Kinsman
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Although I don't have a PS3 or really play much for shooters, I really appreciate the approach they're discussing. One of my personal big things about games is that it should be a player experience, which lets them tailor their own experience. I'd actually be quite interesting in playing Starhawk just to see how successful they've been.
For the sake of this avenue, I really hope those guys make out okay.

Chris OKeefe
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I agree. There is an important distinction to be made between telling the player a story and letting the player craft their own story. There's room in the market for both, certainly; some of the best games I've played have been linear storytelling experiences, for better or worse.

Games that allow people to craft their own stories can vary in their player agency. Skyrim for example lets you ignore the main plot altogether and tell a very, very different story than was originally 'planned.' And it can be very satisfying. Other games like Deus Ex were -fairly- linear in their design but allowed the player to craft their own passage, and the game responded to that passage in a meaningful way.

In terms of single player experiences, those are the kinds of games that people keep going back to years after release, because they can genuinely experience something new, and novelty by definition never gets old.

I hope Starhawk can live up to that promise! I hadn't heard of it until this article, but from the sounds of it, it might be my kind of game.

Mathieu MarquisBolduc
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I believe a single person can both enjoy the finely directed action of a more linear game, and at the same time enjoy the creative freedom of another, completely open-ended game. There is some for everything on that scale, as long as your make it deep and engaging.

My Terminology section:

Sandbox = Make your own fun (no objective)
Open World = Go wherever you want
Open-Ended = Fulfill story lines and objectives in the other you want.

Those arent the same! Some games are openworld but not really sandbox, or not really openended

For example both Skyrim and Red Red Redemption are very openworld, but skyrim is more openended because it has less restriction on the order in which you can play the quests/mission, and while they both have a bit of sandbox elements, neither are nearly as sandbox as Minecraft, Dwarf Fortress or the free mode of The Incredible Machine, which all have little to no objectives at all, only toys for the player to make thier own fun. Uncharted is neither sandbox, nor openworld, nor openended, yet is still an excellent game because it has focus and an excellent direction.

Thats just how I see it. I call shotgun on Overlord of Game Terminology.

Matt Cratty
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I've felt it was approaching that fork for years. It's at the lowest point (in my opinion) that I've ever seen in my gaming lifetime. Unless developers can have the freedom to take some design risks and niche titles can make money once more, this is how it's going to be.

And as much as it gets everyone's back up, as long as the console industry operates how it does, the above is impossible. There are no PC games anymore outside of Blizzard (for now), MMOs and indie games. Console games drive big money, but most of the time, PC Games drive big innovations (in my opinion.