Drinking and gaming wasn't the only thing to be had at last week's Transformers: War for Cybertron event held in San Francisco. Us journalists had to do journalisty things, and Gaming Nexus got a chance to speak with Rob Burns from High Moon Studios. He worked on the sound of the third-person shooter game, and gave us some insight into both the development and the experience of developing the game. Read on to see what we learned.
Transformers titles in the past have had a reputation of being lacking in content, having repetitive combat and gimmicky transformations. What did the team put into development to try to avoid that?
We started out just trying to make a good action shooter game. That's the basis of it, and then we tried to say, "how we can layer Transformers into it?" It's got to feel good to play, it has to be fun. Everyone at High Moon Studios plays a lot of games. We play the game every night, kill each other a lot. We play tons of multiplayer and everyone plays the single player all the time to send the designers feedback. A lot of it is a constant loop of feedback that we create. It really helped to drive the content, depth and action. Also, we made sure to say that we don't necessarily have to do something just because it's Transformers, or not have to do something. We decided to do what made it fun to play, and then make that fit into Transformers.
There was similar criticism for The Bourne Conspiracy game that the team worked on. Did you take any of that criticism and try to apply it?
We read all the reviews. We took it all to heart. We are very harsh critics on ourselves and to each other, as well. I think the short answer would be: yes.
Was there anything specific that you took from it that you wanted to learn from?
Well, it's a very different game. It's a completely different license. I couldn't give you any specifics right now, but it's a completely different style of gameplay, and one that I think we personally enjoy doing.
Are you worried about that negative reception that other Transformers games had?
No. Not at all.
So you think that it will sustain itself?
Yeah, I'm a gamer and I think it's fun. So I'm not worried about that at all.
Being that it is a completely new game, what new ideas did you incorporate? Did you have to learn anything along the way when you were developing it?
We started out with multiplayer, and we learn stuff every day. We wanted to put in the system for customizing characters and we worked with how we could do that to help balance the gameplay. That's how we came up with the idea of the different classes of the scouts, scientists and leaders and their unique abilities. We created a system where this specific ability can trump that ability, which can trump the other one. And this weapon can trump that one, which can trump that one. And the scientist can fly, but the solider has a lock-on rocket. So we started with playing lots of multiplayer and putting one aspect in the game at a time while play testing it a lot so we could go from there.
Would you say multiplayer was more difficult to create?
We had done it on a coupe of previous projects, among them was one that was unreleased and we also did it on Darkwatch 1, which had a multiplayer component to it. That's what a lot of us at the studio really love. So it wasn't necessarily more difficult as much as it was that we just wanted to make it our focus. We had to invent Cybertron, essentially, which was more difficult. The concept art really just knocked that out of the park: you can't go take photos of it really. It was like the designers already knew what Cybertron looked like.
How much of the original Transformers - in terms of the characters, the environment and the storyline - did you want to retain?
I'd say that the G1 Transformers is probably our biggest infleunce across the board. We wanted to keep the personality of those characters becuase they're so extreme and fun. Like Megatron who is never wrong and he's this huge boisterous dude. Starscream is always conniving and trying to take over. They're such extreme characters that they're really fun to deal with. Optimus is so straight laced and the obvious hero. We really just took all that G1 stuff and ran with it. That was the main inspiration even for my team, personally, from the sound perspective was really connected to G1. What makes the G1 Transformers, and what makes their sound. We based pretty much every sound in the game that we made off of that one distinctive sound from the G1 series. We recorded a ton of stuff. We recorded everything from kitchen appliances to guitar amplifiers, and used a lot of synthesizers, editing and ratcheting mechanics. We even used the club that you lock a car up with; that kind of thing. We recorded tons of little appliances like that, and used lots of effects to try to get that Transformers sound.
So it was a lot of trial and error?
A ton, a ton. There's definitely a lot of throwaway.
Is there a good story out of that? Any ridiculous suggestions that didn't work out in the end?
We were able to abandon in it, or realize early enough that it wasn't going to work. Or somehow shoehorn it into something that did work. I think some of the coolest stuff we got was when I brought in my big guitar. We had drills and bandsaws and all kinds of stuff that we were playing and recording through my guitar coming out of the amplifier and working on it there. We were making all these *scratchy sounds* and that stuff ended up being really useful and we used a ton of that.
What was the most important quality of the original Transformers for you? Was it something alongside these sound effects?
I think that was just from my perspective. But I think for everyone the characters themselves are clearly heavily G1 influenced. It's as if you take the G1 character and then update it to a darker kind of graphic novel style. Updated G1. I think that was kind of everybody's influence across the board, even from the story. They're trying to get energy. That was the story for every cartoon that they ever did: "We need the Energon! We need the Energon!"
I read that from an artistic perspective you guys were trying to take the quality of the design of the characters, but that you took some liberties as well. Could you talk about what kind of liberties you did take in terms of design?
I'm personally not that involved with the characters per se, but I think that if you just look at the characters you can see the similarities and you can see where some of the liberties are. They had to update all the vehicles because they're on Cybertron so the cars and the tanks all hover. In G1, Megatron was a gun. As fun as it would be maybe for 3 seconds to be able to transform into a gun, it doesn't necessarily work to play as Megatron through all the levels like that. So instead, he's big and he's a tank.
Why specifically Cybertron?
Because Cybertron is awesome! That's the story that every Transformers fan, including myself, wanted to know. We've only seen glimpses of Cybertron. There are a couple of cartoons with a little flashback and you see a little glimpse of Cybertron. But there's really very little of Cybertron throughout all the Transformers universe. As a fan, we had to do Cybertron. It would be the coolest thing. The planet is made out of metal, it transforms, it's awesome!
How creative were you able to get with the storyline and what's going on in Cybertron?
It's completely original and we built it from the ground up at High Moon. We worked closely with Hasbro to make sure that it fit into the mythos that already existed. It was pretty much full creativity.
That must have been great for you guys.
Oh, it was so much fun! That's part of what was great about doing it on Cybertron is that it hasn't been done before. The story hasn't been told, so it's in our hands to create it and build it.
Hasbro is folding that into canon now. They've made it an official Hasbro canon, they have the book out and a toy line. Hasbro is awesome. It's been really exciting to be a part of that, especially because when I was 7 yrs old I got Optimus Prime for my birthday and I was like, "Yes! Building Cyberton!"
Do the storylines of the Decepticon and Autobot campaigns intertwine by the time you finish both of them?
They're sequential, they don't necessarily intertwine. They're related. If you play them chronologically, you play the Decepticon campaign first. It's kind of a prequel to the Autobot campaign. Both of them stand alone as a complete story, but if you put them together, they work together.
So certain things will be explained if you've played both campaigns?
Yeah, I would say play the Decepticon campaign first and when you get to the Autobot campaign it will make a lot more sense as to what's happening here. If you don't, it still makes complete sense. Like I said, they're both self contained stories, but the Decepticon one explains why everything is happening at the beginning.
Do you get to see Cybertron get destroyed, leading into when they crash land on Earth?
Tieg [Game Director Matt Tieger] has been talking about how the story ends with them having to leave Cybertron but not knowing where to go. At the end, they've got their ship and they're kind of ready to go, but they haven't left. So Cybertron is shutting down at this point.
Are there any future plans to continue working on the franchise?
Personally I would love to, we just have to see how this one does. I'd like to make a thousand, so if you tell all your friends to buy it then we'll make a million of them.
Is there anything official on DLC yet?
We plan on supporting the title post-launch, but there's no official announcement.
What does level progression feel like? Are there very different environments you go through? Do the enemies change up as you go on in each campaign?
Yeah, the level you played was Iacon City - the Autobot home city - and that's one of the major environments of the game. But you also travel to the Decepticon's city on Cybertron and get to play through those, which is very different looking and in stark contrast. You also travel to the core, so you go underground in Cybertron and travel to the middle of the planet, which is also a really different looking environment. You spend a lot of time on the outside of Cybertron in an astroid/debris field. It's a part of the planet that's exploded outwards, and you spend time out in this debris field so there's a lot of very different environments.
And in terms of enemies, do you meet different kinds of troops of either the Decepticons or Autobots?
There's a whole progression. Plus there's the big boss levels. There are the big ones like Omega Supreme and Trypticon. You keep fighting up and fighting up until you reach the huge guys you have to take on. There are also a variety of other kinds of mini-bosses along the way. They change quite a bit, including in size.
Are there any unique multiplayer modes other than Team Deathmatch? Something that maybe would take particular advantage of your transformation ability?
Well I'd say that all the multiplayer modes take advantage of the transform abilities. If you don't use it, you will lose because someone that does use it will destroy you. The pace of the game is what I think really sets it apart from other multiplayer games because once you really get going and you start to get a feel for it, the pace just goes up and up. You're jetting through, you're transforming out, you're hitting one of your abilities and shockwaving dudes out of the way, you're back into a jet and flying away, and you're turning invisible and sniping someone. All those things are inherent to the Transformers: being able to transform, to use force fields and the lasers and energy that aren't in other multiplayer games. That entire core gameplay and pacing is what sets it apart.
Do you start off the game with all these abilities, or are there certain ones that you discover along the way?
In multiplayer it's part of your customization. You level up, and use the level progression system as you play through multiplayer and unlock new abilities. Those are for your custom load-outs. And in Single Player, the iconic characters have set abilities that they have, so that does change as you go through each level depending on which character you use.
Can you talk about something that was difficult for you guys in developing the game that you might have come across?
Nothing! It was a piece of cake, the whole time.
You encounter little problems and when you get past them you forget that they ever existed. You come out on the winning side, and it's like, "Ah! That wasn't a problem! That was an opportunity!" But I can't think of anything specific that would be noteworthy or exciting to talk about.
Were there any ideas that maybe you came up with in the middle of the development process, but then halfway between you decided it wasn't going to work, or you changed it up?
There are a number of those. Definitely the vehicle mode changed, the way they hover now. When we first made the vehicles, they were all on their wheels, at least the cars and the trucks were on the wheels all the time. You couldn't strafe, so you couldn't really shoot anyone with them. You could only kind of drive in a straight line and if someone was right in front of you you could shoot them, but as soon as they side stepped you would have to transform out. So to make them a lot more useful we had to make them hover so you could strafe the vehicles around and make them a lot more moveable. At least when you're not boosting. But it is really fun when you do boost and you drop the wheels down and have that big sense of speed when you take off. That kind of fit right into: "Oh, they're on Cybertron. Cars would hover on Cybertron, why not?" That's kind of an example of how we based it on the gameplay and then fit that within Transformers. That's a perfect example. We can't make them combat worthy with the wheels down all the time, but if we make them hover then we can.
We'd like to thank Rob for taking the time to talk to us and to Activision for providing our airfare and hotel room.