Viewers of Gareth Edwards’ industrious, beguiling and entirely expensive-looking Monsters might have wondered, upon learning that Edwards did the 200-plus effects shots in his bedroom, when modern guerrilla filmmakers would threaten the studio blockbuster. Viewers of the trailer for Hawken (below), a Unreal Development Kit mech game made by nine-man indie outfit Adhesive Games, might wonder something similar. With visuals to challenge the very best games on the market, it promotes the quality and freedoms of today’s independents. Creative director Khang Le tells us more.
How did Hawken originate?
This wasn’t supposed to be our first game – it was supposed to be another, very different game. But the engine we were going to use for it wasn’t console-ready and we wanted to shoot for multiplatform. Also, the game we were planning to do was 2D and the core artist on the team was very good at 3D, so I sort of switched everything around. I love mechs. I grew up playing a lot of MechWarrior games and I love designing robots; I do a lot of that stuff for movies and videogames. Everything was aligning for us to take this route, but it was also a very last-minute decision.
Why did you decide to use the Unreal engine?
It was because UDK was available to the public to use for free. UDK made it very easy to just download and test out right away; [Epic Games] were very open. We tested it out and I saw that they had this thing called Lightmass, and it looks gorgeous. It looked like Beast rendering, similar to Mirror’s Edge. Because that was one of the problems with the older Unreal Engine games: the lighting looks a little bit… spotty? This light-baking system’s a lot better.
Are you entirely happy with Lightmass? It still has that surreal look in some games.
The thing with Lightmass is that it does everything for you: you just put a light in and everything bounces around. Right now we’re tweaking it to get more of what we want. What’s nice about it is that it’s robust enough that you can combine multiple techniques; if I don’t like something that’s in Lightmass I can just render something in our 3D package and export the lighting. It’s cool but we don’t let the tool dictate what we want to accomplish.
Was Hawken conceived as a finished, published game rather than a portfolio piece?
Our core group is from Project Offset so we had experience in making a triple-A title. Though we never actually shipped Project Offset we learned a great deal from the experience. So we definitely went in shooting for a game rather than an art piece or anything. The crew we have are very talented, and they could easily get a job at some big company if they wanted. They’re always getting offers, but they wanted to work in an indie culture. We wanted to avoid a very corporate structure which tends to slow things down a lot and hampers creative ideas. A big studio would be afraid to make a mech game because it’s a niche genre, and they probably wouldn’t sell enough copies if they put in $40-50million. But we’re just a small team so even a small profit is very good for us.
When you consider this and MechWarrior: Living Legends, is the mech genre really the stuff of mods and indies now?
It’s kinda strange because that kind of stuff requires an experienced team. It requires people with knowledge of making high-quality visuals and everything like that. Guys like that end up working at big studios and big studios don’t take risks making niche games. But I think with engines like Unreal, CryEngine and Unity, everything’s getting more affordable for the small team. You know games like FreeSpace? They’ll be coming back. You’ll see more of them because talented people like to get together and make the genres they grew up with.Is there a sea change happening here? Does triple-A quality garage development pose a threat to the big studio system?
I think it’s possible but it’s still very, very difficult. If we were shooting for singleplayer – we’re not – it would require a lot more people and a lot more time. We would definitely need to increase our team size to at least 25-30. We’d need two or three years of development and a lot more money. You just have to know where to put your effort and make sure you don’t shoot for more than you can handle. There’s no way we can build something like Grand Theft Auto with our team size – it’s impossible, and we don’t strive for it, either. But it’s a good time to do that kind of stuff. When you think of game development, the highest cost is labour. And marketing, of course, but on the development side it’s the labour. But you get a talented group of people together who save up enough money to survive a year or two without pay, which is what we did, and all you need is your computers.
You’ve referred to your recycling and repurposing of assets as ‘kitbashing’. Tell us about that.
Kitbashing goes way back, even to when they were making the old Star Wars movies. That scene where they’re flying through the city, if you look carefully you can see the Empire State Building, a battleship… They didn’t have much of a budget so they went with that route. And in Alien, most of the set was put together using jet engines and stuff, real things they just bashed together. Those physical sets hold up a lot better than CG movies. They have tangible, real things in there.
And it’s much faster for us. All games today are very modular, but we went hyper-modular where we break things down ever further. Most games would have modular buildings; we go down to modular doors, windows and even smaller than that. Even the guns are reused as columns and things like that. And if you add lighting and different atmosphere, that changes the scene more than anything and is a lot cheaper.
How are you looking to publish the game?
We’ve been fortunate enough… It’s been amazing the amount of support we’ve had from studios so far. Basically, all the major publishers have contacted us and we’re just now picking and choosing the best route. But we’re open to options and grateful for all the interest.
Are you a bit intimidated by the idea of taking it to a system like Xbox Live?
The game will definitely not be a boxed game. Even from the beginning it was a downloadable title. Our little crew can only handle a game of this level of fidelity for multiplayer. And since it’s a multiplayer-only FPS, it’s not worth the price of a fully-fledged boxed game in my opinion. I think the level of fidelity we achieved with Hawken so far can stand out among the games on XLBA and PSN. It has a triple-A title look but for a fraction of the cost.
What’s more important for mech gameplay today: recapturing something lost or inventing something new?
The mech game audience is an interesting crowd. The fans are very hardcore and they’ll stand their ground. I grew up playing MechWarrior which is very simulation: much slower and more strategic. It’s very niche because it’s like playing a tank game. And there’s the other crowd which more recently grew up playing Armored Core or Virtual On, where it’s much more arcadey. What we tried to do with Hawken is strive for a balance.
What about Chromehounds?
The problem I have with games like Chromehounds or MechWarrior is that they end up being very open landscapes where people circle around each other until someone dies. It’s almost more like you’re playing those card games, more about choices than reflexes. And the problem with Armored Core is that it just doesn’t feel like a mech. It’s like an aeroplane game.
So, the thing we’ve tried to capture with Hawken is weight. Speed costs you fuel. So in the video you see a lot of jumping around because it looks cool for a video, but in the actual game you have to manage that very well. If you boost your way into a battle in a big city, get there and have no boost left, you’re pretty screwed. Your side-dash, boost and jetpack are very important in the battle.
We’re still shooting for that balance and there’ve been a lot of complaints about [the mechs] jumping too much. It’s kind of hard because games aren’t movies: you want responsive control. In good animation you need a follow-through animation and a wind-up animation; if a mech jumps it should kneel down first and then jump. But if you do that in a game it’s very frustrating. Or if you land and have to wait a second before you can move again, that’s frustrating. So we’re still working on that.
So the target market for Hawken is…?
I’m hoping it’ll reach more of a massmarket because a lot of people say it’s like a Call Of Duty. I think it’s more like a Halo, because in COD you die very quickly. It’s about who knows the maps better. But in Halo, even if you’re a terrible player like myself, you at least get 15 seconds of battle. You can see the enemy before you die. I don’t like being killed before I've seen who killed me. So here it’s more strategic.