How indie sensation Hawken went from unknown graphical tour de force to fully fledged game

When Adhesive Games put its Hawken reveal trailer on YouTube in March 2011, it didn’t count on it becoming a sensation. The plan was to email the link to a few news sites and gradually build awareness from there. Adhesive was a small indie studio at the time, with six staff, three interns, and no marketing budget. What it did have was an impressive amount to show for Hawken’s first nine months of development, including a dystopian futuristic metropolis, mechs scuttling about in frantic ground combat, a hulking mothership looming overhead, and a swarm of missiles gliding through the air with slow-motion grace.

Of course, combat mechs in sci-fi have traditionally been modelled after dinosaurs, lumbering with a T. Rex’s earth-rattling stomp. They’re lethal but cumbersome, each one toting around a scrap yard’s worth of metal in its frame – all pistons, wires and hulking artillery. Accordingly, gameplay in mech games has remained fairly beholden to this sense of mass. What came across in that early trailer is true today: Hawken is ready to upend this status quo, with mechs that offer the nimble twitch gaming of a modern FPS. It’s an adrenaline shot to the genre’s heart.

Amplifying the emotional impact of the world’s first glimpse of Hawken was the sort of elegiac soundtrack you’d expect to hear playing over a summer blockbuster trailer. It, like the rest of the reveal video, provided Hans Zimmer magnitude on an art house budget. For the track, Hawken creative director Khang Le reached out to a web programmer friend named Shadi Muklashy, a polymath who dabbles in music and sound design as a side hobby. Le’s only direction was that he wanted something like Blade Runner and Batman, a mix of orchestra and synthesiser.

The finished Hawken trailer spread across the Internet like a brush fire. The morning after posting it, Le recalls being shocked to see that it had broken 300,000 views. Adhesive had a follow-up video of gameplay footage ready, which got nearly a million views. Things started moving quickly after that. The phone rang incessantly. The lead producer of Final Fantasy VII made a special trip from Japan to visit Adhesive’s studio in Pasadena, California. Every major publisher – EA, Activision, Konami and more – wanted a piece of Hawken. So did private investors. “I was getting lots of random emails”, recalls Le, “from people saying, ‘Hey, I want to invest in your game. Here’s $10,000.’”

It was around this period that some guy named Mitch Lasky started emailing him. Le wrote him off with the rest of the email suitors, assuming he just wanted to steal a chunk of the IP. “Lasky emailed us like three times, but he always wanted to meet at 9am and we don’t get [into the office] till 1pm, so I kept saying I had meetings even though we were all just sleeping. But he was so persistent, I was like, ‘OK, let’s meet at 11am then.’ That’s the earliest I could get up.”

The two met at a dingy restaurant next to Adhesive’s office. Lasky came prepared with an ambitious plan for Hawken, including strategies for transmedia and how to best exploit the emerging free-to-play business model. Le told Lasky that if he could find him a business guy to handle that side of things then he was interested in talking more, but for now he wanted to focus on making the game. Months passed, and Adhesive was close to striking a deal with “one of the biggest publishers” when Lasky got back in touch and invited the team to meet his investors.

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