Maybe you wouldn’t suspect it from the general editorial direction around here, but I love shooters. A lot. I’m in my thirties now and I know full well that competitive shooters are a younger man’s game, but there was a time when I’d misspent enough of my youth to be a pretty hot shot at Quake 2 CTF. Even now that I’m older and slower, I enjoy a good tilt with World of Tanks or Battlefield 3, trying to make up for what I’ve lost in reflexes with underhandedness.
So if PT has been avowedly skeptical about action games (and especially shooters) on touchscreens, that’s not rooted in any sort of contempt for the genre. I wish there was a satisfying way to play shooters on mobile, I just don’t think I’ve played it yet.
Industrial Toys think they’ve got the that problem licked. Last December, they announced Morning Star, a sci-fi shooter with a decidedly AAA look to it. As well it should, given that Industrial Toys is a start-up founded by Bungie co-founder Alex Seropian, and the Morning Star team includes luminaries like Marvel Comics artist Mike Choi and sci-fi author (and exceptional blogger) John Scalzi. In the ensuing months, the outfit has talked a big game: their exuberant announcement trailer (full of Dutch angles and toothsome aliens and an exploding sun that I’m pretty sure is ours) splashes you in the face with a bold line about “re-imagining” the shooter.
From my dark and sinister lair, I have been waiting for someone to say those words. To say — with conviction — that they can make a shooter work on touchscreens. I won’t know until I’ve played it with my own hands, but Industrial Toys are close to making a believer out of me.
Earlier this week, I spoke with IT’s Tim Harris and Johnny Skwirut about Morning Star. You might notice that Johnny only appears once below — he’s basically the Teller to Harris’ Penn, nodding for emphasis and occasionally doing a bit of close-up magic. Nice chap. Not exactly a chatterbox, though.
After the jump, my chat with Harris and Skwirut about Morning Star — what it means to “re-imagine” the shooter, how John Scalzi and Mike Choi figure into their creative process, how they hope to make free-to-play work, and more.
Owen Faraday: Catch me up on your progress, gents. You announced late last year, how far along is Morning Star?
Tim Harris: We went feature-complete about a month ago. We’re moving towards shining it up and getting it ready for release. There’s that point in game development when games start to come together. You work work work creating systems and the story and all of that stuff but finally when it’s playable and it’s a cohesive whole, that’s really excited. Two months ago when it was all about production, that’s the worst time in game development because you’re so far into the weeds, still creating systems, still working things out, you dream about getting to this point.
OF: Last year when I talked to Jake Solomon about XCOM he told me that that design didn’t come together and start to feel fun until about a month before release.
TH: I think most people go through that. Especially when you have an ambitious design. We’ve shot our mouths off a lot out there about how we want to make something that hasn’t been done on this platform. Those are bold statements, but then you have to deliver that stuff. For us, it’s about control, AI, and story. We’re doing things that have not been done before.
OF: Let’s talk about the controls. Because I would agree with you that nobody’s delivered a satisfying shooter on touchscreens yet. I’m a little skeptical that it’s even possible on the platform.
TH: We get that skepticism every day. [laughs] Here’s the thing about Morning Star’s controls: you can play with one hand. We’re making this for phone and tablet, that’s why we went with the one-hand setup.
OF: So if I’m standing up on the bus or on the subway..
TH: You’ll still be able to play it.
OF: Hmm. Okay.
TH: So I hear from your “hmmm” that you feel a bit of skepticism there anyway. [laughs]
OF: Yeah. I can’t lie.
TH: We’ve seen a lot of folks make bold claims about iOS and shooters on iOS, and we’re glad to see people try anything that’s not virtual dual sticks.
OF: Everyone hates them.
TH: Everyone hates them. Yet games keep coming out, because in some cases the one-handed control schemes they tried weren’t satisfying. Or worse.
Johnny Skwirut: So they go back and add another preference post-launch.
TH: We know that we’re talking a gamble with the control scheme, but we think it’s going to pay off. And we’ll be talking about it more as we get closer to launch. You can expect the things you’re used to from shooters but there’s differences.
OF: So are there different control metaphors from shooters I might be used to from PCs and consoles?
TH: There are some metaphors that are a bit different. Some of the things you’re used to — particularly cover — will be different. We’ve turned some concepts from shooters on their heads. The reason we’ve been saying “rem-imagining” is because we’re not trying to beat great shooters from other systems — we want to make a specifically endemic mobile shooter. We don’t think that on iOS you can make a better mousetrap, we just want to make the best mousetrap we can on the platform.
So it comes to do things like, the way you dole out content. A console shooter has levels designed around 10-15, 20 minute chunks. We’re designing our loops around 90 seconds. You can play Morning Star for hours at a time, but we’re designing it so you can get in and out super-quickly, and advance the plot or your progression in the game in 90 seconds.
OF: So to make a crude comparison, you can talk about the ‘combat loop’ in Halo where you run into a cluster of enemies and have your shootout, then you get a break in the action. Your combat loop is 90 seconds long.
TH: Right. Not only do you get a break in the action, but you’ll get feedback that shows how you’ve progressed in that time. You can skip right through and get back in the action, or you can have a break.
OF: How does that work in-universe?
TH: So you might have seen that spaceship, the Joplin, in our teaser trailer. That ship takes you out to this mysterious signal that’s emanating from near Saturn. You essentially encounter an alien artifact, and you’re going through it to the alien planet where the drama takes place. But the Joplin is your base, so all of your upgrades, inventions, story elements — that’s happening on the ship. The action happens down on the alien planet.
OF: So there’s a strategy layer to the game to an extent.
TH: There is, but it’s all about researching and upgrading and all that kinda stuff. So you can quickly and easily play a couple of combat loops, gain resources you’ll use for crafting and teleport back to the ship and change your load out, bring different guns for the next encounter. You can stay on the planet and blow the crap out of everything for hours on end, but if you want to play more methodically and return to the ship periodically as the situation changes, that’s good too.
It is worth going back to the ship, though, because we’ve designed the game so that it plays very differently depending on what equipment you have.
OF: Because the AI is reacting to player decisions?
TH: So that’s another piece — we think AI is a big differentiator for us. The whole point of spending as much time as we have on AI is that every time you play a stage, we want you to have a different experience. The enemies have sophisticated behaviours where they’re giving each other orders and reacting to what you’re doing and what you they’re getting shot at by. That’s plucked from experience we have as a studio from making shooters on other platforms.
OF: So how are you planning to sell Morning Star? Is this a free-to-play game? A premium-priced game?
TH: It’s a free-to-play game. We’ve been very careful from the beginning about that. We’re all gamers here, we’ve got strong opinions about what feels right and what feels exploitative. We think that’s a pretty fine line, but we think the model we’ve got deals with that line pretty well. You will, as a completely free player, have access to most of the game over time. There’s no content gate, it’s more of a usage model.
OF: But is it an energy model where I have to periodically put down the game and walk away?
TH: There will be some energy elements to it, but you’ll never have to put the game down and walk away. There will always be a free option for you to keep playing. Don’t get me wrong — there is some energy stuff going on — but the option to keep playing in a satisfactory will always be there. We don’t want you to stop playing our game if you don’t want to.
We’ll talk more about this when we launch the graphic novel that Mike Choi is drawing and John Scalzi is writing.
OF: You said one area where you want to do things no one’s done before on mobile is the story.
TH: Most of the story you experience in the game will be self-service. Blow through the game and ignore it if you like, but if you want the story, it’s there for you.
OF: So if I’m a Philistine that wants to skip the story, do I not visit certain areas or not pick up certain MacGuffins?
TH: Some will happen over the course of the game, but a lot of the story happens back on the Joplin from your interaction with the characters there.
OF: So if I don’t want to talk to so-and-so, I can just get back to the shooting.
TH: Exactly. But some portion of the audience will not only want to get into the story but go deeper and dig up the background. And that’s why we’re doing Morning Star Alpha — it’s a graphic novel that tells the story of your character, Charlie Campbell, and the events leading up to the launch of the Joplin. What’s cool about it — because it’s another app — we’re using that as the repository for all the nerdipedia stuff. We’ve made a lot of background information, Scalzi has written lots of texture pieces about Earth and what’s happened in the last 120 years since our time. We’ve baked all of that into the graphic novel which is a comic book-esque story with a three-act arc that Mike Choi is illustrating.
OF: That sounds like another Morning Star-sized project.
TH: It’s huge. It’s basically a nightmare. [laughs] But we’re really pleased with the way it’s coming out. Mike Choi is also doing all of the concepts for the ships and the world and the aliens — everything centers around Mike. There’s also interactive elements in the graphic novel.
OF: Like a game book?
TH: A little — there’s some point-and-click, some choose-your-own-adventure. All of the decisions you make in those parts of the novel affect what happens in the game later. So for example, you’re interacting with one of the crew members on the Joplin. You make a choice about how Charlie reacts, and that character will remember how you reacted, and that will unlock different story elements when you play Morning Star.
OF: Wow. That’s cool.
TH: Right? We’re excited about that. So the comic book is entirely optional, but it will make a bigger, deeper experience for those players who want it. That comes out a month before the game.
OF: If you get that right, that’s the sort of thing Mass Effect 3 tried to do but didn’t actually pull off. Last time I checked you guys were hoping to release around late summer — how’s that coming?
TH: Yeah, let’s call it fall. We’re feature-complete but we’re still shining. And this is the part where we get detailed and picky. We don’t have a publisher, which has good points and bad as you know well, but the company line is that we’ll release it when it’s done. The reality is we’re three or four months away and looking good. If that’s September, it’s September. If that’s October, it’s October. You’ll know that when Alpha, the graphic novel, comes out, the game will follow about a month after.
OF: Clearly so much depends on how well-received the game is and how well it does financially but have you started thinking about more content down the road? You’ve invested so heavily into world-building.
TH: We’ve got two chapters of single-player content planned post-launch, big huge content chunks that will come after release that continues Charlie’s story. There’s also some features that we had to cut when we locked down for feature complete that we’d like to introduce in updates post-launch. We’ve got at least a year’s worth of content after we release and that’s been part of the plan all along.