I have been curious about California-based developers Industrial Toys since they first decloaked late last year. A studio stocked with personnel from Halo makers Bungie, Industrial Toys started with a premise we all knew to be true but that many developers ignored: virtual joysticks made touchscreen shooters stink.
IT’s Midnight Star (formerly Morning Star — see this Gamasutra blog post for details about the trademark kerfuffle that led to the name change) doesn’t try to transplant console or PC shooters controls into your iOS device. This game is trying to reinvent the shooter from the ground up around touchscreens in a way that has me genuinely intrigued. From what Industrial Toys’ Tim Harris and Johnny Skwirut told me last week, the game is actually shaping up to be like a deeper, mores sophisticated take on one of my all-time favourite arcade games, Time Crisis.
A lot remains to be seen. First and foremost, are the controls actually any good once you start poking at them yourself? And almost as important, will the free-to-play Midnight Star lean towards the perfectly reasonable World of Tanks/Hearthstone side of the freemium spectrum, or will it succumb to the dark side?
Midnight Star is due out in Q1 next year, and the devs are looking for beta testers right now. Part one of my conversation with Tim Harris and Johnny Skwirut is after the jump.
Owen Faraday: So guys, the last time we talked you weren’t ready to show me your control scheme yet. Is today my lucky day?
Tim Harris: You know Owen, the controls are hard to show. You really have to play them yourself.
OF: Huh. So you’re not actually going to show me the game in action today.
TH: We’re not, but we’ve got a lot of screenshots to show you. We’ve been debating on how to show the game because you can’t really grasp the fluidity of the controls from hearing about it. You’ve got to play it.
OF: It’s like the Matrix, then? You got to see it for yourself.
Johnny Skwirut: We considered doing a third-person view of someone playing it, or making a video from screen capture…
TH: Our control scheme, once you get into the flow of it, it’s a dance. The cadence of the game is simple: one finger to shoot, two fingers to shield, and other gestures give you the depth. Let’s show you the game and we can get into it.
TH: So if you remember the story, you’re Charlie Campbell, a crewman on spaceship called the Joplin in a near-ish future setting. This alien beacon that Charlie triggered in orbit around Saturn has brought him and his crew and his ship here, to this mysterious planet. What he doesn’t know is that catasprohic events have been triggered back in our solar system. So this whole alien world and the creatures you find on it, and your ship the Joplin, all of this stuff is rendered in excruciating detail.
The Unreal engine is fantastic because it produces visuals like this. But it’s big.
OF: Sure. It’s unwieldy to get onto a mobile device.
TH: Exactly. The first time you launch Midnight Star, it has to compile the shaders, and that can take 60 to 90 seconds. So we’ve created these awesome CG cinematics with our partners Zoic Studios. There’s a show called Once Upon A Time on NBC that they’re doing effects for right now, they also did Battlestar Galactica and a lot of other Hollywood stuff. What you’ll get instead of a looping logo is the first cinematic right when you launch the app, which gives the game time to get ready while giving you some story. That’s the only story element that we’re pressing on the player. Everything else — from a story standpoint — in Midnight Star is essentially self-serve.
TH: We looked at lot of other games in this space. With some of them it’s five minutes before you actually shoot anybody. We are going to have you watch that quick movie, and then boom — you’re in a mission. No menu, nothing. There’s a bit of a tutorial, but you’re shooting within two minutes and ten seconds.
JS: You get a little bit of context with the cinematic as you wake up on this planet and then as you talk with the team that you got dropped down there with, you’re doing the tutorial. And it’s over fast.
TH: We went super-minimal on the hud. On a console hud, you can absorb the whole thing at once because you’re back from the TV and getting a full view, but you get tunnel vision on a mobile device because you’re so close to it.
The controls have evolved throughout our R&D process, too. We knew from the get-go that we weren’t going to use virtual joysticks because those blow. But we found that testers preferred having an offset reticule on some weapons. So with spray weapons like the assault rifle where your finger is on the screen blocking your view, we moved the reticule just over your finger. But with pinpoint weapons like a sniper rifle or a pistol, you want the accuracy of hitting where you put your finger.
We made a choice about each of these weapons after a lot of testing. But it’s also a pref, you can turn off the offset reticule in the options if you don’t like it.
OF: When I talk to so-called “premium” game developers who are selling a product for five or ten bucks, they tell me that they have time to teach a player the game’s mechanics, and they can make things more complex because a player who has spent money up front will give the game real consideration. When I talk to freemium devs, they say that the window of opportunity is tiny, because you’ve only got a matter of seconds to hook the player before he gets bored and decides to go get a different free game.
So it sounds like you’ve got an uphill fight. Midnight Star is free to play, but there’s 90 seconds before I’m even playing [from your intro], and then I get into what sounds like a fairly elaborate weapons system. So do you think you can get all this down the pipe to your free-to-play gamer fast enough?
TH: You’ve hit on a mantra of ours from this development process. Because we asked ourselves that same question. Half of this crew has made some of the biggest console games of all time, and what you’ve said about $5-iOS games goes even further with a $50 console game. With a $50 game or a $5 game, you’re looking for ways to get that value back out of the game. With a free-to-play game, you’re trying to see how much to put into it.
That is part of why we’re putting so much effort and and production value into those cinematics. We want to communicate to the player right away that hey, this game might have been free but this is a premium-quality experience.
So the gun mechanics are elaborate, but you don’t get all the guns at first. We ease you into it. You start with a pistol and get you some simple mechanics. As you learn the systems, we introduce zooming in and out, and camera controls and stuff. You accidentally pull up your hypershield. It’s all in the context of the fiction.
OF: Speaking of the hypershield… why does Charlie have all of these powers, anyway?
TH: Whoa, spoiler alert [laughs]. Travelling through the artefact has changed him, and he finds that he’s got a shield that can absorb bullets. The artefact is doing things to him. I don’t want to give away too much of the story.
OF: Of course not.
TH: But our game loop is that you’re on Oberon shooting things, then you go up to the ship and upgrade things with the stuff you earned, then you go back and shoot more stuff. Charlie’s powers and weapons get more powerful with the resources he draws from the planet. You get shields that heal you and reflective shields, that sort of thing. Every time you decide to go back down to the planet you can load out two guns, one shield, a hyper ability that will slow dudes down or lift them in the air, and a piece of gear which is like a consumable.
TH: But to go back to what we were talking about before, about learning the systems, we really wanted to focus on the strengths of touch. You learn how to shoot with one finger and bring up your shield with two fingers. That becomes instinctual quickly.
OF: And the reason that that’s all so simple is because the movement is effectively on rails.
TH: Yes, with a lot more camera control, but right.
OF: You know, I remember the last time we talked, you guys were very careful not to describe the game as an FPS. And the more I learn about the game, the more it feels like Time Crisis. And I mean that in a good way.
TH: You’re not the first person to say that! There’s no question that we’re channelling Time Crisis a little. There’s two big differences. Unlike Time Crisis or House of the Dead, you have control of the camera. So there will be hexagons on the edges of the screen on the right and left that tell you when enemies are on your flanks. Those update in real-time as you’re in the scene, and when you lock on a target, the camera follows him. So there’s a lot more control than in a Time Crisis game. Once you get good, managing the camera becomes a really satisfying aspect of your proficiency.
OF: See, I like this because the iOS shooters that I’ve played have taught me that I don’t actually want to have control of movement on a touch shooter.
TH: Completely. The second point of difference between this and Time Crisis is the decision-based AI.
OF: Right, Time Crisis is scripted.
TH: The enemies here give each other orders, their morale breaks, they act different based on the capabilities of your weapons. We did that not just because it’s fun, but also for replayabliilty. There’s 28 levels in our initial release, and you can replay each one over and over again with a different feel every time because of the AI.
JS: Scenes play out differently based on how well you do. So if you don’t take out approaching enemies, you have to fight them in a melee mini-game to get them out of your face.
In Part Two tomorrow: leaderboards and the Midnight Star meta-game.