Last week, on the day of the Mighty Server Meltdown of 2012, we were invited to High Moon Studios to talk Transformers and Deadpool with marketing manager Greg Agius. Along the way we got a crash-course in concept art, ran into Matt Tieger and got another sit-down with Dave Cravens, to catch up on everything he couldn’t talk about at San Diego Comic-Con 2012. But enough of the tease…let’s get to it.
One of the biggest things we noticed in Fall for Cybertron was how expansive it was, as opposed to War for Cybertron…can you talk about that a bit?
GA: Environments were a huge part of Fall of Cybertron. With War they had a whole bunch of characters to create, and with Fall we created a bunch of new characters on top of that AND we really changed the dynamic of what the planet looked like based upon the areas you explored. For example, the Rust Sea is really different from anything you saw in War for Cybertron…and there are four or five other areas that are radically different from War…and it all started in concept.
We actually went back to the 1986 Transformers film earlier this week, just to bone up on Cybertronian lore, and it’s amazing how unique the in-game world of Cybertron in the game looks in comparison to the actual movie/cartoon its based on–far more mechanical and alive…
GA: Our concept art team has done a fantastic job of bringing Cybertron to life—it’s really remarkable when you look at it. We did a lot of environment concept art for Fall of Cybertron, because one of the things we were really pushing for was the ability to provide a broader visual palette.
Before we spent multiple months building 3D assets and expensive cinematic movies based on Cybertron, Jim Daly had to imagine it, particularly with characters. One great thing is that we’re working with a beloved license, but the other side is that we have to be careful when reimagining characters.
Luckily, Hasbro loves our work, and there’s a toy line based on what we’ve been doing. They did one for War and did an even larger one for Fall of Cybertron.
JD: Working with Hasbro was a lot of fun. It brings out the 10 year old kid in you…I even have the Soundwave toy right here! We also knew and loved all of the Generation 1 characters as well, so we wanted to maintain the G1 feel, then put our own spin on them. A lot of the things we did went through very quickly: we got a lot of scrutiny on the big characters like Optimus Prime and Megatron, but we all wanted to get those ones correct…to make sure that the fans were happy with them. With Hasbro, it does make a little nervous though. I mean, you’re handing over these iconic characters, and trying to impress the people who created them, and hope that they like your version of it.
GA: For example, take these two concept images for Ultra Magnus and Perceptor: they were two characters designed for DLC. It’ll take Jim 2-3 weeks to draw up his version, another week for Hasbro to greenlight it. From there so you’re talking about spending a lot of money just to get an actual, in-game product., Before the actual 3D modeling is done, there’s a lot of cost attributed to them. Once the multi-angle drawings are complete, it will take many months to get the character from the page to the game, so it’s a long thought-out process.
We were blown away during the first Combaticon mission with Vortex and Blast-Off. We actually stopped on the second playthrough, to explore the entirety of that gigantic level, just to see how far down the rabbit hole we could go.
JD: That level you’re talking about was a pretty big accomplishment…I think it was literally the largest piece of geometry that the Unreal engine could handle. There’s a maximum size that each level can be, and Fall really pushed the boundaries of what current level hardware could do. I mean, the consoles are 6-7 years old…just think about a 6-7 year old computer and what it can do. The biggest thing we wanted do was create unique spaces, since War was a lot of metal: metal corridors, metal floors, etc. When we got to dig into the lore, we got to explore the Sea of Rust, Kaon and create a new flow with the Insecticon hives.
Did you do all of the motion capturing for Transformers her? I recall there being a massive MoCap studio on-site when we were here last.
GA: Nowadays we use an Activision MoCap studio up in Santa Monica, and the old MoCap room is currently occupied with the Deadpool team. Right after War for Cybertron, they spawned off and quickly made a Dark of the Moon game, then started spinning off on a much larger and ambitious project, which was Deadpool. A LOT of the guys have become really infected by Deadpool and adopted his personality and none more so than lead designer Terry Spier. Most days, you’ll find him in a Deadpool shirt…and he’s bought, what, two pairs of custom red Nikes?
GA: In fact, before we went all Hollywood with the voice talent, we used Terry for all the promo pieces we did for Activision and inter-office videos…a lot of us still miss the Terry Deadpool…
TS: Awww! You’re too kind!
So I see a Guitar Hero drum kit on one desk, and we passed a pretty massive library of (ahem) other studio titles on the way in…do you encourage playtime here?
GA: Definitely! A lot of the guys usually grab their lunch, then head back to their desk and play a game. Diablo III was insanely popular here, and you still see that a bit now. Plus from the library, we see X-Men Legends, Bulletstorm…all sorts of fun titles.
Deadpool is rated “M for Mature”…are you fully embracing the “M” rating with all of Deadpool’s quirks, or is it just because of the violence?
GA: Oh yes, we’re most definitely embracing the “M”. In fact, to jump into marketing speak for just a second, I think it’s a fantastic opportunity. If you look at all the Marvel titles we had on that shelf, the majority of them are “T” rated. I don’t think that’s where the market is right now. I think that if you’re a Marvel fan and you’re playing on a console, “M” rated games are probably a majority of what you’re buying. Deadpool is just glorious and insane violence…to the point where he’s just desensitized to it, as a character. It’s just a part of who he is.
How has the fan response been for Deadpool? We were at the SDCC announcement, and fans went insane when “Deadpool” interrupted the panel with his own press conference…
GA: A LOT of effort and thought went into that reveal. In terms of the reveal itself, the fan response was phenomenal…even better than we had hoped for.
We actually started thinking about Deadpool wayyyy back before Comic-Con 2011. We already had some concepts underway, and went to Comic Con to do some market research: what do hardcore comic fans know about Deadpool? What do they love about him? And really, how broad is his appeal?
We were really blown away at that point, just in terms of “wow, everybody knows who this guy is! Unaided! Like we said ‘who out of the Marvel universe deserves his own videogame?’ And out of a rotating group of 10 gamers, we always heard ‘Deadpool! Gotta have a Deadpool game!” Of course, the year later, at this year’s Comic Con, we were able to give the reveal and announce the game – with Deadpool’s blessing.
The trailer was viewed several million times online, and an overwhelming majority of comments relating to the Deadpool game were positive. And one of the most encouraging things was that a High Moon had a rep coming off of War for Cybertron and Fall of Cybertron. There were a lot of “meh” Transformer titles before War/Fall, and we delivered a solid experience. Fans are hoping we deliver the same experience with Deadpool.
If I recall, you have an in-house sound studio too, right?
GA: We have about six people on our sound team here. Let’s face it: sound is often one of the most overlooked qualities in a game. Everything that’s in the game, from a door opening to a Transformer’s footstep is all done here, on-site. Typically, when you’re creating something for a planet that’s completely fabricated, you have a lot of work to do. Usually we work with an external composer to get the game’s music and create a custom soundtrack, and our sound team manages that as well.
In our sound booth, we have a lot of weird stuff, because you need to create a planet’s worth of sound effects. There’s a car-door, a sledge hammer, heavy metal chains and other various metal things to create that signature sound. Rob Burns, our sound designer for Transformers, went off into the desert and shot off rockets to get the rocket effects for War/Fall of Cybertron.
Everything’s custom? You never rely on stock sounds?
RB: No, everything’s built from scratch. I mean, there are no giant robots around to record, right?! (laughs) We use metal springs for laser effects, we even recorded the pipes out here to make that “thunk” sound you hear when a Transformer falls. To make our iconic Transformer “transforming” noise, we started with guitar noise and feedback. I play guitar, so I’m familiar with the tones you can get, and how they transpose through the strings. I mean, guitar pickups will react to any type of a magnetic field. To me, the original sound from the cartoon sounded like a guitar effects; to achieve that, we brought in a bunch of things, including bandsaws, power drills…basically all kinds of power tools, and “played” them through the guitar. From there we added a bunch of flanging to give that “waaah waaaah” sound.
One of the standout voices we noticed (other than Peter Cullen) was Jazz. The guy was a dead ringer for Scatman Crothers!
RB: That was Troy Baker. He seriously did a great job. He’s a tall, skinny white dude, and we had worked with him before, and he is a total character. He came in one day, doing that exact voice and I remembered that when we put Jazz into the game, and I said “Troy can do that voice! I’ve heard him do it!”
From there we got to look at a series of things that we aren’t necessarily privy to discuss: the “war room” where the progress of the games are charted, a couple development areas we can’t discuss (“waah waaaaaah”) and as we were rounding the bend towards Dave Cravens’ office, we ran into Matt Tieger!
So, was Transformers: Fall of Cybertron designed to be a total love letter to the 80s, or what?
MT: There’s a fair amount of nostalgia in there. We definitely did a good job of building on War, and keeping the elements that were really resonating with fans. From there we “unhooked” and rebuilt the whole thing for AI, and all of the interactive areas, to create a whole different experience. I was really thrilled with the single player, because it allowed us to dive into each character a lot deeper, not only in terns of gameplay, but from a story point of view. We’re really enjoying that people are taking the time to find all the audio logs…to completely understand the history of the Dinobots
GA: Plus it has 100% more Grimlock than any other Transformers game…or any game ever, really!
Back when we interviewed Matt for “War for Cybertron”, the first question we had was: Grimlock? And he said “Well, he needs to fit, and…”
MT: I can honestly tell you that you weren’t the first person to ask me that question on the first title. I have this secret list of things that I really want to put in the game, and on Fall, Grimlock was absolutely at the top of the list. Along with the Combiners, you know, Bruticus was really high up there on the list. We had other things that didn’t make it, like triple-changers. We just didn’t have the time to do it right: and much like Grimlock, if we couldn’t do it right, I didn’t want to do it at all.
So how did you narrow the list down? By time?
MT: It’s such a huge universe, there’s just so many things you can do with Transformers. I mean, the hardest part is choosing what you’re not going to do…not what you are going to do.
What about female Transformers? No Arcee this time around?
GA: It’s strange how many times this question comes up. We want to do the character creator with all available parts like you see in the single player mode. The female parts don’t work with the male parts, so it turns into a massive technical problem. It’s the same thing with colors: people want this expansive palette in the creation mode, but again, it’s another matter of technical limits. There’s a finite amount of colors and models you can load in at once, without adversely affecting gameplay.
So when the roster was announced, was there a flame war from fans whose favorite wasn’t included?
MT: That’s unfortunately the biggest problem with the Transformers universe: it’s an unfillable “rabbit hole”, because everyone has their favorite obscure Transformer. Fans ask all the time “what about (insert name here)? Why doesn’t HE have a playable level!?” In some ways, there’s just too much history there. It’s really a challenge just to figure out how to make it happen cohesively.
What about you, Greg? Did you have a favorite that was passed over?
GA: Chuck, our lead producer and myself, we share a mutual love of Prowl, and we almost got him in this time…
MT: I kiebashed it because he was their favorite!
GA: …But we were able to get the “Slug knocking the door down on the Insecticon” and saying ‘excuse me.’ ” scene…
Yes! The shot for shot homage to the ’86 Transformers movie!
GA: Yeah, that was pretty great…it was definitely my favorite nostalgia moment!
MT: There are all sorts of moments like that hidden in the game. There’s a part where Starscream can find (and wear) his crown, you find Grimlock’s apron, Prime’s axe…did you guys find Leverboy?
The lever-transformer that dances like Carlton and gives you like $500,000 Energon shards?
MT: Everybody loves Leverboy! Yeah, there were a ton of credits back there!
Those elements are important to us…that people can find that stuff.
For example, the Teletraan store was new, and the thing that I really liked is that it knows who you are, so it says a couple lines that reinforce the character you’re using. If you’re a Uber-Transformers nerd, you’ll notice that Teletraan calls Optimus Prime by his original name, Orion Pax…but then corrects itself.
Did you run into any lispy forum dwellers complaining about the Dinobots being on Cybertron?
GA: When it was first announced, yeah there was a lot of “WHAT ARE THEY DOING ON CYBERTRON” freak outs…but then there was a sweep of fans informing other fans of the various creation stories. It actually has a precedent in the UK comics, and it had been done before…it was just a matter of dusting it off.
So how was your reception at BotCon? Were fans a little more lenient once they saw the game in action?
MT: It was absolutely awesome. I can confide that my head swells quite a bit when we go there, because to that particular group of the most dedicated, hardcore Transformers fans, what we gave them was exactly what they were hoping for. We provided something they’ve been yearning for, many of them, for three decades. We were by far the loudest and most busy section in the whole Con!
GA: We had kids that were coming to the same presentation five times. FIVE TIMES to the SAME presentation! Matt would be emceeing the action, and I’d be backstage playing and having it projected up on the screen. Brawl would appear and the fans would cheer. When Grimlock transformed for the first time…people went nuts!
How was it working with Peter Cullen again?
GA: Friggin AWESOME. He’s Optimus Prime. He’s just a wonderful person…
MT: Everything that the character embodies, he is. He’s been doing it for so long, that there’s really no difference between the two of them. He’s the guy that you want to be your dad, ’cause he’s just so awesome…
GA: Good luck living up to that! Yeah, my dad’s Optimus Prime. I’m Greg Prime…junior.