The Transformers franchise began in 1984 when Hasbro looked to capitalize on the success of G.I. Joe and pitted the heroic Autobots against the villainous Decepticons in an epic struggle on television screens and in toy boxes everywhere. Both sides share the same homeworld, Cybertron, which has been seen over the years mainly in bits and pieces. That all changes with the release of “Transformers: War for Cybertron,” an all-new video game from Activision and developer High Moon Studios, where the planet itself takes center stage in the prequel to the popular franchise.
While the first to feature the robots’ homeward at the story’s core, “War for Cybertron” is the third Transformers title from Activision and features a brand new, original story with two separate campaigns depending on whether gamers choose to play with Autobots or Decepticons. Each campaign is wholly distinct with different levels and objectives and each utilizes a 3-player co-op experience to explore the world. In addition to the campaign mode, there are a bevy of multiplayer modes, as well as a new feature that is a first for the franchise – Create Your Own Transformer – which High Moon describes as “huge.”
CBR News spoke with Executive Producer Rob Loftus from Activision who walked us through everything from why this game was made to where it fits in canon.
CBR NEWS: Being that this is the third Transformers game Activision has done, how was this experience different in terms of dealing with Hasbro and the license given that you’ve been through the process twice before? Does it get easier each time, or is every game a unique and challenging experience?
Rob Loftus: It’s pretty different. The first two were movie-based games and this one is not a movie-based game whatsoever, so the approach is very, very different. The approach with Hasbro and with what we wanted to do for the game was something that was a great game first and didn’t necessarily live in that licensed world of “Ok, we’ve gotta be out with the movie.” It’s all about how it feels on your thumbs. Everything that we do is in the service of being a great game. That was first and foremost.
Now, how we worked with Hasbro on that was collaboratively with [the] characters. The concept art that we did was sort of a revisualization of the characters and [we] pitched them and said, “Hey guys, what do you think of this?” They were very responsive to it. A couple months after the initial meeting they called me and they said, “Can you send us some of the MAYA assets?” and we were intrigued. We didn’t know why they wanted them, they were being a little vague about what they wanted. “We can’t commit to anything, but we might be able to do something here.”
A couple months later they had grey models of our in-game models, and we were like, “Oh my gosh, this is awesome!” That was the validation. That was immediately different from working on the movie games where it was, you have your script, you have your date and you have everything that’s gotta be a certain way. The way we approached this, it really felt like working on an original game because we were developing this new vision of Cybertron and the characters and we were also, the way the game is designed as a 3rd person shooter – a 3rd person action experience first, and a great action experience – it felt immediately differently.
You mentioned that you went to Hasbro. Was this an instance of them coming to you with an idea and you turning something more developed back in to them, or was this wholly your idea to do a prequel to the Transformers mythos?
We had this relationship already established, we had the license to do another Transformers game and when we went to them [we] said, “What about this?” Which was we wanted to do a prequel. What we asked them to do was put up the guardrails about what we can do in here. We’d like to play in this space and we brought up Cybertron. We said we’d love to do something on Cybertron, we’d love to do something that’s not tied to the movie storylines, and not necessarily tied to G1 either. It’s just, it’s different…
A lot of the guys on the team felt that Cybertron hadn’t really been explored before – it hasn’t been explored before in the game world, at least – so we thought it would be a great setting, a great atmosphere to do a different take on it. What we asked Hasbro to do was like, “You guys are the experts, help put up the guardrails about where we can go within this universe, but also we’ll ask you, can we play around in this a little bit and see what we can come up with?” They were very receptive to it. They said, “Here is the Transformers canon that we can’t deviate from and these are some of the design cues you need to maintain, but we’d love to see what you can do within this.” They were really, really collaborative about it, and so the result is what you see onscreen.
Was there anything you really wanted to add to the game this time around that you couldn’t accomplish before, either because of either approval or development limitations, but now on your third effort and working in a new environment you felt you could?
The biggest thing is really the time and the focus to make a great game first. Because the approach – everything was informed by that decision – we had the time, the resources available to really focus on that flashpoint within the Transformers’ history and have the gameplay really justify doing it in such a great setting.
What was the production cycle like on the game, and how did that compare to the movie tie-ins?
Just under two years. It’s, uh, significantly longer. [Laughs] Honestly, I didn’t work on either of those, so I can’t really speak to the production cycle on either of them, but it’s an order of magnitude longer.
CBR: With the story fitting into Transformers canon, did you create any new characters that are now officially part of the mythos, or does the game deal more with re-imagining the characters we’re already familiar with?
We didn’t create any new characters, it was more a re-imagining of the ones we know. What we added was character customization in multiplayer, so you can create your own [character] within the game. In the story mode, there isn’t a new character or anything. That was part of the guardrails that we had to work within.
I imagine you’re basically off in a vacuum, creating this great concept art, not necessarily thinking about someone approving it when it’s all said and done. Did you run into any hiccups with Hasbro in terms of the “Cybertron-era” versions of these iconic characters, which aren’t necessarily based on specifically Earth-centric automobiles?
There’s a popular story that we tell to folks around the office about what it was like to do that. That’s a common question when you’re redesigning a character that people have known for the last twenty years. Bumblebee, Optimus Prime – these are iconic characters. [Matt Tieger, Game Developer for High Moon Studios], at that first meeting, we talked about the story, and we talked about the character designs. I remember it very clearly. Tiege brought [a] sketch of Bumblebee. That same sketch of Bumblebee is the approved concept art that we used to build the model that you will see [in the game].
The idea was, there’s iconic design cues for each of the characters that we got from Hasbro. We had our guardrails and started looking at it this way – we’ll do the squint test. All right, we know that there are these certain things we can’t do or that we can’t deviate from – things we have to maintain – but does it pass the squint test? Do you see Bumblebee in this sort of silhouette? And we thought, yes, even though he looks quite different on the surface. Tiege took the sketch to him to Aaron Archer over at Hasbro, and he sort of pushed it across the table to him and was like, “What do you think?” The result was, they were instantly receptive to it. So that first sketch sort of paved the way in with Hasbro – we gained their trust – and then all of a sudden the tone of the conversation changed. I think for Aaron it meant that we got it and he was a lot more comfortable [after that].
If you look at the sketch, and then if you look at the game model, we changed maybe five to ten percent. Not even ten percent. Specifically what we changed was the youthfulness of Bumblebee’s face, but it was nuance, it wasn’t major silhouette changes or changes to the way the character fundamentally looks or color schemes. It was these nuances that Hasbro provided to us. [Things] we hadn’t been thinking about because we hadn’t been living in the IP for the last twenty-five years as they have. They helped us out in those individual spots and the result is they made the characters into plastic, in terms of the figures that are coming out, and we didn’t change that much on the game. Speaking as a producer, it’s a huge win.
In terms of the talent that was used on the project, did you bring on an outside writer for the story?
The story is largely internal to High Moon. What they did was put up broad strokes. They said, “Hey this is what we want to do, these are the major story beats.” We worked them through with Hasbro, worked it through internally and then we worked with Dan Jolley, who’s done a lot of the novelizations with Hasbro. What he did, is he really provided the voice. He made sure that each one of these characters was really speaking within their character and provided that level of authenticity for it. He’s another check to make sure that we’re doing it, and doing it right.
When developing the story, obviously the cartoon is a huge influence because that’s where it all started, but did you also look at any of the comic book or novel iterations of the IP?
Oh, sure. High Moon looked at everything. They looked at comics, they looked at any of the lore books that are available – even some of the unofficial history ones – to what Hasbro had in terms of their official archives. They looked at what was publicly available and at what was in the public consciousness of the Transformers. But they also looked at the fan sites – what were the stories that people were talking about? What characters were people talking about, what origin stories of characters were they talking about? That’s how they built a lot of what they wanted to do within Cybertron, both in which characters they wanted to use, to what stories they wanted to tell.
Let’s discuss voice talent. Were you able to get people familiar to Transformers fandom? I’ve heard previously that Peter Cullen is on board…
Yeah, you can’t do the game without Peter Cullen. He’s obviously Optimus Prime. Gosh, who else do we have…? This is a good quiz for me because I haven’t thought about VO actors in a while. Johnny Yong Bosch as Bumblebee, Fred Tatasciore, he’s done a number of games. He provides the voice for some of the larger characters, Omega Supreme. Corey Burton as Shockwave and Jeff Bennet as Soundwave. That’s all I can recall offhand.
Since Cybertron really hasn’t been fully explored up until this point, did High Moon have the freedom to design it from the ground up, or did they have a starting point from which to build upon?
If you look at Cybertron and where it’s been, we’ve seen glimpses of it in the cartoons and in the comic books, so there was a starting point in terms of what’s the popular idea within the Transformers world of what Cybertron is. There’s also what is High Moon’s representation of that going to be. That kind of falls within that space where Hasbro said, “Do this, but don’t do that,” and they provided those loose constraints and gave them the ability to come up with something. We re-pitched it back to them and they ended up liking it.
What’s the average play-through time for the story mode of the game?
Everybody’s different. We’ve got testers who can run through the game in 8-10 hours, we’ve got some of the other folks who run through it in 11. It’s really hard to get a gauge on it. I can tell you it’s competitive with everything that’s out there in terms of game length. There’s a lot of game here – there’s the single player campaign, there’s Escalation, there’s multiplayer, there’s co-op, there’s competitive co-op – it’s a big game.
“Transformers: War for Cybertron” is locked and loaded for a June 22, 2010 release from Activision and High Moon Studios. Check back with CBR in the coming days for a hands-on impression of the game.