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Stamp duty: The making of Hawken

Step to it.

Multiplayer mech combat is something that the PC has been sorely lacking for many, many years now. Hawken, an online multiplayer mech sim built by an indie team in just a few months using UDK, is an incredible take on Mech combat - and a decent candidate to be 2013's break out free-to-play success story.

We caught up with Khang Le, Hawken's creative director, and asked him about how the game can into production, the team's goals for Hawken, and just how soon we should start greasing our joints in preparation.

PCGN: What’s the status of Hawken now? You’re in closed beta, that’s right?

Khang Le: Right now we’re in a closed alpha, basically only just for friends and family and a few other game devs. We’re basically not even testing out the gameplay, just testing out more the network, the dedicated servers, just making sure they’re stable, things like that.

PCGN: The ball-park estimate you’ve got, is it tens of thousands of people? Or thousands of people? And how many people playing at the moment?

KL: Now, less than a thousand. We’re testing very small right now. And we’re going to get bigger, as we have 350,000 registered and I think a lot of them are going to be allowed to play in closed beta, and then open beta.

PCGN: I remember seeing the first videos of it and it looked incredible, like way ahead of its time. How much work was in those original videos? How long had you been working on it before then?

KL: That was nine months. Nine months and a nine man team. The whole project started in June 2010, as four or five people at the time. We put our heads down, we worked eight hours a day, like it was a real job but nobody was getting paid.

Actually, after two or three weeks of working it was already playable, but we were using the Unreal Engine and it had Unreal Tournament code in there. It was just like Unreal, and basically working on a multiplayer game on top of a multiplayer game engine was very easy. It almost felt like a mod originally.

PCGN: Who were the first people in the industry to notice? Did many people know about the game before the video?

KL: No, we talked to no-one about it. We just went under the radar. We don’t have marketing money, so I didn’t really want to tease the audience or anything like that, we just wanted to show raw gameplay. We think the gaming audience are smart enough to know not be fooled by a CG cinematic these days anyway, so the best way to do this is to show pure, raw gameplay, and once we got to a state where we were kinda like “Hey, this looks fun, it’s kinda cool,” it was ready for the public.

PCGN: So the goal was, make a wicked game, get it sold, get it invested in?

KL: No, the goal was to make a game within a year, a downloadable title, with six people. Launch it, hopefully make it popular and move on to the next game, until we met Mitch Lasky, the investor in League of Legends and a super-genius guy. The plan for Hawken was always to go free-to-play later, but he convinced us to go free-to-play right away and that’s what we did.

PCGN: When you all met Mitch for the first time, how was that?

KL: Funny because... This is really embarrassing. I didn’t know who Mitch was because I’m not really into the investment world at all. I know the creative guys in this industry, but not really the money guys. At the time we had a lot of people emailing us like “I’ve got five hundred dollars, I want to invest in your game,” really weird stuff like that, so we didn’t really take anybody seriously when they said they were investing, but Mitch was very persistent and we eventually met with him.

In our first meeting, we thought it was all too confusing, it was too big in scope. We said, maybe if we can find a business guy to share the whole publishing side, then we’ll talk about it more? And a couple of months go by, we’re still talking with various publishers, we have great options, narrowed down, but Mitch still came in and convinced us otherwise because he-

PCGN: He seems to know what he’s doing.

KL: Yeah, he knows what he’s doing! I finally Googled his name, thought I should see it, and I thought “Holy shit, man!” He knows what he’s talking about, yeah, so it was actually kind of embarrassing to find out who he was.

PCGN: So did you start in UDK [the Unreal Development Kit]?

KL: We started in UDK, yeah. We just downloaded it and started working in it. There was nothing official. Basically I started a piece of concept art back in ‘09, my friend named it Hawken and I just made fun of it. We downloaded UDK and after two or three weeks we got this grey box model of a cockpit, and then just kept iterating since then. We worked on gameplay since the beginning, visual development alongside it.

UDK’s great, it’s an awesome platform. Coming off of Project Offset, where we were building a game engine, that was really tough. Making your own game engine while you make a game is like creating a movie while you’re still trying to figure out a camera, and you don’t have the tools to even do it.

PCGN: Do you think you could’ve done what you did without UDK?

KL: Well, we can do what we did with other game engines, there are other options out there, but from scratch? No, there’s no way you could build a game engine and do what we did in that time frame. The other guys on our team, they’re very talented. The programmer, the main guy, Jonathan, he’s like super-talented. He could build a game engine by himself, but it would take years and it would not be to the level that we need all the tools to be.

PCGN: You’d need fifteen or twenty people working on the engine.

KL: Yeah, I’ve worked with so many developers who think like “Man, I wish this was in the engine?” [With UDK] it was already in the engine.

PCGN: So you're in a state now where it's getting close to public. What are you nervous about?

KL: The launch. You saw Diablo launch, even Blizzard blundered. It’s very scary. You’re testing against a couple of thousand people, but once you’ve got two hundred thousand people stepping in, how’re you going to get it to be stable? And customer service. You know, we’re launching globally.

PCGN: You seem like you’re all set for cloud hosting.

KL: Yes, we’ve been playing on the cloud and it’s awesome. I was very skeptical, but you can use somebody else’s server and it just works.

PCGN: Your business is based on a bunch of other people’s businesses. Presumably licensing fees go to Epic, to others too. That’s a lot of cost that goes out from the business.

KL: If you look at the big picture, it’s nowhere close to the cost of getting yourself into GameStop, or Best Buy, or something like that. The biggest middleman of a packaged good is not there in the free-to-play model. And almost every aspect, every tool we use from other people, we can slowly start to [develop] ourselves down the line.

PCGN: When you launch a free-to-play thing, what’re you expecting will work? What’re you expecting to sell most of?

KL: A lot of stuff we’re going to be selling is visual customization. That’s the most obvious thing, because nobody will complain about pay-to-win, or anything like that, but once you’re getting to the gameplay, the stuff that actually changes gameplay, we’re keeping everything balanced to each other, so the experience gets richer for those who pay, but everything you can pay for you can earn through playing, it’ll just take a little more time.

PCGN: Riot have now set up to release a new champion every three to four weeks, and it’s fairly well balanced, they’ve just basically gone to a production line. Have you figured out what your equivalent of that is going to be?

KL: It’ll be pretty similar, because our mechs are kind of like our champions anyway. There’s primary and secondary weapons, certain items are only available to that specific template.

We’ve haven’t been setting dates, but something along those lines. What so nice about the metagame is there’s so much more on top of it, all your internal components.  And there’s visual customisation on top of that, so camo. We’ve thought of the obvious things, we might have bobble-head on the cockpits, even the UI could be very changeable. You could treat the UI as kind of like your browser, as people decorate their own browsers. Things like that. 

PCGN: What’s the timeline now for you? You’re going to open it up to three-hundred odd thousand people in the next few months. Are you just going to flick a switch and they’re all coming in?

KL: Around October, November, it’s going to be a pretty big opening for a lot of people.

PCGN: That’s the month where all the other games are coming out.

KL: I know. It’s fricking scary, yeah. Marketing-wise, having 12/12/12 sounds pretty cool, it’s like an even number, but every marketing team out there thinks of the same thing, so we’re competing against Halo and some really big games out there. But what’s nice about free-to-play is of course you get something that’s free and it’s just going to be fired out, just downloaded, and we’re going to be here for a while. We don’t say “Oh, we’ve got to sell certain copies, within a certain window.” It’s not like that. We can slowly gain our audience.

I think it’ll be fine, as long as the game is good, I think the audience is smart. They’ll know.

PCGN: Outside of Riot, is there anyone else in the free-to-play land who you really rate?

KL: Definitely Team Fortress, that’s a great example, and League of Legends. I haven’t tried Tribes yet, and World of Tanks is a bit too aggressive, too monetizing for us, but they have a really awesome thing going on for them too.

PCGN: You’re doing a siege mode and you’ve got a PvE mode coming?

KL: Yeah, but I wouldn’t call it a horde mode, it’s almost like training, like you’re shooting endless waves of stupid robots, just to get players familiar with the weapons. We really want to expand once we have more time and budget and everything, to expand the PvE aspect of the game. I really love Lost Planet, you know, a bunch of players fighting together to destroy a giant beast. We’re really pushing for that because I think PvE is a lot of fun.

PCGN: We do too, especially if it's going to feel anything like this...

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