Project Awakened wants you to break rules, create your own hero, and mod the world
Project Awakened by Phosphor Games will allow you to create the hero you've always wanted and set them loose on an open, mod-friendly world. Want to play as Master Chief, but with Prototype-like game play? Maybe you're a fan of an obscure comic book hero who likely will never get their chance to have a starring role. Maybe you're ready to see Dexter Morgan in his own video game. Maybe you want to see your favorite D&D character come to life in 3D rendered glory. Awakened is an ambitious project that pulls inspiration and design from games like inFamous, Prototype, Assassin's Creed, Arkham City, and more. It's been in development for more than half a decade, but Chip Sineni, co-founder of Phosphor Games, believes it's finally within reach - with your help. Project Awakened is live on Kickstarter, with a goal of $500,000.
Don't call it a sandbox
Phosphor Games is comprised largely of ex-Midway developers, and in many ways, the existence of the studio itself revolves around Project Awakened. When Midway shut down and development was halted on its games, a title known as Hero was left to die, never finished. Sineni explained that the idea was too good to let go. The team wouldn't be able to use the code or assets from Hero, but its premise could live on in Project Awakened. Come hell or high water, gamers would have a title where they could create their own hero.If you're a City of Heroes fan mourning the recent server shutdown, good news: Sineni said that the game was heavily inspired by Cryptic Studios' MMORPG. “Some of our first inspirations were that we looked at MMOs. Stuff like City of Heroes. We thought, 'It's too bad there's no action game like this,'” Sineni told the Report. That being said, the team wanted something that felt more active. “As cool as City of Heroes was, it's very much an MMO, it's clicking on things,” Sineni said. “The situations were never quite like something Sam Fisher in Splinter Cell would encounter, like a really detailed scenario where there's a key over there, but I have to take this guy out, I can't be seen over here… there was never anything like that to it. You kind of just went into a big space and clicked on people til they died.” So what kind of title is Awakened? Sineni said that the game doesn't quite fit the idea of an open-world game or a scripted one. He said the team has tried both of those extremes.“The first thing we thought when we started this game in 2006 was, 'This game has to be open world, has to be open world.' Games like GTA were huge and a lot of other games were going open world.” “We found that it was fun to just go around and destroy stuff, but whenever we tried to do a mission, it was just so easy to break and leave and ruin the tension. You almost had to go out of your way as a player to engage with the mission, because otherwise you just kind of left it,” he told me. “It was just a shallow experience.” Moving from one design philosophy to the other, the game became much more scripted, full of designed sequences which were more unique. But in a game where you can give someone almost any superpower you want, it was too limiting to set players down a pre-determined path. “You lost some of that freedom,” Sineni said. “'What if I just wanna mess around? What if I want to just wanna cause some ruckus or destruction or test my stuff?'” Sineni also admitted budget was a concern for the game if the team was to pursue a more crafted direction. “That kind of content is very expensive to make a lot of.”
Psi-Ops: The Flying Mindcrate Conspiracy
Sineni described Awakened not as a sandbox, not as open-world game, nor as a directed narrative adventure. He likes to think of it as a “kit” that will present players with a situation and give them almost unrestricted freedom in how they choose to solve it. I brought up the structure of Dishonored, which became relatively infamous post-release for the myriad ways in which players would “break” the game, a player behavior the developers actively encouraged. Sineni concurred that was a good point of reference, but he had also seen first-hand what happens when players twist the game's code to suit their will when we worked on Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy. “One of the things we discovered when we were developing is when you used telekinesis, you could get on top of an object and pick it up and you'd start flying on the object,” Sineni said. “Everyone's first reaction to it was, 'Oh, that's super cool, but we gotta figure out how to turn it off, because people are gonna break the game with it.'” The problem sat for awhile, and the team re-assessed the situation. They'd had a change of heart. “The next reaction was, why turn that off? It's so neat that the character figured out how to fly! We never had a fly skill, but if you pick up a crate while you're on the crate, you're actually flying around the world,” Sineni told me. “We actually had to re-do all the levels so you couldn't just fly out of the world, because we had all these spots where we just never thought the player could be, and all of a sudden the player could be there.” Instead of punishing players for being creative and thinking outside the box, Sineni and the Psi-Ops team took the extra work on themselves so that the game could still have boundaries and a firm direction, but those who wanted to exploit the game could. It's a design philosophy they plan to carry into Awakened. “Why not just allow that stuff?” Sineni asked. “If the player wants to choose something where they go out of their way to try and break something, they should absolutely be allowed to do that. They're the people saying how they want to have fun with it, not us. So if they've figured out how to do something and that's the way they like playing, that's great.”
The power of Valve and Minecraft
With all the premise and talent behind Awakened, not to mention the needed funds, I asked Sineni why the game hasn't been picked up by any larger publishers. He said one of the major stumbling blocks was that the game was pitched in a pre-Minecraft world. “You know, before Minecraft, people would say, 'Nobody wants to create anything, nobody wants to put any work into anything, they just want to sit down and be wowed by what you've developed for them, like the rollercoaster thrill ride.'” Sineni was adamant that such a view was wrong, and he pointed to the success of Minecraft and Dishonored as proof. Even today though, Sineni said publishers don't quite understand and aren't willing to support a game that doesn't come finished in a box. We've discussed this lack of open-ness before on the Report, in what Ben calls “the Minecraft problem”: publishers and platforms are going to have to become a more welcoming place for ideas and games like Awakened, which Sineni said will follow the Minecraft model of development. “You get this very early beta, and the people out there get to help shape the game further,” he told me. “If people say 'I love the way the story plays, you have to blow out the story more,' then we'll start blowing out the story more. If people say 'The story's great, but I'm more into the multiplayer aspect,' we start focusing our effort there. Or maybe they say co-op, they want to go through this with a friend and play two characters that could never be together in another game. Or the modding, people say they don't care about the content we made, they want to create content, they want to make their own multiplayer games, their own campaign modes.” “The goal is to come out with all these features supported to some extent, and then we blow it out to the community on where they see the game going.” Sineni wants the community to be as engaged as possible in Awakened, from feedback to mods. The game won't shut its doors to modders, in fact just the opposite: it will come with some of the same Unreal Engine 4 tools the Phosphor team will use to create the game. Sineni even theorized the possibility of working with modders so that their creations could be sold to other users. Now there's a familiar-sounding idea. I asked Sineni if he had watched or heard Gabe Newell's D.I.C.E. keynote about that very concept, and he admitted he hadn't. Shortly after we finished our interview, Sineni watched Newell's speech and shared his thoughts on the irony: “It is funny coincidence that in Gabe Newell's talk today, he discussed how they saw games heading towards becoming “productivity platforms”, because that is exactly what Project Awakened is,” he wrote. “The Create-A-Player itself is making a character and changing the game you play, but the types of multiplayer games people could create, as well as the modding players could do to make anything- it really is about us providing people a kit do to stuff, and then players changing it to be what ever they want. It is empowering them to be the creators, and Project Awakened is the tool they can use to do it.” “I think it's awesome to hear Gabe talk about that, because it's still a new idea people don't get. They're like, 'So you're not gonna have all these things, and you're not gonna be rigidly defined, and you're not going to hand us this thing in a box and it's done?'” Sineni said. “It's a lot easier to explain that Assassin's Creed is gonna come out, it's gonna have these features, and then it's gonna work the way they said it's gonna work.” Despite the easier route, Sineni said it's worth it to push forward with the new way of thinking about games. “I feel like the other way is a way to create a game that lasts for a long time, that isn't just out for one season and then it's over.”
The hero this Kickstarter needs
When a superhero dies in comic books, it's almost always in quotations. Yes, Peter Parker is “dead.” Sure, Batman “died.” The “death” and return of Superman. But a good hero can't stay dead; there are people in need! Gamers are in need too, and so Hero has returned from death in glorious fashion as Project Awakened. But this hero needs your help. Look through your library of games. Scan your movie collection. Peruse your books. All those characters are waiting. I've already pledged my money to the Awakened Kickstarter and started a list of heroes I'd like to create. Who will you play as after you donate? Disclosure: Steve Bowler, Lead Gameplay Designer at Phosphor Games, designed the Penny Arcade card game Paint the Line.