Interview: Matt Tieger of High Moon Studios on Transformers: War for Cybertron

High Moon Studios' Matt Tieger, director of Transformers: War for Cybertron, says his game is influenced by the movies -- but not just those directed by Michael Bay and starring CGI robots. Instead, Tieger pointed to Sam Raimi and a certain webslinger as big influences for his upcoming release, as he spoke to a group of press during a recent preview of the game at the studio's offices in Carlsbad, Calif.

Tieger says that even though his team is creating a licensed Transformers game, he wants it to be like the first Spiderman film in that it appeals to three audiences: folks who just want a good action ride; brand fans, who want to be reminded of what they liked about the universe as kids; and hardcore fans, who will get every single reference and inside joke -- he wants to "smash you in the face with nostalgia."

Following his presentation and a hands-on preview of the game, I chatted with Tieger about War for Cybertron and what game he would "love, love, love" to make next:

Joystiq: So what was the pitch behind this game? What was the impetus behind a game like this?

Matt Tieger: Well, we knew that Activision came to us and said, "We think you guys are a good fit for a Transformers game." Based on our sensibilities for some things that we had done before, we had done some prototypes, and they thought we were a good match. And we had lots of Unreal Engine experience. And they wanted to make a non-movie based Transformers game. So they asked, "What do you want to do," basically, within the confines of that. And we came up with a plan, and redesigned a bunch of characters and then started talking to Hasbro.
So here's the pitch: We wanted to go old-school, wanted to create a unique look and style and feel, distinct from the movies -- which are very, very popular, we don't want to violate the moves in some way -- but we want to go back to G1, back to the roots of Transformers, and hit this market of 17-35 year olds. And within that range, if you split that in the middle, the older group is that wave of nostalgia. The younger group is just, "Give me a great shooter. I'll play anything that's a great shooter." Many of them are Transformers fans, but not all of them.

And so we said OK, and that then informed everything. It's grounded in fundamental gameplay, good choices there, but still lots of new story, that's going to appeal to that other part of the bracket, right? Character designs that are going to be cool in and of themselves, but also hearken back to nostalgia of all of it. All the things kind of fell in place after that. We knew our market, we knew it had to be founded in solid gameplay, we knew we weren't based on a movie, and we knew we wanted to go old school.

How long ago was that, that the original ask from Activision came?

The way PR lets me answer the question is, you can back-calculate from when we shipped Bourne. That's how long we've been working on the game.

[The Bourne Conspiracy was shipped in July of 2008, halfway inbetween the first Tranformers movie, released in July of 2007, and the sequel, Revenge of the Fallen, in June of 2009.]

It's interesting that Activision said, "We don't want a game based on this movie," which was extraordinarily popular and made a lot of money. Are you worried that there will be guilt by association of sorts from the movies?

The way it works is, Activision and Hasbro have a great relationship, and that relationship is based on, hey, let's make games based on movies and games not based on movies. So it wasn't like, oh, we need to actively avoid the movie, it was just like, let's offer additional things in the fiction for Transformers.

Am I worried that there's a negative backlash from the movies? Honestly, the answer is no. Whatever fans think about the movies, I don't think that necessarily affects what we've put together. If you're a hardcore fan and you feel like the movies aren't for you, okay, well there's a game that is for me. That's what I remember Transformers being. If I'm a big fan of the movies, it doesn't mean I hate everything else Transformers, it just means I like the movies, I had a good time. "I never really thought about what they were like before, let me go check it out. I just like shooters. I'll play every shooter that comes out, right? It's Transformers, I like the movies, yeah." And you just kind of go into it.

So we don't bag on the movie, I don't believe in that. There's lots of fans that enjoyed that. There's nothing in this game that violates the movie or puts a negative light on the movie -- that's not what we're about.

You've taken a little bit of design sensibility from the movie, and even as I was playing, the voice of Peter Cullen popped up, and instantly I was back to weekday afternoons as a kid. But the one place it seems that you diverged from both designs, new and old, is the vehicles. What's the story behind the design on those?

So they've never been to Earth, right? They don't know anything about Earth. But you as a consumer, you need some touchstone to let you associate with these vehicles in some way. So they are Earth-ish, but also very new, a brand new take on these things. There's not a lot of reference available for Cybertronian vehicles. We really did come up with a lot of that stuff on our own. But it did have to have some touchstones back to Earth, so you could relate. Bumblebee, his vehicle form, really looks like a concept car version of a Volkswagen Bug, but it is still a concept car that's very different from what you'd expect. You look at the designs about how we treated it and we said, "Ok, we'll say 10, 20 percent of this still has some Earth feel to it, but the other 80 percent doesn't." That's kind of how we approached it.

Well, you tend to forget, too, that these are stories based on toys and the cars were based on brands. Was there just a problem of actually having a VW Bug and getting the rights to that?

I wanted to smash you in the face with nostalgia. I wanted to create something new. And I wanted to make something that's illusive but cool. I wanted to drive towards that, and that's what we did.

What's going on with the Wii title, Cybertron Adventures?

I'm not involved with the Wii version at all, actually, so you'd have to ask the PR guys. That's done by a different studio, so we're just 360, PS3, and PC.

Did you ever consider trying to do a Wii title for this game that you're making?

It's not within our expertise, to be honest. We've shipped Bourne on Unreal, this is on Unreal, and so that's kind of our wheelhouse, that's where our expertise lies.

You've done some interesting things with pre-orders. Any plans for DLC post-release?

We haven't announced our DLC system yet, and all of the things we want to do with that. But the way I'll answer that question is that you can take a pretty good guess at what things make sense for us to DLC. But I can't confirm anything.

High Moon is of course, hard at work on this game, but it seems like you're on an upward trajectory with Bourne and this one, assuming that this does well. What's next for High Moon?

I would love to do a sequel to this game. Love, love, love it. And I think that Transformers: War for Cybertron has so much untapped landscape that we could go into, and build on, that my ultimate next game is War for Cybertron 2.

And I have to ask, because I know there are fans of this out there, including me. Any chance that we will see that canceled Darkwatch sequel at all?

[Laughs] I am very, very proud of the work that I did on Darkwatch. That is, again, owned by Activision, and entirely kind of up to them. I'm thrilled that you liked it, I'm very proud of it. It was a good game, and you never know, right? Stranger things have happened.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.