Transformers: Fall of Cybertron Interview – More Than Meets the Eye With High Moon's Matt 'Tieg' Tieger
Written Saturday, June 30, 2012 By Richard WalkerView author's profile
Transformers: War for Cybertron was the first genuinely good Transformers game in years. Succeeding where the movie tie-ins failed so spectacularly, High Moon Studios pitched it perfectly, taking you back to the early days in the Transformers saga before they took up residence on Earth, becoming cars, vans, trucks and so on.
During a recent post-E3 Activision showcase, we were able to catch up with Transformers: Fall of Cybertron's Game Director Matt 'Tieg' Tieger, to talk about the War for Cybertron sequel, before nostalgia got the better of us and we started chatting about our favourite Transformers and which Tieger would love to see in future sequels.
Will the Transformers be going to Earth for the third game? Which Transformers would High Moon like to add for the next game, and what are the fans going to make of Grimlock and his new origin story. It's a long interview, but well worth a read, especially if you're a Transformers fan. Roll out! And if you still want more, you can read our Transformers: Fall of Cybertron E3 preview.
After the success of Transformers: War for Cybertron, what were the key components of the game that you wanted to build upon and advance for the sequel?
There's a couple of things. One of the things we did after War for Cybertron was try to focus on listening. We listened to the press reception, we listened to forum posts, we listened to Hasbro and we listened to that crazy little voice inside our head telling us what we should and shouldn't be doing. We boiled all that down to ascertain the perception of War for Cybertron was, and in my opinion was, a flawed gem. It was really interesting, different and novel, but it had some areas that weren't strong enough.
The gameplay got repetitive, the visuals got repetitive and the AI was lacklustre. So the direction we set for the team then, was to take someone who had never played War for Cybertron, take the person who's going to play this game for the first time and tell their friends. What they're going to say is this world is stunning, Cybertron is epic and big and really interesting, and every time I play as a new character, it feels different to the ones I was playing as before and the game is really pushing me from a challenge point of view. The AI keeps up with me at transforming and some of the AI transforming is really engaging.
Basically, we wanted not to just take those elements from War for Cybertron and elevate them, but make them be the selling points of this new game.
You mentioned Cybertron got repetitive as an environment, but when the planet is by its very nature a metallic, oppressive place, how do you go about improving the look of the game in Fall of Cybertron?
It's hard, right?! (laughs) Most games have maybe five percent or three percent of their world being metal and so you can have one level, one degree of specularity and you're done. That was not going to to cut it for us, so what we did is spend a lot of time focusing on metallics and degrees of specularity. Creating bronze, making it different from steel, different from rust, making all those metals different. There was a lot of time put into that and that resulted in a world that doesn't have the eye fatigue that War for Cybertron had, where you feel like you're seeing a lot of the same stuff.
The other benefit that came out of that transferred over to the character customisation, because we put so much work into the metallic stuff that we realised we could let players have the choice of how metallic you want your characters. The other piece that we added to really change the environments was colour. We've actually added quite a bit more colour to this game and I think that adds more variety just in general. The last thing we added – and this is going sound like a really simple thing – was terrain. In War for Cybertron we had all right angles and flat surfaces, and after a while that gets a little boring. When you have vehicles that can drive over the ground, when you deliver terrain it makes it inherently more fun, as you can go up and down bumps and things like that.
We accomplished that by creating some new areas, including one called the 'Sea of Rust', which is basically like a desert where there's metal particles that function like sand. You can drive over lots of interesting things and I think that adds to our variety.
Transformers is a rich universe packed with all sorts of popular characters, so how many of those have you got in the game and which ones would you like to explore in the future?
That's the great thing about this brand, is that there's so many characters to draw upon. We haven't announced all of the characters yet, but the ones we've talked about so far are Bumblebee, Optimus Prime, Cliffjumper, Starscream, Jazz, Grimlock, Bruticus... and I've got more fingers left to count on, that's how I'll explain it. What's important fir us is the system we use to decide who is going to be in the game, and it wasn't just a popularity contest.
Obviously it's important to have the fan favourites in there, but at the same time they had to provide some really meaningful gameplay. So a guy like Jazz was a perfect fit because he was a DLC character in War for Cybertron and he was very popular as a character, but he also had a grappling hook. That's brand-new gameplay for us, so we're able to say he's a perfect fit as it's new gameplay and that's one of our goals for this. Plus, he's a fan favourite.
Grimlock is another fan favourite, plus he's fundamentally different from a ranged combat point of view and a transforming point of view, so that's more new gameplay. That's the process we went through. So where we'd go for the future, I think we'd look at characters with neat abilities as well as being popular.
Why did you decide to restrict Grimlock's ability to transform to his Rage meter?
There's a couple of parts to that. One, we really felt like Fall of Cybertron is all about variety, and variety is not just this guy's blue and that guy's red, but variety in meaningful ways. I think the best games really challenge you as a gamer, making you think differently and this really does make you think 90-degrees differently. Grimlock provided a tactical rethink about transformation, so that was probably the core reason.
The second reason or perhaps bi-product of that is it feeling really special when Grimlock transforms. All the characters in the game – almost all of them – their transformations take about three quarters of a second because from a gameplay point of view, it just makes transformations innate in your thinking. For Grimlock, because you have to earn it, it takes four seconds to transform, so you can really enjoy the thing that you've earned. And there's really nice cinematic cameras that support Grimlock's transformation, so it's a real moment, and that made a lot of sense to us.
From a story point of view, we're telling the origin of the Dinobots, so from the moment you start out, Grimlock doesn't have the ability to transform and he gains that, so again it becomes more meaningful when you get it.
Grimlock also has a completely new origin story for Fall of Cybertron. Can you tell us more about that?
Absolutely. We knew we wanted him in the game, so we looked through the fiction, and whether it be the G1 cartoon or the comics, the stories just don't make sense. In the G1 cartoon, Ratchet and Wheeljack build him from dinosaur bones they find, they're like “hey, it'd be cool to build some dinosaurs, ” and that's it! That's the origin story, so we wanted to do something that made a little more sense than that.
Here's the whole deal: Cybertron is dying and shutting down... But let's start with the Decepticons. What's really interesting about the Decepticons to me, is you've got Megatron who's the leader and philosophically he's having a war of ideology. He has three lieutenants: Starscream, who's very powerful and there's a loyalty difference between these three characters. Starscream is loyal to Starscream, very self-serving and always out for himself. Soundwave is incredibly loyal to Megatron, and Shockwave is loyal to Cybertron above all else. So these three characters all have very different motivations.
Shockwave's plan is to save Cybertron and the way he's going to do that is by rebooting it. Think of Cybertron as a giant computer system, and Shockwave is going to hit the power button and reset, but the way he needs to do that is with a giant influx of new energon. Energon is a combination and life rolled together, so he needs to find a place where he can get all of that. Cybertron is a planet that has layers of history, the previous ages, the ancients and so on. Shockwave starts digging and finds out that the ancients used to use technology called 'space bridges' that opened wormholes in space and they'd walk among the stars. This is now lost to the Transformers, but he finds the technology, restarts the programme and starts looking through the cosmos for other worlds that he can suck the life out of.
He find Earth and sees that it's teeming with life that he can steal. Now here's the twist. Shockwave is the character who creates the Insecticons in this story, and there are some denizens of the deep from War for Cybertron that looked slightly biological, so he combined them with those with current Decepticons to create the Insecticons. While Shockwave is looking through the cosmos, this entire story of everything that's going on in this game takes place several millions of years ago before our time, so the Earth he sees has dinosaurs stomping around. He sees these shapes and decides that he can continue his experiments, turning some Autobots that he's captured into these new shapes – such as Grimlock - and by making them incredibly powerful, he can change their brain function and control them.
Obviously, that never ever works, but what it does do is allow us to tie-in some of Grimlock's speech patterns and some of things that make him interesting as a character, in a way that is meaningful. The rules we laid down were no time travel and no alternate dimensions. We're asking you to believe in a sentient race of transforming robots. That's enough of a leap, so we don't need those other two pieces to make it even more complex. That's how it all comes together and as you play through the levels, it's all being unfolded to you and there's kiosks you can find where if you choose, you can understand the story even deeper and learn more about the Dinobots. Like Swoop for one is very happy with the transformation, but Grimlock is not so much.
It allows us to tell a different kind of Grimlock story than the G1 cartoon Grimlock. When I look at the G1 Grimlock, I never liked the whole “me Grimlock smash.” He felt stupid and I didn't want to make that guy. We actually did some broader research and when we looked at the UK comics, they had a really interesting Grimlock who wasn't dumb, he was smart. That allowed us to treat him like a character that just has a speech impediment that has nothing do with how smart he is, it's just sometimes hard for him to process the words. He gets frustrated – this ties-in with the Rage meter thematically – because he can't communicate due to the change that affected his speech patterns, meaning he's not stupid, just angry.
We're really excited about him and we think Grimlock's going to be loved by the fans.
You've also got Metroplex in the game, who is quite literally huge. Are we going to see the Decepticons wheeling out Scorponok, since they had Trypticon in the last game?
We've got Bruticus, who is smaller, but a playable character. He's about 80-feet tall and a combination of the five Combaticons. When we started that list of variety for Fall of Cybertron, we wanted Grimlock, Jazz with the grappling hook and Combiners – those were the top three we had to have. There's not necessarily one-to-one parity between the Decepticons and Autobots for that stuff, but if the Autobots get Grimlock, the Decepticons get Combiners. That's the way it works.
Going back to Shockwave's discovery of the space bridge, presumably the next place for the Transformers to go is presumably Earth?
Not necessarily. We end Fall of Cybertron on a cliffhanger and I'm not spoiling anything by saying that, as the joy of this story is not the end points or the twists, it's the journey. Because you know what's going to happen and you know they're eventually going to end up on Earth, right? Where this game ends is, they open up the space bridge and the Decepticons and Autobots tumble through, but do they get to Earth right away? Do they go somewhere else and ultimately end up on Earth, or do they take millions of years to get there. Let's not forget that this story takes place millions of years ago prior to our time, so it could take them millions of years and they're immortal, right? In the fiction at least, there are loads of interesting planets that they've been to over the course of their history.
When you started working on this series, were you already a Transformers geek or did working on the games turn you into a Transformers geek?
I think it's definitely re-invigorated a lot of my Transformers fandom. I've always been a big fan of the cartoon and the toys, and we still watch the cartoon in my household with my three little kids. I was definitely a big fan and it's always been a component of my life, but working of the game has definitely reinvigorated it. I enjoy talking to a lot of the longtime fans too, and we go to a convention called BotCon, where there's fans who have their whole back covered in Transformers tattoos. It's just awesome and a great community to be a part of.
What's the most common request you get from the fans to include in a Transformers game then?
The hardest question I ever get asked and the one I hate answering is: “will so-and-so (whoever you want) going to be in the game?” The problem is that there's what feels like ten-thousand cool Transformers and you just couldn't possibly include all of them in meaningful ways. That's the hard part, because we can't possibly please everyone. That's my least favourite question to answer.
I personally would love to see Unicron cropping up. Who would you personally like to include in the next Transformers game?
Grimlock was the big one for me this time around, but there are some interesting Combiners beyond Bruticus. Unicron and Primus are really interesting characters... We'd have to make some really big changes for this, but a character like Astrotrain... I'm not sure anyone would want to play as a train, but the concept of triple-changers is really interesting to me. There's all sorts of places you can go in lots of interesting ways. A lot of people ask me about Beast Wars, which could also be an interesting place to go to, but you never know. We'll see.
But I guess the purists, the hardcore Transformers fans are always going to want to see G1 stuff?
Transformers is a really unusual brand, because there are so many different entry points. You have the people who are G1 fans, you have the people who are Beast Wars fans, Michael Bay fans, Transformers Prime fans... They all converge into being Transformers fans and they all have these very differing opinions, but at the root they all love Transformers.
It must be incredibly hard to please all of those fans.
It is. But you know one of the things that's hugely important to this brand is the audio. The voice actor choices, the music and sound effects are all very important. Honestly, you look at those movies, my favourite part of those movies is the audio. It's absolutely stellar. That's one of the universal binding points, the audio. I don't know one person who doesn't like Peter Cullen as Optimus Prime, I mean it's just an amazing voice. So we look for those kind of universal binding agents.
Are there any other classic voices from the original cartoon?
Gregg Berger is the voice of Grimlock, and we had some really interesting discussions about whether we should use him or not, as it might make people think incorrectly about the kind of Grimlock that we're doing. We were back and forth for a while, and we thought why don't we just ask him, and see if he's up for it? I think he did an amazing job, so that's another great voice we have. Then we have other very popular voices, like Nolan North is in the game, there's Troy Baker, and Fred Tatasciore who's our Megatron, and he did an amazing job. So we have a lot of great voice actors who've done a lot of video games.
Transformers: Fall of Cybertron is out in August 28th in North America and August 31st in Europe.