Feature

Transformers Developer High Moon Studios Profile

by Phil Kollar on Dec 17, 2009 at 12:00 PM

When we first laid our eyes on the beautiful visuals of Transformers: War For Cybertron, it was immediately clear that Activision was trying to take the robotic franchise in a more serious direction for video games than they had managed with previous movie spin-offs. The first question out of our lips: Who’s making it?

The answer to that million-dollar question would be High Moon Studios. This Activison-owned developer is based out of Carlsbad, California (near San Diego). We visited their offices last month to check out War For Cybertron and get the inside scoop on who they are and why they’re the right team to re-energize the Transformers franchise.

Where did they come from?

The core of High Moon Studios started life under a completely different name: Sammy Studios. Until 2005, High Moon operated as Sammy Studios and was owned by Sega Sammy, a division of Sega largely focused on arcade gaming. Early in 2005, though, Sammy Studios broke away from Sega and renamed themselves High Moon Studios.

After a year as an independent studio and publishing their first game for Capcom, High Moon was purchased by Vivendi. In 2007, Vivendi merged with Activision to form Activision Blizzard, thus making High Moon Studios a member of the Activision stable of developers.

What is their philosophy on game design?

High Moon Studios game director Matt Tieger describes the High Moon philosophy in the simplest way possible: “Shut up and play it.” They believe that games are about feel, that no matter how great an idea might sound on paper, it’s all about how it’s executed.

A major element of this belief is play-testing and giving gamers the chance to actually feel their games “on screen and under thumb.” Within their studio, High Moon pushes for heavy play-testing of games in development. Even now, with War For Cybertron in the middle of its development cycle, the team has been getting together for frequent multiplayer matches since the earliest possible stage in development. This constant testing and tweaking will help ensure a balanced multiplayer game that functions and is fun.

Since two of their three releases so far have been licensed games, we also had to ask about their approach to licensed IP specifically. Whether or not a game they’re working on is licensed does not affect their goals for the end product, though. According to Tieger, “Our philosophy is to find the heart of a game, license, or IP and deliver it to the gamer, no excuses.”

What other games have they made?

High Moon Studios has had two major console releases so far. In 2005, they teamed up with Capcom to release Darkwatch for Xbox and PlayStation 2. This shooter blended a horror-based story with a Western setting and was received moderately well, garnering a 75 average on Metacritic. Our own Andrew Reiner reviewed the game in Game Informer's September 2005 issue (#149), giving it an 8.5. While the shooting wasn’t groundbreaking, Darkwatch was praised for having an interesting setting and mythology. From the review:

“In terms of gameplay quality, this may be another middle-of-the-road shooter, but the unique premise sets it aside from everything else out there. If you’ve grown tired of science-fiction or military-based FPS, Darkwatch is definitely worth sinking your teeth into.”

After being purchased by Vivendi, High Moon began work on a game based on the popular Bourne Conspiracy franchise. Though their parent company was purchased by Activision in the middle of development, High Moon completed The Bourne Conspiracy and released it in 2008 for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

Though often lauded for having some strong ideas, Bourne Conspiracy had a slightly rougher reception than Darkwatch, with a Metacritic average of 71. Game Informer editors Matt Bertz and Matt Helgeson reviewed the game in our August 2008 issue (#184) and gave it a 6.75 and 7 respectively.  They both enjoyed its fast-paced chase segments and attempts at hand-to-hand combat but were bothered by so-so gunplay. From Matt Bertz’s review:

“Though The Bourne Conspiracy is weighed down by broken gunplay mechanics, its thrilling hand-to-hand combat, slick presentation, and relatively short time commitment (eight hours) make it a perfect rental for fans of the film.”

What’s coming next?

As you’ve certainly heard by now, High Moon’s next title will be Transformers: War For Cybertron, a new attempt by Activision to create a Transformers game that is not tied to a movie release. Matt Tieger says that the studio is “hungry to prove that we can make great games.”

With a solid foundation to work on from their previous two releases, High Moon is planning on War For Cybertron as the game that really shows off how talented they are. “I think our experiences and expertise have set us up to deliver a great shooter to hardcore gamers…. We are incredibly dedicated to making this game one for the history books.”

Will they succeed? You’ll have to decide for yourself. Read Game Informer’s six-page feature on the game in issue 201, and keep watching our Transformers: War For Cybertron hub to see all the latest information.