Interview: NaturalMotion and Zynga discuss all things Star Wars: Hunters

Interview: NaturalMotion and Zynga discuss all things Star Wars: Hunters

Star Wars: Hunters is set to release globally for iOS, Android and Switch on June 4th after being available in soft launch in select regions. Ahead of the release, we had the opportunity to speak with some of the team at NaturalMotion, a Zynga studio.

Together, we discussed what they believe helps Star Wars: Hunters stand out from the crowd alongside the team's favourite characters. Of course, we also made sure to ask what to expect post-launch. Multiplayer games can't stay the same forever, after all. 

Could you introduce yourself and your role in the game to our readers, please?

Rich: Sure. I'm Rich Kemp, the Senior Art Director, acting as the creative director on the project. So responsible for narrative,  lore, and how we work with the IP.

Dominic: I'm Dominic Estephane. Art Director on Hunters. All things visual.

Scott: Scott Warner, the game director, basically translating the fantasy of the game into gameplay.

You've done various testing periods in different countries. So what did you learn from player feedback from doing all of that, and what sort of changes did that lead to if any?

Scott: Gosh, so much. Yeah, we test a lot. So that's kind of a primary way we can iterate on the game, both internally with people here and also with external testing. We're bringing players into the playtest as we're going along.

We put it out in soft launch, so it's been out in various countries, so we can watch players play, collect data, and see how it's working out in the market. And then we'll continue to do that once it's launched, both observing what we're seeing out in the wild, collecting data, seeing what the community has to say, and all of that feeds back into how we look at how the game's performing.

So the way we intend the game to work, there's what we observe, and then there's what we know through our analytics about how things are working in the game. So a good example is that about a year ago, one of the primary gameplay components that differentiates the game as a shooter is the abilities you use, and we observed that they were not getting used that much.

We could literally see through analytics when buttons weren't getting pushed. So that led us to course-correct abilities from the actual player input to the cooldowns on those abilities some of them just weren't working correctly and we decided to cut them and add others or change some fundamentally. And that all came through testing and feedback. So we will always do that, we'll continue to do it as we see how the game progresses and then we introduce new features.

Rich: Yeah, let's say the other thing is from a meta-perspective. The features that we've added since in soft launch add variety to the game for the player and reasons to keep coming back and playing. The event system, the challenges, the quests, the arena pass, all those things we've added, we've polished, we've optimised everything to make sure that it looks beautiful and plays well on all devices.

I think the game was first announced in 2021, is that right? And it has been delayed a few times since then. Is that because of the stuff you mentioned there?

Scott: Yeah, I mean, one great benefit of soft launching on mobile is the ability to basically make the game better over time. And so we wanted to make sure that when the game was launching worldwide in all territories, it was as good as it possibly could be. And so we were afforded the luxury of just continuing to iterate and make sure that what we're presenting to people is putting our best foot forward on everything.

So what do you believe makes Star Wars Hunter stand out from everything available on mobile and even Switch?

Scott: Well, there's no cross-platform hero shooter on mobile. So playing mobile to Switch - on those two platforms - and being able to do that seamlessly, there isn't another game that allows you to do that right now.

There aren't a lot of hero shooters on mobile, to begin with. And then being able to combine that with Star Wars, those two things, that thing doesn't exist either. And so Star Wars is just this wonderfully diverse science fantasy that everyone knows. And being able to tap into that and just allow that to be something that gives us a wide variety of different characters and abilities is something I don't think you can get anywhere else.

Rich: Yeah, in terms of the sort of moment-to-moment. It's very fast-paced, it's accessible, easy to pick up and play. I think that open way of approaching the game design and making sure that everyone can play it. And the play sessions are not too long. There's not any shooter out there like that too.

And from the character perspective, really leaning into those character designs we talked about that feel very hunter-like, very unique to our particular place in the Star Wars universe. Two Jawas in a trench coat, a little Ugnaught riding in a Droideka. You don't get that anywhere else when you're playing a Star Wars game. And we've been really lucky to have an enthusiastic partner with Lucasfilm to let us play in this space in the universe and give people these player fantasies they've not had anywhere else before.

So, on that kind of thing, having worked with the license, do you feel it added any pressure or was it more of an honour to work with an IP like Star Wars?

Rich: Yeah, honour is a good word. We feel very honoured and protective of the brand. As a team, we're fans at varying levels of fandom, all the way from seeing a few of the films to reading every single book and knowing every single thing about it.

And I think when you're given a brand as big as Star Wars, there's not that many in the world as big as this. You have to approach it with care. And we always want to be respectful of the brand. We want to play with it, that's the point. We want to have a little bit of fun. But yeah, be respectful and it is an absolute honour to be able to bring some of our ideas to life and access the Star Star universe.

Dominic: And also, and it's humbling as well. As Rich mentioned, there are so many people on the team who grew up with Star Wars over the different eras of it. And then to see that team come together, it's quite cool to see everyone's interest and what they see as Star Wars. So it's not just one thing and we're trying to bring that together into this product. So you'll see some deep cuts, you'll see the new films in here, like hints at that, with our costumes, with our stickers. So we're trying to, I'd say, cater to every Star Wars fan out there and that's a humbling experience.

And on the creativity side, because it's an established universe, did you find that in any way limiting or did you feel free to experiment?

Dominic: It's freeing for the conceit that we have. So it is being broadcasted at Outer Rim Sports Network and it's a TV show, it allows us to be creative. So we're not shackled, even though it is canon, we can flex our creative muscles there because the conceit allows us to do so.

So it's been quite fun to come up with that side of Star Wars we've never seen before. You don't really know that they watch TV, right? What do they do for entertainment? How do they entertain themselves on a day-to-day basis? So the idea is they watch sports and this larger-than-life television show is quite fun to come up with that idea and it's cool to leave that in the Star Wars universe and maybe someone else can take that further and that's quite cool.

So it's set between the end of the original trilogy and before the latest. Is there a particular reason why that was chosen or was it just kind of because it's sort of a grey area so it gives you more freedom to do what you want?

A short pause

Or is it a spoiler to say?

Rich: I'm trying to figure out what we can and can't say. Yeah, it gives us that flexibility to tell stories that we can develop over time. We want enough runway - hopefully, the game lasts a decade – and we don't then butt up against something we don't want to.

It's a bit of a blue sky area. It's also, as Dom said, we have the flexibility to maybe start hinting at things that come in the sequels, but we have everything that's gone before. If it's in the history of Star Wars and the characters in the arena know about it, we can pick from it. That gives us so much flexibility to appeal again to the broad range of fandom in Star Wars.

You mentioned one of the characters you've got so far has appeared in the comics. What was it like for you to see a character that you created appear in the franchise outside of the game?

Rich: It is canon, the planet exists in the universe. It's kind of weird to talk about it like it's a real thing. But it is a real thing. So characters from across the galaxy can go and visit - the events are taking place. The honour of that is huge. We work with our partners at Lucasfilm and love the idea of cross-pollinating between transmedia and all these different things.

We'd love all of our characters to get in everything they possibly can. We'll take from anyone else we've had in the franchise too to make it feel part of that whole cohesive universe. It's one of the things that's so much about Star Wars is it feels like a real lived-in space.

Every time a new piece of media comes out within the IP it just builds and builds and builds. Having that crossover into another part of the franchise is awesome. Fingers crossed we get more of it in the future.

Who is your favourite character and why? Both from a gameplay and personality perspective.

Rich: I think I give a different answer every time.

Dominic: You do.

I will stick with Rieve to play at the moment. The things that Scott was talking about in terms of ability cooldowns, it feels so active to play as Reeve - you're diving around all over the place, you're mobile and you just feel powerful. It fulfils that fantasy of being a Sith and a lightsaber user.

Otherwise, I think I'm going to go with Sprocket. He's my favourite character. I just feel a warmth in my heart.

Dominic: You've changed.


Rich: But also, yeah, with our costumes it gives us this ability to tailor the feel of the characters. Whilst Sprocket is a cute little Mon Calamari. He's a big fan of the arena, he's wide-eyed and super excited to be there. Some of the costumes we have coming for him in the future are badass and a little bit creepy. Dominic: I like playing support, so Zaina is one of my favourites. But in terms of Star Wars fantasy, Aran Tal is amazing. You feel like the Mandaloria with your jet pack, boosting around. You've got your flames. He's awesome.

But my fave character is probably Diago with the blindfold. He's just cheeky. I like it. He's awesome. I mean, you just want to hang out with him. I tell you, if you saw him, you're like, I want to be this guy's friend.

Scott: I'm more of a Vex for sure. It's kind of a design answer, but there's always the burden of making the first character the first playable thing that's both approachable and something everyone can play, but also maintain and sustain gameplay over time to where people would still pick that character. 

And so there's a real challenge to make sure that that character feels broadly fun to everybody. And so Ves is a benchmark for everything else. Like it's got to play like that character is expected to, it's got to feel like a shooter.

All the things that players are used to have to be there, but also there have to be the interesting things about her from the grappling hook that allows her to navigate the arena to the cool homing rockets and whatnot that sort of bring the fancy up. And just that that's the character I spend the most time with.

Post-launch, what kind of things do you sort of expect to add to the game? And do you ever foresee a situation where maybe a character's skin could just be a character? Or do you want to keep it original characters for your game?

Rich: So post-launch, we're going to be releasing seasonal content. Lots of different cosmetics coming for characters, new characters, new maps, and new modes. As Scott mentioned, we're constantly developing the game. We'll be improving features that are in the game currently and just making it better and better every release.

In terms of existing characters, we already have costumes in the game that are representative of those characters. So rather than bringing those characters in, we are hunters, paying homage to these heroes or villains from the past. Rieve has a costume where she is dressed as Darth Maul. We have a Zaina costume where she's dressed as Padme.

So there are lots of different references to those characters, whether it's explicit to them or some of them are explicit, some of them are influenced by. But yeah, lots and lots of that kind of thing coming soon. Some of them, as Dom mentioned, are deep cuts. So some of the costumes might be from a background character in the back of a comic that you've maybe not noticed before. All the way to Darth Maul.

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Stephen Gregson-Wood
Stephen Gregson-Wood
Stephen brings both a love of games and a very formal-sounding journalism qualification to the Pocket Gamer team.