A Hip Hop Game, Minus the Thug Life

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A game that celebrates hip hop culture but doesn’t revolve around violence isn’t just possible, according to Heatwave Interactive, it’s coming.

This week, Heatwave Interactive announced Platinum Life, their so-called “zero-to-hero” MMORPG, that promises to take players on the exhilarating ride of starting from nothing to becoming a hip hop all-star.

“The game is not about running around shooting people in the head,” Heatwave Interactive Co-Founder and Co-CEO, Anthony Castoro told The Escapist. “There’s drama in the game, and drama causes a lot of the content and the missions in the game. There are moral choices that you can make, but we don’t get deep into the graphic nature of those moral choices. … You can take missions from those guys on the street corner who you know are not legit – and if you take that money and do those missions, that’s going to affect content later in the game.”

Castoro says the goal in creating Platinum Life was to develop a game that took a more realistic look at the hip-hop lifestyle, without resorting to the ultra-violence and “boring” rhythm-matching to which hip-hop-inspired games typically resort.

“As you learn more about Heatwave, you’ll learn that we’re not a typical geeky white guy studio,” he said. “We’re not going to focus on that, but we all love hip hop and it’s been a part of our lives and that’s why we’re doing this project.

“We are going for a certain mentality about hip hop. We take it seriously, but a lot of what hip hop is about is about having fun, and a lot of what hip hop is about is trying to come up, and obviously a lot of what hip hop is about is dealing with the urban lifestyle and coming out of poverty.”

Platinum Life will feature the music, images and voice of an as-yet unannounced number of real life hip hop stars, most notably, Grammy Award-wining artist and actor T.I.

“T.I. was the first one to join us and that’s why we announced him first,” says Castoro. “We have quite a few others to [announce]. I think [the artists] are really quite excited about it because usually they don’t have an outlet. It’s really hard for Beyonce to be in a videogame because usually it’s about violence.”

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At the start of the game you will select the icon whose “path” you intend to follow. You then start out by performing minor tasks, like selling mix tapes, then graduate to larger “quests.” As with other RPGs, you will have a party, but in Platinum Life, your party is your entourage, and you resolve conflicts by performing.

“There are rap battles in the game,” says Castoro. “Think about it this way, the singer is the tank, the rapper is the direct damage guy, the DJ is the healer, it really maps pretty nicely. … Your entourage is a group of NPCs that give you certain benefits and let you do stuff. They all have pros and cons, just like a party system in an RPG. They’re a source of a lot of the drama that happens in the game – so you might have a back up singer that’s really good, but she’s always got problems and is high maintenance. You have your network, which are NPCs and assets throughout the game that you can call out for favors to give you benefits throughout the game – it’s part of the quest. … You can replace just about anyone in the performance aspect of the band with a real person. Just like in old school RPGs.”

If it sounds like a gimmick, it isn’t: Heatwave says the artists wouldn’t get involved if they didn’t see the potential, and agree with the direction.

“They like the idea of the game,” says Castoro, “to virtually rub elbows with the players and tell their story in an interactive way and do something cool like that. … We’re partnering with the artists and the labels so it’s more than a licensing relationship. So they have the opportunity to profit from this in a way that they wouldn’t from most other games which are straight licensing deals. So they’re highly motivated to be involved, to consult with us and to promote it.”

Heatwave Interactive was founded in 2007 by Castoro, formerly of gaming industry titans EA and Sony Online, and Co-Founder and Co-CEO Donn Clendenon, whose background as an entrepreneur has contributed to the company’s unique outlook. Castoro says Heatwave has avoided taking money from publishers to fund their production, a decision that has allowed them the freedom to chart their own course.

“We’ve set up an environment,” says Castoro, “where we’re like ‘Look, we’re going to spend a certain amount of money and a certain amount of time figuring this out and if we can’t figure it out in this timeframe, then maybe we should move on. But we are going to take this time and we are going to do that.’ That makes it easy to go to the publishers, and say look, ‘here’s the project, here’s what it is, here’s how it plays.’ And it’s less about … time pressure and more about facilitating good game design and pre-production.”

Platinum Life is still in the very early stages of development, but Castoro says to be on the lookout for related projects to be announced later this year.

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