Anthony Castoro wants to make a video game that gives hip-hop respect. In the process, he's making an MMO set for 2012 release that happens to be attached to a rapper who is serving a year in prison.
Yesterday, the Austin, Texas game development company Castoro co-founded, Heatwave Interactive, announced a partnership with top-selling rapper T.I. and the rapper's company Grand Hustle Records to make a game called Platinum Life. He described a game that replaces the conventions of fighting monsters and battling other players in a World of Warcraft with dodging paparazzi, performing on stage and winning rap battles. Castoro said he and his team thought "it would be cool to make a game about going from making mixtapes and selling them out of my truck to being T.I." Or being a rapper just as famous.
Platinum Life is being designed to counteract what its creators see as a negative or cynical view of hip-hop in video games.
"Usually when people do projects around hip-hop, they focus on shooting people and doing drugs," Castoro said, blaming everything from the lack of hip-hop fans in development to publishers' willingness to take risks. "It's easy to make a game about 50 Cent and say he's going to shoot people. It's easy to understand violence in games. And violence is a part of hip hop, but that's not what it's all about." Castoro considers rap as part of his life. It's what he listens to most. It's what he knows.
In Platinum Life, players won't gain experience points. They'll gain fame. They will create a character, pick a real-life musical icon, like T.I., to be their role model. They'll even get a chance early on to open up for them at a local club. Think of battling in an MMO, but instead of targeting enemies, think of targeting audiences and winning them over.
Castoro described the experience of playing the game: "Imagine an urban New York street," he said. "There are stores you can go into to buy things. All the people are NPCs. Some are friendly and some of them aren't." People will begin to recognize you. "You can ignore them. You can bitchslap them and you'll get negative reputation and lose a fan. Or you can do something positive like do an autograph and win a fan. Later on you're not going to want to deal with that because you can win thousands of fans performing at a concert." Players can partner with others, specializing as rappers, singers or DJs. They can have a computer-controlled entourage. When it's showtime, players will pick songs for their performance, set up a stage show with spotlights and fireworks and whatever else and then need to hit their marks to perform well. Pattern-matching gamplay as experienced in Guitar Hero will be a part of gameplay, but rhythm gaming won't be the core gameplay element.
In the beginning of the game, players would be a hip-hop nobody. The equivalent of hitting a level cap would see them become a hip-hop mogul.
The wrinkle is that this game being designed to improve rap's image in video games is tied to T.I. who is serving a one-year sentence after pleading guilty to federal weapons charges. That doesn't shake Castoro from believing that T.I. and the game can have a positive effect. "These games have a long lead time and there's plenty of time to get involved and make sure his personal opinion is kept in there," he said. Castoro is impressed with how T.I. turned the publicity around his pending incarceration into a time to further his charity work and speak out against gun violence.
This mix of positive and negative in T.I.'s life is something not to shy away from, he said, nor is it contradictory to the spirit of the Platinum Life project. "That's just part of the issue," Castoro said. "There is a negative side to the urban lifestyle." The developer referenced an incident earlier in the rapper's career when a friend was killed in a shooting. "What he went through was awful. He had one of his best friends shot and it's understandable that he became paranoid. ... the way he handled [his sentence] was admirable, trying to do something positive out of it."
Based on Heatwave's development schedule, targeting a 2012 release for consoles and PC, T.I. should be long out of prison before the game is released. A Platinum Life social networking game is set for release later this year. Heatwave also hopes to develop a micro-transaction-based version of the game that will be based on a free core version of the game. The company's talent pool is diverse, including a former executive from Valve and a producer who used to manage tours for Rod Stewart and served as 50 Cent's literary agent.
Castoro knows that Platinum Life is an ambitious project and there will be doubters. "I'm very skeptical about MMOs," he said. "I know the audience is skeptical about MMOs. We take this very seriously. I take this seriously. If there are people who are skeptical, I look forward to proving them wrong. If there are people who are hopeful, I look forward to fulfilling their expectations."