It’s now standard practice to release a game at retail and digitally at the same time, but that wasn’t the case in 2007. Warhawk was a trendsetter, but it was a bumpy road.
Warhawk was supposed to be one of PlayStation 3's biggest early exclusives, an ambitious resurrection of a cult classic for the original PlayStation. But a troubled development forced some big changes, including making the game multiplayer-only and becoming the biggest console game to be released simultaneously at digital and retail.
Yes, that actually happened.
The original Warhawk, released back in 1995, was goofy as hell. Though it was one of my favorite PlayStation games—it gave me a Star Fox vibe—it was mostly known for awkward yet charming full motion video cut scenes.
It always bummed me out that Warhawk never got a sequel, but it makes sense; the game’s developer, SingleTrac, was also behind Jet Moto and Twisted Metal, which both blew up. There wasn’t enough room for it.
And so, Warhawk stayed dead for 10 years. But at the PlayStation 3's official unveiling in 2005, Sony revealed a more serious take on Warhawk for the brand-new gaming console:
That game never happened. Sony delayed Warhawk several times, as rumors of a troubled development continued to spread. Developers were leaving the project, rumors suggested it might be cancelled. The decision was made to axe the single player campaign entirely and focus on multiplayer.
“Quite honestly, if we were to continue down our single-player/multiplayer approach, it would have resulted in not as good single player or not as good multiplayer,” game director Dylan Jobe told 1UP in March 2007. “Because it’s a matter of juggling resources and attention and polish and all of that. It was definitely a painful decision for me. But it’s one that I can sleep well with at night, because I’m a gamer. And I’ve bought expensive games and felt like I just got exploited. And I didn’t want to do that. We had many missions prototyped. And some were really fun.”
Even the recent Titanfall caused waves when it was revealed the game wouldn’t have single player—this was an even bigger deal back then.
“With digital distribution,” Jobe said at the time, “you’ve got arcade ports and stuff like that—but there’s no reason why it can’t be more HBO-esque in terms of high quality titles. I think there’s a stigma out there.”
Vague statements continued for weeks and months.
As Sony tried to figure out its own plans, it twisted into knots, doing a game with a bumpy development no favors. At a press event, then-Sony executive Phil Harrison said Warhawk would be a digital-focused game:
Phil Harrison made a WarHawk-related announcement at GDC which was something of a bombshell: WarHawk, one of the first games to make sensible use of the six-axis controller’s motion-sensing capabilities will be available only as a download over the PlayStation Network – it won’t appear on Blu-ray Disk – with a multiplayer-only focus.
Nevertheless, we shouldn’t have to wait too long for it after launch – Sony says it will arrive this autumn, and it could come as early as July, according to developer Incognito. Pricing hasn’t yet been set, but it’s likely that it won’t cost as much as a full-priced, boxed game.
Soon after, Sony completely walked back that statement.
“Officially, Warhawk will be released as a Blu-ray-based product,” the company told IGN. “It will see release in late summer.”
It was a mess, but the dust eventually settled: Warhawk would come out on the same day digitally and retail—August 28. This was big. Previously, as Jobe pointed out, downloadable releases were limited to games like Geometry Wars or full-priced games after most of the sales happened at retail. Though Warhawk’s gameplay might not have left much of an impact, its release was a significant event in the history of buying video games.
There was all sorts of other controversy associated with its release, too. Even after the digital release was confirmed, Sony refused to say how much the game would cost. Since there wasn’t a single player mode, Sony announced they didn’t intend to charge full price, but what did that mean?
“We will be pricing it to match what we are delivering in terms of graphics, gameplay, fun-factor and repeat playability, which we think is quite high,” the company said to 1up at the time.
At retail, Warhawk was going to cost $60; it came with a $40 Bluetooth headset. That suggested $20 for digital, but that’s a huge disparity in cost.
When EGM reviewed the game ahead of release, before the price was confirmed, one reviewer asked the magazine to drop his score, if the price was over $30. (I worked for 1UP at the time, and I remember this causing a huge shit storm. Sadly, most of my articles are no longer online.)
The game ended up being digitally priced at $40.
“I’m a firm believer in the Google founders’ motto ‘Don’t be Evil’ and the $39.99 PlayStation Store price is a good example of that,” said Jobe in a blog post announcing the price. “Warhawk is a great looking, great playing multiplayer game but at the end of the day, it’s a multiplayer-only game and if you decide not to get the premium version at retail with the headset, this is a great option for you—at a great price.”
Though Warhawk would not spawn its own sequel, a spin-off called Starhawk came out in 2012. That one did have a single player mode.
That Actually Happened is a weekly series at Kotaku in which we highlight interesting moments in gaming history. So far, we’ve revisited when Sonic kissed a human, a live game show on Xbox 360, and Sony throwing a God of War party with a dead goat. If you have any suggestions for future entries, please let us know in the comments below!