Ruffian Games' Billy Tomson and James Cope discuss Crackdown 2, part two



You have both worked in this industry for quite some time. Do you feel that in this generation you have to plan further and further into the future? Games don't live on store shelves as long as they used to. Crackdown 2 is coming out in July, and the summer used to be a dead zone for releases ... the industry is different today.

JC: Some games have a longer tail and a lot of those games have multiplayer components.

BT: Trying to keep the CD-drive locked.

JC: You've got that longevity thing. So, we're doing the same thing with Crackdown 2. There is a multiplayer component added to what was already there because we want to embrace that long tail of gameplay life.

BT: It's good for the franchise, as well. If you want to build a franchise you want to keep creating new content that's going to keep people playing and keeping it fresh in their mind. So, instead of having two years between every game you give them content so they don't forget about your universe.

JC:
We have to factor in all of this stuff, with DLC quite early on. I think traditionally, DLC has been seen as the opportunity to finish off the bits of a game that weren't finished. We actually look at it as an opportunity to do stuff that we think generally gives value to the players. It's essentially a new game.

BT: With game development, you work on a game and you have all the plans up front. You have your design, you know what you want to add to the game and then as you get to the tail end of development you realize, "Shit, we should have done this." It's all those little things that would be so easy to do at the end of a project but you've just run out of time. It's those little things that could be unbelievably cool.

There was an article written following PAX East 2010 about the lack of gender selection for the agents. There are no playable female characters in the game. How much time does it take to implement a player choice like that? Is that something you have to plan right from the beginning to make it work correctly?


BT:
You would, yeah. It's a big undertaking to do both a male and female player character. When you consider the amount of different levels of interaction that you've got: Hand-to-hand, all the weapons, all the interaction with the environment, all the vehicles, swimming, gliding. There's so much stuff in there and you've got to do that for both male and female. It's not that it can't be done but it wasn't a question of time for us. It was memory.

If we had used the memory it would have taken to do a full female character then we would have been robbing from some other area. The way we look at it is, the amount of variation we've got vehicles-wise, characters-wise, and weapons-wise meant we would have lost quite a bit if we added a full other character who was female.

We actually had it for the first game. We built the character. We built all the animations for a female character and we had to pull it towards the end and the last thing we wanted to do was go through that again.

Forgive my ignorance because I've never made a game, in fact I can barely draw a circle without a strategy guide, but why can't you just have generic animations and change character models as skins? Other than the fact that the women will most likely walk like men. Would it appease those who want that variety?

BT: Well we could put in a new skin but yes, she would animate like a man. If you're going to do that [adding female characters], you want to do it right.

Now that I think about it, you might inadvertently offend more people than you set out to please.


JC: We did actually put it in for a laugh, but it wasn't pretty. [laughs]

The big thing now, other than this 3D craze that won't die, are social media features. Games are integrating Twitter and even titles like Halo 3 have added saved films and replay sharing. Crackdown is somewhat of a community-driven game, it's always been promoted as a multiplayer experience. Are any of those features getting into the final build?

JC: Oh, this is really difficult because it's something we really, really wanted to do but we've ended up not doing it. We wanted to have that ability to do replays in the game and to upload them somewhere for people to see, but just in terms of production costs we had to say no to it, for now.

We think of Crackdown 2, and you're right Crackdown has always been a social game, as more than what happens in the game. The great thing about the Crackdown experience is that people would start talking about the game, start telling stories. Saying things like, "You won't believe what happened when..."

You don't get that in a narrative game where everyone says, "Yeah. I saw that too. I played it." But it's something we want to do in the future, we don't know when.

Any idea when the announced demo will be released to the public?

JC:
We haven't got a specific date, but it's going to be ahead of launch.

Is the demo going to be cooperative or competitive multiplayer?

JC: It's going to be cooperative. We still have to look at competitive stuff as well. We're giving away a scary amount of the game. Basically there's the entire game in this demo. The Crackdown demo experience was huge the first time around and it's still in the "Top 5 Most Downloaded Demos" and it was a really generous demo, it was really exciting feature-wise. You got to see a lot of the game.

My favorite thing was this accelerated skill thing, which is like a game in itself. We tried gaming the game with the Crackdown 2 demo. So, we want to do all that stuff again. It'll be a very similar package to the first game's demo. But we don't actually know when it's coming out yet.


You obviously have an eager audience who have come from playing the first game, but what are you trying to do in this game in order to promote and craft this new experience for people who have never played Crackdown before?

JC: Something we looked at quite carefully in terms of what we chose to expand upon in Crackdown 2, and one of the criticisms we had from the first game is if you look at the players who loved the game they got more than an hour into the game and all of a sudden this great stuff happens and it's a new and engaging experience. People who say they don't like Crackdown, I guarantee they lost interest in the first five or ten minutes of the game. So, the problem with that is we just dumped the player into the middle of this world and said, "There you go! Figure it out!" That was either a love or hate experience.

The only real thing we've done to engage that is we're holding the player's hand a little bit more in the beginning. We're introducing more of a back story, we introduce players to a more of a training mission. We guide them through the first mission in the game explaining everything in the game and from that point on it completely opens up.

BT: Yeah, that's enough hand holding.

JC: We thought more about the initial experience of the game because that's where you lose player's engagement. Just working to make it more accessible but it's still the same experience, ultimately. It's still that very "go anywhere and do anything experience," which we were very careful to keep.

How about technological challenges? This is the same engine from the original game but the scale is dialed up, especially the new four player co-op mode.

JC: The four player co-op was the biggest challenge. Crackdown was architected in such a way that it could only support two players. We had to completely gut that.

BT: It wasn't scalable at all. You couldn't even put three players in the game. As soon as you went to three we had to cut content to the point where it wasn't the same game.

JC: That impacted everything, like the A.I. So we had to rewrite it all. It's not a giant leap forward but it's exactly what we wanted to do considering all the stuff we're doing. It looks like a Crackdown game and it stands out.

You guys must be happy to finish this off and start working on something else. I've talked to teams developing open-world games with multiple endings and various choices and the conversation turns into 30 minutes about the horrors of testing.


JC: Well that goes back to the female characters question. In an open-world game it's a nightmare because you have to test for every eventuality and if you introduce a new type of player character, that's double the entire effort. So, a test pass that takes four or five weeks takes ... however much longer that would take.

BT: That's also why we've never put in a fully structured story as well. In order to do that you would need it to branch so many times and give players so many different opportunities based on how they play the game and even creating that content could take years.

JC: The problem, actually, with an open-world game is, anything that can happen will and always does. It's pretty scary. I don't think people appreciate the orthogonal nature of it all. As soon as you introduce one little feature it could change the entire game and the way it behaves and how it's made and how it's produced.

So, I think what you're saying is your next game is going to be Pong. Just three things on screen. Maybe a few numbers.

[laughs]

BT: Nice and simple!

JC: That would be nice.

Recently on the Ruffian Games website you revealed that the company is now hiring staff for a new title. Can you talk a little about how the new title differs from Crackdown 2? Are you going to a new genre, sticking with open-world?

JC: One of the things we want to do is we obviously want to carry on with the Crackdown franchise, that's really valuable and it's great that we can do that with Microsoft. The other thing that we want to do is really genuinely want to surprise people.

We want to do something that really stands out. We want to, kind of, move the genre forward. We do love our games because it gives us a way of having a cool video game arcade-like experience. It's just about the game. We want to move the whole genre forward in a way that, we hope, will really shock people. How we do that, honestly? We're not sure.

BT:
We've got ideas but nothing is concrete. Nothing has stuck yet.

JC: What we can definitely say is that it's a cool video game. We make cool video games. Our skill is making action games. We don't want to diverge from that.