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An agent surveys crime-ridden Pacific City in Crackdown for the Xbox 360 by Scottish developer Realtime Worlds. (Credit: Microsoft Game Studios) An agent surveys crime-ridden Pacific City in Crackdown for the Xbox 360 by Scottish developer Realtime Worlds. (Credit: Microsoft Game Studios)

In Depth

Technology

Crackdown

February 20, 2007

On Feb. 20, Microsoft Game Studios will release Crackdown, a science-fiction action video game created by Realtime Worlds for the Xbox 360 console. The studio — which is based in Dundee, Scotland — is led by David Jones, who has created and designed a range of games including the hits Lemmings and Grand Theft Auto.

CBC News Online met with Crackdown's producer, Phil Wilson, and lead designer, Billy Thomson, on a recent visit to Toronto to talk about Crackdown and the state of the video game industry.

A gunfight between an Agency officer (left) and members of the Los Muertos street gang breaks out in Crackdown's fictitious metropolis Pacific City.  (Credit: Microsoft Game Studios) A gunfight between an Agency officer (left) and members of the Los Muertos street gang breaks out in Crackdown's fictitious metropolis Pacific City. (Credit: Microsoft Game Studios)

Crackdown is set in the fictional metropolis of Pacific City, where three powerful gangs control the streets and police have failed to regain control. The task of restoring law and order is left to a new organization, the Agency, which dispatches genetically enhanced agents to deal with the problems.

The game, which is in the third-person perspective, places the player in the role of one of the agents, in a "sandbox" style environment that lets them roam freely, rather than following a set path that requires them to take a specific route or perform a specific set of actions to achieve a goal. The game can also be played with another person in either a co-operative or competitive mode.

The Grand Theft Auto franchise is widely regarded as archetype of modern sandbox games.

What's unique about Crackdown, especially when you compare it to other sandbox games out there?

Wilson: There are a lot of games that like to say they are sandbox games.

Dave Jones is the man behind the Grand Theft Auto series, along with a lot of the guys who worked on this game. Billy was a designer on the first two Grand Theft Auto games and that's where I think the whole sandbox value began.

Dave's approach to games is that he wants to create a place like a playground where people can just have fun and he often likens it to a chemistry set: Just provide them with the tools to mess around and see what can happen.

Some games are kind of a city game where you drive around. That's more what I would call a free-roaming game, not a sandbox game. Your options are severely limited.

I like to think we've included a lot more you can play around with in Crackdown. We feel we've pushed the sandbox games and that's been borne out with the feedback we've had from the demo.

But where we've really integrated the sandbox properly in Crackdown is that it's an integral part of the game. It's how you increase your skills, it's how you allow yourself to interact with the world.

Thomson: Everything is completely physical as well. Every object you see can be picked up and used.

Why did you decide to go with an unrealistic look and way to improve your skills by collecting floating orbs? Doesn't that take you out of the immersive experience of being in the world?

Wilson: It does and that was one of our concerns and we had that concern with other things as well, like the agility markers on rooftops [that players collect to increase their skill level]. We said, "Oooh, that's a bit gamey." And then we stopped ourselves and realized that what we were saying is utter insanity. If people have a lot of fun with it then leave it in the game, don't strip it out. It may be a little bit odd to be collecting orbs but it's fun.

A gang member fends off an attacking Agent in Crackdown. (Credit: Microsoft Game Studios) A gang member fends off an attacking Agent in Crackdown. (Credit: Microsoft Game Studios)

We've got an unrealistic visual style, too. The visual style of the game was the plan from the outset. That allows us to get away with more in terms of violence and content. But the graphic novel visual style really works for the game. You're a superhero and the things you do are going to be outrageous and over the top. But you just accept it. It improves the experience so much.

When you have senior members of the team that have worked on popular games like Grand Theft Auto, what kinds of challenges does that present?

Wilson: A lot of people were expecting GTA. We definitely don't want to make that game all over again. We wanted to take it in a different direction.

What about the technical challenges?

Wilson: From a project management perspective, it was incredibly risky. Normally there are one or two unique items in a game's development. There's been some serious challenges and serious crunch to get here.

For example, we draw the whole city, not just things that are close up, so you can see things way in the distance. So [compared to other games] where you would see 25 or 35 cars in the foreground, here you can see hundreds. We do similar things with the characters as well. This is a highly populated town. There aren't any other games that put this many characters on screen.

One of the things we did was say we needed a car that travels 200 miles an hour. Our guys said "No way, you're going to break the streaming" [images] but we insisted and for a long time the streaming was broken. We insisted that they hone the technology and in the end they did a great job. Not only does it do that, but two guys in co-op mode can scream off in opposite directions in supercars and it can do that.

What's the state of the industry in Scotland and how does working there affect the perception of what you can do?

Wilson: You'd be quite surprised at the amount of development in the U.K. In Scotland it used to be spread out all over Scotland but now it seems to have gone east coast. Between Edinburgh and Dundee, I think we account for about 75 to 80 per cent of the game development that goes on.

A genetically-enhanced Agent uses his super-strength to leap between Pacific City buildings in Crackdown.  (Credit: Microsoft Game Studios) A genetically-enhanced Agent uses his super-strength to leap between Pacific City buildings in Crackdown. (Credit: Microsoft Game Studios)

It's something that the U.K. government seems to have woken up to a lot and they seem to be putting a lot more effort behind it to see what they can do for it.

There's a notion that gaming seems to be stuck in a few set genres and the innovation that occurs is more technical innovation than creative innovation. Is that true?

Wilson: It's a reasonably fair concern. You don't want to make a game that people have played before. With Crackdown we spent a lot of time and effort and took a risk in developing a game experience that people haven't had before. People appreciate it.

But it seems to fall into a paradigm that already exists of a guy with a gun shooting things.

Wilson: I think it's important for developers in the industry to think about creating different genres altogether but the motivations wouldn't be just that I'm a pacifist. I'm worried about some people that can't make the distinction between a video game and the awful things that do happen in the world.

In film, you have independent studios that create unique, commercially risky movies. Why don't we see that in games?

Wilson: Crackdown cost an absolute fortune to make — and we want to make some blockbuster games — but that's not good for the industry. You have a reduced number of titles, a reduced size of the teams. We're not increasing the cost of the game but I think we should. The revenue needs to come from somewhere and there's a lot of pressure to have a blockbuster game.

A Peacekeeper police officer fights in the streets of Crackdown's fictitious metropolis Pacific City. A Peacekeeper police officer fights in the streets of Crackdown's fictitious metropolis Pacific City.
Thomson: If you own a company and you make games that are going off in a different direction and taking risks then you're going to have a certain type of person approaching the company to work for you. They're the kind of guys you want. They're creative and talented. Especially in this industry, you get bored. Then they'll start looking for new challenges. All you need to do is pay them well and give them stuff that challenges them.

There seems to be a big move toward consolidation in the industry and studios are being bought up all the time, and some are even being shut down.

Wilson: In the U.K industry, I think we have 6,000 people and about three years ago, there were maybe 4,000. Yet there are fewer companies. That's because projects have become so much larger.

Consolidation is going to continue. In Dundee, we used to have three major companies and now we're down to one.

It's a real worry. But it's a natural phenomenon. As cost goes up, risk has to come down.

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