Crackdown 2 – Interview with Billy Thomson

Written by Ian Howlett, May 29, 2010, 0 Comments

Last week I was invited to an event in downtown Toronto to get a look at Crackdown 2 for the Xbox 360. We were allowed to play through almost every facet of the game, and while it was not completely finished at that point I got a chance to see what the game was like, including all the multiplayer and single player aspects. Rather than get into the minutia of the game before it hits shelves this July, I was able to sit down with the Creative Director of Ruffian Games, Billy Thomson, whose team took over the reigns of Crackdown as a new studio.

Previous to his role at Ruffian, Billy was the lead designer on the original Crackdown and is an alumni of DMA Designs, now known as Rockstar North. He has worked on the Grand Theft Auto starting with the original where he was a level designer.

LeftStickRight: What did you want to get out of the sequel that you were not able to explore in the first game?

Billy Thomson: Multiplayer was a big thing. For the first game the plan actually was to incorporate more multiplayer. But the way that the code had been written for the network it did not allow scaling to that level – you couldn’t even do three players because it would slow down so much.

LSR: Was it limited because the Live architecture was not caught up, having worked on the original Xbox platform?

BT: No, no, it wasn’t that. We did a lock step, which is two systems constantly staying in sync with each other, instead of a peer-to-peer network. The fact that we went down that path meant that scaling up to three just was not happening. There was no way it could do it. It just comes down to bandwidth for peer-to-peer, but there was literally no way of doing it with the old network system.

That was something I really wanted to do from the first game.

LSR: Games are a social thing, so do you have support for local multiplayer and system link?

BT: No, we don’t actually. It is really hard to do split screen stuff. System link is something that some of the guys at Microsoft are kicking themselves because they didn’t do it. Especially just for the demos of the game, since we would like a controlled environment. But, yes, system link. We had it last game, but we don’t have it this game.

LSR: It is going the way of the dodo now.

BT: Yeah, not many people use it. It’s almost like LAN Party stuff now. I know guys that will play each other in the same house but both use Xbox Live and not even bother with system link. I think it is the kind of physical side of actually having to move your TV.

LSR: What do you think the biggest elements of Crackdown that you had to live up to, or you had to hit to do this sequel?

BT: We had to create more of a challenge for the player, because at the end of Crackdown if you had completely maxed out your character there was not a whole lot of challenge because you were so powerful. You could jump into the middle of 20 guys and just annihilate them. We had to create something that was a bit more challenging from the AIs point of view and that’s where the Freaks came in. They allow us to do things that we could never get away with with standard characters.

Multiplayer was a big one that we knew we had to put in because people expect it. We had to double the amount of players we use in coop, which was difficult. There were other things that we wanted to do in the first game, we wanted to have proper join-in-progress which we never really had in the first game. Even though people could join your game you still had to reset. It was a lot of little things that we wanted to fix and we’ve been able to do that.

We had other things, again in coop, where you could go off in different directions but you could not take on two of the gang bosses at the same time. That was impossible. We wanted to make sure that all the objectives that were in Crackdown 2 could be done separately, so four players can go off to separate parts of the city and everybody can do whatever objective they like. If you want to do a speed run, then that’s an easy way of doing it.

LSR: The first game does progress very quickly. Is there more for you to do in this game or more of a challenge to level up?

BT: It’s not more difficult. The game goes through usability testing and you get a lot of data back from that and there’s a lot of pressure from that to make sure you hit the right notes from their perspective. The leveling up is very similar to the first game. But there is a lot more content. The density of the content is a lot higher in Crackdown 2 and the variation is greater, as well. There’s just a lot more stuff going on; the first game was more sporadic and not quite as well distributed.

LSR: How do you handle the story contextually? The last game had the narrator was the overarching story. Has it changed in this one?

BT: One of the challenges of having a game that is free form, meaning you can do any of the challenges in any order, is trying to have an unfolding story. It is just about impossible unless you can do specific objectives in branches and that is a testing nightmare and it is a huge ask from a development point of view. The player does play towards and end goal. There’s a lot of audio queues through the logs and that’s where we try and tell a bit more story. We’re not heavily invested in cutscenes. It is more about the gameplay experience than about an unfolding story.

LSR: Do you think that – even without the multiplayer – that this was a game you should experience?

BT: Funny thing is that I have played far more single player than I have played coop and PvP. When you play the campaign it is actually quite a serious game, you’re really focused – objective, objective, objective. Crackdown is a game where you do try and focus and then ‘ooo!’ there’s a distraction. I think that’s what makes the single player experience so fun and so varied is that you are trying to do one thing but constantly being dragged across to something else. It is a lot more focused and serious when you are trying to get things done, where in coop it is a laugh.

And then there is the variation in difficulty. We have a few difficulty levels, there are five and the last one is insane.

LSR: What do you change for the difficulty levels?

BT: It is really simple sliders. There is no dynamic balancing based on one or four players, because I think that can actually be a bad thing with the way our game works. The fact that is a seamless join in progress, you can’t just change damages because you’re teaching a player that the red guy over there can be killed with two bullets but suddenly someone else joins and then it takes fifty. It is a variation on health and damage based on the players choice when they start the game.

LSR: What are your plans for supporting the game? Are you going to be adding content through DLC?

BT: It is DLC that we will be supporting the main game with through Xbox Live Marketplace. The actual details for what the content is going to be is still being spoken about now. We are entirely focused on finishing the game. But there are a lot of ideas being thrown around. It will be similar to what we did with the first game, what we did last time was give players a lot of content, a lot of variation and allowed them to play the game in a different way. We want to add content that will alter the way you play four player campaign so you can go in and have a laugh with the content but we also want to make sure that we provide more objectives and game modes for online PvP players, as well. But we do want to make sure it is not just another Domination or something, we want to make sure it is something that is more Crackdown focused unlike anything else that’s been done.

LSR: What are your plans for fostering the Crackdown 2 community going forward?

BT: We already have a forums set up on the Ruffian Games website. We actually had a big competition for people to add graffiti in the game and there is a load of it in the game now, I think there were about fifty people in the end that we picked. Some of the stuff in the game is done by the art team, but there was a lot of community stuff that went in. And they are all mentioned in the credits.

We also hired one of the guys that made the best videos from the first game. He does all the “25 Ways to Die.” It is good to get guys from the community to come in and do something cool.

LSR: Games are getting more social. It seems more and more that people can interact with the people making the game directly.

BT: I think that’s important, because they are the people playing the game and spending the money. You need to do your best to make sure they are happy and they are getting the kind of content they are looking for. We want to have our name go hand in hand with quality.

Thanks very much to Billy for sitting down with us and taking time to talk about the game. Keep an eye out at E3 for Crackdown 2 and it will be in stores this coming July.

About Ian Howlett

Ian is the founder and editor of LeftStickRight and the one you can blame if something does not look right or outright breaks. He has been writing and talking about video games on and off for five years. You will often find him walking his dog, eating chicken wings and describing himself in the third person.