[In this Gamasutra bonus feature, published online for the first time in honor of Realtime Worlds' upcoming APB and spinoff studio Ruffian's Crackdown 2, we reprint Game Developer magazine's October 2007 postmortem of RTW's first project, the Xbox 360-exclusive open world action game Crackdown.]
Crackdown is the first title released by Realtime Worlds, an independent developer based in Scotland. Over the course of the game's turbulent development, the company grew from a small team of former DMA Design staff headed by Dave Jones, to an award-winning studio of 170 employees housed in a 30,000 square foot office. In addition to this main studio in the heart of Dundee, Scotland, two more have been set up in Seoul and Colorado.
I was producer of Crackdown from almost-but-not-quite the very beginning. Like many projects, the development cycle was a rollercoaster of highs and lows, but despite some truly gut-wrenching sensations, it was a fantastic experience.
1. Art Vision
The most immediately striking element of Crackdown is certainly its visuals. The project was blessed from the outset with a highly focused and creative art director who defined the perfect style to frame a dialed-up world of intense superhero action from a very early stage. His goal was to create a rich color palette, unique and stylized ambient shadowing, crisp and strong real-time shadows, exaggerated assets, and bold outlines on all the geometry.
We used various reference materials to collectively encapsulate this vision, but the most significant one was a none-too-mainstream Manga title: Blood: The Last Vampire. The Microsoft marketing team was initially quite nervous about the visual direction. It wasn't "safe" and was sure to consume valuable PR cycles explaining the game's style rather than substance.
Microsoft at least wanted a catchy handle to hang it all on, but we didn't take them seriously enough, belligerently referring to the concepts as having a graphic novel style. We eventually paid the price when even the specialist press heathenishly branded our lovingly crafted form as cel shaded!
Though we established the visual direction early, creating it was a far more arduous process. The few graphics programmers we had were preoccupied with relatively rudimentary rendering requirements for far too long.
By the time we reached the production phase, our vision was still a fragmented series of tech prototypes. The actual game, as the then-Microsoft art lead delicately put it, "still looked like ass." Everyone, not just the publisher, became worried that we wouldn't hit that all-important visual bar.
Then came the X05 event in Amsterdam. Microsoft wanted to tease second-wave titles at its pre-launch event. We weren't ready, and everyone knew it. The run up to the show was highly charged at all levels and ultimately, despite producing a relatively solid and promising demo, the wrong decision was made in taking the game to the event.
Not surprisingly, Crackdown was announced to lukewarm reception; but then it was on the media's radar, and from that point onward, we were subject to repeated requests for screenshots that served only to hang around on the net like a bad smell.
Behind the scenes though, the rendering tech was at last on track. The unsung hero feature was ambient occlusion, an ambient shadowing system embracing the principles of radiosity lighting in a proprietary 3DS Max tool. The ability to sample millions upon millions of photons in the scene at a fraction of standard radiosity calculation time resulted in an unprecedented level of environmental solidity, with darkness forced into corners for increased dramatic effect.
We made some last minute sacrifices in the pursuit of performance, such as heavily simplifying water reflections, but the result was still stunning and the massive sea change in opinion for the finished product was everything we had hoped for.
In fact, shortly after Crackdown shipped, Microsoft conducted a thorough consumer survey that finally vindicated everyone's efforts with one simple fact: Graphics were rated as the number one aspect of the game.