Q&A: Ruffian's Livingston On Making Crackdown 2
On A Quick Dev Cycle
Next month, Ruffian Games will release Crackdown 2, its sequel to 2007's outrageous open-world action game Crackdown. But Ruffian didn't originate Crackdown; it inherited development duties on the Microsoft-owned property from original creator Realtime Worlds, whose plate was full with the crime-centric MMO APB.
That switch caused some tension between Realtime Worlds and Ruffian, the latter of which was founded in January 2009 by Realtime Worlds veterans. David Jones, founder of Realtime and a co-founder of Grand Theft Auto creator Rockstar North, said he was "a bit miffed" by the way the situation played out, and other key studio members expressed similar sentiments.
But now, the new game is almost on store shelves, and the grumbling has long since quieted, at least publicly. Mission designer Martin Livingston tells Gamasutra that the 50-person Ruffian has focused entirely on getting its first game out the door within a particularly tight production cycle.
In a wide-ranging interview, he discusses the development of the game, the company's mentality to the sequel, how players influenced design, and more:
How long have you guys been working on Crackdown 2 now?
Martin Livingston: We've been working hard solidly, fully ramped up for a little over a year. It's a short space of time. It's been a very fast-process game.
Was that a specific goal? It's unusual for a high-visibility game these days.
ML: It is. It's a massive concerted effort just to get this game out there. We really wanted to get this game into people's hands, so it's been a case of everybody being really focused and motivated on that.
What would you say Ruffian's main goals with this game are, particularly as a different studio in such a short dev cycle? Are you trying to largely maintain what Realtime Worlds did? How much of your own stamp is being put on it?
ML: First and foremost, obviously, the first game was a bit of a sleeper hit, and it was loved by an awful lot of people. Our first thing was to keep it close enough to the original that the fanbase would enjoy it, but then we expanded everything. It's cliche, but, "Make it bigger and make it better."
There's still a single-player core in there, but we really wanted to push the multiplayer. The Crackdown world lent itself perfectly to multiplayer. It's such a big, open play park. It's the perfect match, and it works.
That's aside from the traditional co-op, right?
ML: We have four-player co-op in there, up from the original game with two. The interesting thing with this co-op is that you don't have to stay with your friends or your buddies. All four of you can take on a mission or, should you wish, all four of you could go to different sides of the world, all taking place in the same persistent world. There's still a concept of a host guy running it, but everyone can go away and do the individual missions themselves.
Hopefully, we will see people team up, but we also want them to understand that they can go and do other things if they need to. If their friend needs help, then they can run across the map and then help out.
What is your working relationship with Realtime Worlds? Do you have one at all?
ML: There's no working relationship with them. Obviously, a lot of the guys in our office know them, and are good friends with those people. They've worked alongside them in the past. But they're another company, and obviously they're doing another game. Best of luck to them. There are no problems with them. They worked on the first game and made it what it is. Hopefully, we can do the IP justice.
Often you talk to developers working on their studio's first game, and they say it's tough dealing with making a game while also running a brand-new company at the same time. How has that been for you guys?
ML: It's gone remarkably smoothly. We've got good guys in charge who know the industry well. They've worked on some big titles. We staffed up quickly. We managed to find good people and get them in the right places.
It's been one very fast push with not too many problems. It's gone pretty smoothly. It was hard work, but that was offset by the fact that everyone loves what they're doing. They know they're working on a game that should work. It's genuinely good fun. We play it in the office as well.
I would say until a couple years ago, this particular genre didn't exist. We had GTA, but this is about taking open-world mechanics to the extreme. Now we've also got Just Cause, Prototype, Infamous, and so on. Do you examine what else is going on in this space?
ML: Yes. We'd be remiss in our job if we didn’t. Obviously, Crackdown came out a few years ago, but the one that people forget about and that I always talk about is the Spider-Man games. They are so big and freeform. It's very similar.
But yes. We looked at all of them, and we played all of them, and all of them are good games. People have asked if we've looked at things to steal. We've looked at what they've done well, and we've looked at how we can incorporate similar things into our game. A lot of the things they've done, we've done as well. If we can use a variation of that, yes, by all means get it in there. But we're confident in the Crackdown IP. We're confident in its position.
Are there lessons you've learned, either about particular mechanics or just about broader design mentalities for this kind of game?
ML: The basic thing we've realized with this one is that it's remarkably hard to design a game that's both single-player and co-op that works well. A lot of effort has gone into that. Everything in the single-player game was designed with an eye also on multiplayer.
Everything can be done in multiplayer but also works well if you bring other people in the mix. We had to make sure that if you have a load of people in there, it doesn't suddenly become the easiest game in the world. Quite a bit of work has been done on that.
For a game that supports so much violence, something interesting about Crackdown is that it also provides a great deal of support for pure mobility. Much of my time was spent leveling up my jumping, and running along rooftops. In level design, do you try to explicitly allow for all the different routes you think people might try to take through the world?
ML: Yes. When designing the city, we have a mindset of having set routes through areas, but by the nature of the game, people will be chaotic. They will do what you don't expect them to do. I think the first game showed us that. In the YouTube videos, they did things people never planned. We've given them as many toys as possible, and we have no idea what people are going to do with them. We're just looking forward to seeing the results of that. It's very difficult to judge what people are going to do.
How much of the world were you able to redesign?
ML: It's the same Pacific City. Well, no, it's not the same. It is Pacific City, but it is ten years in the future. So, the road network is still the same, but a lot of work has gone into the buildings, and they've changed. Some of them are higher. Some have been destroyed. It's a similar city. It will be recognizable to people that played the first, but it will be recognizable in the sense that you'll say, "I remember that. It's a bit different now." There are new places to explore, new routes around places.
The [agility] orbs are back, and we have renegade orbs. We think that's going to cause an awful lot of pain and enjoyment at the same time. Some of the orbs will actually run away when you get close, so you're going to have to chase them over the rooftops before you can collect them. It was addictive enough trying to collect the orbs, but now you're actually going to have to work hard to get them as well.
So, you will get people who will happily do the missions, and you will get people who will completely forget what they're doing and run around after the orbs all the time. It caters to whatever people want to do.
You mentioned seeing YouTube videos of things you never would have expected, which is common with open-world games. Has anything you've seen inspired you to modify any elements of the design?
ML: Yes. I think we'd be foolish not to look at what people are doing, because that's clearly what people want to do. Watching the videos has definitely helped us. For example, with achievements, we can see what people want to do. There are all kind of ideas we've looked at and thought, "What would be cool? What would we find fun as well?" As much as possible, we look to get feedback from the community. Hopefully that can be an iterative process that can continue in the future.
Achievement design is still young, but it's evolving. There's the attitude that they present you with things you have to do, and achievements incentivize you to do them. Or the mentality of giving you particularly difficult task, or volumes of tasks. Then there's the angle of rewarding a wacky thing that you might do accidentally do, or try a thousand times to do, but is a fairly unique occurrence. Do you find any of those to be more valuable in terms demonstrating what's possible in the world?
ML: Achievements are essentially, in my mind, a way of partly extending the life of the game, but partly also giving more positive feedback to the player. I don't mind the grinding type of achievements, but a lot of people don't like them at all. The completionist likes them.
We try to stay away from too many grinding achievements. A lot of the achievements reward fun and comedy play -- the kind of thing we want people to do with Crackdown. We want you to have fun. We want you to mess around. By doing that, you will gain achievements. There are a lot of those. That's the main focus of the achievements: You do something fun, and then you get an achievement at the end of it. It's a double bonus.
You mentioned "comedy achievements." A game like Crackdown isn't so much funny because there are jokes in it. The narrator is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but the real comedy comes out of ridiculous situations. How much do you try to specifically set up funny moments you can foresee occurring, and how much do you simply trust in the game's systems to make those situations likely?
ML: A lot of it has come from people in the office suddenly having a bright spark movement -- "Oh, it would be really cool if you did this." And the guys would just very quickly jump in, and you'll get a big crowd around the desk, and everyone laughs. It generally happens that way.
Then someone says, "Yeah, let's do it. Let's make it work and get it in the game." An awful lot of the features simply came from one person saying, "I wish I could do this." And then the next thing you know, it's in the game and everyone's loving it.
In this genre, that seems to be a particularly fruitful process. I was talking with a developer back before the original Crackdown came out, and they were saying the feature where you can climb walls by sucking the truck into them was born directly out of a physics bug that they thought was funny, then hard-coded into the game. Have you had any similar experiences?
ML: Yeah. Again, we give people the toys, and they make the fun with them. We have gas canisters that, if you shoot the end of it, it shoots away. What we didn't think about is that we also have magnetic grenades that attach things to each other. We didn't realize at fisrt that the system was flexible enough that you can attach to a grenade to one of the gas canisters, and the grenade will start flying around at the end of this room. There are all these little things that we probably don't even know yet that can be in the game.
Does that ever worry you as a designer, whether your systems are robust enough to stand up to that kind of emergence?
ML: Yes. I can see how I could be a bit worried, but the coding guys we have are very, very good. It gets tested to death as much as we can. It's a very robust system in general. Everything we do, we're aware that it can be abused by the players in all manners of ways.
Crackdown seemed like a very polarizing game. Some people loved the open-ended nature of it, and some people said things like, "It's too unfocused, I need more structure." Do you keep that in mind, or do you ignore it?
ML: We try to keep the game open as much as possible. We want it to be inclusive, and we still have the single-player campaign, which has structure to it. It has storyline. So, for the people who don't want to wander off and do all the races or the orbs, there's still a game to be had, and it does have a proper storyline -- a beginning, a middle, and a big conclusion at the end.