GamesBeat: Is the customization more just choosing among the characters? Can you customize your character cosmetically?
Staten: There isn’t any customization in that classic way. You can’t change your suit, for example. But as you level up your skills, your agent does change. They’ll become bigger, stronger, as they level up their skills.
GamesBeat: What kind of places and environments are we going to see in the city?
Staten: In the campaign, just like Crackdown and Crackdown 2, you’re in a city, an island city-state. But the island itself has a variety of areas in it. The whole hook of the story is that a big giant megacorporation, Terra Nova, has built this island metropolis to realize their nefarious plans. It’s a company town. Everywhere you go has Terra Nova branding. There are working-class districts. There are super-high-rise wealthy areas of the city. It’s meant to tell this story of what happens to a city when a big, powerful corporation has absolute control and evil plans. But there are lots of cool different areas — different looks, different feels.
GamesBeat: Can you explain how you’re using cloud computing for the destructability?
Staten: What we’re doing in Wrecking Zone is we’re running Havok in Azure. We’re spinning up the equivalent of 12 Xbox Ones, that level of cloud compute, to do this lockstep full destruction. What this means is that if you’re on a day one Xbox One from four years ago, or a brand new Xbox One X, that experience of destruction will be the same on all platforms. An Xbox One X will be rendering it in 4K and an Xbox One will be in 1080p or what have you, but a destructive chunk is a destructive chunk regardless of the platform. It’s really nice. It means that even if I have an older piece of hardware, I’m not getting a downgraded Wrecking Zone experience.
There are no technical limits to how big we could make this map or the number of players we could put into it. I mean, I’m sure there are eventually some limits, but there are no hard, immediate technical limits. The reason why the map is the size it is, the player count we have, those are all design choices. We could have chosen to spin up more Azure servers. There are, of course, costs associated with that, so we had to find some balance between the experience and the cost. But that’s how we’re using cloud compute, to create this consistently fun, fully destructible experience for everyone on all platforms.
Also, we have distributed data centers around the world, so we’re making sure people aren’t adversely affected by bad ping times. Whatever platform you’re on, wherever you are in the world, it should be an equally enjoyable experience.
GamesBeat: Is that true in the campaign too, or just the Wrecking Zone?
Staten: We haven’t unleashed full destruction in the campaign. We did experiment with it. There are no technical reasons why we couldn’t do it. Ultimately it came down to two design realizations. One, if you’re the hero trying to save a city, it feels wrong to go around blowing up the city. And two, because Crackdown is so much a vertical game, so much about the platforming, once you blow up a building, you’ve blown up the building and it’s not coming back.
In session-based multiplayer you can blow everything up, reduce it to rubble, and then whoops, spin up a new session and everything is rebuilt again. That makes sense. But in the campaign we opted for destruction just simulated on the client. There are still things that blow up spectacularly in the campaign. It’s just a more client-scale level of destruction.
GamesBeat: So you don’t make the city any bigger because of that in the campaign?
Staten: No, it really doesn’t have to do so much with the size as it does the offloading of the physics compute to the cloud, with the goal of giving everybody that same lockstep experience. That’s just the choice that Crackdown made. The thing that’s interesting from a technical, developer point of view–I’m really eager for other developers to take a look at this and see the one interesting choice we made, simulating destruction in the cloud. Smart developers can say, “Well, what could we do?” There are clearly things you can with animation, with AI, with machine learning. Bigger player arenas, higher player counts, you name it.
I hope people will look at Crackdown and think deeply about other novel experiences they could do with their game. Microsoft has big expensive data centers all around the world. [laughs] We have harnessed a fraction of that power for this one experience.
GamesBeat: It did take a long time. What would you say explains why it took that much time? Did you have to iterate a lot on this?
Staten: We did. From day one we had this goal of destruction in the cloud. That took longer than we thought to figure out. Certainly from a technical point of view, but even after we wrapped our heads around the technical problem, figuring out what was truly fun–simple lessons we learned, like player count or session length or game rules. All of these things require careful testing.
So much about multiplayer gameplay, arena PvP type multiplayer, is predictability of cover. Gameplay is geometry at some fundamental level. If I go into a Call of Duty match or a Counter-Strike match, I want to know that that corner is always that corner. My line of sight is going to stay consistent. It’s all about maneuvering around cover effectively and putting bullets on a pixel, generally speaking, in a first-person shooter.
Once you start to destroy all geometry in the arena, players can no longer rely on that fundamental rule of gameplay. We had to iterate, make mistakes, rebuild, and think about gameplay in a different direction before we hit on this idea that, actually, what makes destruction unique in a lock-on game, what makes it fun, is breaking lock. Using destruction tactically to disengage from the enemy, to maneuver, to surprise an enemy. These are all discoveries we made along the way. It just took years to meet those goals we’d set for ourselves.
GamesBeat: What works well in multiplayer, then, it’s that evasion? Trying to move between buildings, into buildings, through buildings and block the shots coming at you?
Staten: Yeah, to block a shot, to break line of sight. Certainly there’s also just fun spectacle involved in a destructive arena. A little bit of peacocking and showing off. But at the end of the day destruction is tactical. Learning how to use it to your advantage is where the depth of Wrecking Zone really lives.