Discussing Crackdown 3 delays, design vision, and a dream of Crackdown 4

Crackdown 3 is aiming to launch on February 15, 2019, following a string of high-profile delays. The cloud-powered title represents cutting-edge technology for Microsoft, who are using the game to showcase physics calculated in the cloud, leading to computations far, far beyond the capabilities of a base Xbox One.

Beyond its multiplayer arena gameplay modes, Crackdown 3's campaign is a crazy superhero sandbox, where players can earn the power to throw gasoline tankers, punch enemies across the map, and jump across skyscrapers.

To learn more about the full package, we caught up with Microsoft Studios' Creative Director Joseph Staten and Head of Production Jorg Neumann to discuss Crackdown 3.

Delays, delays, delays

Crackdown 3 has been a project notorious for its delays, since it was first announced at E3 2014. Microsoft Studios' Creative Director Joseph Staten, noted that the technology behind the cloud contributed to the long development cycle, but that ultimately, the goal has been reached.

[We] knew going in when we started Crackdown 3 that this technological heavy lift — Azure powered, multiplayer fully destructible environments — was going to take a lot of investment, a lot of time to get right. To a large extent, the project schedule has largely been driven by that technology investment. We really have landed this fully destructible Azure-powered experience. It's really unlike any game that we've tried to design before, where you can blow up all of the geometry.

In conversation with both Staten and Engineering Lead Brian Stone in a previous interview really made it sound as though the cloud-powered destruction systems in Crackdown 3 created various unknown technical hurdles to overcome.

The ability to destroy all surface geometry in the game, including all buildings and physical structures, also led the teams working on Crackdown 3 to reconsider how shooters work in general.

One of the things I always think about when designing a game — geometry is gameplay. Whether it's cover based, or any sort of shooter type game, so much of the gameplay is about "what is my position relative to cover? what is the enemy's position relative to cover?" If you can just blow up everything, a lot of those principles of game design need to be rethought.

I certainly experienced some of those new ideas when I played the game at Redmond a few weeks ago. Not only do all agents come equipped with standard weapons, but you also come equipped with huge explosive weapons designed to destroy the environment, and thus, strip cover away from fleeing enemies. The best players in Crackdown 3 will be those who anticipate where the line of sight could become an issue while getting creative with rockets.

In this case, we took our vision public very early on. It's a motivator to fulfil that vision, because that's what you promised.

Boosted campaign

While the focus on Crackdown 3's coverage in the media tends towards the technical achievement with Azure, the game will also feature a large story campaign long-term Crackdown fans will find familiar, in a highly vertical world that's four times bigger than previous Crackdown titles.

Set in the corrupt city of New Providence, Agents infiltrate a benevolent corporate exploiting (and perhaps tied to) a global terrorist catastrophe for their own ends. The campaign will feature nine bosses split across three unique factions. One focuses on robotics, another revolves around industry and tech, and another is more militarized. Players will have to battle these factions to work their way up to the big bad at the top.

Staten noted that while getting the cloud tech right did impact the schedule for the game's release, that it has led to an improved, and more polished campaign experience.

[It] just took us time, longer than we originally thought. What that's afforded us on the campaign side is that it allowed us to go after a deeper story, add more tools to the sandbox, and create a more polished experience over all. We absolutely want to ship games as high-quality and polished as we can.

Crackdown 3 was originally billed as a four-player co-op, but that has been dialed back to two-player in recent times. Neumann outlined that this was at least in part due to the chaotic nature of Crackdown 3.

[It's] friend-invite only. Crackdown 3 has very little structure, that's always been the appeal of the game. It's a big open world, with a huge set of guns, you can do things at your own pace. There's no prescribed way to play through the bosses, for example. If you have too many players with completely different stuff on their mind, we found that they tend to go off in different directions and never see each other. We felt the best experience in Crackdown 3 was to play with a friend, making plans of attack, [healing] each other, blowing shit up together.

On the topic of blowing shit up, you have to wonder why there was never an intent to add cloud-powered destruction to Crackdown 3's campaign. It seems that the decision was philosophically-driven, rather than technologically-driven.

We thought about it, but ultimately we decided that this is a game about saving the city, and helping people, rather than reducing it to rubble. We wanted to make sure that we offered that, but it was in a separate mode that was entirely about destruction. We felt that multiplayer PvP, blowing the hell out of each other, was this great thematic match for destruction in Crackdown. So we decided early on that we were going to put destruction entirely in multiplayer.

Multiplayer vision

Wrecking Zone currently has two game modes. One is similar to Kill Confirmed in Call of Duty, where you have to grab the dog tags of downed enemies to get a point for your team, while also having the ability to deny points for the enemy team. The other is similar to domination, where you have to capture and hold areas of the map to earn points. I asked about plans for future Crackdown modes, and plans for post-launch.

[We] prototyped a bunch of modes. We have all kinds of dreams how this can take off. [People] were asking about Battle Royale, "why aren't there 100 players?" There's a reason we have five versus five, and the map sizes too. There's so much stuff that you need to keep in memory, due to the destruction, that there's limits. Once you have a map that is a nice size and creates the pace of destruction the way we dreamed of it, having more players can be counter-productive, but we're still experimenting, tech will evolve too.

Right now, Microsoft is focusing entirely on Crackdown 3's launch, which is a departure from other multiplayer games which often come with a season pass and the promise of additional content down the line. It sounds as though Microsoft is still fleshing out what that might look like for Crackdown 3.

We're not committing to anything right now, we're still experimenting with what's best to do. We're looking at what people find fun, tweaking the balance and so on. We also look at the long-term hooks. We know that we didn't want to go with microtransactions. We're not going with the concept of loot crates. There will be things you can unlock, increasingly cool things. Whether they're rank based, or based on the number of matches, we're honestly still playing with it. We've made hundreds of things to unlock. We can take that to many places.

The future?

I asked Joseph Staten whether Crackdown could eventually find itself up there with Forza, Halo, Minecraft, and Gears of War as one of Microsoft's "flagship" franchises, given the promising cloud technology and relatively unique proposition in Microsoft's first-party lineup. But like all good things, Crackdown would have to earn it.

Every game that Microsoft Studios makes... that's the hope, that's the dream for every title we publish. Some games earn that, and some games don't. Our hope is that every game that we ship, we give it the best shot at becoming the next big franchise. The way we look at that is, you have to earn that. It's not a foregone conclusion. We think Crackdown has a lot of potential, it's a really fun game, we hope people love it.

I certainly feel like Crackdown as a franchise has potential to be up there with the best of them for Microsoft. Whether or not it's Crackdown 3 that achieves that, it's too early to say, but that won't be for lack of trying. The amount of effort that has been poured into the technology powering Crackdown is immense, and I'm looking forward to experiencing what that will be like in the final product, even if questions remain about the full package. Time will tell.

Crackdown 3 aims to launch on February 15, 2019 for Xbox One consoles and PC for $59.99, or as part of Xbox Game Pass for $9.99 per month.

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Jez Corden
Co-Managing Editor

Jez Corden is a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by tea. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his XB2 Podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!