David Jones has a stellar résumé, a major game coming out for the Xbox 360 and one big fear.
"It's really scary to think you could make a really great game that nobody has ever heard about," he said during a phone interview from the offices of his gaming company, Real Time Worlds, in Dundee, Scotland.
Jones has made many great games people have heard about. He programmed the PC hit "Lemmings" and oversaw the first two "Grand Theft Auto" games. His company's next project — an open-world game called "Crackdown," best shorthanded as a "Grand Theft Auto" character minus the plot and plus a lead character who has Super Mario's hops — will be published by Microsoft on February 20 for the Xbox 360. It will surely be given prominence by the current market leader in new-generation gaming consoles.
But Jones spoke to MTV News — more candidly than most game makers — about the anxieties that come with working on a game for years and then releasing it to the mercy of the gaming public. He also detailed the unusual decisions made to make sure that his game gets a shot, including a "Halo 3" marketing gimmick he says didn't bruise his ego.
"This game does not look good in screenshots," Jones said during the interview, unprompted. "That is probably the biggest thing I've struggled with." The Pacific City of "Crackdown" stretches as far as the eye can see. No fog obscures buildings several blocks away. When the player drives through the city at top speeds, the frame rate is smooth. But that doesn't show in stills. So long ago, Jones realized, people were writing his game off. Pacific City's citizens, outlined in black, look cartoonish. When "Crackdown" appears in stills, it looks a bit simple. "In screenshots, it pales in [comparison] to a great-looking, realistic-looking shot."
When Jones checked focus groups to see what they thought of the game, he discovered that for the first 10 or 15 minutes, they didn't get it. They took control of a super-cop out to knock off gangs stationed throughout a sprawling city, but so what? In early minutes, they'd yet to experience the main gimmick of "Crackdown": the concept that every shot fired made the super-cop they controlled a better shot, that every barrel heaved made them stronger until eventually they could pitch cars, that every low rooftop reached would bring them closer to the power to leap buildings in a single bound. Those abilities didn't kick in when people took control of their super-cop right at the start. "People weren't quite sure, because at that level, you're kind of like most characters in most other games." Once their super-cop strengthened and started jumping rooftops, their thumbs went up. It was just a gradual sell.
So bring on "Halo 3" for the save. Three months ago, Jones was told that the mother of all Xbox video games would have a limited-access multiplayer beta test this spring months before its late 2007 release and that "Crackdown" would be bundled with free invitations for gamers to join that test. Was that a slap, a sign that his own publisher didn't think people would buy "Crackdown" on its own merits? "We kind of knew 'Crackdown' would need as much help as it could get to get into players' hands," Jones said. "Like we've always said: It's a game player's game. It's not something that's going to sell in screenshot. So that was good."
That's not all that's being done to get gamers to try "Crackdown" and probably not even the most clever trick Jones has OK'd during the game's development cycle.
To hear Jones describe it, the very motivation for the game's design was to be good to players. "Really the crux of the whole game design was, 'How do we reward somebody for just having fun?' " he said. People like to blow things up in games? Well then every time they blow something up will allow them to cause grander and grander explosions. They like running over bad guys? Give them driving points that eventually enable them to commandeer an SUV that can drive up the sides of buildings. Xbox 360 games could have up to 50 official Achievements to accomplish in a game and compare against friends for bragging rights? Jones said his team planned for 200 and asked Microsoft to lift the maximum cap.
"They were only allowing 50, and we were saying, 'Oh, that's going to cripple us,' " Jones said. "Eventually they announced they were going to a higher number." Now they're offering 80, which Jones said is the new Microsoft max. He said the team noticed that "Crackdown" testers who climbed atop a half-mile tower in Pacific City liked to sit for minutes and admire the view of the city and watch the day turn to night. In what Jones described as "a bit of overkill," the developers reacted by programming the clouds in the sky to behave procedurally — that is, take unique shapes every passing day of the game. "We wanted to do something special for people who made it to the top of the agency building," he said.
But "Halo 3" aside, what could be done to make sure people tossed even their first grenade or walked up to the foot of the agency tower? As Jones said, "90 percent of the fight is just getting people to try something."
So they released a demo on the Xbox 360's online marketplace. Actually, they released a rigged demo. The demo starts as the game does and then shuts off 30 minutes after the player climbs to the second level in any of the core jumping, shooting, driving or combat skills. The catch, though, is that during that final half-hour, the player's skill progression is accelerated. Their abilities will advance at 10 times the speed they do in the normal game, just to be sure players "get it."
There's more. Someone might not play the demo, but they might rent the game or buy it on a blind recommendation from a friend. Like the focus testers did early on, they might wonder what all the fuss is about. So Jones' team threw five movies into the game, each one showing what a character can do at their maximum power levels. "Hopefully they can watch the video and say, 'OK, I want to get all of that.' "
And if some gamers are sold, Jones aims to ensure they stay sold. He wants to offer unspecified downloadable content over Xbox Live to expand the game. Jones expects players to use the game as a sandbox of destruction, that he already expects the game's Achievements to be a point of competitive pride and that he loves the YouTube videos already appearing of the game. So a potential candidate for new content is a video-capture tool that would let users record their exploits and share them with Xbox Live friends. "We could do that," Jones said. It can be added to the game after its release. "So once again, it comes down to timing, finding out if that's the kind of thing players would really love, that makes it viable."
"Crackdown" presents something of a full circle for Jones. Many of his old "GTA" mates are now working on the new version of that franchise at Rockstar North, a studio 60 miles away in Edinburgh. When he worked on the first "GTA," Jones' team had planned to let gamers play criminals or cops. "It was boring playing the police," Jones said. So they took it out. "When we were doing 'Crackdown,' it was like, if you're going to be some super-powerful guy that can take on hundreds of other people that just naturally fits the good guy. It's you against the odds, and that's always the good guy, isn't it?"
So this is the game's tale inside and out: an underdog's fight with a little help from a friend and some tricks up the super-powered sleeve. For Jones, though, there is an alternative. He could just make a good screenshot game next time. He could play it safe — maybe make a World War II first-person shooter? "No, there's plenty of those," he said. "Somebody's got to take risks."