Ruffian's indie game Game of Glens is suffering from a backlash.
Today marks the end of the pilot phase of Square Enix's experimental pre-crowd-funding hype builder The Collective. The idea is people vote to express their interest in a game being made. Then, once the votes are in, Square Enix will partner with projects that have received community support by showcasing them on its Indiegogo page.
Three games were invited to pitch on The Collective's pilot: Tuque Games' World War Machine, Kitfox Games' Moon Hunters and Ruffian Games' Game of Glens. The question for each is: would you back this project through crowd-funding? For World War Machine, 90 per cent of those who voted said they would. For Moon Hunters, 83 per cent said they would. Game of Glens? Just 39 per cent.
Why? Because it's not Crackdown.
For producer Jim Cope, who worked on the first Crackdown while at Realtime Worlds and then Crackdown 2 at Ruffian, that's fair enough.
"Yes, there was a backlash to begin with, and we struggled to get over that backlash, but fair enough," he tells me. "That's what fans are like. In some ways I agree with them. I want to see another Crackdown as well. I really do."
Crackdown occupies a curious position in the great mash of fondly remembered console games we've beaten into the back of our minds. The first Crackdown was a triumph, an Xbox 360 exclusive that redefined emergent, open world gameplay. I loved it; the carnage, the co-op, the collecting.
But Eurogamer scribe Christian Donlan loves it even more than I do, I think. In a retrospective published last year he wrote: "I'm too happy, too often, to be lead through a game by the nose - only seeing the bits I'm meant to see and doing the things I'm meant to do. Crackdown's beauty is that it realises all of this. It knows that players find rules and the structure that rules impose singularly powerful - so by removing some of those rules, you'll start to free them. You'll start to free them from themselves."
Crackdown's February 2007 release was met with critical acclaim and, by that year's end, 1.5m sales. And so it was that Microsoft gave a sequel the thumbs up, although in a way that "miffed" Realtime Worlds chief Dave Jones. Backed by Microsoft, Ruffian set up shop down the road from Realtime in Dundee, Scotland, taking many who had worked on the original with it. Realtime went on to create the ill-fated action MMO APB for PC. Ruffian made Crackdown 2 for Xbox 360.
Development of Crackdown 2, though, was difficult. Under intense pressure from expectant fans and a development deadline that seemed impossible to meet, Ruffian birthed Crackdown 2 after just over 12 months of intense, exhausting production. Pretty much everyone agrees it wasn't the game it could - perhaps should - have been.
"It was a real shame with Crackdown 2," Cope sighs. "It was such a mixed reception. It was a hard development for us, but we're really proud of it. I can't describe how much we put into that game and how hard we worked for it. The fact it came out at all was a miracle. When you see a team working to get something done like that, it really is the best thing about games, even though it's unbelievably hard work and pretty much damaging to your health and sanity.
"Do we wish it would have been better? Yeah, of course we do. We'd happily do more to make that game a bigger success...."
"It was a real shame with Crackdown 2. It was such a mixed reception. It was a hard development for us, but we're really proud of it. I can't describe how much we put into that game and how hard we worked for it. The fact it came out at all was a miracle."
Since the release of Crackdown 2 in the summer of 2010 Ruffian has survived by working for hire on projects that pay the bills but do little for the creative juices. Its credits include Star Wars Kinect, Nike+ Kinect Training and, reportedly, Xbox One launch title Ryse. And then there were the cancelled projects. A leaked video, below, revealed Ruffian had worked on a Streets of Rage prototype for Sega that went unsigned. There are whispers of a game that for Cope would have been a dream project involving a big publisher, a movie studio and one hell of an IP...
The reality is for the last few years Ruffian's work has gone largely unnoticed because it's not in a position to trumpet its own development. And for staff it's a frustrating reality.
"It's been hard the last couple of years because we've had two things where we thought, okay, this is the thing that will win people over," Cope says. "And it's nothing that we've done wrong, but those things haven't come to fruition. That's been a hard pill to swallow. But that's games development and it happens all the time. It's just frustrating that people don't really get to see that side of things. I think if they did they'd probably be more understanding and they'd realise, well, actually, you know what? Games isn't exactly an easy thing to do. And they'd probably be a bit more supportive."
Ruffian began life with a burning desire to work on its own games, its own franchises and its own IP - and reap the rewards. Making Crackdown 2 was supposed to steer the studio along the path of achieving that, but it hasn't quite worked out. Still, that burning desire remains, and it spawned Game of Glens.
Two years ago Ruffian creative director Billy Thomson, who worked on the original Grand Theft Auto at DMA Design (now Rockstar North), visited Rezzed, the PC and indie game show, and was inspired. He returned to Dundee with a simple message: I want to make an indie game.
The original idea was Tribal Towers, a quirky, side-on, real-time projectile combat game. It began life as most games do, as a prototype, without any setting or style, and last year Ruffian launched a limited alpha test in an attempt to get feedback. "The feedback was what we were afraid to admit ourselves," Cope admits, "but we knew very well there were issues there."
Tribal Towers' gameplay was too complicated. It was bogged down by its complex controls, and its art style, while acceptable, lacked that kick needed to make the game come to life. As Cope puts it, Tribal Towers wasn't something Ruffian could build a new IP around.
The studio put the project on the back burner to think about its setting and tone and story. Many discussions and tweaks later, Tribal Towers became Game of Glens, a sort of Angry Birds meets Minecraft meets World of Goo strategy game.
Ruffian was in the middle of discussions with publishers about Game of Glens when the Square Enix Collective came along. "It was perfectly timed," Cope says. "I wouldn't say it was our favoured opportunity, it was just it was launching in January 2014, and that was exactly when we wanted to try to push it publicly. It's a noble idea."
Ruffian had planned to crowd-fund Game of Glens - whatever happens it still does - but it thought the Collective, at worst, would help build an audience for it beforehand. That would have been a good thing.
And then the Crackdown-fuelled backlash. Why is Ruffian making an Angry Birds clone for casual gamers, some have asked, when it should be making Crackdown 3 for Xbox owners.
So, what's to be done?
"Honestly, the only way we can break free from that legacy is to make more better games," Cope says. "Let's be clear about this: I don't think Game of Glens is the one that's going to shed our legacy. It's a different game. It's something we're intentionally trying that's a bit different. It's an experiment for us. It's a game we really believe in. It's a fun game. The prototype is multiplayer and we have a lot of fun with it to the point of shouting at each other across the office and calling each other names. It's that sort of tense game. It's a lot of strategic fun and you can have a lot of lunch-time gaming fun with it.
"But it's not the game that's going to transform the legacy of the studio. I'm being brutally honest here. As much as I like it, it doesn't appeal to the same market. It's not the same audience of gamers that are going to play that game that play Crackdown."
"Let's be clear about this: I don't think Game of Glens is the one that's going to shed our legacy. It's a different game. It's something we're intentionally trying that's a bit different. It's an experiment for us. It's a game we really believe in."
Rumours of Crackdown 3 being in the works have popped up online every few months over the last few years, but it wasn't until Microsoft teased the return of the series during its May 2013 Xbox One reveal event by placing a Crackdown orb in an image of the Xbox One dashboard that previously hopeful tongues wagged with certainty.
Last year, at E3, I asked Microsoft Studios boss Phil Spencer about Crackdown 3. "It was one of my favourite games on Xbox 360," he told me. "We did a really nice job on the first one. The second one, I wish we'd have given it more time to build out the complete game."
Spencer then went on to suggest that Crackdown 3 could make use of the Xbox cloud.
"When I think about the technology we're putting into Xbox One specifically around some of the cloud functionality, there's a real opportunity to take an open-world game like Crackdown that allowed you to play with your friends, and roam to all corners of the city and still feel like you're playing together," he added.
"There's a real neat opportunity to bring that genre and game forward onto the new generation."
At the time it sounded like Spencer was on the hunt for a developer for Crackdown 3, and it sounded like he wanted to keep its development in the UK. "We want to get the right team," he said. "We want to make sure we have the right creative mastermind behind the title. There was a nice UK sensibility to the way the game was developed. I think that's important to the franchise as well."
After that interview I remember thinking, it's Ruffian, surely. But Ruffian had already gone on the record to say it wasn't developing Crackdown 3. Now, half a year later, has that changed?
"We worked on Crackdown 1 and 2 with the intention of it being a long-running franchise," Cope says. "I want to see that happen. So I agree. Yes, please, make another Crackdown!
"But all I know is we're not. They've certainly hinted about it. I know Phil Spencer well enough to read between the lines of what he's saying publicly and I know what he wants to do. Good luck. I really want to see Crackdown continue as much as he wants to see it continue. That's just the way it is."
The obvious question, the one the internet has been asking over the last couple of years, the one that's dogged Game of Glens' adventure on The Collective, is: why isn't Ruffian making Crackdown 3?
The answer is a complicated one mired in non-disclosure agreements.
"It's been hard to take," Cope offers, diplomatically. "Crackdown 2 didn't sell well enough for us to immediately roll into a third game. Once that happened, it was very hard for us to go back to it. It was very hard to pick up again because we had to wait for other projects to finish and other things to happen.
"You're in that really annoying phase of wanting to do something but being unable to do it because of external timings. It's a horrible situation that I don't think a lot of people really understand. For a lot of developers you have to keep moving and you have to keep busy, and sometimes you will not end up working on the stuff you think is the best thing to work on because of other things that have happened. It's just the way it goes.
"So, I don't know what they're up to. But from what Phil said, yeah, make another please! We'd love to be involved. They know where we are."
Here's the problem: making Crackdown 3 for Xbox One and making it compete with the best open world games around would cost a hell of a lot of money. Tens of millions of dollars would need to be pumped into whichever studio is charged with reigniting the series, and tens of millions more marketing the game against the likes of Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row.
"If you look at things like Saints Row 4 and Grand Theft Auto 5, my god, the amount of work you're going to have to do to compete with that!" Cope says. "I look at Saints Row 4 and I think, that is the Crackdown that I wanted to make. Honestly, it's just amazing. I can't think of a way of bettering it. It's just such a brilliantly daft, out there, crazy game. It hits all the marks: action... insanity. Can you make anything that tops that at the moment? It's hard.
"If you're starting from scratch now and having to catch up from a technology point of view to make something that competes with those two games is going to take a long time and a lot of work. Yeah, I'd love to give it a go, but you're talking a long way off."
"I look at Saints Row 4 and I think, that is the Crackdown that I wanted to make. Honestly, it's just amazing. I can't think of a way of bettering it."
Currently, in addition to Game of Glens, Ruffian has two projects on the go, neither of which have been announced. We don't have too long before we hear about one, however - and Cope reckons it'll be right up Crackdown fans' street.
"Maybe later this year we'll have something that appeals more to those people," he smirks.
Here's what Cope will say about what Ruffian has up its sleeve. First up: secret project number one: "If it were known what we're doing it would create a massive nerdgasm," he says. "It's that important. There have been rumours and leaks which have got out recently, which may point people in the right direction. The important thing for us is it's a really good, exciting project."
Now, secret project number two: "The other thing we're working on, it's something of our own creative direction. It's almost where we want to be. It's a game of our own design. It's something we really believe in. It's the type of action game we're really excited about. And it's for a publisher we've not worked with in the past, which is a great thing for us."
Ruffian's mission to take charge of its own destiny continues, as does its never-ending battle to stay afloat. Both are inexorably connected. Money comes in many flavours: from publishers, from investors, maybe even from you. Whatever, Ruffian needs to fund its development - but it wants to do so on its own terms.
"The games we're ultimately good at, the ones we want to make, the third-person highly action-oriented games - they're expensive to make," Cope says. "So we need to find the right funding and do it in a way that we can secure the studio's future without dependence. Finding more independence for ourselves is really, really hard. That's the thing we're constantly striving for."
As for Game of Glens, whatever happens with The Collective it will enter the uncertain world of crowd-funding on Indiegogo. It's clear Cope would love for it to be made, for gamers to believe in it, to fund it. But it's also clear he knows Ruffian faces a tough task changing the minds of those who want it to be making Crackdown 3 and nothing else.
Perhaps, if Phil Spencer is reading this, one day it will be making Crackdown 3.
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