Recently, I was given the great pleasure to talk to Mr. Christofer Sundberg, the Creative Director, and Linus Blomberg, the Technical Director, of the future hit – Just Cause, released on 22nd September for PC, PS2, Xbox and Xbox 360.
Christofer: Thanks! It’s our pleasure.
Andy: Before we move on to talk about your new release, I was wondering if you could tell our readers about Avalanche Studios, and what games you have been involved with in the past?
Christofer: Avalanche Studios was founded by me and Linus Blomberg in early 2003. At the time, we were a four-man studio working very hard trying to get the company running after experiencing some very rough times with our previous company Rock Solid Studios (we were developing the game based on Tremors).
It was great though getting a fresh start and we were one of the first developers focusing on outsourcing to minimize the many risks independent developers are exposed to. As things started moving and we got publishers interested in Just Cause, Eidos was the best partner (as they were based in Europe and the production crew, at the time headed up by Dave Rose and Martin Alltimes, was great).
As the project was signed by Eidos, we started building up the team and we knew people that we wanted on the team and we managed to hire 100% of our “targets” and it all started from there. Just Cause is our first game as Avalanche Studios, but our team has worked on numerous award-winning and best-selling titles in the past. We have also hired some of the best talent from universities and game schools here in Sweden. All in all, I’m very confident when I’m saying that we have one of the strongest development crews in the world.
Andy: And now you've just about finished Just Cause, can you tell us a bit about the game?
Christofer: Just Cause came up after Linus and the technology team started designing a new game engine (not just a graphics engine) and we started designing a game that would be played in a huge game world. We wanted to develop a contemporary game, and a wide range of vehicles was an absolute must. After a late night in a bar, with lots and lots of rum, we decided that the Caribbean was the given setting. It was a quite unique setting three and a half years ago…
In this bar, my old buddy (who was our Art Director at the time) Nils Gulliksson drew an image of a guy in dreadlocks with big tattoos and camouflage pants landing on the top of a car holding two guns and a parachute on his back. Rico was born… As we dug deeper into production, and the story was coming together, Rico was changed from the more stereotype game character he was into this handsome, suave guy he is today. We also changed him from a super-cool racecar driver banned from the tracks into an expert in regime change as we wanted a hero that was completely over the top. The game was staring to take shape and we developed a prototype that proved the concept and Just Cause was born.
Andy: There seems to be several "nods" to the Grand Theft Auto games and James Bond movies, as well as several moments that remind me of the Far Cry games. Were these "nods" intended? What was your inspiration behind the game, and what separates it from these other titles?
Christofer: No. I think Just Cause stands on its own two legs and the inspiration comes from old action movies, comic books, documentaries, news and original ideas.
Andy: The sheer sense of scale in Just Cause is nothing short of spectacular (for example, the draw distance is a whopping 32 kilometres on the PC and 360 versions). It really feels like you're part of an expansive, living, breathing world.
The fact the game has almost no loading whatsoever when playing almost dropped my jaw! How big is the play area in Just Cause, and what techniques did you use to make those maps so detailed, yet have no "Now Loading" screens?
Linus: The playable world is 1024 square kilometres, some of which is water. We haven’t calculated the area of the actual landmass above water, but I would estimate it's about half that area. The technique is based on procedural algorithms combined with streaming. So, basically, loading is done in the background all the time, in parallel with procedural algorithms refining the data to the desired detail. That gives us great flexibility to decide a suitable detail level for a specific platform without needing to create new content.
Andy: You must be some sort of magician to fit this game onto an original Xbox, let alone a PS2! How on earth did you manage to get a game that looks this gorgeous and has this much scope to run on a six year old system? Were parts of the game cut for the consoles with less horsepower?
Linus: Yes it's pure magic (smiles). Obviously we had to cut down on texture and mesh resolutions, but the size of the world and all the missions are the same. Actually the game was originally designed for Xbox, so there was both a scale down to PS2, but also a scale up to PC and Xbox 360.
Andy: And speaking about the Xbox 360, why is the 360 version so much more expensive than all the other versions (There is a £20 difference)? Do Xbox 360 owners get extra features that the others don’t, or does this price purely reflect the increased development costs for next-generation systems?
Christofer: We can’t really affect the pricing of the game as this is all in the hands of the publisher. I am really proud of the Xbox version (as well as the PS2 version) as they are really pushing the hardware to its limits. The Xbox 360 version includes some new graphical features such as more hi-res characters and environments, dynamic dirt-maps on vehicles, motion-blur and HDR (and since we’ve received e- mails from people asking, Microsoft did not bribe us to exclude HDR from the PC version). It also includes the Achievements feature.
Andy: I tip my hat off to you, it's an incredible feat. How long has Just Cause been in development?
Christofer: From concept to finish, about three and a half years. Considering we had nothing when we started, it’s not very long I think. We added the PS2 version after ten months and the Xbox 360 version in December ’05, so it’s been a very unique and interesting project.
Andy: And do you feel that it turned out as you had envisioned? Looking back, was there anything about the game that you'd like to change, or thought you could improve?
Christofer: Pretty much, and I’m very happy with it as I did the original design. There are a few things that I wish was in the game and some things that was not. Sometimes you need to let go of things (I hate the expression “kill your darlings”) and compromise. To be more concrete, I’d like to see more incentive for the players to explore the world and perform stunts, but on the other hand it’s not a feature that is missing and I hope that the effect of the player’s actions will be rewarding enough.
Andy: And what aspect of it are you most proud of?
Christofer: The fact that we pulled this project off. It’s our first game and we started out with nothing and now it’s released on four platforms (everything from PS2 to Xbox 360) and in total 12 SKU’s (basically a model number for systems that vary in terms of specification. For example, the Xbox 360 has 2 SKU’s, the Core and the Premium packs). To go more into detail on the game, I’m really proud of the fact that we managed to develop a game where players can shape their own style and pace of gameplay. I think the game is quite thought provoking as it allows player to more freedom than in most games. It can also be played through as your every-day run-and-gun game if you want, but it’s all up to you.
Andy: What would you say to gamers who aren't quite sure of buying Just Cause that would convince them to put this in their videogame collections?
Christofer: If you want a game that is different and gives you the freedom you’ve always missed in other games, Just Cause belongs on your shelf.
Andy: And finally, what's the next game we'll be seeing from Avalanche Studios? Could you tell us a bit about it? Will there be a Just Cause 2?
Christofer: We are currently shaping the plans for Rico’s future but there’s another project in the works here at Avalanche, which is in a new genre but still allows the freedom and creativity which we hope will be the character of an Avalanche Studios game.
Andy: I must say I've found the demo of Just Cause to be a thoroughly engrossing, impressive, and fun experience, and I am very excited to review the retail version in the next few weeks. I have a feeling you have a big hit on your hands with this one, and I think you deserve every ounce of success this game will bring you. Once again, thank you very much for talking to us.
So there you have it, not only were both Christofer and Linus very pleasant to speak to, I do believe the news about a sequel to Just Cause is a Blogcritics exclusive!
Look out for a review of the game shortly.
Just Cause is released on 22nd September 2006 (27th in the US), rated suitable for ages 16+ by PEGI. The game will be available on: Xbox 360 priced at £49.99, and also on PC, PS2, and Xbox priced at £29.99.