Just Cause 2 is one of the craziest open-world games we’ve seen here at Tech Digest. We caught up with lead designer Peter Johansson and asked his thoughts on how he feels the grappling hook-wielding explode-a-thon has turned out.
The original Just Cause came out relatively early in the life cycle of this latest set of games consoles. What lessons have you learnt since its release?
There were a lot of lessons to be learnt from the first game. The first game was essentially born from its engine, as was the whole company (Avalanche – Ed.) in fact. With the second game we have the luxury of having the engine already in place. Even though we knew we were going to change a lot of things we were confident that we could now focus on creating a game that took advantage of having such a big world to explore, filled with stuff for you to do, as well as a mission structure that takes advantage of that sense of scale. The first game was actually pretty linear, jumping from “story mission one” to “story mission two”, but that didn’t really work out as players just had only one really interesting spot in the game world at any one time. This time there’s a greater sense of freedom, where you can think “lets head over there and create some chaos!”. This time it’s all up to you as a player.
Just Cause 2 sort of feels a bit like Bionic Commando on crack!
(Laughs) Yes! It does get kind of insane sometimes. It’s an interesting point as I’d never even heard of Bionic Commando before starting on Just Cause.
How do you come up with the crazy ideas that litter Just Cause 2? Some of it seems like pub-talk gaming wish-fulfilment, especially some of the tricks you can pull off with the grappling hook.
Personally, I’ve always dreamt of making a game with a grappling hook, so it’s a dream-come-true for me. We work quite organically at Avalanche, as we feel that some of the best ideas come from each others ideas a lot of the time. We’ll try out an idea, and then tweak it, or throw it away. It’s hard to find a straight path to great ideas. Just Cause gives us a lot of freedom to play around with this stuff, and at the end of the day it’s all about having fun.
Is it a big development team at Avalanche?
It’s pretty big. We’ve had well over a hundred people working on it. Of course that depends on where in the cycle we were at, but yeah, a lot of people involved. There’s an insane amount of features in there after all!
This is the first time also that you’ve developed a Just Cause game for the PS3. How has that worked out for you?
It’s been pretty smooth actually. It’s been really interesting. A lot of people ask us if it has been problematic, but no. Of course it’s quite different. It’s definitely very powerful. But you cant tell each version apart between the PS3 and Xbox 360, so I guess it’s just down to what controller you prefer. They were developed in parallel, so they’ve followed each other pretty well.
There has been a bit of controversy with the PC version, as Just Cause 2 will not support Windows XP. How did you come to make that decision?
We support a lot features that just wouldn’t be possible on DX 9, so I think that’s the main reason for it. I personally wasn’t involved in that decision. If you remember the first game was even ported to the Playstation 2. But we want to be at the forefront of the technology this time around, with just the current generation in mind. But yeah, I’ve seen the response we’ve got from some people over the decision!
The sandbox, open-world genre is getting quite busy again on this console generation. You’ve got Infamous and Prototype to name just two titles, and of course Grand Theft Auto IV. Some would argue that they perhaps haven’t caught the imagination of gamers quite as strongly as on the last generation of consoles. Do you think gamers expectations have changed?
Of course gamers expectations are always going up, and things are moving really quickly now. That’s definitely a challenge for us. It’s a problem, as before a game is even released people are already looking for the next big thing. But in this genre in particular the successful examples have been really good at finding their own flavour and style. GTA does the city really well, you really feel like you’re there, and then there is Crackdown that doesn’t do a story at all and it’s all about having fun in its playground. It was important to us to find our own identity. We really wanted to inject a good dose of fun into the genre, and go our own way. It’s important if you’re going to make it in this genre.
Just Cause 2 never takes itself too seriously, but what do you think of games like Heavy Rain and it’s focus on photo realism and narrative?
I think there is a place for realism, but it depends. It’s almost hard to define realism in games, as they are primarily played for fun, but that can still mean that it can be realistic in visual terms. But it’s so hard to define. When people push to recreate the real world it always becomes more and more clear that it isn’t real. If I tried to simulate picking up a glass in a game, it’s not at all how it feels to do it in real life. It’s a difficult thing to crack. I find it easier to get involved in a game if it doesnt try to hard to mimic real life.
Just Cause 2 is pretty bombastic. A lot of people have compared it to playing in a Michael Bay movie. Do you feel such comparisons are justified? Do you take much inspiration from other media?
I think we do yeah. It’s inevitable I think that we absorb lots of ideas, even if we aren’t conscious of it. I don’t think we ever were like ” lets take this from this” though. I suppose the main inspiration was from the original Just Cause because that had a lot of potential that wasn’t quite realised.
With so much going on in Just Cause 2 nailing down the physics must have been a bit of a nightmare, finding a balance between having fun and believable vehicle handling and so on?
That’s a good question, especially in relation to how we’ve been discussing approaches to realism in games. Some people may react and say “oh, that’s not realistic”, but the thing is the physics system behind all this is really advanced. We fine tune and tweak everything to make it accessible and fun, and work together in a playful way. It’s a challenge. All the vehicles have their different handling styles and are more suitable to different situations. Different ground materials too; if it beings to rain it gets more difficult to handle for instance. There are lots of small details that ensure that emergent situations keep happening.
Is it difficult to program those scenes of emergent action?
It’s difficult from a testing perspective, and even from a design perspective. At the start it’s easy to think “Ooo, we’ve got so much freedom”, and then after a while you decide to not look at it that way, and instead decide to give the player a set of tools and let them find their own way. We work with the advantages that that provides instead.
Do you find that limiting when games signpost what they want their players to do?
I think that works out alright. There are a lot of guys, myself included, at the office who play games that are completely scripted and that can be a great experience. But it’s a different experience. They all have their own charm, their own story. But there is a lot of value to be had in playing a game and discussing it with your pal and realising you’ve both discovered something completely different to each other. That happens all the time with Just Cause 2.
Do you have any favourite moments from when you’ve been playing with Just Cause 2?
One thing I did actually quite recently. There’s a car chase in the game, and, depending on where you drive, I’d got to a gas station, trying to deliver this guy to a drop-off point. And I had a rocket launcher and I was driving past the gas station, so I jumped up onto the roof of the car and shot the rocket launcher and blew up the gas station exactly as the bad guys passed through it. It was perfect and lucky timing! It exploded and collapsed right on top of them, I took them all out in one go!
Those sort of moments I suppose must give it an edge over scripted games, where you know that these events have been set up for you?
It’s a large part of what makes Just Cause 2 different. There are all these features and mechanics that we want people to throw together, shake around and see what happens!
We’ve also seen the game displayed today in 3D. Where do you think the future lies for games in that respect?
I think it’s probably going to take until the next generation of consoles before it becomes supported more. For it to become mainstream it’s going to have to be supported straight out of the box; the players wont have to think about it, it’ll just work without any hassle. For the moment it’s still a bit sort of hardcore. It’s been great fun for us to work on it this early.
Do you think it will change the way you design games?
I think it will, by that time at least. I cant say that with Just Cause 2 there are many features that specifically harness 3D as it came in quite late into the development. But at that time for the next generation we will start to create experiences with 3D in mind as we know everyone will have a capable set up. I think it’s going to happen, just the same as with motion-control stuff, and that’s when it’s going to start to get really interesting, mixing up the control schemes to see which part of the games really benefit from using all the new technology. One developers start learning how to really use motion controls that will be really interesting.
Lastly, how about DLC? It’s in vogue right now. Any in the pipe-line for Just Cause 2?
Yeah, but unfortunately I cant talk about the details of it just yet, apart from the bonus you get for pre-ordering the game. It’s premium DLC and you get some really cool stuff; I really like the hovercraft, driving from land to water and back to land, it’s a really cool thing. But yeah we’re going to have waves of it.
Great. Thanks for your time Peter.
Cool, thank you.
Just Cause 2 is released for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC on 26th March. We’ll have a full review leading up to the game’s release, so keep checking back to Tech Digest’s reviews page in the next few weeks.