In many quarters of the entertainment industry, looking good is the only thing that matters. But, in the video game arena, looking good simply isn't enough.
FASA Studios showcased Crimson Skies at E3 2002. The demo received generally favorable comments from folks who stopped at the FASA booth to play it, but the feeling among the FASA team and others was that something vital was missing from the game. That's why the fighting-flying game, which revolves around a world set in the 1930s, was not shipped to stores a year ago. Instead, it was sent back to FASA Studios' Redmond offices for more development work.
This year, once again, Crimson Skies®: High Road to Revenge™ will be one of the most anticipated games featured at the E3 extravaganza in Los Angeles. The FASA team has a total of seven stations set up at E3 2003—four to demonstrate the game's multiplayer mode and three set up for single-player action.
Except for the dazzling graphics, the version on display at this year's E3 bears little resemblance to the game that was shown at E3 2002. FASA's original goal was to make Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge a "playable movie," but that effort led to a game that offered players few choices. Jim Napier, who heads the Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge development team, said his crew used the additional development time to radically alter the depth and range of gameplay options.
"What we realized was that the whole approach of making a playable movie just wasn't working," said Napier, who has worked on the game for three years. "It was too linear. People expect games to give them more choices when they play. We had really good graphics and an interesting story to tell, but it just wasn't open enough." Players didn't follow the path laid out by the game; they quickly ran into boundaries and felt like they were being led along by the hand.
"We focused on giving the players different ways to win," Napier said.
You are going to love the way the additional development time manifests itself. Here's what stood out for me:
More freedom of movement and action, including the ability to get out of one plane and into another, or into anti-aircraft guns.
In addition to many levels of missions, a Scouting mode allows players to explore the vast and colorful world of Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge at their leisure.
The game's flight physics have been refined extensively, making it easier to focus on winning the game, as opposed to flying the plane and winning the game.
Multiplayer mode has been beefed up. Originally, the multiplayer mode was going to be limited to a split screen on one Xbox console. Now, using System Link, as many as 16 Xbox consoles (one player per machine) can be connected to the same game.
Xbox LIVE® connectivity has been added, also allowing as many as 16 players to play in the same game online.
Before they began the serious work of adding more fun to the game, the entire FASA Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge team—programmers, designers, and artists—got together to create a plan. And, that plan was infused with extensive feedback from playtest participants.
The playtest feedback was essential to the team's decision-making process. Features were extensively tested by real folks. Some tests focused on how easy or difficult features were to understand or use. Additional tests were conducted that focused on people's perception of the game's fun factor.
Napier said the reactions of real people are the best way to gauge a feature. Something that sounds good to the development team might not strike a positive chord with potential customers.
"Playtests can be real eye-openers because, often times, the things that give people trouble are the things we overlook because we are so close to the game," Napier said. "Or, things we think are going to be hard for people to grasp, they just pick up right away."
He cited the game's flight model as an example of the latter. He said the team was concerned it would be difficult for people to get a feel for flying, but he said folks jumped right in and started dog-fighting.
Pat Schreiber is one of Napier's key programmers. Like Napier, he has been working on Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge for more than three years and has seen the course of the project change many times. He said the game was originally conceived as an arcade-style variant of Microsoft's highly successful Flight Simulator games for PCs. In fact, when Schreiber joined the team, the game that has become Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge was part of the Flight Sim group before development was assumed by FASA. That was in the days before the Xbox® console existed.
"It was a much different game back then," Schreiber said. "The idea was to make it like an interactive movie, where you were playing the part like an Indiana Jones-type character and things would happen all around you, as you were going through the world.
"It looked great on paper, but it was difficult to implement in a way where it felt like the player had some control over what was happening."
Schreiber has been working on the game's flight model and multiplayer functionality since E3 2002. He said members of the Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge team looked to other successful games for inspiration, especially those games that gave players a lot of gameplay choices. Those game environments led the Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge team to allow players the option of getting out of their planes.
"There is a lot more room for creativity," Schreiber said. "We are based on an IP (intellectual property), so we are restricted by that world, although recently we have been given more freedom to do what we need to do to make the game fun.
"There is a lot more room for fantasy and fun than in a flight sim. Flight sims are great for what they are, but, for me, it limits the fun because everything has to be based on reality."
Schreiber said gamers who are big fans of FASA Studios' MechWarrior (PC) and MechAssault (Xbox) franchises will quickly recognize the studio's influence on Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge. The action is fast-paced, the machines are graceful and lethal, and the graphics, pyrotechnically speaking, are unsurpassed.
"We are a flight-based game, but we feature lots of the big explosions FASA is known for," he said. "People are going to like the way they can blow things up."
Everything in Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge is based on having fun.
Napier thinks people will really dig the game's multiplayer modes on Xbox LIVE and via System Link. However, he isn't basing that prediction exclusively on playtest results.
"We've been playing [the game] a lot around here lately, and it is a blast," said Napier, smiling broadly.
Unless you are going to attend E3 2003, you'll have to wait until the coming holiday shopping season to see the game for yourself. But, rest assured, the Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge development team has gone to great lengths to give you a game that relies on fun instead of its good looks.