Joseph Staten has been involved in some big Microsoft exclusives before. He was part of the team that helped develop and launch Halo 3. Coincidentally, that game was released with a bonus on its disc - a demo of Crackdown that was too big to offer for download at the time. Microsoft bundled the two games together to help increase the reach of Crackdown, and ever since, Staten's career has been at least tangentially related to the game, even if it has been in his peripheral vision at times.
Now, as the creative director and head of design for Microsoft Global Publishing, Staten finds himself on the precipice of launching Crackdown 3, nine years after the last release in the series. There have been delays, developer changes, and a host of other adversities, but the game is finally ready to be played and will debut alongside some stiff competition in mid-February. If you're wondering how Crackdown 3 might compete with the other big games like Anthem, Staten recently sat down with Screen Rant for an interview. Staten covered Crackdown 3's PvP, DLC plans, story mode design decisions, and more, and if freedom is what players want, then Crackdown 3 is poised to capitalize on that in a big way.
Why don't we start with you introducing yourself and your role in Crackdown 3.
Joseph Staten: I’m Joseph Staten. I’m the creative director and head of design for Microsoft Global Publishing. So I sit on the publishing side of things and work with the dev teams to help make the games.
And how actively involved are you in Crackdown 3, specifically?
Joseph Staten: Actually very involved. Typically the publishing team - well, depends on different publishers…but Microsoft first party publishing tends to get a little bit more involved in the games because they typically are pushing technology that requires a lot of close coordination with Microsoft tech and design. So in Crackdown, yeah, we were actually much more involved than usual, and I’ve been spending a lot of time in the UK with [Crackdown 3 developer] Sumo working on the campaign and just really being pretty deep in the game as we get closer to launch.
You mentioned that you've been a fan of the series for a long time, back to your Halo 3 days - how exciting is it to be involved in this game, this close to launch? Where do you feel like you're at right now with regards to Crackdown 3?
Joseph Staten: I’m very excited. I mean, as everybody knows, Crackdown has been in development for a long time and we very publicly stated some pretty lofty goals. Specifically around cloud-based destruction. I feel really good about where we’ve landed, especially on Wrecking Zone. We’ve made good on this promise of pulling off physics destruction in the cloud, which is this big technical lift, but I actually think it’s really fun too. You play it, and it feels different. There are these really interesting tactical choices to the player that destruction affords. So I’m super excited for a lot of people to play and start telling us what they like and dislike about the experience.
Specifically Wrecking Zone - we just got a chance to go hands-on with it today - do you envision it as being a big part of Crackdown 3's launch? Do you expect it to be one of the main draws to the game?
Joseph Staten: Well…you know, when you make a game I think you’re trying to make a game that suits lots of different player moods, right? I mean, people are people; sometimes I feel more solitary and anti-social and I just want to not be competitive and go play a story mode, right? Every once in a while I’m gonna join a friend, do the story mode cooperatively. Well the good news is Crackdown has that for you, it has a nice open world over-the-top comic-inspired story mode. This playground of fun that Crackdown has always been. But if my mood is a little different, if I feel like smashing into other people and being competitive and mixing it up in PvP multiplayer, it has that for you as well with Wrecking Zone. So, you know, over the years I’ve come to realize that when you make a game you’re not making it for you.
Day one people start to play it and it becomes their game so, I’m really eager for it to come out and for us to listen and really hear what people want. What do you want more of? Do you want more Wrecking Zone? Cool! We’ve got some ideas, let’s tell you about them. Do you want more story campaign stuff? Awesome, we’ve got some ideas on the shelf there that we could do too. But we’re just trying to launch and listen.
With Wrecking Zone, will there be ranking systems, a global leaderboard, things of that nature?
Joseph Staten: Yeah, so – in the demo that you played today we didn’t have any of that turned on. We’re still finalizing what those features we want at launch to be, we don’t wanna overwhelm people right out of the gate. But, absolutely we know that for wrecking zone to be successful long term we need to think about player ranking, and vanity, and all these things that any modern service-based game will have. One thing it will not have is loot crates and that kind of monetization in it.
Took the next question right out of my mouth.
Joseph Staten: Yep, absolutely. You know, we are really eager for as many people to play Crackdown as possible with as little friction as possible.
Sounds like there's a very organic approach. Do you have a lot of DLC content already planned that you're waiting on to see where it's going to be implemented? What's the post-launch look like, a little bit?
Joseph Staten: So we absolutely have plans and we’re waiting to see what people really like. I mean I think games can get into trouble sometimes by spending too much money up front building in too many things up front before they really understand what the customer is going to gravitate towards. So we’re taking a slightly different approach. Goal number one is to get as many players playing the game as possible. Hopefully Game Pass will help with that. And then be ready to roll with plans that really match what players are telling us in terms of what they really want.
How much content can we expect for the story mode at launch? What kind of hour count are we looking at?
Joseph Staten: So…the way we think about it is, hour-count is kind of weird especially in Crackdown because it’s a game where there’s no linear path, right? From right out of the gate, literally the gate of the city opens up, and you can go anywhere in the world in any order that you want. Nonlinear story. Kind of like Breath of the Wild, if you want to go right for the central tower in the middle of the world and go up against the big bad boss? Crackdown works the exact same way. Yeah it’ll be a little more challenging because you’ll be a lower level Agent but you’re totally free to tackle the story in any way that you want. So you could make your experience very, very short or you could be a completionist and find every hidden orb in the game, which I haven’t even done yet because some of them are a pain in the a** to find. But it could take you many, many hours to complete. But I think the hours that we’ve talked about is between 10 and 15 hours?
[If you] just power through it?
Joseph Staten: Yeah. But I think even then there would still be completionist content that you hadn’t found yet. But yeah, that’s the hope, it’s about that range.
Is most of the map - you know, you said you can just kind of dive right in - is most of it pretty accessible from the start? If I want to go Path A or Path B, it's not going to be too much more challenging based on what I choose?
Joseph Staten: I would say that the demo you’re playing today is a good example, you know, people were asking like, how much of the game is this demo? And my answer is it’s all of it. If you wanted to you could just go. We don’t gate you with any hard physical barriers. The only thing we do is tell you in the map, we have systems that are kind of communicating to you - “Hey, this is your chance of survival” - we just tell you what the challenge will be. And players are free to bang against that more challenging content as much as they want. You know we don’t want it to be a completely easy experience from start to finish, we want there to be areas in the world that you go into and get your ass handed to you and you go, “Oh wait, I guess I better back out and level up some skills and go back, get back at it.” But you can take any path that you want, there are no roads that are blocked off to you, there are no skyscrapers that are blocked off to you, it’s totally open.
It seems that there's a little bit more of a tactical nature to [Crackdown 3] than perhaps the previous titles. Are there going to be ways for players to kind of customize their agent and take it the way they want to - are there lots of different play patterns available in the main campaign?
Joseph Staten: Yes. So Crackdown games have always been games that, in the background, the design is watching and waiting and seeing what you like to do and as you do that, it rewards you so that you’ll do more of it. If you like picking up objects and throwing them at people, you’ll be leveling up your strength. If you really like doing the sub-targeting system with firearms and being very deliberate with which parts of the body you’re attacking on someone, you’ll be leveling up your firearms skill. So there’s not really a character card that you’re filling out, perks and abilities as you gain general XP. All of that is sitting in the background and just watching how you play and is leveling up your character based on that. We did add one new element of the game which I think is pretty fun, I’m eager to hear what people think about it, which is Crackdown allows you to switch your Agent character at any supply point – which are the sort of save checkpoints in the game.
You can swap out your weapons but you can also swap out who you are. If you start off as a male Agent you can switch to a female Agent, you can change your gender, but each Agent comes with skill leveling bonuses. One Agent might be faster to level driving, and a lot faster to level strength, another Agent might be faster to level agility, and really fast at leveling firearms, and if you find yourself playing the game and you want to min-max the system, and be really efficient at leveling firearms for a short amount of time, you just go into a supply point, pick a different Agent to play, and then that’s how it goes. Really, the high level point is Crackdown is meant to be extremely open, extremely flexible, and very reactive to how you want to play.
So completing actions related to skills is how you're going to level them up?
Joseph Staten: That's exactly right.
And when you switch Agents, do you retain the experience you gained with the Agent prior to that?
Joseph Staten: You absolutely do.
So when you mentioned min-maxing, you mean that very efficiently.
Joseph Staten: Very efficiently, yeah. And it’s also the case, you know just another example of how we’re trying to modernize Crackdown without changing the formula so much that it stops being Crackdown, as you go to your loadout and you look at the weapons, the weapons will tell you very explicitly, I forget what the exact language is but: “Hey, like, this submachine gun is really good at murdering robots.” So if you’re going to go attack an objective which is owned by the Logistics captain and he’s all about robots, you definitely want to bring in this particular submachine gun if you care about min-maxing firearms. Every weapon will always be somewhat effective, but there are these nuances, there’s depth to the system this time around.
And the level design in the [hands-on session] does seem like there are a lot of options to switch weapons, too.
Joseph Staten: Right.
It doesn't feel like you get trapped in a robot heavy level without the ability to switch out.
Joseph Staten: That's right. You know, that's a good observation, and we definitely made the design choice that if you're shooting robots, they should drop weapons that are good at killing robots.
Joseph Staten: So you’ll never find yourself in an encounter where: “oh shit I brought in the wrong weapons, I guess I’ve got to go back to the save point.” No, just defeat that enemy, pull the gun off of him and then shoot his friend in the face. It’s going to work great. That’s basically how the sandbox works.
I noticed that the art direction and the tone of the game are very modernized. It feels like its capturing a little bit of that nihilistic humor, a little bit of the cel-shaded and beautiful animation - walk us through why you chose that [aesthetic] for what is ostensible a game about murdering people and kind of blowing up the city.
Joseph Staten: See here – it’s about liberating the city from the evil corporation! You’re there to save the people. In all seriousness though, Crackdown has always been, from the very first game, a comic-book inspired, pulpy, little-over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek, superhero action game. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. And we definitely leaned into that for Crackdown 3. You can see a lot of the storytelling moments are comic book inspired motion comic style.
Yeah, the villain introductions especially.
Joseph Staten: Right. Yeah, the cel-shading – well, it’s not really cel-shading these days, it’s more of the outlining that you’ll see around the characters – we wanted to capture, not exactly, but capture that spirit of I’m playing in a comic book world. Hopefully to communicate to players like, look, don’t take this too seriously. You’re Terry Crews running around in this big colorful city. You can pick up cars and throw them at tanks. You can jump up skyscrapers. This is a game about explosive fun and just treat it like a playground of fun. Poke at it and see how it reacts, and don’t worry, the story is right behind you and it’ll follow you wherever you go. That’s always been the DNA of Crackdown and hopefully we’ve pulled it off again.
Thanks so much for your time!
Joseph Staten: Cool! Yeah, thanks for playing.