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Your questions about Crusader answered by Tony Zurovec

It's been a while, but we've finally found the time to post the full interview with Tony Zurovec, the master mind behind the Crusader games. There were some very good questions from the community, and we've added a couple from our team, but the answers from Tony are just outstanding! We really encourage you to check the full Q&A session, even if you didn't like Crusader games (why wouldn't you?), as it gives a great insight at how the games industry looked like in the 90's and how games were made back in the days when Origin made some of the best titles ever.

Once again we'd like to thank Tony for his time and answering all those questions, and Vagabond for making this Q&A possible. Enjoy your read!

You have started your career in the industry in one of the most awesome game companies of the 90's. How was it working in Origin back in the days and how do you feel about it today?

Those were different days. I can remember walking down an Origin hallway lined with game posters and thinking that it was just unbelievable that I was actually – finally - there. Being in the game industry in those days filled you with a sense of awe. I grew up when the game industry was so small that I knew that it was quite possible that I might not ever be accepted into its ranks – ever produce a popular product – ever make a penny despite countless thousands of hours of effort. In the end, that was all irrelevant. The dream was that you could make money doing what you loved so that you could spend all of your time doing it but if that wasn’t possible then I’d just work on games and such at night and on weekends, when I was free from whatever I had to do in order to make an actual living.

Origin gave me the opportunity to focus my efforts on games far more ambitious than anything that I could have done on my own. It provided a lot of serious motivation because I knew that all of the hard work that I was doing – the many, many long days and nights - would be seen by hundreds of thousands of people. Origin was many things to me – a second home filled with people that I liked, a school where I could teach and be taught, a job where I had the freedom to take on a lot of responsibility and excel, and a playground where I had fun.

You've mentioned in interviews that the main inspiration for Crusader games was Castle Wolfenstein by id Software. Why didn't you go with a first person perspective in Crusader?

I grew up in the dawn of the videogaming age and saw plenty of extremely fun games created using a third-person perspective. As a result, when computers finally gained enough horsepower that the industry started moving towards the first-person perspective in a large way, I didn’t view it as something that I had to do in order to create a fun game. I saw it as an option. I saw it as something that could yield some gameplay and visual positives but which would also inflict a lot of very large negatives. As but one of many examples, a first-person perspective would have meant that Crusader’s 640x480 high resolution pre-rendered detail would have had to have been sacrificed for huge 320x200 or 320x240 pixels, ridiculously simplistic polygonal shapes, and incredibly low resolution textures.

While the first-versus-third-person question has come up many times over the years, there were quite a few other technological leaps of faith that I took on Crusader. It was a huge gamble to release Crusader on CD-ROM only. Almost every game at that time shipped on floppy disk because every computer had a floppy drive, but only a small percentage had CD-ROMs.

I also took a real chance by designing Crusader around 640x480 256-color SVGA. Almost every game in existence on the PC at that time either utilized 320x200 256-color VGA, 320x240 256-color Mode X, or (extremely rarely, with Syndicate being the only game that I remember that used it) 640x480 16-color EVGA. The VESA standard for SVGA was very new and the reality was that by requiring it I was ensuring that a very large number of PCs wouldn’t be able to run the game. The other problem was that computers at that time didn’t have enough horsepower to render an entire SVGA screen every frame. I knew that I could either have spectacular high-resolution visuals or smooth scrolling – an almost universal feature for action games - but not both. I thought that the positives of the higher resolution greatly outweighed the negatives and thus went in that direction. Crusader allowed a bull – the player – to be turned loose in a China shop, and I thought that the environmental detail and destruction would not work nearly as well if the visuals weren’t sufficiently sharp. As a result of going in that direction, a dirty-rectangle/camera snapping system had to be created in order to minimize the amount of rendering necessary in any given frame.

From a marketing perspective, those technological decisions – third-person perspective, CD-ROM, SVGA - were all taking me in the wrong direction and limiting my potential audience. I heard that many, many times throughout development. I persisted because rather than try and guess what other people might want, I just kept steering towards what I personally found appealing, and then hoped that there were more people like me.

In the official guide to Crusader: No Remorse you have highlighted three main focuses for the game: multiple solutions, environment and plot and the main character. The destructible environment, engaging story and the freedom of gameplay made the game ground-braking and way ahead of its time. Did you feel the same when developing it?

I used many analogies to explain to other people – to get them in line with the vision - why I wanted to go in the directions that I did with Crusader. I remember explaining to another programmer that people liked to break things, and then showed him how much fun it was – even without an enemy in the room – to just unload machine gun clips and RPGs into a room that behaved like it might in the real world. Glass walls shattered, computers and monitors exploded, chairs spun, cameras were blown to bits and stopped moving, and doors were blasted apart. I explained that such destruction wasn’t the primary point of the game, but that it added a level of detail that had been missing in other games. It made firefights far more fun – more viscerally enjoyable – than they would have been if the only thing that could be damaged by weapons fire were the enemies themselves.

I referred to any point in the game where more than one solution might work as a junction, and I rammed the need for such versatility home to the designers on a regular basis. To illustrate the point, I’d often refer back to Doom and note that it was a great corridor shooter but a terrible maze game. My point was that after the enemies in an area of a Doom map had been destroyed, searching the empty hallways for the red keycard that you somehow missed – and which was the only way to get past a locked door – was incredibly annoying. Placing obstacles in front of a player is fine but in the real world there’s usually more than one way to solve a problem. I wanted to reward a player’s creative thinking while at the same time lessening their potential for frustration. For every junction – and there were many on every level - the map designers on Crusader had to figure out what logical solutions the player might attempt and, if possible, support that. It’s no surprise that most games don’t support such versatility because it requires a lot of time and effort. It’s far easier to simply require the player – often through trial and error, since many logical things that they’ll attempt won’t actually work – to try and ascertain what arbitrary solution the designer deemed appropriate.

So on the one hand, yes, I certainly thought that the primary design concepts behind Crusader were very innovative and ahead of their time. On the other hand, I had no way of knowing whether the innovations that I was pushing would be viewed as significant leaps forward by the gaming public.

About two-thirds of the way through the development of the first Crusader I started to get the strangest recurring feeling. I distinctly remember wondering whether Crusader was actually – technically - a game. I wondered if the game would be released and people would look at it and somehow see it as totally different than every other game out there, but in a bad way…in a way that meant that the game wasn’t actually any fun at all. I had programmed several games previously but there had always been someone more senior than I on the projects in some capacity. Crusader was different. There was no one to stop me if I was going in a completely wrong direction. That self-doubt worried me at times. Making the situation worse, I had programmed so much of the code that it often seemed more like a flowchart than an actual game. I’d insert inputs into the game while play-testing it and the program would respond with a specific set of outputs. There was no mystery – I knew exactly what the program would consider and how, based upon those equations, it might respond. While the game still seemed interesting and fun for brief periods, my ability to enjoy the game on a long-term basis was significantly impacted by my role in its development, and that added to my concerns as to how the game might be received by the general public.

According to the official guide, you had to rush a bit the release of No Remorse and didn't include some cool features. Crusader: No Regret has been released only one year later, so did you manage to include everything you wanted in that game?

No Regret was almost as rushed as the original. The original game had a development timeline of 16-18 months (depending upon whether you mark the start from when I began working on the initial story and pitching the concept or when I was approved to recruit my first team member.) I wanted a similar development timeline for No Regret but Origin management wanted a new game for the following Christmas. Thus, I was only given ten months - a September 1996 deadline. As a result of the short timeline, I fought with marketing about the title and – thanks to the original’s success - got my way. They had wanted to label No Regret as “Crusader II: No Regret”. I didn’t think that the short timeline would allow for enough innovation to justify the full-blown sequel label. I wanted to reserve the “II” designation for a game that would be able to incorporate some other significant enhancements – external environments, detailed AI activities like the ones that I had implemented for Ultima VII, lighting, interplanetary travel (which would allow for more exotic locations), et cetera. Starting with a working engine for No Regret allowed the game to be refined and improved in dozens of different ways but, in the end, I still viewed it as Crusader 1.5 – well, knowing me, more like Crusader 1.6 - rather than 2.0.

An interesting point about No Remorse’s development is that a debt of gratitude is owed to someone – I never knew who - in the European marketing department of parent company Electronic Arts (EA). The initial sales estimates for the game had been relatively low because the marketers couldn’t point to any similar titles – there weren’t any - and gauge Crusader’s commercial potential. As the game neared the end of its original development timeline, I tried to get those estimates raised in order to justify an additional three months of development time that was desperately needed in order to polish and debug the game. Origin and EA North America’s marketing departments refused to budge, but when some visiting European marketing executives saw the game at that late stage they dramatically increased their sales estimates and that was it – the extension was approved. When the game was released, even those revised estimates were easily exceeded. I have always thought that Crusader would not have done nearly as well as it did had it not gotten those three additional months.

In 2001 you have founded Superluminal Inc. an endeavor that provides diverse technical solutions. There are some casual games in the company's portfolio, but it seems like you shifted away from the gaming industry. Would you go back and work on a triple-A title (maybe new Crusader :)) or is that a thing of a past for you?

I still work on games from time to time – often developing casual games for other developers and publishers, but occasionally working on my own - but they are no longer my sole focus. It’s pretty unlikely that I’d ever give up my freedom and go back to working full-time for another company. For one thing, I spend a significant amount of time helping animals and a regular day job would interfere with that. There is one particular game that I still regularly dream of producing, though, and I suspect that I’ll begin work on it at some point, if only for my own amusement. I’d like to think that it would do for real-time strategy games what Crusader did for action games – go in a completely different direction and bring some much-needed innovation to the genre.

This question has to be asked, even if your answer will be "no" or "i don't know". The series was planned as at least a trilogy, so could you reveal more details what happened to Crusader II and No Mercy? And do you know if there are any chances that the brand will be revived ever?

Crusader was not planned as a trilogy. I did, however, specifically place it in 2196 so that advanced spaceflight would be viewed as believable and so that I could – in any future installments – have the player travel to distant worlds. I didn’t want the fiction to be confined to Earth. The precise date came from my adding two centuries to the game’s original release date…and then adding one so that the 96 would be evenly divisible by 16.

I originally chose the subtitle “No Mercy” for the full-blown Crusader II sequel. That was shelved when EA’s lawyers informed me that another company had the trademark, even though they weren’t actually using it. I never settled on another subtitle but had several ideas. Whatever the subtitle would have been had I finished the game, it would have played off of the same lack of emotion implied in the original subtitles. That was intentional. The idea was that the subtitles were hammering home one of the game’s many mysteries. Did the protagonist feel any emotion, and would the answer make his ultimate origin – human or clone – any more clear?

The primary reason why Crusader II was never completed was because I was personally promised by a senior Origin executive – before official development on the first game ever started – that I would receive royalties based upon the game’s profitability. After a year and a half of extremely hard work, the game sold far better than expected and, for many months after its release, I was repeatedly assured by Origin’s top management that the royalties would be forthcoming. As I neared completion of the next title in the series, I began to grow impatient with the stalling and pushed for a resolution. It eventually fell to one of EA’s top executives to inform me that Origin management didn’t have the authority to make such promises and that EA wouldn’t honor it. Instead, the EA executive said, all that they could offer me was a new block of options that would vest over a four-year period. I said that rather than accept that offer – which was dramatically inferior - that I’d be leaving the company after I finished No Regret. Leaving Origin was one of the hardest things that I’ve ever done – it had felt like a home – but there was no way that I was going to support such a betrayal with more of my life.

Crusader was a wildly profitable franchise – it had the highest return on invested capital of any non-mission-disk Origin title – and thus Origin tried to replace me after I left in order to keep the series going. That wasn’t as easy as they thought, though, because I filled many different roles on Crusader – creator of the original fiction, architect of the primary gameplay innovations, producer, director, lead programmer, designer, and writer to name a few. Over the next couple of years Origin made three separate attempts to produce another Crusader but each was eventually terminated due to a lack of progress and vision. I was always quite happy that they didn’t manage to produce another Crusader because I think that they’d have totally screwed up its legacy.

So…do I think that you’ll ever see another Crusader? No.

How do you feel seeing your game re-released again for the new audience (and of course the old fans as well)?

I’d like to think that there’s a measure of persistence – a small bit of immortality - to all of the effort that was put into creating the game. The fact that some people still find the game worth playing today makes me feel as if that’s the case.

Question by F4LL0UT : What's the actual relationship to the Wing Commander series (or maybe even other Origin games)? Crusader is using the same dating system as the WC games (and placing it before those, as far as I remember) and the WEC is being mentioned in the WC series as part of terran history. Did you just add some WC references as easter eggs to the Crusader games or did you actually think of them as part of the same universe?

There is no relationship between Crusader’s universe and that of any other game. The designers liked putting in the occasional cross-reference to other Origin titles – like the crashed Kilrathi spaceship from Wing Commander that can be found on a farm in Ultima VII – but those were basically just Easter eggs and no serious thought was ever given as to how the disparate game worlds might be one and the same.

Question by Tallima: We've all heard the stories about game development that modern developers talk about. The hard push toward the deadline, the sleepless nights and the piles of Mountain Dew. Was it the same for older games like Crusader: No Remorse? Got any good stories you remember from the final push?

You couldn’t get away with what used to happen in the old days today. You’d get sued, as the large companies in the industry can readily attest. Back then, Origin bought most people couches for their offices. The couches weren’t for sitting – they were for sleeping. It was expected that you were going to spend a lot of long nights at work. “Crunch time” would often consist of 7-day work weeks and minimum 12-hour days, although some of us wound up doing a lot of 16-18 hour days. The “hard push towards the deadline” typically started about halfway through a project’s estimated schedule, which sounds a bit better than it actually was since the end date often slipped by at least a few months. As a result, you tended to be in “crunch mode” more often than you weren’t, and when you finished one game you immediately started on another. You really couldn’t have much of a life outside of work in those days, at least not for more than a few months here or there.

As hard and time-consuming as it all was, it was also a lot of fun. You and forty other people would be working at 2:00 AM when all of a sudden someone would come running down the hall, knock on your office door, and say that a laser tag game was starting. We often ordered food late at night and ate together. When time permitted and we could have a normal lunch off-site, we’d play ultimate frisbee, fly huge kites, or even have a company-wide football competition. I suspect that it’s partly because the industry was so new, Origin was so small, the hours were so long, and the respect for one another’s abilities so high that many of us felt a real sense of camaraderie. In many ways, I miss those days.

Question by heylonghair: What is your perception of the current state of computer games?

There are very few games that I find interesting nowadays. That isn’t new. I’ve been saying pretty much the same thing for at least the last 15 years. The visuals continue to improve but the gameplay – the mechanics, the balance, the progression – are often far worse in modern games than in games from the past.

For example, compare Blizzard’s Diablo to its World of Warcraft (WoW.) Diablo is a considerably older title and had a dramatically smaller budget. In both games, a large part of the fun is finding ever-more-powerful items for your character. In Diablo you’ll almost immediately find a simple piece of cloth armor to place on your head, and then quickly discard it an hour later when you find something better, and so on and so on. After a single day of playing the game you’ll have probably upgraded that armor on your head half a dozen times. In WoW, by contrast, you won’t be able to place anything – nothing at all – on your head until you’re north of level 30 and have put in at least a couple of weeks of playtime. In this critical area, the much older title does a far superior job of enticing you to play a bit more with the promise of soon finding something better. If such incredibly obvious misfires were an isolated event you’d think nothing of them, but such amateurish mistakes litter the majority of modern games.

When I think about this, it often reminds me of something that Nolan Bushnell – the founder of Atari and creator of Pong – said a couple of decades ago. He made the point that since there wasn’t a lot of computer code to modify on the original Pong that he wound up tweaking the physical paddle controller for months to get just the right feel – just the right level of resistance so that moving across the playfield felt correct. That’s always stuck in my head. A lot of times the most important areas of a game’s design seem small and inconsequential on paper compared to the more high-profile features, but how well they’re executed dramatically affects the overall quality of the game. That’s a lesson that I think the vast majority of developers today don’t truly understand. If Pong were updated nowadays – and I’m only being a bit facetious here – it would support hundreds of simultaneous players and have mind-blowing 3D graphics but some novice programmer would probably be dispatched to write the control interface and he’d be given all of half an hour to do it.

On the positive side, improving technology and the ability of developers to sell games – via the Internet, app stores, or whatever – directly to the public gives me some hope. I think that trend has increased the amount of innovation that you see because it’s allowed smaller developers with limited budgets to get their products out into the marketplace where they can try – based upon the overall quality of their game, and not simply the more superficial features on which many mainstream games rely - to find an audience. Many of those games never would have been developed with the old retail distribution system because they would have been perceived as being too risky or as having too small of a potential audience or as not focusing enough on what mass marketers think that gamers want. On the downside, the ease with which a game can be distributed today means that there is a lot more noise – that it’s harder than ever to find the occasional diamond in the rough because of the sheer volume of games being released. Another unfortunate reality is that many of these smaller, more innovative titles have limited budgets and manpower and thus many genres – like real-time strategy - are avoided due to their relative complexity.

Question by Ghegs: When was the last time you played through the games yourself?

I’ve never played through Crusader from start to finish. I’ve probably played every part of every level dozens of times, but never made it through more than a few levels in a row. It’s one of the ironies of working such long hours on something that you love. The long, difficult work of creating something often inhibits your ability to enjoy it as much as those who weren’t involved in its development.

Question by Roman5: When I played the game, one of the things that I really liked about it (and games in general) is the music. During the development of Crusader: No Remorse how did you implement the music/sound effects around the environment and gameplay? Was the music inspired by anything and was there something that you wanted to put in the game in terms of sound but didn't make it in the end?

I came to the PC from the Amiga and I always thought that the music quality on PC games was pathetic. Most Amiga games used digital instrument samples for their music. The samples were modified on the fly in order to create different notes. That allowed for high quality digital music – far better than the FM synthesis or MIDI samples you’d typically hear in PC games – with only minimal memory requirements. I happened to mention my dissatisfaction with PC music capabilities to one of my programmers, Jason Ely, and it turned out that he had been working on a MOD player – which works pretty much like I just described - in his free time. I then shuffled the programming schedule around so that I could give him enough time to finish that system.

I knew that I wanted several different things from the music. First and foremost, I like powerful, distorted electric guitars – something like what you might hear in some early-to-mid-1980s rock songs. For some of the other music I wanted it to reflect the general area – relaxed, peaceful guitars for the rebel hangout, synthy, futuristic, occasionally energetic melodies for the high-tech areas, et cetera. An Origin musician created all of the original music for the game but with only one exception – the rebel base song, which I really liked – I nixed all of them because I didn’t think that they were working. I wound up using external contractors to develop most of the music and think that it all turned out extremely well.

And couple questions from our users that repeated many times:
Why is Silencer's armor red?

The Silencer’s armor is red for several reasons. On the purely practical side, the relatively small size of the animation frames meant that a bright color was needed in order to provide sufficient contrast with the character’s own shadows. If one or more darker colors had been used you would have lost a lot of character detail. Similarly, focusing on a single bright color instead of several meant smoother lighting and far less artifacting. I thought that red was the best choice given this reality.

Second, the ancient Spartans – which were an influencing factor in the Silencer’s basic appearance - used to wear red capes.

On the fictional side, the Silencer’s armor was red because the government’s hold on power depended upon – at any given time - most of its people submitting…conforming…to the system. A government’s power is ultimately derived from its people, and a widely despised government can only maintain the status quo if it can keep the number of people simultaneously resisting its control to a minimum. Such governments typically employ a wide array of mechanisms to accomplish that objective, and one of them is fear and intimidation. Silencers were intended to be visible signs of the government’s military power – a clear reminder of what would befall anyone who sought to overturn the system. Their red armor made them stand out in a dreary Orwellian future…and that was the point.

Was Boba Fett the inspiration for the Silencer?

The Silencer was not based upon Boba Fett. I had Beverly Garland, the lead artist on the first Crusader, do a number of rough sketches as we tried to figure out the exact look of the Silencer. I knew that I wanted full body armor, a backpack, lots of high-tech gadgetry, and a helmet that wouldn’t reveal any facial detail. The first character sketch that she did had a half-helmet and only partial body armor and I thought that it didn’t evoke an image of power. In one of her later sketches she wound up incorporating a T-slit into a full helmet. That immediately resonated with me. I’ve always had an affinity for the ancient Spartans - the ultimate warriors of their age – and the T-slit reminded me of their helmets. I thought that was the perfect mental association for a Silencer. We kept playing with the other aspects to figure out the final look, but from that point on the helmet was going to have a T-slit. I certainly recognized that the addition of the T-slit started to make the character look vaguely similar to Boba Fett – despite numerous other differences - but I always liked that character and that didn’t concern me.

Beverly wound up showing the sketch to some other people on the team and several of them said that it reminded them of Boba Fett. That seemed to bother Beverly quite a bit and she wanted to try something else, but I just told her, “I like Boba Fett.” Essentially, I liked the look, and whether people got the mental association that I wanted – a classical Greek warrior, preferably a Spartan – or Boba Fett didn’t really matter since I found both appealing.

On a somewhat related note, the term Silencer resulted from my spending quite a few hours searching for a euphemism for what was effectively a brutal government enforcer. I wanted something akin to the term Sandman as used in Logan’s Run. When the word Silencer finally popped into my head I immediately knew that I had it.

Why should we play Crusader games today? :)

I think that playing a game you spent considerable time on long ago is a bit like reading an old paper that you wrote in school or holding an object from your distant past that has special meaning. It takes you back to a different time. It helps you recall other details and emotions from that period in your life. It’s a bit like taking a trip down memory lane.

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