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7/17/2013 6:33:54 AM - Interview with Pelit Magazine

Here's an interview that I gave to Pelit magazine on 3/5/2013. Once again, the subject is Crusader, a critically acclaimed and award-winning set of games that I created at Origin Systems - the legendary PC game developer - in the mid-1990s.

- TZ




Juho Kuorikoski (JK):

Hello and thank you for agreeing to the interview. First of all, Crusader: No Remorse is one of my favorite games from my youth and it's really sad, that the game series didn't survive, although I understand why you did what you did, regarding the royalties that EA didn't pay. It's good that there's GOG, that new generations of gamers can enjoy this classic.

As I said in my previous post, it would be nice to know why the game is so violent. In my opinion Crusader: No Remorse is a prototype of a modern action game. Violence is shown as it is: brutal and bloody. Was this done by choice or did the high resolution graphics have any impact on this? SVGA certainly made the game look absolutely stunning at the time.

Tony Zurovec (TZ):

Crusader wasn’t really any more violent than most of its contemporary counterparts – it just depicted the violence in more detail.

That particular design innovation – the hyper-realistic detail - was the direct result of my tendency to always wonder how something could be improved. I’d been playing video games since I was a child and over the years I’d been armed to the tooth in hundreds of games with all manner of weaponry – shotguns, grenades, rocket launchers, you name it – but after the inevitable firefight the only clue that something had occurred would be the fact that there were a few dead bodies on the floor. That lack of detail bothered me. I thought that it would be far more interesting – far more fun - if the environment dynamically reflected the chaos that occurred during a firefight. That was really the genesis of the environmental detail that became one of the game’s hallmarks. I set up a test room with a variety of things that could be destroyed, populated it with a few enemies, and turned people loose on it. As the shots were flying, monitors were exploding, glass walls were crumbling, boxes were being riddled with holes, and I could see people responding with glee at the sheer destruction – it actually felt like a lot of firepower was being unleashed, and they’d never seen anything like it. Destroying the environment became a game in and of itself – something that was just as enjoyable as mowing down the bad guys. I think that the appeal of it all was that breaking things is inherently a bit cathartic – it’s something that you can’t often do in the real world without consequence.

Once the environment could be blasted into oblivion, it didn’t feel right to have enemy combatants play the same death animation regardless of their cause of death. The scenario that bothered me the most was shooting a bad guy with a rocket propelled grenade. A huge fireball would result and nearby objects would go flying, but the character would just slump to the ground exactly as if they’d been shot with a bullet. That was the complete opposite of what you’d expect given the detail depicted elsewhere within the game. I modified the game so that explosive damage would result in nearby characters bursting into flames, and then turned my attention to the other weapons. Those death animations and associated effects are probably a large part of the reason why so many people think that Crusader was exceptionally violent, but it was really just the continuation of a more comprehensive design goal.

The high resolution Super VGA 640x480 256-color graphics – to the best of my knowledge Crusader was the first action game to support that resolution – were not a factor in the amount or type of violence within the game. I had grown used to the Commodore Amiga’s 640x200 resolution in the late 1980s and when I went to work at Origin in 1990 I saw it as a tremendous step backwards to have to utilize 320x200 – the standard PC game resolution. The very first technical goal of Crusader was getting a static room display up and running in Super VGA, and despite the monumental leap in visual quality that it provided I was repeatedly told that it would be a huge mistake. VESA driver support for all of the various hardware chipsets was still in its infancy and the larger memory footprint of the higher resolution animations would necessitate shipping on a CD-ROM (which would dramatically limit the number of machines that could run the game), but the real problem was that no computer could actually render an entire 640x480 frame quickly enough to allow for smooth scrolling. That meant that the game would have to forgo the standard smooth scrolling camera for a snapping display system that would only occasionally force the entire screen to be redrawn. In the end, I thought that the improved visuals were such a quantum leap over what anyone on the PC had previously seen that it more than justified all of the costs, and just focused on making the game that I wanted to see.

JK:

The game has a political backstory, which is actually more true now than in 1995. In retrospect, did you see this coming? The world is actually going more and more towards the economy-driven oligarchy which is at the base of the game's story.

TZ:

As I noted in the official game guide in 1995, Crusader was always meant as a political statement. I certainly foresaw the emergence of the economically-oriented oligarchy, and I think that it’s fundamentally related to the global trend of granting more and more control over people’s lives to officials elected and otherwise. I think that will eventually lead to a much more restrictive and oppressive world, more corruption (as a result of a ruling class controlling more and more of a population’s assets), and little to no real chance – short of a revolution – to actually effect real change. The problem, though, is that people don’t see the danger because the rate of movement is so slow. If you immediately turned the political water up to 300 degrees everyone would jump out of the pot and say that it was too hot, but if you just dial up the heat a degree or two every few years most people will just find a way to cope with each incremental change until, one day, everyone starts to realize that the water’s well past the boiling point and there’s no easy fix. Crusader’s fiction was focused on what type of a world would eventually result from such a progression of events and what would be necessary in order to change it.

JK:

Are there any ties between the violence and the narrative? For example Starship Troopers - which is also a political satire - is also very violent piece of pop culture.

TZ:

The violence and the narrative in Crusader are intricately linked. The fiction depicts a distant future in which the citizenry is controlled by a ruling party that seeks to preserve the status quo at all costs. The government controls the media and employs a lot of propaganda, limiting the ability of its citizens to really understand what’s going on around them. Personal freedoms and opportunities to advance are very limited – the result of people having gradually ceded more and more control over their lives to state officials. Changing the system by peaceful means isn’t possible because as soon as you start to speak out and try to gather support the government moves to permanently “silence” you. The only options, then, are submission to a system that you fear and despise and all-out rebellion. That was one of the primary points that Crusader sought to convey – that your ability to peacefully change the system would gradually erode as you bestowed ever more power and faith in the government.

JK:

And lastly it would be very nice to know what you are doing now. From what I understood, there's not going to be a sequel for Crusader, but how about a similar game set in a similar world and dealing with similar themes? I'm pretty sure that there's still loads of eager gamers that would be very interested in that type of game. Have you considered crowd-sourcing at Kickstarter or something similar?

TZ:

I’m currently playing around with Dart – Google’s new JavaScript replacement – because when combined with HTML 5 I can finally see the potential for some compelling browser-based application development. That’s definitely gotten me a bit excited. I really like the idea of being able to interact with a single application through a variety of different interfaces, each with its own particular set of strengths.

I’ve wanted to design a real-time strategy game since I first saw Dune II back in the early 1990s but was turned down at Origin because the executives didn’t think that the genre could sell very many units – hence the reason that I wound up pitching Crusader. I spent a lot of time designing – on paper - what I saw as the logical evolution of the RTS genre after we sold Digital Anvil to Microsoft in January 2001. I thought for sure that someone would have reached the same conclusions and implemented such a game by now, but instead the genre has simply languished and, and a result, declined in popularity. I see the RTS genre as being similar to third-person action-adventures in the mid-1990s – a genre that the industry has intellectually abandoned and that’s ripe for a revolution.

I have thought about using Kickstarter to try and raise the funding necessary to complete such a game, but a more likely avenue for me – at least initially - would probably just be self-funding a rough prototype, making it available for free, getting a sense of player interest, and then re-evaluating what’s possible in terms of raising the capital necessary for its completion.

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