“I remember a lot of the reviews started off with: 'you wouldn’t expect a movie licence to be any good, but this is the exception,’” says Jens Andersson, lead designer of Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. The reviews were right — nobody saw Riddick coming.
Certainly not the critics and players used to the mediocrity of movie based games. Not the industry, either, where a virtually unknown studio from Sweden had yet to make a mark. Perhaps not even Andersson and his colleagues, who were happy just to launch the game after a troubled development cycle. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Released in 2000, the film Pitch Black introduced us to two phenoms: Vin Diesel, who would go on to become the decade’s biggest action star, and Richard B. Riddick, one of the most exciting sci-fi heroes in years. The potential of both wasn’t lost on entertainment executives, who set out to turn Riddick into a video game hero. The little-known Swedish developer Starbreeze was approached to make that game.
“Pitch Black reached sort of a cult movie status, so it was just one of the intellectual properties they wanted to develop further,” Jens Andersson recalls of the early meetings with Universal Pictures and the game’s publisher Vivendi. “The movie-based games at the time always sucked and that’s partly due to how the turnaround time for movies is much shorter than [is needed] for a good game to develop. Luckily for us they decided to greenlight the game before the second movie was greenlit. We had a little more time.”
And yet, time was still a major problem.
“We didn’t really have time to catch our breath.(...) This was shortly after we finished our first game Enclave,” Andersson says. “We crunched like crazy for Enclave. We did everything wrong on that game. We had our quality assurance do the balance for it, so the game became horrendously difficult. And we were trying to get it to work without crashing. We managed to do that and we were happy that we managed to release the game, but we knew that we had to make something much better next.”
The Chronicles of Riddick was an opportunity to do just that. But in order to make a great game, Starbreeze had to make it their own.
“It was our game from the start. We decided to make it in first person perspective and to make a mix between stealth and action adventure. We also very intentionally decided to set it apart from the movies,” Andersson says. “We knew it would be a bad idea to try to integrate too tightly with what someone else came up with.”
One thing Starbreeze didn’t have to worry about was the technology that powered the game. Towards the end of the development on Enclave, the studio’s Technical Director Magnus Högdahl made a few prototypes of the company’s next gen graphical engine. It was too late to incorporate the new technology into Enclave, but Riddick was the perfect project to unleash it. The first big job for Starbreeze was producing a proof-of-concept prototype that would persuade the license holders of the studio's chops and secure the contract.
“We made a prototype in three months that showed all the core concept of the game. It was actually quite accurate to the finished game,” Andersson recalls. “That’s always the hard part. You don’t know what your game is until everything is in there, but we came really close with that prototype done in a few months.”
The prototype laid out the blueprint for the ambitious mix of adventure, action, stealth and shooting Starbreeze would become known for. “Making it seamless was the challenge. I think doing the prototype and getting that out there gave us confidence that we can do that.” Luckily, the license holders saw something. “Our publisher said it was one of the best prototypes they’ve ever seen.”
Starbreeze got the job. With the prototype and the technology to turn it into a game in place, the Swedes went to work in Stockholm. Meanwhile in Los Angeles, a whole other team went to work on fleshing out the world of Riddick.
“John Zuur Platten and I came in when the game was already partly developed. The guys at Starbreeze seemed fine with that,” says Flint Dille, one of the game’s writers. “‘In the first scene Riddick gets captured and gets put into a a slam called Butcher Bay and it's the most secure facility in the universe.’” Dille remembers how one of the producers jokingly introduced him to the setup, “and then he said: ‘the last scene is Riddick’s escape, okay? So just figure out the middle part.'”
“John Zuur Platten and Flint Dille were working directly with the movie people so they were sort of a link in getting things right for the story,” Andersson explains. “The most important part of the license is Riddick himself, so that’s where the most focus went from their end — on making him work as a character in the game. That’s where they wanted to change the most stuff. We had a couple of silly quests early on in the game, like Riddick was supposed to go fetch some rubber duck thing for one inmate, and they basically said that Riddick wouldn’t do that kind of thing.”
“I think sometimes we kind of drove the guys at Starbreeze crazy,” Dille says. “But when you have a licensor — especially one who is engaged the way Vin was and especially when we're talking about his image — maybe you will need to get more money or get an extension on the timeline, but in the end you’ll do what the licensor wants.”
Andersson agrees. “We had to develop the video game character that fit the actual Riddick character, but that worked fine. Riddick is really good video game character. There hadn’t been too many first person games with a strong protagonist.”
To Andersson's mind, one in particular had set the bar for all others. “Half-Life had a strong protagonist on the cover of the game but he never said a word, and you were supposed to project yourself as that character. And Riddick with his one liners is not a very talkative character. You could kind of get both — it could be you playing there and he would comment for you.”
“We listened to a lot of Vin dialogue, so we got a pretty good idea how Vin talked and how to do translate that into the game,” adds Flint Dille. “The character was really fun to write and once you have a fun character, it's very easy to build a world of characters around them that are also fun to write.”
The supporting characters aside, however, everyone knew this was a game about Riddick.“That was a concern when we kicked off the project as well," says Andersson. "This is a game about Riddick, so how are we gonna show him off?”
Or to put it another way, Starbreeze was making a first person game — but didn’t want all the hard work on Riddick’s model going unnoticed. They devised a novel camera setup in which perspective shifted into third person every time Riddick climbed a ledge, replenished his health or had a chat with fellow inmates. And the work on Riddick’s portrayal didn’t end there.
“What helped with that was seeing your own body in the game," says Andersson. "It’s still very rare in first person shooters that you can see your body when you look down. But in our game it was quite important for the player’s sense of presence and for interacting with the stealth systems.”
And why is it still a rare feature in first-person games? Chances are you already guessed the answer.
“Having the first person rendering thing took a lot of work. It was one of the features I spent the most time on. I was lead gameplay designer and lead game programmer, but a lot of my time was spent on player ability, player actions and just getting that sort of animations to work,” Andersson explains. “It’s much easier just to make the animations work in third person, but to have the same animations work in first person is much more difficult. We had to spend a lot of time on that, but it proved very valuable.”
As difficult as these challenges were, they're one of the reasons Andersson cherishes his time on the game.
“It’s been the biggest lesson throughout my career in development — how the tools, the engine and the team converge and you reach the maximum efficiency in developing your game. It’s hard to hit that sweet spot but we did it for Riddick. The whole project finished in 16 or 18 months. It was super quick. And there wasn’t an option to not release on the day the movie came out. They had a date, we had a date, so we needed the game out there at that point.”
Sounds simple enough. It was everything but.
“When we started building Riddick there was other stuff in production: Knights of the Temple and Enclave 2. The problem was that when were reaching two thirds of the development on Riddick, the publisher of other projects went bankrupt. So the company basically lost two thirds of its income,” Andersson recalls. Storm clouds were gathering over Starbreeze.
“Riddick wasn’t enough to sustain the studio, so there were really radical changes in the later part of development. That was probably the darkest of times for Starbreeze. We went from at least 100 people down to 25 and this in the middle of the Riddick crunch.”
“It wasn’t fun, having been there from the start, having helped recruit a bunch of people. We had the game and everyone knew that was important — otherwise there wouldn’t be anything left, but at the same time the studio was falling apart around you. We basically had to take the core Riddick team and close the doors to the outside to finish the game, knowing that there was chaos going on all around.”
Andersson's memories are melancholy, but there was still Riddick to be finished. “Having a game to focus on helped, I guess, but it wasn’t a good time. And it’s amazing we got the game done to that level of quality with all this going on.”
That level of quality, however, didn't extend to all versions of the game. One of the original Xbox’s greatest console exclusives was supposed to be on PlayStation 2 as well.
“It was a very tech-heavy project with the dynamic lighting and the normal maps and everything, so the PS2 version obviously couldn’t do all of that, but the prototype still looked great,” Andersson says.
“About six months before the release the game wasn’t in very good shape and our publisher didn’t think we could finish it. At the same time Starbreeze was falling apart financially, so we were there asking for more money, because we needed it to survive. They looked at the game... and it looked like crap. And six months before release, it really looked like crap. The PS2 version wasn’t fully functional at the time either.”
Could things get any worse? Starbreeze didn't know, but they already had.
“Vivendi had cancelled the project, but the producers there didn’t tell us because they were working on fixing it,” Andersson says.
“And they managed to do that. They managed to force Vivendi's hand and hold them to the contract.”
Seeing the deal through was, however, contingent on Starbreeze dropping the PS2 version of the game. “It was probably the right choice that allowed us to focus on the Xbox version,” Andersson admits. “But Xbox wasn’t a very successful console, so the game just didn’t sell enough to generate any additional revenue over the advance for Starbreeze.”
The game didn’t break the bank. It did help Starbreeze stay afloat and put the studio on the map. The only issue is, it didn’t do it fast enough.
“Once Riddick was out the door, there was no money left at the company. We needed the next project really quickly. The game wasn’t released yet when we found Majesco to do The Darkness. In the meeting with Majesco they went 'we’re hearing good things about Riddick' but we couldn’t tell them, ‘look we have a 90 Metacritic game out there.’
“It was a very chaotic time and we didn’t really reap the rewards of Riddick,” Andersson says. “By the time Riddick got recognised, we were already in development for the next project.”
I ask Andersson if Starbreeze could have gotten a better deal after Riddick’s release.
“It wasn’t a bad deal. It was a fine project. And again we made it our own.”
Jens Andersson remains humble about the game’s impact.
“Our lucky timing was important. We saw Doom 3 as sort of a competitor in terms of the technical race that was going on at the time. And to our surprise Doom got delayed. Perhaps even better, Half-Life 2 got delayed as well.”
“We managed to come out before both of them, so we hit the sweet spot with these high quality fidelity graphics in action adventure. If we had come out after both these titles I don’t think we would have got quite the same critical acclaim,” Andersson muses. “It would still be a good game, but not this kind of a surprise underdog.”
Flint Dille's perspective gives Riddick a little more credit. “We knew we were pushing the medium. Everybody was trying to get the same place, because you don't get a product that good unless everyone really puts their hearts into it.”
Starbreeze was on the map and now working on The Darkness, while Vin Diesel developed an even bigger appetite for extending his stardom into video games. Just like the tough guys he portrays on screen, Diesel went at it with a vengeance. Aside from the remake/sequel to Escape from Butcher Bay called Assault on Dark Athena, his Tigon Studios worked on Melkor (an RPG based on Diesel’s D&D character), Perrone: Raised on Honor (an action game based on the career of a real NYPD detective), Barca B.C. (MMORPG turned action strategy based on Hannibal Barca’s historical conquests) and Wheelman (Grand Theft Auto meets Fast & Furious in Barcelona).
Out of the bunch, only Wheelman made it onto the shelves. Flint Dille penned its story. I ask him what went wrong for Diesel’s ambitions in games.
“The video game business was radically changing at that very moment. The idea of movie-game tie ins is just not what it used to be. A lot of it is timing. A lot of times you're you're doing the right thing at the wrong time and sometimes you're doing the wrong thing at the right time. That world... that world doesn't exist anymore.”
But while it existed, it gave us games like The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. And the funny thing about Riddick is that, for many of us, it ultimately showed that the game didn't need the movie. And perhaps vice-versa.
I finish by asking Andersson about the film that Escape from Butcher Bay was ostensibly supplementing.
“It has its moments, I think,” he offers gracefully.