The Making Of...
How an unlikely partnership between Swordfish and 50 Cent birthed Blood On The Sand
The brand was popular, the fanbase was established and the leading stars were all well known: Covert-One, a new television series adapted from books by Robert Ludlum, surely couldn’t fail. For Swordfish, the Birmingham indie studio contracted to build Covert-One’s tie-in videogame, a seemingly guaranteed success like this was rare. Founded in 2002, Swordfish had collaborated with three different publishers in its first three years, and its games – particularly Cold Winter, a firstperson shooter launched in 2005 – had been well received. But searching for a new idea and a new employer each time a project concluded was a draining routine. The prospect of working on something like Covert-One, particularly when Ludlum’s Jason Bourne was still thriving in cinemas, was irresistible.
Then, in early 2007, the Covert-One TV show was cancelled, and Swordfish’s game along with it. For almost a year, the studio had been working on a thirdperson shooter-cummurder mystery that it felt was perfectly tailored to Ludlum’s world. To discard all that work would be an enormous waste. Fortunately Vivendi, which published Cold Winter and had selected Swordfish for Covert-One in the first place, had another project in waiting. 50 Cent: Bulletproof, despite receiving some terrible reviews, had sold over one million copies. Perhaps it was time for a follow-up.
“When we first heard, our jaws were on the floor,” production director Ian Flatt tells us. “It was bizarre. We were an all-Caucasian group of Brummies. We never thought we’d get picked to do something like this.”
While some parts of the Covert-One project could be repurposed, the game could hardly be recycled wholesale into a star vehicle for Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson. Blood On The Sand’s basic movement, aiming and shooting could be brought over from the cancelled project, but Swordfish had to work out how to crowbar a gangster-rap aesthetic into what was once a game about international espionage; less Ludlum, and more bedlam.
“We had to make it less serious,” Flatt says of the absurd situation. “We needed to lighten it up, bring some of our own humour into it and be more tongue in cheek with gore and interactive takedowns and things like that.”
“I had the odd CD knocking about,” says technical director David Percival. “A bit of Ice Cube here and there, but it did feel like, ‘OK, now we need to get ourselves into this culture.’ In Covert-One you were basically playing yourself. Now we had this celebrity we had to glorify. So the first thing we did was make a vertical-slice level – something that had all the major gameplay elements, showed off the graphics, and so on. We wanted to keep that as small as possible so as not to push the team too much right away. We knew that we could iterate it later on.
“As for our cover mechanics, we already had a character who could dive into cover, dive over cover, and aim at an enemy and pop back down again. So for Blood On The Sand we just had to remake his animations, meaning that when the character jumped into cover it was in a more ostentatious, rap-hero kind of way. It had to be something Vivendi could put in front of the talent – 50 and the G-Unit guys – and say, ‘This is what we’re talking about.’ That’s why we also wanted to nail a realistic-looking 50 Cent avatar early on. We knew it would help seal the deal.”
Feedback from 50 Cent and his fellow G-Unit members arrived at regular intervals. Every few months Swordfish would collate all of its work into a ‘big release’ demonstration, which Vivendi would show to the titular hip-hop artist and his entourage. Described by Percival as “completely normal and very personable,” 50 Cent would play through each of the big-release builds and offer feedback and critique. It was a straightforward, amiable process – most of the time, at least.
“There was one milestone where our guys had to fly over to present the build to 50 Cent and his management team,” Flatt says. “He wanted his son, who was about six or seven at the time, to be the person who would review the build and decide if it was any good. So he played it and was saying, ‘I love this, I love this, it’s great! But I want a level with helicopters in!’ Our guy explained it was a thirdperson shooter and didn’t have helicopters in. But 50 Cent’s son said, ‘No, I want helicopters,’ and 50 Cent turned around and said, ‘You heard him. Make a level with helicopters in.’”
Creating bespoke tech to implement these requests was unfeasible, so the staff cobbled together what they could from what was already available to them, Percival explains. “Those interlude levels, where you’re driving or being chased by bad guys and watching explosive setpieces around you, required a huge amount of AI and technology work. We had to get cars working and bumping into each other; make AI that would fight you while driving; create audio for engines and collision sounds. [It required] a huge amount of mechanics and work just for small sections of gameplay that were completely useless for the core shooter part. The helicopter level was even worse: we basically made it out of bits we had in the shoebox, and the designers stitched it all together themselves. There was no extra code work done for it at all. It was a pain to debug.”
Creating Blood On The Sand’s environment and level art required just as much improvisation, and no small amount of wrangling. The majority of the game’s environmental art had been assigned to freelancers, and the difficulty of gathering together the efforts of dozens of artists was further exacerbated by Blood On
The Sand’s foreign setting. Lacking primary research sources for Middle-Eastern market squares, alleyways and buildings, Swordfish’s artists were forced to get creative.
“We were taking our cues from the heavily graded and filtered look found in films like Traffic or Black Hawk Down,” art director Michel
“OUR JAWS WERE ON THE FLOOR. WE NEVER THOUGHT WE’D GET PICKED TO DO SOMETHING LIKE THIS”
Bowes says. “We wanted something cinematic, lush and colourful, too. We didn’t have the luxury of location reference gathering – but we did have Birmingham. So we took a lot of photos, both of the local shopping mall and the Alexandra theatre, and those are what we used to inspire the game’s spaces.”
Recording Blood On The Sand’s dialogue proved similarly problematic. While 50 Cent was already in the process of transitioning from music to movies and trying to forge a career as an actor during the game’s production (Percival: “Giving him lines and direction, and asking for X amount of variations of a scene, went really well – he just rattled them off”), the rest of the G-Unit crew were less interested in acting and harder to track down. The in-game representations of Lloyd Banks, Tony Yayo and DJ Whoo Kid were supposed to quip at the player and provide hints on how to progress in the singleplayer campaign. But scheduling recording time to fit in with their various other projects was no small task.
The game’s AI and gameplay coders weren’t quite so reliant on external factors, but the project’s switch from spy thriller to gangster warfare certainly posed its fair share of unique challenges. “They needed to hit these tenets of what we felt a gangster-rap game ought to feel like,” Flatt says. “For example, we wanted to create these takedowns and counter kills. But for the longest time, when you performed them in the game, the background would drop out and you’d only be able to see them happening in what looked like this separate, ethereal world. We could have left them like that, but it would have been a cop-out. To get those right we had to blow a lot of our production deadlines.”
“We laughed about the game every day,” Percival adds. “But that didn’t mean we didn’t take it seriously. As an independent studio you’re only ever as good as your last game, so no matter what we thought about the subject matter we had to make something good underneath.”
Despite its efforts, Swordfish faced uncertainty toward the end of Blood On The Sand’s time in development. Repurposing Covert-One, then customising a game engine, rounding up art and audio work – all challenges that suddenly seemed insignificant in the face of what was to come. The game was scheduled for release in 2009, but in July 2008 Vivendi completed its merger with Activision. The upper management at what was now named Activision Blizzard decided that its portfolio no longer required a game about 50 Cent. Percival, Flatt and team were told to continue production on the off-chance another publisher could be found, but the cheques from Vivendi would no longer arrive. For months thereafter, Swordfish was working for free.
At the same time, the studio was finalising a deal with Codemasters: once Blood On The Sand had shipped, Swordfish would be renamed Codemasters Birmingham and begin working on the F1 series. It was a promising arrangement, but between losing a publisher, trying to find another, and becoming part of a third company – all while trying to finish and ship a game it had been working on for three years – Swordfish was under tremendous pressure.
“In my whole career I’ve never known a set of circumstances that difficult,” Flatt says. “Everyone had been given a redundancy notice and told that not only would they no longer be working on the game for Vivendi, but that the entire qualityassurance team, which worked for the publisher, would also be going away. At the same time, a lot of our team had already moved onto F1 2010 and Codemasters was calling – it felt like every day – asking when Blood On The Sand was going to be finished. Finishing a new game is always an emotional time and that feeling, combined with everything else that was going on, was frightening. But, on the flipside, it was also the most heartening part of development. Seeing everyone sticking together and getting the game finished – I don’t think I’ll ever have that same sense of [camaraderie] again.”
“Everyone, really, should have been looking around for other jobs,” Percival adds. “But regardless of all these political worries on the outside, at that point in the project we were so busy we almost couldn’t think of anything else. So we got on with it. We still pride ourselves on being a close-knit team. Our chips were really down, and we stuck together.”
In the end THQ purchased the rights to Blood On The Sand. The game launched in February 2009 to a pleasantly surprised response, and Swordfish completed its transformation into Codemasters Birmingham. What, then, of 50 Cent and G-Unit? Neither Flatt nor Percival have any idea whether they enjoyed the game. “Vivendi, which had been our channel to those guys, had already gone out the door,” Percival says. “So we didn’t get any direct feedback.” During an interview with ESPN, however, the rapper did explain that he “can’t get enough of my game. I’m jumping out of helicopters with all these huge muscles. I love it.”
“This was an odd project,” Percival says, “to the point of it being ridiculous. But that didn’t mean we didn’t want to make it good. We knew people would be interested straight away because 50 Cent was on the box, but we still wanted a solid shooter with good cover mechanics – you could have put another character in there and it would have stood up. I suppose if Kim Kardashian ever wants to do a shooter, we can sort that out.”
50 Cent was designed to be more muscular than his realworld counterpart to better fit the action-movie aesthetic