The Mak­ing Of...

How an un­likely part­ner­ship be­tween Sword­fish and 50 Cent birthed Blood On The Sand

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY ED SMITH De­vel­oper Sword­fish Stu­dios Pub­lisher THQ For­mat 360, PS3 Ori­gin UK Re­lease 2009

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

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