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Media Consumption: Realtime Worlds' Billy Thomson (Crackdown)

This week's Media Consumption talks to Billy Thomson, lead designer on Realtime Worlds’ action adventure title Crackdown, who reveals his multimedia favorites, from The Raconteurs through Apocalypse Now to Pro Evolution Soccer and beyond.
For this week’s Media Consumption, a column that looks at the media and art diets of our favourite industry personalities, we spoke to Billy Thomson, lead designer on Realtime Worlds’ action adventure title Crackdown. The game is set for release on the 20th of February in the US and a few days later in Europe, Japan and Australia. Thomson comments that a recent American press tour undertaken by himself and producer Phil Wilson “seemed to go really well”. “We also released a demo for Crackdown in January, via Xbox Live Marketplace, and it’s done better than we could have ever hoped for,” he adds, “breaking day one and week one download figures for any previous demo on the Xbox 360 – so we’re very proud of that.” We asked Thomson recently about the crunchy croutons and grated Parmesan cheese in his media Caesar salad of late. Sounds: "I listen to a lot of music: at work, at home, on my way to work. Basically I’m always listening to music if I can. Right now I’m listening to Jose Gonzalez. It’s amazing music; this guy can play an acoustic guitar about as well as anyone I’ve ever heard, and his haunting voice combines perfectly with beautiful lyrics and melodies. The Kooks are a great new band – a little bit folky at times but they make it work better than you would imagine. They’re one of my favourite bands at the moment. Arctic Monkeys: “raw” is the way I would describe their sound, similar to Oasis’ debut – they’re also superb. These guys seem to generate a love or hate reaction from just about everyone, personally I think they’re a fantastic band. I really liked the White Stripes but I’m listening to Jack White’s new band The Raconteurs more these days. It’s really quirky, but I think it’s a brilliant album. I’m also listening to Ray LaMontagne, Wolfmother, Snow Patrol, Jet, Kasabian, Zero 7, Air, Stereophonics, Kanye West, The Killers, The Stone Roses, Ian Brown, Oasis... the list goes on and on so I’ll stop boring you." Moving Pictures: "Christ, that’s a question that’s pretty much impossible for me to answer. I’ve tried so many times before and never managed to actually nail down my top ten. I’ll just list a bunch of movies that I rate highly and leave you guys to decide which order they should really stack up in. Firstly, the original Matrix film - not the trilogy! What an amazing idea that was, where the world as we know it is simply a virtual reality - where if you know how to break the code you can learn Kung Fu in a matter of seconds and cheat gravity. Brilliant stuff, and definitely one of our major influences on Crackdown. Goodfellas is probably my favourite mafia-esque film of all time. So many colourful characters combined with great dialogue, perfect music and the way that the guy’s life completely unravels at the end escalating into blind panic – it’s intense viewing. City of God is quite a dark film but is definitely worth seeing. It’s cinematically beautiful and especially impressive when you consider that many of the cast were actually hand picked off the streets of Rio de Janeiro. The Game had so many twists and turns that by the end of the film I had just about blamed everyone that had spent more than five seconds on the screen. It’s not as good second time around though, as you know what’s coming which can spoil it a little. Fallen is another brilliant concept for a story: how do you outrun a fallen angel that can posses any living creature it touches? Once you’ve seen this film the Rolling Stones’ song Time Is On My Side will chill you to the bone every time. Very Bad Things - I can just imagine you raising your eyebrows at this one, but all I can say is you should rent it out and watch it. It’s a movie that starts out like most others, but it very quickly descends into complete madness and is one of the darkest comedies I can ever remember seeing. Superb. I think Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring was the strongest out of the trilogy, and it really set the scene for the next two films creating the backdrop of Middle Earth better than I had ever imagined it while reading the books. Fight Club is one of those movies that as soon as it ends you want to watch it again, and there’s not many of those. Brad Pitt, Edward Norton and Helena Bonham Carter are all superb in this film. I loved just about everything about this film! Genius! Apocalypse Now is - in my mind - the absolute pinnacle of the Vietnam war movies, and nothing comes close to the mind bending intensity that this films generates. I thought Blade was the mutt’s nuts when it came out: the blood drenching opening sequence; the comic book style and swagger of the lead character; the incredible physical abilities; the way that vampires in the contemporary world were dealt with and the twist of the hero of the story being the half human half vampire “Daywalker”. Blade was another film that was high on our list of inspirational movies while making Crackdown. Actually, Blade was who I had in mind the entire time we were designing our Agent. Sin City is a visual treat with an incredible performance from Mickey Rourke. I can watch that film over and over again. Gladiator can get a bit cheesy at times, but I still love it, the story of the fallen General slowly building his way back up to gain his revenge is a truly compelling story that gets me every time. Finally, Pulp Fiction showed that Tarantino is probably the best in the business at writing dialogue that has no actual part to play in driving the story: it’s simply conversation, but the writing is razor sharp and the performances he manages to get from his inspired cast is second to none. His ability to intertwine so many different storyline threads into one at the end is probably also a great talent." Words: "I’m a big fan of Michael Crichton. I love the way he manages to build his storylines around actual scientific research and then simply stretches the truth a little to allow him to weave a compelling story that generally starts off plausible and ends up in the realms of total fantasy. Some of my favourites were Jurassic Park, Timeline, Prey and Next. I really enjoyed the religious based, puzzle solving thrillers written by Dan Brown - both Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code were great stories. Some people have been fairly critical of the writing in these books but I have to say I enjoyed them both. I have to admit that I’m also a fan of a few authors who write children’s stories: Phillip Pullman, Eoin Colfer and Jonathan Stroud are all superb. Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy was a fantastic read. I’m not going to say anything more as it could spoil the story, but I would definitely recommend checking the books out. Colfer’s Artemis Fowl books are filled with brilliant characters and the ideas for the fairy technology are truly inspired. Finally Stroud’s Bartimaus trilogy was one of my favourites: it’s one of those books where when you’ve finished you can’t believe that you’ll not be reading any more stories about the main characters. If you’re reading this, Mr Stroud, I’d like to hear some more from Bartimaus’ past!" Games: "Favourite games... hmmm... now that is a difficult question. Strangely enough, many of the games I would put down as my favourites are games that I don’t actually play any more. I should point out that my list is not driven by any awe inspiring design concepts or ground breaking innovation found in the games - these are simply the games that I had most fun playing. Any time I recall playing them I have great memories, basically each one of them have left a positive lasting impression on me that definitely shapes my approach to designing games. So, in no particular order... Super Mario Kart on SNES and DS are classics, and anyone that says different can be shot on the spot with my blessing: simple as that. Even to this day I have not found a multiplayer racing game that is so tightly designed and infinitely playable. It really doesn’t get much better than this, and I’m not surprised that Nintendo had to go back to the original classic to really re-capture that frantic gameplay for the new DS version – which is actually the best of the series in my mind. During my first few years at DMA my lunchtimes were spent playing Quake over our LAN - the 16 player deathmatch was completely new to me and I was constantly telling all of my friends that I had seen the future of gaming. I was so sure I was right. I actually can’t put into words the pleasure I took killing the guys who I worked with, especially “Raging Ramrod” – you know who you are! Goldeneye! My God I loved this game, the way they managed to engineer the missions and stay true to the movie, the great cut scenes, the fact that I got to play Bond... James Bond, and the 4 player multiplayer games were a fantastic addition. The multiplayer games were about as close as I could get to playing Quake with my friends so we ended up playing this game for years and years! I actually came to Monkey Island 1 and 2 quite late, as I was more of a console gamer in my youth. I still think that these two games are the benchmark for anyone attempting to do a point and click adventure. The humour in the writing is spot on, the puzzles were brilliantly conceived and the way that they managed to create physical gameplay through selection of text was just pure genius. Anyone who remembers the sword fighting will know what I’m talking about. I would like to see developers of this genre go back to the old 2D point and click control mechanism rather than the new 3D system, where you walk around the room and have to watch for the characters head moving towards an object in the scene – that’s just tedious. I know Half-Life is an obvious one, but it still has merit on anyone’s list. This game came practically out of nowhere for me. We got a demo at work, and suddenly everyone at DMA was raving about this new game and the anticipation started to build. When I finally got my hands on the game I have to say I wasn’t disappointed. The level design is really impressive, there are few games that manage to turn you round and walk you past currently inaccessible areas that you’ve already been to or will come to at some later point than this game. The weapons were well designed and implemented, the storyline and dialogue had a nice combination of light hearted humour and menacing apprehension, the scripted events were pretty much groundbreaking for the time and the pacing of the game was right on the money – apart from sections of the alien world that is. All in all one of my favourite single player experiences ever and one that I still use as a measuring stick for other FPS games. As a gamer, I actually had my breath taken away at times by the beautifully conceived Ico, and as a game and level designer this game completely blew me away. The concept of having to protect and guide an AI controlled ghost like girl is so simple, yet so effective that SCEI managed to build an entire game around it. From the perspective of Ico – the main character – the level designs were fairly simple to traverse at times, but the genius behind this game was not in how you get Ico up and out the door, it was how you were going to get the girl up there with you. The character actions, the level design and the pacing and placement of enemies are something that any would be designer should look at closely. The hype for the release of Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was insane, and not only from the media; I’m talking about game devs as well. Just about everyone who owned the N64 at DMA tried to buy this on day one, and not everyone managed to get a copy. Yes, there were tears of joy and sorrow on that fine day. It’s impossible for me to list all of the reasons that I believe made this game work so well, so all I’ll say is I’ve never been so immersed in a game before or since playing it. This game is a truly incredible achievement from a design, art, audio and production perspective. Just about every element of the game manages to complement the others that surround it. It’s a masterpiece. I’m a big football fan and Pro Evo is THE football game. Have a go at this game on any console and it’s an absolute joy to play. My current favourite is Pro Evo 6 on the Xbox 360. The game just gets better and better with every new version; I’ve never played any other football game that manages to accurately recreate the feelings you get when you’re actually out there on the grass playing the game for real. Probably one of the greatest multiplayer games I have ever played, this game just never gets old for me, and incredibly it keeps showing me new things every time I play: superb! Am I allowed to list Crackdown? I know I’ve worked on the title, but I have to say that after playing this game constantly for nearly two years I am still thoroughly enjoying starting from scratch and playing through again and again – that may be hard to believe, but it’s genuinely true. It’s one of those rare games that you can spend hours playing and having a great time and then when someone asks you why you love playing it so much, you can’t seem to put your finger on exactly what it is that keeps you coming back and playing for so long time and time again. The last game I worked on that gave me the same sensation during and after playing was the original GTA. At the moment I’m spending most of my time playing Crackdown, Pro Evo 6, Gears of War and Call of Duty 2. I know, I know, Call of Duty 3’s out, but I’ve been in development hell for the past 2 years! And, finally, I also jump in and out of New Super Mario Bros. and Mario Kart on the DS from time to time."

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