Bits from my personal collection – The Crusader series

In 1995 a revolutionary new action game from Origin Systems knocked id Software‘s Doom from the number one spot on the Readers’ Choice Charts of Computer Gaming World, the industry’s premier publication. Origin Systems, founded in 1983 by brothers Richard and Robert Garriott, their father Owen, and Richard’s college roommate Chuck Bueche had seen much success throughout the ’80s with its immensely popular Ultima franchise. By the early ’90s, the company had expanded into Chris Roberts‘ successful Wing Commander series and was growing fast. The success didn’t go unnoticed and when the company was bought by Electronic Arts in 1992 it employed around 300 people. By March of 1994, the lead programmer in the Ultima group, Tony Zurovec had just completed his work on Pagan, the eighth title in the Ultima series when he was greenlighted to form Loose Cannon Production, a new group, one of now four, within the company. Here the renowned Crusader series was conceived with Zurovec acting as senior producer, director, lead programmer, writer, and everything in between.

Zurovec had been growing up alongside the personal computer revolution and had played with a number of different early systems before moving to the Commodore Amiga in the late ’80s. Here he started to get much more serious about developing utilities and games that one day could earn him money and save him from a dreary lifetime as an electrical engineer. Spending the better part of a year Zurovec worked on a tile-based fantasy game, similar in concept to the Ultima series, but employing more advanced graphics and a dedicated editor. The prototype, called The Deceiver, was shown to Origin Systems in late 1990 and eventually led Dallas Snell, the general manager at Origin, to hire him.

In late 1993, before Pagan was completed, Zurovec was becoming increasingly frustrated with the design direction of the game and started to think about what he would do following its release. He had proved himself within the Ultima group and with a break in the development schedule, he pitched an idea of a real-time strategy game, greatly inspired by Westwood Studios‘ 1992 title Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty. While the idea was shot down by management, who didn’t think the genre could generate sufficient sales to justify the required investment, the pitch sparked another idea, inspired by Silas Warner‘s pioneering 1981 title Castle Wolfenstein.
Zurovec had played Castle Wolfenstein back in the day but never thought the available technology had done the fundamental design of the game justice. Now almost 15 years later, technology had come a long way and he was ready to see how much further he could push the game’s basic concepts, resulting in the isometric dystopian action game Crusader: No Remorse.

Zurovec wrote a fairly extensive document detailing the background fiction and primary game mechanics and made the initial pitch to Origin co-founder and head of the Ultima group, Richard Garriott, who approved the pitch. Zurovec quickly started recruiting members for his Loose Cannon Production group and his new programming team would continue to work with the engine, Zurovec had helped design for Pagan. The engine was far more intelligent than any of its predecessors and changes and improvements were able to be accomplished with a relatively small team. Support for state-of-the-art high-resolution 640×480 256-color Super VGA graphics and a completely new music system, featuring digital samples rather than FM synthesis that otherwise was standard with PC games, were added. A very flexible and capable trigger system was created and allowed the designers to craft intricate environments with never before seen physical and destructible elements. The artificial intelligence was rewritten from scratch and gained entirely new features like auditory ranges and line-of-sight awareness.

When Crusader: No Remorse was released, exclusively on CD-ROM, in 1995 it became one of the most action-packed and technologically impressive games released in the mid-’90s. Looking past the impressive visuals, the interactive and dynamic environments, and the action-packed gameplay, Crusader came with an elaborate storyline, featuring full-motion video sequences with live actors in cutscenes to create an engaging experience. It shipped with significant back-story materials, including a fold-out propaganda poster, newspaper, and guides from the tyrannical World Economic Consortium and the Rebel Resistance. The game was released as single-player only, though a cooperative multiplayer mode supporting up to four players was developed and included in the game up until its release.

Crusader: No Remorse was developed by Loose Cannon Production, a group within Origin Systems, and published for PC in 1995.
Set in a dystopian 22nd century, Crusader centers on The Captain, a special ops officer, and supersoldier, who defects from the tyrannical world government, the World Economic Consortium, and joins the Resistance rebels.
Ports for Sony Playstation and Sega Saturn followed in 1997.

Crusader: No Remorse was critically well-received and named Best Action Game of 1995 by Computer Gaming World and Computer Games Strategy Plus. The critical acclaim amounted to a huge commercial success story, selling nearly three times more than the sales department had estimated. It generated over $20 million in revenue, a higher return on investment than any previous standalone Origin title. Crusader: No Remorse was followed by the sequel Crusader: No Regret in 1996.

Zurovec and his team, under a very tight schedule, completed the sequel Crusader: No Regrets, released in 1996, and only for the PC

Crusader: No Regret was developed on an exceptionally tight schedule with the sales department wanting it ready for the following Christmas. Allowing only half the time the original title had required resulted in Zurovec not being able to implement all the improvements he had in mind. Yet he and the team still managed to set the bar even higher for the overall quality and consistency of the game. The video playback system used in newer Wing Commander titles was now used and allowed for superior image compression and support for 16-bit color making a dramatic difference in the presentation quality of the cinematic elements. The control scheme was overhauled giving a more fluid and responsive experience. The enemy AI and pathfinding were improved, which made combat a bit more challenging.
Most of the changes helped turn what was already a good game into an even better and more refined game.
A multiplayer expansion, to be titled Crusader: No Survivor, was ultimately canceled.

In 1996, the two Crusader games were released in the Crusader Collection

Zurovec went on to co-found Digital Anvil, Inc. in 1997 with Chris Roberts and his brother Erin. The company received multiple rounds of financing from Microsoft and AMD and quickly grew to over a hundred employees. The company was sold to Microsoft in late 2000.

Sources: Wikipedia, LinkedIn, Interview with Denis Murphy of The Gaming Liberty

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