It would probably be fair to assume that Avalanche Studios is working on the game everyone has been waiting for them to announce.
That the people who gave us Just Cause and Just Cause 2, exceptionally long-lived games with passionate fans who have yet to grow bored with the playgrounds of destruction they deliver, are now hard at work on Just Cause 3 seems likely.
But Christofer Sundberg, founder and chief creative officer, is coy about a new Just Cause. He won't say if the rumors, fueled by a Just Cause-themed Christmas card sent two years ago, are true.
When I ask him if the game is in development, this is Sundberg's reply:
"Can't say," Sundberg says. "It's a huge franchise for the studio, so you shouldn't be surprised if there is a Just Cause game in the future, but right now it's nothing we can talk about."
Sundberg then runs me through what the developer's three studios are working on.
"Currently, Mad Max is the focus of the studio," Sundberg tells me during an interview at last week's DICE Summit. "It was announced at E3. It's been a fantastic year since then. A lot of exciting feedback on what we've shown so far. That's a huge team at the studio in Stockholm working on that. In New York we have a team of 75 working on a project with Square Enix. Then we have Pim's team working on The Hunter. We're expanding that team as well."
When I ask Sundberg what's being developed in New York, the studio rumored to be working on Just Cause 3, he laughs.
"It's a game with Square Enix," he says. "A secret game."
Sundberg is used to all of the Just Cause talk, even when he has nothing to say about the franchise. It's the game that launched the studio, the game that remains its heart.
"It's the first game I wrote, the first game we released," he said. "It's always been the DNA of the studio. Actually, I think more people know... they're more familiar with Just Cause than they are with Avalanche. We have people who have joined the studio in the past to work on Just Cause, and they joined the company just because they were big fans of that genre, the first game and so on. It's always been a big part of the studio, and it always will be. That was probably why it ended up on the Christmas card. I don't think we'd announced Mad Max at that point."
Launched in 2006, Just Cause was Avalanche Studios' take on open-world gaming, an attempt to gain a foothold in a genre completely dominated by Grand Theft Auto.
The idea for that game was conceptualized in a single piece of art.
"I wanted to make a game where you could skydive onto the roof of a car and keep on going," Sundberg said. "That was the idea and it grew from there."
The first prototype for the game, initially called Rico: Terror in the Tropics, delivered on that bit of concept art. The early taste of the Just Cause franchise had Rico skydiving down onto the back of truck, then firing at chasing cars with a gun mounted onto the back of the vehicle and finally jumping off the truck and liberating a revolutionary leader in a jungle settlement.
"That was the very first prototype in 2003, and it's grown from there," Sundberg said. "It's never been a game that has taken itself so seriously. It's a lot of tongue-in-cheek humor. It's completely over the top, obviously. And it's just fun."
And that mix of anything-goes destruction and wry humor struck a chord in players. Just Cause 2 was released in 2010, but people continue to play it and mod the PC version of the game. Sundberg said that the PC version of the game still gets roughly 3,000 new players a week, mostly thanks to the mods which add things like multiplayer to the game. It also helps, he said, that publisher Square Enix continues to promote the aging games with special offers and giveaways.
"It's been selling, slowly, over the years," he said. "We've passed six million players or games sold."
And a vast majority of those players, Sundberg said, haven't even finished the storyline. Instead, most just play with the game's mechanics, explore the word and "blow shit up," as Sundberg puts it.
"It's a massive playground," he said. "It's one of those games that ... if you'd like to play a game for half an hour, you can play Just Cause. Just jump in a car and crash into a wall and grapple a helicopter and fly somewhere. Blow up a 200-meter-tall radar tower. All of a sudden you have 30 minutes of action experience and now it's time for dinner, so you shut it off. Two months later you can do the same thing. That's what I think has kept it alive. It's a game that you can come back to. You don't have to play it over a long period of time, even though people do. We have some players who've played the game for 500 hours."
But where once Just Cause was an oddity, a sort of game that had very little direct competition, recently that's no longer the case. Ubisoft, in particular, seems to be increasingly exploring the notion of Just Cause's playgrounds of destruction. Far Cry 3 and the upcoming Watch Dogs and The Crew, all seem like games built around some of the core concepts of Just Cause.
Is Avalanche Studios missing an opportunity with no official word on Just Cause 3?
"Obviously we feel the pressure," Sundberg said. "But also, I think when I talk to publishers, and also developers, I get the sense that many of them aren't really prepared to give up that level of control that many games have over the player.
"In Just Cause, you play for a few missions, and then you have a 32 by 32 kilometer world to go anywhere at any time using any vehicle. I mean, there's a million ways that you can break the game. You can take a plane and just fly it out somewhere. You won't hit an invisible wall or anything. It's just that there are so many ways you can take away from the experience. That's why I think... I'm not worried about [the competition]."
And of course there is Mad Max.
"With Mad Max, we're building a huge wasteland world," he said, "which has been a super challenging, fun project to work with. It's sand. It's a desert. The variations that the team has created for that world are absolutely fantastic. But it is that playground, in a completely new setting. It's a much more mature setting than Just Cause. But it still has that playfulness about it that I really like."
And I get a sense that everything Avalanche does eventually comes back to Just Cause. Each game they make that isn't in the Just Cause franchise, is chance to experiment with things that could eventually end up in the game.
The Hunter sounds like the antithesis of Just Cause. It is a free-to-play, ultra-realistic, massive open-world hunting title that launched nearly five years ago.
Developed by Avalanche's Expansive Worlds studio, the goal was to create an extremely realistic hunting game, something very different from Just Cause's over-the-top violent absurdity.
"Yes, it is very different," said Pim Holfve, Expansive Worlds' CEO. "It's super slow-paced, for starters. It will take you several minutes to find and spot an animal. If you're running you'll scare all the animals away."
But the game still makes use of — it even pushes the boundaries of — Just Cause's game engine, delivering a massive, meticulously-detailed world in which to hunt.
"The game looks stunning," Holfve said. "It's almost like being in the wild for real."
And Sundberg says the game could become a test bed for business models and game design for future Avalanche titles.
"It's something that we're exploring," he said. "I would like to."
Avalanche has, between its studios, people working on a free-to-play MMO hunting title, a narratively-driven, AAA open-world game, a mobile game and, of course, that secret title, Sundberg points out.
"When we make our next game, I think that's what really makes it interesting, because we have experience with so many different areas," he said. "There's definitely sharing going on between the different parts of the company. That's a great position to be in. It's the way, or it's a way, that this business is going. We have a lot of interesting potential partners to work with, just because we have that mix."
So when Expansive Worlds added multiplayer to The Hunter last year, were they testing the water for official multiplayer in a future Avalanche game? Is, for instance, multiplayer on the table for Just Cause 3?
"It's not off the table," Sundberg said. "We have considered multiplayer for Just Cause in the past. I've always had the opinion that if we're going to do it, we need to do it right."
Sundberg says that in his view, multiplayer used to be something that some developers added to combat against used game sales.
"We saw so many bad multiplayer modes that were never played or used," he said. "When there's not enough budget or time for it, they end up being just bad multiplayer games. It drags the overall score down, because it takes focus away from the single-player experience.
"So if we would go down that route at one point or another, then we need to do it properly. If we were to work on a future multiplayer game in the Just Cause franchise, what the mod guys have done has really set the bar for where we would need to aim. It's a hard game to make a multiplayer version out of. But there are obviously other franchises that we've considered for multiplayer. New free-to-play games that we've talked about internally, definitely multiplayer is a big part of those."
But ultimately, the way Avalanche decides what to work on has very little to do with the mechanics, or what feature set the game may have. Instead, the studio's approach to how they decide what to work on next is driven by how much creative freedom they will have and whether they can make a game they'd like to play, Sundberg said.
"I know it's a cliché, but we like games that we love to play ourselves," he said. "But also games that stick out.
"I hope that our games can bring a smile to people's faces. That's always a good thing."