Sleeping Dogs, the artist formerly known as True Crime: Hong Kong, has suffered under a truly torturous development cycle; beset by a spiralling budget, deadline issues and Activision's surprise dumping of United Front Games. Now under new management, however, the project is shaping up nicely - and is set to be a John Woo fan's wet dream thanks to a focus on emulating the best bits of Hong Kong cinema. Yes, even that hospital shootout.
After Tom got his mitts on a playable preview build over at MCM, I sat down with UFG's Design Director Mike Skupa to discuss how Hong Kong cinema has influenced their upcoming title along with genuine research into Triads and undercover operations.
Jonathan Lester (Dealspwn):I'm sure you're tired of answering this question, but it needs to be said: how do we feel about Activision dropping True Crime: Hong Kong?
Mike Skupa: Well, I mean, it happened a long time ago so we're just really excited that we got an opportunity to make it. I think, all things considered, it made for a better game because we got more time to work on it, we got a lot of input and cooperation from Square and us ourselves were even able to take a bit of a step back, which you rarely get to do when you're working on a game. Take a look at it, see what worked well, see what didn't work well and just give it that polish, love and detail.
Dealspwn: So you actually made the hiatus work for you?
Mike Skupa: Yeah, that definitely helped.
Dealspwn: Is there any bad blood? Square vs Activision, what's your take?
Mike Skupa: Haha, I'd rather not comment on, err, our previous publisher...
Dealspwn: Fair enough, I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't ask. Okay, time for some easier questions then: how big a map area will we be able to explore in Sleeping Dogs?
Mike Skupa: The area is quite large. It takes place Hong Kong Island. From day one, we didn't want to do a geomapped Hong Kong, we wanted to make sure that the gameplay was fun and being that so much of the game takes place on foot, we really tried to make it very concentrated with detail. I don't know the exact size, but there's plenty of stuff to do and plenty of different roadways to drive around - both during scripted mission scenarios and open-ended openworld gameplay.
Dealspwn: Well, that leads us on nicely to our next question. Some openworld games fail because they try to do too much, they become diluted and diffuse. How are you making sure that the action is concentrated and provides consistent thrills and excitement?
Mike Skupa: Well, a big part of that is focusing on the core of it, which is Hong Kong cinema, using that as kind of a blueprint. So, we knew we did have to make a very big game with a lot of different game mechanics and a lot of themes, so there is plenty to do. But from the ground up, we focused it using this "no modes" philosophy where we have free-running, we have shooting, we have driving, we have martial arts, we have environmental interaction. We tried to keep the control system and the designs as seamless and integrated as possible with each other. So you can freerun and strike. You can freerun and shoot. You can shoot from a car. That was a key part to balance it.
We also designed our world to accommodate the character as he rises through the ranks, so the game starts off very foot-based, you don't actually own a vehicle at the beginning of the game, so that way we knew we could teach the player how to do the more locomotion-based gameplay and melee gameplay. And then we slowly introduce more gameplay and tie it into the narrative. Guns start getting more frequent as the political battle in the organisation you're infiltrating escalates, so because of that, we can then bring out more guns and high-powered weaponry.
Dealspwn: You mentioned that you took inspiration from Hong Kong cinema, which is very evident from the demo and walkthrough. Infernal Affairs obviously sprung to mind! Do you have any examples of specific films that influenced you both on an artistic and gameplay level?
Mike Skupa: When we started off working on the game at the beginning, we looked back at a lot of old martial arts films, John Woo films, and obviously there's plenty of stuff to extract from those movies. And also a lot of expectations that people have, they're going to want to relive a lot of those moments. We were lucky that at that time there was a new wave of Hong Kong cinema coming out, stuff like Johnny To (he's a big director), and movies like the Election series that took a more darker, more serious approach. And of course Infernal Affairs, which influenced The Departed. All these movies were coming out or came out during development, so we could balance a lot of the old stuff that everyone's familiar with with this new era, and merge the two to create something fairly fresh.
Dealspwn: So how has that factored into the gameplay? What parts of the game will we play and think "wow, that's straight out of Hard Boiled" or something?
Mike Skupa: Hard Boiled! Well, if you look back at a lot of the John Woo stuff, we have a hospital shootout. You know.
Mike Skupa: So we had to have that in there, it's just so classic! You know, I don't want to spoil too much about the game, but there's a mission where you're wearing a white suit and, erm, stuff happens, so we want to get all those cinematic moments in there. We have a lot of unlockable content that you can get like special outfits that are an ode to old HK cinema, even stuff going back to old Shaw Brothers movies. So, we really wanted any Hong Kong cinema fans to get a bunch of stuff that really resonates with them. The modern day stuff, obviously, Infernal Affairs was a big influence on us as it was such a great undercover cop story, and that really helped guide us on making a story where you can go out and do some really dangerous gangster things, but also have that morality and identity crisis that is really key to the undercover story.
Dealspwn: Will we be able to influence the story, or is it fairly linear?
Mike Skupa: The story itself is a linear experience. You can control when you push the narrative forward, but we knew from day one that we really wanted to tell a very specific tale. Obviously, being an undercover cop will demand a lot of choice, so we tied that all in to our gameplay where we have a scoring system based on getting Triad or Cop scoring, which influences your upgrade path. We tell a very specific story where players will have to do things that aren't black and white, no matter how he plays the game, he's going to fall into the grey zone, but he does have a lot of choice in how he plays the game and his character growth.
Dealspwn: Apart from the story missions, what else is there to do in the city?
Mike Skupa: We knew that we had to have a lot of diversions, a lot of secondary content to play around with, but we tried to keep it all very thematic with the fact that you are an undercover cop, that you're in a Triad organisation. So we wanted to make sure that the majority of our secondary content applied to that lifestyle. There are a lot of things you can do like hijacking surveillance cameras, you can actually utilise this to take down drug dealers where you can go in, use the CCTV, and then go out and arrest particular characters. You can actually do that for fun if you want to arrest an ambient civilian - you can put the call in and those characters will get taken down. You can have a lot of fun with stuff like that!
Dealspwn: Is there a police or a law system, and will it escalate depending on what you do? You are a cop, after all.
Mike Skupa: We have a full-on heat system, if your character does different infractions he can get pursued by the police and that will escalate, the guns will come out if it gets to hard. We also have a ramming system, so that if you're in a vehicle and the police are coming after you, you can actually ram them off the road - we've created a simple arcadey system that allows players to reliably take down cops and other cars on the street. On foot, you can actually lose the cops by free-running over objects or free-running through traffic, you can run along on top of other vehicles and that will shake the cops off your tail.
Dealspwn: You mentioned the upgrade system earlier. What sort of upgrades can we expect in Sleeping Dogs, and how can we build our character?
Mike Skupa: We have quite a few upgrade devices. We have the Triad upgrades, the Cop upgrades, there are upgrades you can get for building your base which is kind of your reputation in the city. You can go back to your old Shifu, the master who taught you Kung Fu when you were a kid, and if you return his stolen statues he will teach you new moves and upgrade pre-existing moves. So there's a lot of upgrades that the players can get. Basically, the Triad and Cop system is a multi-branching tree, so different missions have different Triad and Cop scoring opportunities, so based on your performance in the two areas, you'll get experience on that.
In addition to having your playstyle affect your upgrade path, this also gives a lot of incentive to replaying missions - even in modern mobile games, there's a real desire to go back and try to get the best score in each mission. We do that for scoring in leaderboards, but we really wanted to incentivise that by making it affect your character.
Dealspwn: So, you can replay missions in a single playthrough, and persistently upgrade your character with multiple attempts even if you've advanced the story?
Mike Skupa: You can go back in a single playthrough, replay a mission and it's persistent, yeah.
Dealspwn: That's fantastic! I take it you're not shoehorning multiplayer in at this late stage...
Mike Skupa: No, we do not have simultaneous multiplayer. We have an extensive leaderboard system that's both challenge and dynamic-based.
Dealspwn: Good, glad to hear it. Getting driving and vehicular combat right in an openworld game can prove to be challenging, so how have you ensured that driving is both accessible and fun as well as realistic?
Mike Skupa: A lot of our team actually worked on the Need For Speed series, so we have a lot of very experienced people with driving. One advantage of Hong Kong is that a lot of the streets aren't set up on a grid, so right off the hop we designed the layouts of the roads with racetracks in mind. Our chief driving designer actually went in and designed these racing tracks, traditional-style racing tracks, within the road network. That means when you're driving around the city, both on and off-mission, a lot of these roads are designed for a fun action-packed driving experience.
Dealspwn: That's awesome. Am I right that you can hijack cars in motion...?
Mike Skupa: That's right. You can do traditional hijacking on the road where you can either steal a parked car. You can get a cop upgrade where you can get a slim jim so you can get into a car without breaking the window. Or you can actually hijack a manned vehicle. In addition to that, if you're driving in a vehicle and there's another vehicle or car up ahead, if you get close enough you can leap from your vehicle and take over that vehicle. If you get other upgrades that will help shake off the police, so in addition to ramming, using the Action Hijack mechanic is a useful thing if there are cops pursuing you.
Dealspwn: How difficult has it been to polish all of these disparate gameplay elements, balance them and ensure that they're all relevant?
Mike Skupa: It's been really difficult, especially since there's so many combinations. I think one of the best things we did was make sure that our missions had varied gameplay in them, had organic gameplay in them from the get-go, so we could get visibility on that stuff. We were constantly tuning our mechanics and polishing the experience and looking at it from so many different angles. You've really got to choose your battles: where do you really put the focus, what do you really aim to refine and if there are certain components that don't fit the original design, you know when to edit those things down to get a flexible action experience.
Dealspwn: I hear that Sleeping Dogs' main Triad gang is based on a real Triad gang, in name at least. How much research did you do, and just how realistic is it?
Mike Skupa: The writer actually went over and did a lot of research with real Triads, and a lot of his research was based on people who were ex-Triad. So, though we haven't based our organisation on one particular Triad, we did a lot of research into different organisations. A lot of their practices are very traditional, so we looked back many, many years to look at the way the organisations are set up and different illusions that we had at the beginning. Like, when we started off, we thought the Triads were these very mystical organisations, but we went into it and got to the truth of the matter.
The same things with the police organisations. We actually met with people who've done undercover work in the Hong Kong police. That took some time, a lot of negociating and repeated trips, so when we started on the project we got more and more knowledge as the game developed. Also, just looking at a lot of the different businesses and extortion rackets that they have over there heavily influenced a lot of our missions. For instance, the big minibus routes over there, we based a mission on that. Rather than using a lot of the criminal activities we see in North American games or films, we tried to get some of the more unique to Hong Kong, to get some variety out there. We were fortunate to have a lot of reference material.
Dealspwn: Excellent, it sounds like we can look forward to authentic action with a John Woo twist. Finally, it just remains for me to ask our favourite question: what, in your opinion, is the most awesomely badass thing players can do in Sleeping Dogs?
Mike Skupa: I just think generally it's the fact that you can improvise so much, and there are so many options at your disposal. Especially in the melee combat where, if you want to utilise an environmental object you can use that, if there's a fish lying around you can pick it up and take someone out in a more comedic manner, or throw someone over a railing into the lobby. There's a lot of stuff you can do for strategic purposes, but there's also just a lot of fun to distract the player when they're feeling really creative.
Sleeping Dogs will release on August 17th for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.