With Sleeping Dogs only a week away, we sat down earlier this week with producer Dan Sochan to have a little chat about the game, what the partnership with Square Enix has done for the title, Sleeping Dogs' violence following a bloodsoaked E3, and the struggles of telling the story of an undercover cop in an open-world title.
Matt Gardner: Obviously, once upon a time, Sleeping Dogs was known by a different name. What did it mean to you as a studio to have the title picked up by Square Enix after Activision dropped the project?
Dan Sochan: You know, we believed in the game all along. It actually started out as a new IP that was later branded as True Crime. After we were dropped, we kept going, it was self-funded and so we continued to work on it, and later it was picked up by Square Enix. And it's been great!
The extra time has really allowed us to polish the game, and I think with open-world games, especially considering this is our first one, it was important to develop our own tech and our own tools, all of which takes time. It also allowed us to add in a few new cool features, and the game really is in a better state than it's ever been before.
Matt Gardner: Was there anything specifically that the relationship with Square has brought to the game?
Dan Sochan: Well they clearly believe in it, I mean they've talked about it possibly becoming a franchise for them. They've brought in some cool elements as well – aside from suggesting things like the upgrade system and the online social challenges – the artwork, for example, that line art, that's really something different. That's just one of many ways in which I think that they've helped establish this game's identity, and helped to differentiate between the large number of other open-world games out there, so we're not just going to be buried by the large number of sequel titles coming out later this year. So there are elements they've brought in to try and ensure a long tail, that there are reasons to come back to the game even after you've finished the main story, and maybe put us in a position where we can make a sequel if the game does well.
Matt Gardner: So how would you say you've done that with this game? So often when we talk about open-world crime titles we end up referring back to GTA. How do you hope the core experience will elevate Sleeping Dogs above being written off as a clone or wannabe?
Dan Sochan: Well that's always the question when it comes to open world games: what do you do to push things forward? Do you just have a bigger world? Do you just cram in more radio stations? (Laughs) I think when people get the game in their hands, they see how we're a bit different.
We tried to look at the core experiences for an open-world game: you drive, you shoot, you explore, you fight. But in so many of the games we looked at, those aspects felt underdeveloped, almost tacked-on. Like, the combat's really basic, or we've seen loads of slag around how cars handle in certain open-world games. So we played to our strengths. We've got a load of guys here who used to work at Black Box on Need For Speed. We've got guys who've worked on Max Payne, so there's shooter experience. We've got folks who've been involved with plenty of fighting games, which was crucially important for our combat system. So we've taken all of those elements and put them in a setting overflowing with character – Hong Kong – combined with a really tight narrative.
So we've not innovated by going bigger or louder or brighter, but we've just tried to make sure that every bit of moment-to-moment gameplay is as enjoyable as it can be.
Matt Gardner: We've been fairly critical on Dealspwn regarding the seemingly incessant swathe of games set in New York. Sleeping Dogs isn't one of those games. Why Hong Kong, and what do you feel exploring a relatively untouched Eastern setting does for the game?
Dan Sochan: I think it creates a really unique environmental backdrop. For us, Hong Kong proved to be one of the central characters in the game. For many, it's a place that they haven't been to, but have perhaps seen snippets of in Hong Kong cinema, or crossover films like Hard Boiled or the Rush Hour movies. But it's got that whole East meets West culture as well; so you have thousand-year-old temples next to massive skyscrapers.
We tried to really embrace that, we did numerous trips, lots of research, so we've got tens of thousands of photos, hours and hours of footage of just people walking around the streets, how they converse with each other, what kinds of things people do when they're in the city itself, so we've tried to be pretty pedantic. We almost wanted to give people something of a culture shock, so when you step out onto the street you'll be surrounded by people speaking Cantonese, there's meat carcasses hanging from vendor stalls, everything's very hot, sticky, and muggy, and we wanted to convey that sense of “elsewhere”, to take Western audiences to a place they'd maybe never been before.
Matt Gardner: From a gameplay perspective we've seen open-world titles fall into the trap of repetitive missions: drive here, fetch this, deliver that, shoot them. How have you tried to shake things up in Sleeping Dogs?
Dan Sochan: Well we took a lot of inspiration from Hong Kong cinema to provide multi-layered missions. So maybe you're out to catch this guy and you go to his location, but he runs so you have to chase him on foot. And then maybe that escalates into a group brawl once some of his associates turn up. But then maybe he jumps in a car and you have to give chase and run him off of the road. We've tried to incorporate Triad gang culture too, so one mission sees you shaking down vendors for protection money and running a rival gang off of your turf.
But there are other elements too. Halfway through the game, for example, you're given the task of messing with a high-up member of a rival gang, and he happens to be very superstitious. So you end up breaking into his house, moving all of his furniture around, disrupting his feng shui, so he thinks there are ghosts in his house.
Matt Gardner: We've mentioned a few influences, certainly Infernal Affairs comes out an awful lot in the first hour or so, but there are some over the top elements that seem to be drawn from a few games as well. You've already mentioned Max Payne, but some of the car-hopping is very reminiscent of another Square Enix game – Just Cause...
Dan Sochan: Well I think you can trace that back to Hong Kong cinema. So you have films by the likes of John Woo, that are very over the top, but although there are touches of lightness, they tend to be pretty gritty. We studied Infernal Affairs pretty closely alongside a few other movies too, to really nail the cinematic conflict of being an undercover cop, but we also looked beyond Hong Kong cinema to other Oriental cultures too. Ong-Bak in particular was a huge favourite in the studio; they way you've got a lot of OTT action going on, but it's still grounded in realism, and you have the use of the environment when taking down guys and there are free-running elements too. I love that opening scene in Ong-Bak where he's running and jumps through that tunnel of barbed wire. Why is that even there? But it makes for exciting action, and exciting gameplay, and we've tried to incorporate those elements into the game, while still making sur that it's cohesive and doesn't feel like a mish-mash.
Matt Gardner: Does Wei have a pet elephant at any point? Is it stolen? Does he strap bones to his forearms and search in people's knees?
Dan Sochan: (Laughs) Oh man I love The Warrior King. No, sadly he doesn't. Maybe we'll put that in a sequel.
Matt Gardner: On the subject of gameplay, there's a lot of violence in Sleeping Dogs, and a lot of quite visceral stuff, especially when it comes to context-sensitive takedowns. With the game coming a couple of months after an E3 that was heavily criticised for lashings of uber-violence, do you think that's an issue, both in terms of the game itself and the wider industry too?
Dan Sochan: Great question...erm...we never set out to create a game that was overly violent and excessive. I mean some of the hand-to-hand contact is a bit brutal, and any time you have something like a cleaver things are going to get a little bit violent. But we've avoided things like dismemberment and torture and the various nasty things you're able to do to a person. Most of the finishing moves, for example, can be pretty violent, like impaling someone on rebar or pushing someone's face into a table saw, but those moments are fairly swift. We don't revel in it, the camera doesn't linger, you hit the button, there's a short bit of animation and you move on.
There's also a sense of progression. We don't have a huge number of the more violent finishers until later in the game, to show that as Wei goes deeper and becomes more and more desperate, his ability to determine right from wrong becomes quite blurred. He's battling for his life and trying to protect his cover. There are people trying to torture or do inhumane things to you, if you're surrounded by twenty guys, all looking for blood, you're going to do anything you can to survive.
We've tried to make it so that you're not rewarded for unnecessary violence too. You'll never get money from killing random people, and when it comes to missions that can actually decrease your score.
Matt Gardner: I noticed that playing the game, and actually the Cop/Triad Rating system proves really interesting. You do get that sense of “do I drive carefully and safely to keep my cop rating at maximum, or do I say to hell with it and just get the job done?” Was that intentional?
Dan Sochan: Well it's interesting. We didn't have the mission scoring system to begin with, same goes for the upgrade system, until we started working with Square Enix on the title. It was interesting doing playtest sessions with members of the public, literally the day before the mission scoring went in, and then again the week after. And we weren't looking comparatively, but I happened to be leading both of those sessions, and it was amazing to see that the minute we put in that Cop Rating system, people played differently. As the story advanced I think it really helped them understand the character of Wei, understand some of the terrible things that he's had to do. So you had players who were driving like maniacs early on in the game, and then later you'd see them slamming on the brakes to avoid nudging someone's car bumper, just to maintain that perfect Cop Rating. Later on in the game, you actually get the opportunity to clean up certain areas, taking down thugs, catching criminals via CCTV, and so you see pedestrians coming back to those areas, so you feel like you've done some that impacts on the world.
Matt Gardner: It certainly seems a little easier to identify with the character of Wei Shen in a way that I never really could with someone like, say, Niko Bellic precisely because of that increased level of choice. Does that reflect on the narrative at all?
Dan Sochan: I think it's important that your actions have consequences, and I think that's something that we've really brought to the open-world genre with this game. Our main key story is linear, it doesn't necessarily branch too much, and there's only one ending, but we wanted to tell a very specific story. That said, there's more space during the game to have Wei act the way you want him to act, and there's a certain amount of player choice when it comes to that upgrade system and things like reputation and the contacts that you can unlock later in the game that adds to identification.
Matt Gardner: One of the things I noticed, playing through, is that Wei's a very violent man at times, he hasn't got a problem with taking done dozens of guys, but there is one thing he's really very concerned about: road safety.
Dan Sochan: (Laughs) Oh the helmet thing...?
Matt Gardner: Every time he gets on a bike he pulls a helmet out of his ass, and I'm not sure I've ever seen that dedication to road safety echoed in any other open-world game!
Dan Sochan: You know, that was another thing that came out of Hong Kong cinema. We just noticed that anyone riding a bike, especially if they're Triad, always has a black helmet with a darkened visor on it. It just looks cool. I mean Wei does some crazy stuff: he'll jump four storeys and leap onto a moving vehicle from the back of a truck, but he's always got his helmet. It's become something of an inside joke, and there've been moments when we considered taking it out, but it's survived. We'll just let players make of it what they will.
Matt Gardner: And what about the social, competitive multiplayer side of things. That feeling you get when a message pops up in the lower corner of the screen telling you that your friend has just bested your wheelie record. Was that something Square Enix brought to the table?
Dan Sochan: Yeah, that was something we added in when we struck up the partnership, and it was something that they felt was really important, obviously it had worked out really well in Just Cause 2. The in-depth stat-tracking was something that people really enjoyed. So when I posted my wheelie record and it popped up, I was really proud and immediately went and challenged everyone in the office. You know, I threw the glove down, like challenging them to a duel. And people started playing differently and there was this huge buzz of excitement: where can I get the best place for a top speed run? How do I go about doing the best jump? We had people tricking off of cars, onto another car, and then trying to clip the top of the bridge so they'd freefall down and post ridiculous jump distances. All those things help build a community and encourage people to enjoy the open world.
Matt Gardner: Just two more questions. First of all, Sleeping Dogs is coming out in August, which is pretty rare, considering that by this point people are usually saving their games for what we like to term “Silly Season”. Square Enix obviously had success here last year, though, with Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and we're rather of the position that people like to play games all year round, so do you think this mid-summer release date is a good thing?
Dan Sochan: I agree with you, I think people want to get new games all year. They don't just want to always have to wait until Christmas time to see thirty titles come out and have nothing for the rest of the year. From a personal perspective, it's one of the little things you have to face as a developer. You can do everything that you want to do working on a game, and work as hard as you can to make the best possible product, but there are certain things that are outside of your control...like recessions. (Laughs) But you might find your game coming out at the same time as a massive blockbuster game that's going to get all of the hype, the excitement, and that can really take away any buzz that you might have on your game, and it'll certainly impact on sales. So I think August is a great time to release. There's the argument that things can sometimes get lost in the summer with holidays and hot weather...
Matt Gardner: Not here in the UK...
Dan Sochan: (Laughs) Well in Canada it's been pretty similar too! But I think August's perfect; you're getting ready for the Fall and you have space to play with. As a new IP it's a lot more challenging to get people excited about the game. We've managed to generate some great hype off of the back of e3, and I think if we were releasing the same week as Halo or Assassin's Creed or other titles like that, it'd really easy to get a little bit lost. Now, however, I think people are excited about new IPs. Gamers don't want the same titles recycled over and over again, and I think it's worked out really well for us.
Matt Gardner: You mentioned that Square have hinted towards the possibility of taking Sleeping Dogs on as a franchise. Is that something you've considered as a studio?
Dan Sochan: I think that there are a lot of different ways in terms of where we could take the series. Right now we 're hoping that the fans continue to show excitement for the product. More than anything else, though, we want feedback. We don't just want to say “Ok...this is how we see a Sleeping Dogs 2 going”. We want to hear what gamers think, what aspects of the game they enjoyed the most, we want them to be able to go “If you do a sequel, you should totally do this...” and so on. So of course we've considered it, and we'll have to see how Sleeping Dogs does, but this is new ground for us and so we really want to make sure that the fans are happy.
Matt Gardner: Cracking stuff. Thnak you very much for chatting to us today.
Dan Sochan: No problem, I hope you enjoy the game!
Sleeping Dogs is out on August 17th for PC, PS3, and Xbox 360. We'll have a review for you next week.