Square Enix is diving into the open world genre with Modnation Racers developer United Front Games. The two companies are polishing Sleeping Dogs, which was originally True Crime: Hong Kong. You play as Detective Wei Shen, a member of the Hong Kong police deep undercover as a member of the Sun On Yee gang. It’s your job to take down the Triad and that means plenty of fist to face action.
Siliconera sat down with the development team at United Front Games to talk about partnering with Square Enix and how United Front Games developed the combat system.
Sleeping Dogs was originally in development as True Crime: Hong Kong with Activision as the publisher. How far along was the title before Square Enix stepped in and how did they help when they got involved, aside from the live action Goldtooth trailer?
Mike Skupa, Design Director: Well, Square Enix has had a lot of experience making similar games. They brought a lot of high level advice. They were also able to look at the game with fresh eyes. We have been working on it for quite awhile, so that was extremely helpful. They basically were able to help us in all areas and disciplines – game design, the visuals, user testing, the tech. It’s been a really good partnership from the beginning.
Jeff O’Connell, Senior Producer: One of the things about making open world games is they are incredibly complex and system driven. The systems take a very long time to develop and as a result, through its development, is often a very messy development cycle. It’s really hard to see the whole thing come together until very late in the process. I think people who have worked in open world games and one of the cool things is Square [Enix] had the patience and foresight to be able to see and did see all of the core systems were very strong and well thought out. Even though the project was late in development when the game was canceled, when Square saw it all of the fundamentals are there – you guys are so close, let’s finish this thing.
Mike and I were on this project since day one and it was really refreshing to have a publisher come in and say it looks great guys. It was a nice confidence boost for us as well because we always believed in the game.
MS: Square did a lot of due diligence on the product. They played through the game in its entirety and then asked all of the right questions to figure out where things were heading. It really gave them a refreshingly quick taste and insight on where things were at and where things could be with the proper amount of work and time.
The combat felt like another Square Enix London project, Batman: Arkham Asylum, when I played Sleeping Dogs. Can you tell us what the hand to hand combat was like before Square Enix signed on to publish the game?
MS: We’ve been working on the combat system for over four years now. A lot of the members of our development team have had previous experience making on combat on games.
A bunch of us did the gameplay in Bully, so we have a lot of experience making hand to hand combat in open world games. That combat system has basically progressed and evolved since the beginning. Square did bring a lot of feedback just based on general playability, user testing, a lot of tweaks, and helping refine the mechanics. It’s pretty much been a constant evolution of the system from the beginning.
I think the first piece of reference material we used was a scene from Tony Jaa’s The Protector. What we knew from the get go is we really wanted to have a combat system that incorporated multi-directional combat, the ability to grapple and counter enemies. We wanted to combine strike based gameplay with a lot of environmental interaction. Environmental interaction has always been what we consider the key hook of our gameplay. It’s something we try to bring about in all of our systems. Making one big violent sandbox was our initial concept.
We started off with a player with a few enemies in the room. We added things on and off until we created our first playable demo, which funny enough is actually the very same night market chase we showed in our demonstration. That was the first mission we ever created. While it has advanced heavily, we sometimes go back and play it and are quite amazed at how the flow and pace remained the same.
JOC: It’s pretty interesting, like Mike said, the fundamentals have really stayed the same. I think that is attributable to the fact that a bunch of our core gameplay guys came from Bully and had a grasp on how to develop an open world combat experience. I remember when Mike first came aboard and started working here he sent me this clip from The Protector – it’s the scene where he goes up the spiral staircase.
It’s an amazing fight scene because he uses melee and he uses the environment. There are no camera cuts. It’s all continuous. Mike said with the team’s experience I feel confident we can deliver that and that was in the fall of 2007.
MS: Obviously since then we’ve made improvements and changes based on user feedback. We’ve done a lot of focus group testing and through Square’s experience in the genre working on titles like Arkham Asylum and Just Cause. It also helped that the head designer at Square and both myself are big fighting game fans. We communicated heavily on what the core essentials of the combat system. It will both cater, I guess, to hardcore fighting game players and people who want a hardcore martial arts experience, but also the kind of gamer who is into open world games or likes the concept of an undercover cop in Hong Kong and doesn’t have a lot of background in combat systems. We really want to make sure that type of player can get into the game and become an expert while going through it.
JOC: I think one of the things Mike said, is in recent years melee combat in open world has become a thing. Assassin’s Creed and Batman have played a huge role in that. I think people now can recognize that as a genre into itself whereas years ago that wouldn’t be the case necessarily. The fact that the game is set in Hong Kong is a perfect meshing of culture where martial arts and hand to hand combat is a huge pillar of that society. We were happy to be able to tap into that.
What are the favorite Sleeping Dogs uses the environment? Maybe you can tell us about some of the environmental finishers we haven’t seen yet.
JOC: There are several dozen in the game. There are really well done ones in environments that you haven’t seen yet. There is a fish processing plant action scene that has particularly violent props in there. I won’t spoil them, but those are some of the my favorites. The thing that I get the most joy out of when I’m playing the game is there are versions of these props also in the open world. If you’re having a street fight against the Triad guys, the phone booths, some of the market stalls, and vehicles are interactive combat props. These things aren’t just in missions, they’re in the open world too.
MS: We started off with some really key props in set pieces locations. We were really focused on what can we use to get that level of sizzle to go over the top. As we progressed, we found ways to add more and more environmental objects into the world. We were also able to take everyday geometry setups like tables, walls, and even utilizing the ground, so this wouldn’t be something that just occurred in a set piece environment.
One thing that Square really pointed out is it was so much fun to utilize these things around the world. They really helped us get a lot more physics driven environmental interaction in the game. You have the ability to just toss a guy, even if the object isn’t tagged to do a special case scenario, there is still a lot of physics based interactions that provide a lot of fun. The tricky thing is for us with this is it’s so fun to run around and beat on people in the environment, but being the player is a cop it’s balancing those sociopathic tendencies we get as gamers and weaving that with the fiction has been an interesting challenge.
Can you tell us about the shooting parts we haven’t seen that yet?
MS: First and foremost, we wanted to make it mobile and not overtake the hand to hand combat. It’s very, very tricky to make a game that combines melee combat with shooting into one, especially in an open world. We don’t actually have a full fledged inventory system. We tried to make that very realistic.
From the beginning, we treated guns as power ups. Your character is constantly, during a gunfight, using up his weaponry. He has to utilize hand to hand abilities like arm flip disarms and free running disarms to constantly move forward and switch up your weaponry.
It’s a very mobile experience. It’s a very cinematic experience. We do have a full fledged cover mechanic, but we like to call it aggressive cover. We don’t want to ignore the player by having them camp out at places for a long period of time. There are certainly a few scenarios in the game where you have to defend yourself at a location. In general, we make the player move, get cover for quick burst, and jump out of cover to surprise their enemy. We wanted to capture the classic elements of Hong Kong cinematic shooting, but also make sure it fits within the modern day sensibilities of the title.
JOC: We really tried to push the mechanics in the open world genre. Oftentimes in open world games, the driving and shooting doesn’t feel that great. Whether its on a motorbike or in a car driving and shooting. We spent a lot of time trying to make that experience feel good and that had its roots in not just the open world genre itself, but the action movies that inspired us on how we wanted to bring the game to life.
Check back tomorrow for part two of our Sleeping Dogs interview where Jeff O’Connell and Mike Skupa talk about the game’s open world.