Interview: Sleeping Dogs developer Mike Skupa and Jeff O’Connell

The United Front Games (UFG) developed open world game was to be the third instalment of Activision’s True Crime franchise, as True Crime: Hong Kong. That was until Activision dumped the crime drama title. The situation was dire for several months as the game was floated around to various publishers, but that gave Square Enix a chance to fall in love with the discarded Hong Kong-cinema influenced game.

To the cheers of everyone at UFG, Square Enix took on the game and gave it new life as Sleeping Dogs. A new intellectual property in itself, as was initially intended, it is now scheduled for an Australian release of August 16 on PC, Xbox 360 and PS3.

UFG had an all-star development team working on Sleeping Dogs, a team that consisted of talent who worked on blockbuster video games, such as Batman: Arkham City, Need For Speed and Just Cause 2. The crew were able to combine their specialist strengths to forge a game with the solid combat mechanics, a rich open world to roam, and a robust vehicular component that could be its own game.

The game revolves around protagonist Detective Wei Shen, a Hong Kong local who lived Stateside for many years, but is now back in his hometown as an undercover agent to infiltrate an organised crime syndicate Sun On Yee.

Reflective of the subject matter, even the pre-production involved an element of danger, as UFGs key producers, designers and writers gained the trust of and liaised directly with the Triads and Hong Kong law enforcement. The research did not stop there, team consulted with Hong Kong cinema experts and filmmakers to create the Hong Kong-cinema theme. As well as combat and martial arts experts with the likes of Ray Park (Star Wars Episode I, X-Men, G.I. Joe and Heroes) and mixed martial arts (MMA) champion Georges St-Pierre.

UFGs Lead Designer, Mike Skupa, and Senior Producer, Jeff O’Connell, chatted with TechRomp about the titles turbulent past, hanging out with Hong Kong Triads, capturing Hong Kong’s essence, martial arts and combat fish. Hit the link for the interview..

TechRomp: Why the name “Sleeping Dogs”?

Jeff O’Connell: It is a new name obviously. For us it works better because we always wanted this to be an original Intellectual Property (IP). When Mike and I started the game back in 2007, we were treating it like an original IP, from a story and design point of view. Really, the only thing that we could carry across between this and the other games in the True Crime franchise was that you were a cop.

When the True Crime brand got bought by Activision, it certainly wasn’t something that Mike and I, and the rest of the team were excited about. We felt like the franchise had worn off for us and the new IP. That’s where Square came in and re-brand it, especially with such a cool clever game, I think it works perfectly for us .

Mike Skupa: Square lifted some of the core mechanics and elements of the game, and really helped us to strengthen the key elements of our original vision, especially the tone and the atmosphere of the game. They re-branded it, while embracing the original essence of the title.

JOC: Everyone was very excited and it was a really strange feeling. We hadn’t been working on the game for a while and we were still thinking about it, but there was always that hope. Then when that actually happened, people got quite re-energised.

Having a bit of that down time allowed us to take a really good look at the project, take a bird’s eye view of what we were doing. And a lot of that stuff, the whole circumstance of the operation, it really brought in some new elements and take a fresh perspective on things. We clicked instantly with Square. Overall, it was a very unique, positive and exciting experience.

MS: I think it was cool for us that Square believed in the game so strongly. Especially when your game gets cancelled, it’s obviously a huge blow, it’s a personal blow, it’s a blow to the studio and you can have some self-doubt that creeps in.

Then to have the guys who just launched the very successful and fun Just Cause 2, and guys who worked on Arkham City – guys who knew what they were doing – and to have them come along and say “Listen, your game is awesome. We love it!” was huge for us, it really brought our confidence back. To have guys who know open world games and being successful in open world games to say that they believed in us, was really good for us.

TR: What can you tell us about protagonist Wei Shen’s character and his development?

JOC: He is like Mike and I rolled into one. What makes him a unique cop character, is that characters that are undercover, or that have an identity crises, are sympathetic and you get to see two perspectives. On one hand, when he talks to police handlers, you see the stress that he endures and you see his unique take on things compared to the police inspectors.

We wanted to make a character who was sympathetic in those situations, someone who you can identify with. As Mike said before, being an undercover cop is the most toughest acting and dangerous acting job, we wanted some of that to come across with Wei.

MS: He is very much a product of his environment and this game is coming back to the neighbourhood story. A lot of what they explain who is also reflected in a lot of the characters in the story. Some of these characters are people who he grew up with, and are a result of some of the things that also affected Wei and his family. Wei’s personality and backstory tells a lot of the story to the player, to understand this journey that he is going on.

To make sure that we could give the player a lot of back-story and actually feel some of this tension that Wei would feel, the loyalty and the different identities, the fact that he has to betray people who are his friends. Friends that end up becoming targets who he realises that he has to take out. There’s a lot of conflict there and it was really crucial for us to eject all of that into the backstory and into the character of Wei. Bringing that all together was very important to us.

JOC: Wei is a combination of characters, but we were inspired by Leonardo DiCaprio in the Departed and Tony Leung Chiu Wai’s character in Infernal Affairs. From an action point of view, we were inspired by asides from Hong Kong cinema characters, and we were inspired by characters from modern Hollywood films that have double identities, like Jason Bourne and James Bond.

TR: What would you say was the most important component developing the Sleeping Dogs; the action mechanics or story? Which took priority in the development process?

MS: I think that they were both equally important. Being that the game is set in Hong Kong, we knew it would be very action oriented, there was no way of getting away from that and we had to fully embrace that. But, we wanted to make that the themes of the story were a bit different, that it wouldn’t be what gamers would expect from a typical Hong Kong action game.

I think a lot of games and a lot of North American action films have been influenced by Hong Kong movies for a long time. We were fortunate enough to find a new wave of Hong Kong cinema more mature and modern telling of these crime stories that we could latch on to.

By bringing all of these elements together, we aimed to combine a lot of the demands and expectations of a Hong Kong action game while giving it our own fresh perspective on the subject matter.

JOC: It’s a tough balance. You can have a fantastic story, but if you have weak gameplay it’s not really fun. If you have the inverse, you have great gameplay and weak story, people are going to write you off as a contender. For us, our goal is to live up to both the strong story and strong action gameplay.

MS: Time will tell, but it feels like we have done that. With designing the mission progression and the mission structure, the mission designers and the writers worked very closely together, so that the story and gameplay production are better gamer products. This isn’t a game where you will have cutscene-gameplay-cutscene-gameplay, we do a lot of story telling within the missions and within the gameplay.

In addition to cutscene sequences, we integrate things like text messaging and there’s an investigative element. There’s a lot elements like those that would encourage the player to engage in the story and in the narrative in the midst of a lot of action. We certainly have a lot of full bore adrenaline action moments in there, but we try to brown everything with the story.

TR: Does Wei have a humorous disposition? Any humorous elements in Sleeping Dogs, or is it just pure drama?

JOC: I would say that Wei isn’t particularly funny.

MS: He is in a serious situation, he lets loose a little, but he’s probably one of the more straight laced characters in the game and there is a lot of the more absurd character types that surround you. I think the nature of the crime that he is involved in and the situations that he gets into leads to a lot of absurd situations. In addition to what is happening in the core storyline, if the player wants to let off some steam in between missions, there is a lot of fun a player can have roaming the world.

There’s a lot of secondary things like stat awards and stat based challenges that the players can do in the open world that don’t really tie into the storyline whatsoever. Players can do little things like how many parking meters you can drive over and collect money from, and just fun little challenges that players can find when playing the game. We don’t necessarily fit it into the core storyline, but we still give awards like achievement, or online scoring to really encourage the player to get the most out of sandbox environment.

JOC: You can take an enemy and put him in an aquarium, the aquarium will spill out these big fish, we call them “combat fish”. You can take these fish out and beat somebody to death with this tuna. There is that absurdity there for sure, there are also points along the story that have these absurd moments. Probably the biggest inspiration for us were shows like The Wire or The Shield, that have great funny characters react in weird situations. We certainly tried to create some memorable funny characters that you meet throughout the gameplay experience.

TR: Where did you draw the knowledge from in regards to how the Triads and police force operate in Hong Kong?

JOC: Mike and myself, a writer, executive producer and art director went to Hong Kong together, and there have been various trips before and since. The first trip kicked off some pretty intensive fact-finding with some folks on the ground there, that included people who worked in the organised Crime Triad bureau (OCT), a division of the Hong Kong force that specialises Triads, and we had talks with members of the Hong Kong secret service, or essentially the VIP protection unit.

Our writer spoke with a couple of guys who were part of the Triads and he spent a few days with these guys. He didn’t see anybody die a death by a thousand cuts, or anything like that, he learned about how their organisation is working. I think the interesting thing for us was that the Triads in Hong Kong go back for hundreds of years, they are incredibly inter-involving with society at a level that if you are a shopkeeper there, chances are that you may rent directly from the Triads.

They are, in many ways, not a malicious organisation, although they have certain dark sides to their behaviour, the point is that their relationship with the community goes back 115 years or so odd years in Hong Kong. Because of that, over the years, the Triads sort of just operate in a live and let live scenario. The Hong Kong, as it is now, is fairly peaceful, although there is still the choppings and killings that you hear about in the news media.

We’ve taken all of the violence that you have heard about over 25 years of news media and it rolled up into one story with guns, knives, killings revenge and everything else. Day-to-day, if the Triads keep their activities on the down low, the police will keep the pressure off them – as long as they are not killing tourists and keeping game developers hostage – they let them do their thing.

MS: We started by looking at a lot of movies and we had this romanticised villains in mind and that changed with the more research we did. We got some research material on the actual crime that goes on in Hong Kong and that allowed us to really look into the business behind it, what really motivates these characters, and what level of violence we would put in the game.

The game doesn’t start with all of these gunfights and explosions, you are coming into amidst a civil war and things are starting to escalate. By doing a lot of this research and actually looking at what making these criminals tick we, could actually separate these characters from a lot of modern-day Mafia crime stories.

We tried to find out what was really unique about Hong Kong crime and that allowed us to have a different spin on mission types, character types, and their affiliations with each other and the police department.

TR: How did you make those Triad connections?

JOC: I don’t want to mention any names, but we have excellent contact on the ground in Hong Kong. He’s involved in the entertainment industry there, he is a music producer, as well as part of a popular hip hop group there. He knows a lot of people and one of his friends not currently, but in his youth, was part of the city’s biggest Triad gang. If I’m correct, this friend spent some time in jail for, I don’t whether it was for murder or maybe manslaughter, but it was part of a Triad hit.

This guy we knew put us in touch with his friend, and it wasn’t an immediate welcoming with opening arms, it was a long drawn out process of weeks and months of liaising directly with our writer, until they agreed to meet. It wasn’t until our writer Jacob Krarup went back the second time to Hong Kong, that we spent some extensive time with this guy and his contacts in the Triads. It was as difficult that you would expect to getting in touch with the guys, and as difficult as you would expect getting them to trust you.

MS: There are strong connections between the criminal underworld and the entertainment industry there. A lot of the characters in our game, are based off real situations and real life incidents. We can have a lot of characters who are dealing with a shady business, but they aren’t going into any levels of anything overly violent, and so it’s very, very grey.

And that entertainment industry is so small and close-knit, it’s actually quite surprising where we encounter people who may have some darker connections, but otherwise they’re completely normal and live very upstanding lives. Over there it’s more difficult to tell the difference between a criminal and an upstanding citizen, than it would be in North America.

JOC: The triads are very much involved in the entertainment industry, as Mike said. They are involved in all of the things you would expect for everyone else in organised crime to be involved in smuggling, pornography, prostitution, extortion and all that kind of stuff. But in Hong Kong a lot of Triad bosses all know a lot of the movie stars, starlets and presidents in the television industry as well. They also have a lot of odd side businesses that don’t really seem to make much sense, until you realise the amount of revenue that passes through them.

One of these side businesses might be like the mini bus system in Hong Kong. These mini buses have bus routes running through the city, and many are operated by Triads. Some portion of the revenue goes to the Triads, which is small change, but then you factor in the people in Hong Kong and you do the math, it’s massive. We tried where the fiction makes sense and we incorporated those realities into the story and the mission.

MS: And a lot of the small business in Hong Kong think nothing of it. To them it’s just a way of life, like paying taxes, and oftentimes, taxes would be more than what a protection fee would be. So, it’s not all violent, it’s not all dangerous, it’s just a very different lifestyle.

TR: Let’s talk about sexual themes. How much sex features in Sleeping Dogs and how much weight does it have?

JOC: Tons! Massive amounts. No, there is none. There’s not anything that would get us into trouble for AO rating or anything like that. It is an M rated game. I think that one of the cool things about Wei is that he is under a lot of stress, and he meets a lot of girls throughout the game, some of them break through his visage and he actually reveals a bit of himself through his relationships with these girls. There is a really amazing cast of five or six big name television and film actresses [ Emma Stone, Lucy Liu, Kelly Hu, Lindsay Price and Steph Song] playing these women who Wei meets, and you can later do a sort of date missions with them.

MS: Yeah. Women play a large role throughout the game. Going back through Wei’s backstory with his family, to the characters he works with and there are very powerful female characters in the Triad organisation.

We have a lot of that in our narrative, and we also wanted to make sure we didn’t want a lot of gratuitous sex because it’s not really a big theme of Hong Kong cinema either. I mean you are dealing with the criminal underworld, obviously there is definite sex element, but we just wanted to make sure that it is balanced and true to life as it could be.

TR: So, there are strong female characters and women aren’t particularly objectified?

MS: Some of the most interesting and powerful characters are female and are on both sides of the law. For example, there is Mrs Chew. Her son is the boss of this little Triad posse and she is the brains behind that organisation. There is a character called Jane Tang, she is a police inspector, one of two people who knows Wei’s identity and Wei has a close professional relationship with her throughout the game. And the Triad boss is a woman.

JOC: The core of the story extracted down, at its most basic – especially with his ties to his family, in particular his mother and sister – isn’t just a tale of just all of men, dudes and masculine stuff, it has a strong feminine side as well.

TR: What was behind the decision to only allow jumping when a prompt is given?

JOC: Oh, we had so many mechanics in the game and we really wanted to make sure that everything worked. We tried to streamline the controls as much as possible and we knew we wanted this very ground based free running system. Contextually, setting everything up, we could really combine the fact that if you hold down the sprint button the player will go over the environment and steamrolls their way through the environment.

If you use a little more finesse and time that button press, you’ll actually do speed climbs and speed balls, which will also then give you access to actions like automatic bolt disarms, bolt attacks and will improve your ability to catch characters and escape from people. We just really wanted to make sure that the system was as seamless and as intuitive as possible.

MS: In addition to utilising that within the environment, it allows the player to do a free running action, or with the same button you can grapple an enemy and spring that enemy down into environmental objects, or into other characters. By having this really standardised control scheme, the player will know when a player is performing an action, with each respective action the player will do a similar action.

JOC: When Mike mentioned free based running and why we focused on that for our character in the game, was that Wei being an undercover cop it felt right to keep him on the ground and close to it. We looked at other cop movies – like The French Connection and Point Break, and took that all the way up to adventures with Tony Jaa and Matt Damon as the Bourne character, and Daniel Craig in Casino Royale – and we looked at how these characters have a visceral human feel to their actions and we didn’t need to have that super hero character up on skyscrapers to feel excitement, fun and danger.

That is what inspired us to do the chases, which is certainly a big part of the mission gameplay. That’s not to say Wei won’t get on top of rooftops, and do big leaps, and things like that, but keeping it closer to the ground is more fun, really challenging, also rewarding.

MS: It’s funny, because when we started designing this over four years ago, parkour was a hot topic at the time. But just the fact that Wei is trying to be undercover, he’s not the type of character that would want to collect too much attention to himself. We really needed to look at out subject matter and really designed the system on what makes sense for this character, what makes sense for his training and what makes sense for the world that we were dealing with.

Because it was so dense and the terrain was so organic, with these markets and objects all over the place, we really wanted to take advantage that in our gameplay. The crowd dodging mechanic is a huge part in our free running experience, as in hurtling and navigating your way through these lively Hong Kong streets.

TR: The in-game animations and fighting look great, really fluid.

JOC: That’s another thing worth mentioning – motion capture. We have some very talented animators who can animate a lot of stuff, but a lot of our base motion force use mocap.

Our stunt coordinator worked with famous stunt coordinators. We had a lot of stunt men from Hong Kong cinema and we were lucky enough to have other professionals like Ray Park – you know, Darth Maul and Snake Eyes – to do some mocap for us.

TR: Did you say Ray Park?

Yeah. He’s amazing guy and a wonderful human being, as well as being super talented. His speciality is Wing Chun Kung Fu and some of his mocaps feature in the game. Wei’s move set are various influences from Krav Maga, Wing Chun, boxing and all kinds of stuff.

TR: You briefly touched on environmental objects earlier, how interactive is the environment when in hand-to-hand combat?

JOC: Yeah, I think one of the differentiators for us is that the environment is a product of our melee of our action. Mike had a lot of references from Jet Li films to Tony Jaa. And one reference in particular was from Tony Jaa in the Protector where he goes up this circular staircase and it’s one long shot, it doesn’t cut at all and it’s almost like a game camera, as if camera is behind him and seeing him as he is pushing the bad guys over railings, banging their heads into walls and its tipping stuff over guys heads.

And Mike said “That’s our target. If we can do that, we will do what no one else has done.” That is where we really got our inspiration from, it’s not just martial artists, like I said, we have watched a lot of these films and these guys use what is around them.

MS: That game required a lot of those features, it’s such a technical aspect of Hong Kong cinema. Having it utilised in the game, it’s something that really pushed the forefront of the system and really make sure that we took advantage of every opportunity that we could.

Not only are those things fun to use, but it is also a strategic component on taking on different enemy types. In particular scenarios we can throw in a certain enemy class and make sure we have a certain environmental object out, in addition to objects that have environmental destruction. Or you can just grab a character and rams his head against the wall, or hurl him over a railing as well.

That is just the type of fun to be had in the open world. If you just want to use a car, you can slam their head on the door and you climb over somebody. It is just having a lot of that freedom at your fingertips, but it’s more than just violence, it has a humorous standpoint and it just gives players a lot of ground to play with.

TR: You have crew who worked on the successful car racing titles Need for Speed, what can you tell us about vehicles and driving in Sleeping Dogs?

MS: We have a pretty wide range of vehicles. I think the fact that the streets were to scale and are quite dense with traffic and pedestrians, we really wanted to make sure the handling characteristics of the game were very controllable. It is grounded in reality, but we also wanted a really fun arcade feel to our driving.

With that, we’ve really wanted to give the players a lot of options with what you can do with the vehicles. Aside from the basic controls of acceleration, braking, power-slides and all that, the player can do special ramming based manoeuvres, ram people off the roads, you can do action hijacking, where you can jump from vehicle to take over other vehicles at high speeds.

These things are in addition to the core action based mission scenarios, they are also very useful mechanics for getting the authorities off your tail and ditching another vehicle to lose heat. We really tried to take all of our driving characteristics and strengths, and utilise as much as possible both for the open world experience, also for the adrenaline based action game.

JOC: Obviously driving is a huge part of the urban open world experience. We were fortunate enough just to be able to get guys who came from Bully, and Rocksteady – who were working on Batman: Arkham City, one of the best melee and experiences in open world gaming – but to get a lot the EA talent who worked on Need for Speed, we were able to bring across car concept artists, top modellers and designers.

Through that, we were able to create a racing experience that is really easy to pick up and play, and not be frustrated with it. There are missions with bikes, boats and cars. There’s more than enough substance in the open world driving side, that you can spend a lot of time just driving around the world, get chased by cops, do races and what not.

MS: When we first looked at the terrain of Hong Kong island, it was quite different to the cities we are used to. The Need for Speed talent have a lot of experience in driving games in the past, and what they were able to do was take the organic and non grid based layout of the island, and design races right within the core neighbourhoods. We actually have a lot of these really proper racing track designs peppered throughout our world that actually that fit perfectly into with just the core transportation routes as well.

That was the really neat thing, we had this initial challenge, and it turned into a differentiator, and gave us a very different feeling to the driving experience in this game. In addition to that, there were a lot of natural stairways throughout the world and a lot of seamless makeshift jumps that the players can utilise, it’s very organic. It gives a chaotic and almost reliable feel to the environment, with more action based driving sequences.

JOC: There’s a lot of diversity, like what Mike said. We’ve included Smart Car races and there are supercar races, and everything in between. Each feels totally different and can be totally funny. In the Smart Car race you are going up and down escalators and stairs, with pedestrians streaming out the way and to race through the streets of Hong Kong is a totally different way to experience a supercar race, but both feel equally good.

TR: Do you have any Sleeping Dogs social game and/or mobile game tie-ins?

JOC: We don’t have any handheld SKUs, but we do have a fairly robust online portal where players can compare stats and challenge each other. We really wanted to make sure that gamers go in, make the most of the system and really challenge each other, compare their scores and all of that.

TR: If you could travel back in time, what tips would you give to your previous selves in regards to the Seeping Dogs development?

JOC: I think for me, obviously this team has been through a tremendous of amount, especially over the past 18 months. Months that we were seeing out that were not particularity fun. I would tell my previous self, that no matter how bad it gets, it’ll work out in the end. I think for us, as a team, we really love working with Square, it feels like it is the way that it suppose to be and to be able to finish Sleeping Dogs is amazing. And I would tell myself to worry less.

MS: I would just say hang in there kid. Like Jeff said, it has been a long journey and we worked so much. I think going through all of this it strengthens your ability to make a game like Sleeping Dogs, we were dealing with a human story, we were dealing with a lot of hurdles that we overcame and the fact that we overcame them ourselves. That gives us a little more inspiration and a little more kick to push it as hard as we can possibly can, and we got to make sure that everything we done got through and what we worked towards was all worthwhile.

JOC: I would also say don’t drink that snakes blood in Hong Kong

TR: Snakes blood?

JOC: Yeah, food poisoning was not perfect. We weren’t sure what it was, but I got pretty sick anyway.

This article was first published on TechRomp.

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