Though many developers look at Shanghai as a great location to find cheap art outsourcing solutions, some companies have founded studios there to fully develop titles for the Western market. Notably, Ubisoft pioneered in this area -- and now, many of its experienced developers, both Westerners and Chinese, have put down roots in the Shanghai scene.
Two examples of that are Larry Herring and Jing Yu Zhu. Herring, who worked at Ion Storm in the '90s before moving to Ubisoft, is now environment director for the Iceland-headquartered CCP. He's at work on CCP's first console project, Dust 514 -- a fascinating console shooter announced at GDC Europe last year which actually affects in-game territory wars in its popular MMO, EVE Online. Jing Yu Zhu is the game's lead level designer. He also has a Ubisoft background.
Here, the two developers -- one a seasoned veteran of the U.S. market and the other a home-grown talent -- discuss what it takes to make Western-targeted games in China, and what the scope of the local development scene looks like.
There's also a look toward the future of development in Shanghai, which is quickly becoming China's hub for console game development, despite the lack of legitimate availability of those platforms in the local market.
Was the CCP Asia studio founded specifically for the Dust 514 project?
Larry Herring: No. I would say that the studio was primarily founded for administering EVE in China -- and, by the way, let's see if we can do some game development, down the road.
It seems like a pretty ambitious leap, though, to go straight from administration to a multi-platform shooter, right?
LH: We had people in place in China that were ready to go. Our creative director had been in communication about it. So, the idea was always there, but the primary focus again was on administrating. We've got game masters here for you, online, in China. Actually, the starting of this office was actually the springboard to get EVE into China. There's a lot you have to do to make it work in China.
Jing Yu Zhu: It seems like the players number reached a very high level in China, and then dropped a lot. Because of the Chinese government rule, it's not so easy to have a game in China.
LH: Developing Dust was kind of always in the vision, but it wasn't the primary focus at first.
One of the things that interests me a great deal about Dust is the fact that it ties into the MMO. That seems like a really tough design challenge.
JYZ: It depends on who designs.
LH: Yeah. My feeling on that is that I don't think it's as much of a design challenge as it is an implementation challenge, really. We can work out a lot of theory, but until we really get to the point of knowing -- we're actually getting there now, with actually knowing what we can and can't do.
JYZ: Compared with the single player games, an MMO game, the hard work is on a different side. In the single player game, we should focus a lot on storytelling, a lot of script, and basic controls. On MMOs, we need to focus on balance and how to make people have fun with other players. It's not like we designed everything for players, something that will be explored by themselves.
But Dust has got both those things going on.
LH: One thing to note is that the two design teams have worked very closely over the last year and a half to really iron out what can be mutually beneficial and at the same time what will have less negative effect on both as well. I think that's important. There's a lot involved even outside of game design with actually writing back story and figuring out where Dust fits into the universe.
So, what's your background in the industry?
JYZ: I have worked for Ubisoft for almost four years, and then joined CCP last year.
Ubisoft had the first console games entirely produced in China, right?
JYZ: Right. They have like Ghost Recon, Splinter Cell, Beowulf, and Rayman. These games have all developed in China. You can see so many people there. It's a big company.
It's a rapid evolution. Like you said, you worked there for four years, and now you've worked at CCP for one year. That's a quick evolution of the Shanghai console game industry.
JYZ: Before I started my career in the game industry, a lot of Chinese game developers, they were already there. Like, some people I've known have worked in the game industry for almost 10 years. His first game was at Ubisoft. It was Ghost Recon.
LH: And also, Rayman was pretty early. We have a colleague now that worked in Shanghai with Ubisoft. He's French. He worked on Rayman maybe in 2003. So, it goes back a little bit. I think it's slowly built up.
By the time I got here in 2005, Ubisoft was quite big, and they'd already had a few titles. By the way, Splinter Cell 2 was done in Shanghai also. Ubisoft has really been the powerhouse in getting things done.
Ubisoft seems to be the wellspring of the Shanghai Western-focused industry.
JYZ: Yes. That's true.
What attracted CCP here initially? I mean, you said it was to operate, but what made you think, "Okay, we should do development, as well"?
LH: I think it was a matter of tapping the market a little bit. Artistic talent is high. Technical skill is definitely high. There's obviously the cost of living that plays into it. I think the China market also plays into it. There are a lot of reasons why it makes sense to be here.
JYZ: Also, I think CCP has hired several people at the beginning, and these people knew about Chinese game development. They're aware of the game development on those Western games, and that's why.
LH: And I think also outsourcing might have played into it, the kind of value that we can get in outsourcing.
Do you think that there's anything about the Chinese game industry and Chinese-targeted games that people here can understand and bring over to the West that's valuable via these kinds of development projects?
JYZ: I think [as it gets] to later and later, it will be easier to do that. Because for now, we still have some culture difference between the West and China. But if we focus more on the Chinese-origin game, it will be a bit difficult to translate into the English, in the Western market because people will like different [things].
But what about not necessarily bringing over the actual games themselves but maybe observing the market and seeing the way it's going and looking at trends, and maybe just bringing over the ideas or concepts.
JYZ: If Chinese companies want to do that, they must have some people who really understand the market and can guide the development. That's not easy.
LH: One thing I'd like to note about Jing Yu, he spent some time over at Montreal working in the Ubisoft studio there before coming to CCP. You were there for eight months, something like that?
JYZ: Yeah, eight months.
LH: So, talking about that, I think you have companies that can maybe export some of their talent to game experience in the West or even add Chinese experience to Western companies. And I think that CCP is probably going to be one of those companies -- where our studios are located, and how that can benefit having that cross-cultural migration between studios.
That's exactly what I see.
JYZ: The same as the film industry. This is why a lot of Western movies from Hollywood and Europe, they can be very popular in China. But it's rare for a Chinese movie can be popular in the Western world. That's why -- it's exactly the same with games.
I agree with that, that's for sure. But I guess more to your point, people can learn different lessons and then implement concepts in a different way, and that's the important thing.
LH: I think that when we talk about culture, game style, and game design... game design and game ideas become the biggest challenge about being in China.
In the U.S., we don't have to put any effort onto injecting cultural ideas into design because it's just natural. Here, it was, "Okay, I'm going to have to focus a little bit on informing and helping people to learn about what are the good ideas that work in a Western game as opposed to Chinese."
You know, because Eastern-style games, Chinese and Asian games, there's usually an underlying theme that is different. So, actually, getting that point across.
Actually, Jing Yu and I worked together on that quite a bit, because we also worked together on Ubisoft.
JYZ: Sometimes when we have different opinions on design because of different cultural background, we just discuss who will play this game and which one is better for them.
LH: And of course, the beautiful thing that comes out of that collaboration is something that is unique apart from either side. What you find in the middle usually is I think unique and maybe more interesting.
Well, that would be my hope, that you don't steamroll the creative impetus of the Asian creators you have working for you, but you recognize what can and can't work.
JYZ: Yeah, the beautiful thing about Dust is we're all learning how to create it together. There's no real template for what Dust should be. And especially in the beginning -- of course, now we've gone through design -- but we've all learned kind of together on how to make it good, instead of just everything being dictated.
One of the things that we definitely concentrate and focus on is not snuffing creativity. And sometimes, that's also a challenge. For us, we have to sit back and let some things flow a little bit. Of course, when we do, we find out how to maybe channel it.
JYZ: I think that it will be a problem because we are all video game fans. And most of games we've played, they're developed for the Eastern market. We have general common sense on how to develop games. It's probably not so serious.
LH: Yeah, we get very interesting ideas that get exchanged. That's really nice. We have a couple junior guys on our team that actually were with Virtuos before. We have really nice discussions about how to make our game good. It's nice to see. They're very bright. They absorb a lot of things. It's very nice just to see how they come along and how they contribute.
The primary perceived benefit of development in China is cost savings, but I don't think that's necessarily a creatively interesting way to look at game development.
LH: Yeah. I think you can't discount the fact that that is a benefit. But if you take that in tandem with the creative benefits, then you have a good situation.
JYZ: That's one of the reasons, but not all.
LH: Again, the artistic talent is very high. I guess I would say teaching people to think creatively in a design process is something that's easier to do with gamers. The people that are interested in working in the game industry in China are gamers. I think Chinese people spend a lot of time in front of games. I think there's a mindset there that can be tapped into, and that leads into the creative part.
JYZ: In China, games are not so popular. It's only popular with young people. The traditional Chinese, they don't think games are good for people. So, that's why people working in the game industry say they are only there for what they want to do, what they like to do. In games, they enjoy their work. They are not for salaries or for benefits. They just like this job. That is why we can find a lot of talented people here.
That was broadly true of Western development. It's still largely true, I think, of Western developers, but maybe it's being looked at more analytically by younger people who are coming into the game industry in the West in a way than people who have been around for a while. It will be interesting to see how things evolve here.
LH: Well, yeah. That's one of the exciting things for me about being here. You know, I worked in Dallas, right? I think Dallas was -- it's not so much now -- but at the time I that I was working at Ion Storm back in 1997, Dallas was a boomtown for game development. Kind of being here over the last four and a half years, just watching the industry here blossom has been really nice.
And when I think about, again, the young people that we have, Jing Yu and our two junior Chinese developers, I just think about the possibilities for them, and how they will be able to progress in the next five to 10 years and become more important to the industry, and more knowledgeable and more helpful to the game industry here. That's a pretty cool thing to be a part of.
JYZ: In China, you never see a mom who will buy video games for her kids, but it's very popular in America and Europe, right? But I think it will be changed in five or 10 years when we grow up and have our own kids. We will choose the right games for them. We will help them.
Dust is a console game, though you haven't specified which consoles just yet. Whatever console it's for, that console is not in the market and probably won't be on the market here. How do you foster the audience that's going to become your forward-thinking designers at your studio?
LH: Well, you know... I think China's going through changes. How long have you had your Xbox 360?
JYZ: Three years.
LH: While he's a gamer, there's still a market for those consoles here. I think that that market will change. I really think so. I think that accessibility of PC games is also helping to change that as well. There's more interest than just what's here, that starts to develop.
I think that developing talent in China is probably going to be done a lot through what has influenced people. I think it works kind of the same in the U.S. There are very few people that go, "Ah, I want to make video games, and I'm going to go do it."
So, it's going to be through school, it's going to be through interest in games. It's going to be through interest in a variety of games. Not just for this culture or Korean games or Japanese games. I'm sure that Jing Yu, when he was younger, he played a lot of Korean, Japanese, Chinese, and American and European games.
JYZ: I played all games.
LH: Yeah. And so, I think that's a good example of what you're talking about, with how that develops.
JYZ: I tried to find all games I could play.
LH: Very interesting, we've got one guy that works with us -- he's somebody else that I've known for a long time. He's got a degree in traditional Chinese medicine. He's a brilliant artist. You know what I'm saying. [laughs] And that happens a lot. We've got guys that have had degrees in all different kinds of disciplines.
JYZ: Yeah, for me also. I didn't get my game degree. I get a communications information masters degree. I started video game development. That disappointed my parents a bit.
LH: Yeah. [laughs] Now they're okay.
JYZ: Yeah, it's okay now. Because they can understand it.
That's fascinating. So, it is really the hardcore enthusiasts who are the backbone of the Chinese game industry, especially for the Western-focused titled.
LH: Oh, by the way, there's a hell of a lot of people here, so even if it's a small percentage, it's a lot of people.
JYZ: Yeah, that's true.