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How Sleeping Dogs Tackles Open World Design

The senior creative team at United Front games explains how it hopes to shake up the open world genre with Sleeping Dogs, a Hong Kong cinema-inflected take on the formula which has an emphasis on storytelling and combat as well as exploration.

Christian Nutt, Contributor

June 29, 2012

20 Min Read

Grand Theft Auto III showed the industry the creative potential of open world games at the same time it cemented their massive popularity as an unshakable reality. But since that time, the genre has been tough for other studios to tackle: not only are they a technological challenge to develop, but they require different sorts of thinking about design as well.

Activision's shot at the GTA crown was its True Crime series -- but last year, the publisher decided to can the latest game in the franchise. It was a surprise when Square Enix picked up the title, which is under development at Vancouver-based United Front games. "When we first saw and got our hands on the game we fell in love with it," Square Enix's Lee Singleton told Gamasutra at the time.

Now set to be released on PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 this August under the title Sleeping Dogs, the game aims to blend the gritty world of Hong Kong cinema with robust character-driven storytelling out of crime shows like The Wire and robust melee combat.

That all sounds like a massive challenge, so Gamasutra spoke to United Front's Stephen van der Mescht, Jeff O’Connell, and Mike Skupa -- executive producer, senior producer, and design director, respectively -- about what goes into both the creative decisions and day-to-day process of building a game like this.

When Grand Theft Auto got so popular, there was a mini-boom of open world games; but open world crime games didn't really solidify into a genre that a lot of companies worked with. It seems like Saints Row has really come into its own, as well. Do you think there's room to capture an audience?

Stephen van der Mescht: Absolutely; I think there's room. I think what we're trying to do with the game, specifically with it being an undercover cop story, is bring a different sort of model of perspective, or a different feel to it. The story is about being a cop, not about being a gangster or a thug. It's about facing those difficult decisions that people in undercover situations have to make.

As far as the game itself goes, I think everybody does something a bit differently. GTA is obviously the grandfather of them all, and we have a ton of respect for what they managed to accomplish within the open world genre. Saints Row, I think, has carved out a really interesting niche for themselves. They obviously go for the real over-the-top gameplay style.

We've taken a different turn with ours, and we've really pushed much more on the hand-to-hand mechanics than any of our competitors. When it comes down to the core combat system -- melee combat, using melee weapons, bringing the environment into the combat system -- there's going to be stuff that people are going to be able to do in this game that they can't do at all in other open world games.

The open world is just a delivery mechanism at that point, right? It's just a game structure; it's all so that you can do different things inside of it and have that freedom that you get in a lot of open world games but be able to bring these interesting mechanics that they won't have used before into the scenario.

Why did you choose to prioritize melee?

SvdM: I think one of the core inspirations was Hong Kong cinema. Again, you're looking to make an open world game, and you're looking to differentiate yourself from the competition. At the same time, we're looking at what we're inspired by.

Hong Kong cinema -- a lot of the movies have classic martial arts combat, fluid, being able to move around the environment, fight people, use the environment in really interesting ways -- that's something we're really passionate about. If you could get to feel like Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, Chow Yun-Fat, or one of those guys in an open world setting, that'd feel pretty awesome.

Mike Skupa: I think a lot of us looked at it as we really needed to expand upon what we knew and take the lessons we've learned throughout all areas of development and really push that forward so we could really differentiate the title from other open world games.

Also, just looking at the subject matter, knowing that we wanted to make a Hong Kong cinema action game, you're dealing with a lot of logistic components that are natural to an open world setting: you have the traffic, you have the Hong Kong influence, you have the Triads. There's obviously a lot of high expectations people have for this genre -- both the gaming genre and the cinematic genre -- so, first and foremost, that was our big blueprint for the game; just really embracing Hong Kong cinema and all of the different types of action and the counters that a player would come to expect from that.

This is kind of interesting. There've been a few significant attempts to do a Hong Kong cinema-style game: there was obviously Stranglehold; there was Rise to Honor that came out of Sony… But it doesn't seem like anyone's quite hit the mark in terms of getting it -- both hitting the nail on the head creatively and stylistically, but also making a huge success out of it. I was wondering if you could talk about that.

MS: I think when we started we had that very same concern because there have been other attempts -- not just set in Hong Kong. Obviously, Hong Kong cinema has influenced a lot of games over the years. So tonally we knew we had to do something a bit different, and that's when we kind of stumbled across the more recent types of Hong Kong movies that have come out in the recent past, from Johnnie To where you have the Triad Black Society series, Infernal Affairs and that.

But, looking at that, we didn't see a lot of games that had necessarily been influenced by that -- at least not heavily. By looking at this style of cinema, we knew that we could have a little bit different tone and tell an authentic Triad story and pay a lot of attention to the reality of the crime in Hong Kong. Obviously, we've sensationalized a lot of it, but that attention to detail and authenticity is important to us.

Jeff O'Connell: Mike mentioned Infernal Affairs, which became The Departed, and won Best Picture just prior to when we were starting. That has served as sort of a general blueprint for our story. That, obviously, was an incredibly well-received film in the West, and for us that's always been considered a touchstone.

We've gone back to that on many occasions from a character point of view and from a story point of view. We really try to make sure that we have that level of -- as Mike said -- authenticity and maturity in the story and likeability among all of our characters. That for us is an important thing.

MS: I think that was the big exciting moment there -- when we felt this won't just be a genre game; we actually have a good story to tell, and we're dealing with subject matter that not a lot of people have been exposed to. Hopefully, when people play this game, they'll do a little research of their own on the themes of the story. I think there's also a real acceptability in melee now with games like Batman being very successful, and even Assassin's Creed to some extent. The massive growth of the UFC worldwide has delivered an awareness of the core audience of melee and fighting. Having that as a key hook for us maybe is another reason why we believe the game will have a strong audience.

There's a little bit of debate as to the best way to integrate story into games, or whether or not to do it at all. But particularly in open world games that are really predicated on a sense of freedom, there can be a real contrast. I was curious about your thoughts on that.

SvdM: If you think about an open world experience as more of a TV show than a movie, and you think about some of the great TV shows like HBO or Showtime -- anything like The Wire or Sopranos or The Shield, any of those kinds of shows -- the approach that we've taken is that all of the characters in the game play a role in the story.

They actually develop a little further, and the open world structure actually allows you more opportunity to get to know them better in the context outside the core story. They may become characters that give you things to do like a story mission, or they may be involved in a case that you do which is not part of the core story but you get to learn a little bit more about them.

The story we wanted to tell from the get-go was a very directed story. We did not want to bring in a whole bunch of branching with people deciding: "Oh, I'm going to do this; oh, I'm going to do that." The story is fairly linear. As you play it, from beginning to end, there's very little impact that you're going to have on the outcome of the narrative.

However, what we take great care to do is to really expand on the characters that you meet throughout the rest of the world so that they become fully fledged; you actually start to care for them, and you understand a little bit more about them. We put them, I think, in a lot of normal situations -- things like weddings and funerals, the kinds of things which happen to ordinary people. I think there's an easier route to understand the characters, sympathize and empathize with them, and become involved in the story.

MS: I think, outside of the core narrative, one of the big aspects of any undercover cop story is you get to go into an organization and see it from the inside. So, in addition to our own character's personal journey, there is a lot of exposure that you get to different characters and different lifestyles; some of those are actually only obtained through secondary content, as well.

While our core storyline is fairly linear, you can really push when and how you want to move it forward as well as flesh out more detail through doing a lot of the secondary content or investigating different aspects of the world -- and that is scalable to each player's different level of experience.

JO: One of the things we try to do on the gameplay side is create a number of custom interiors in the game. Some of them are quite large buildings that sort of have these story set pieces that unfold in these arenas. The reason why we've done that a little bit differently than many urban open world games is because of our mechanics. We feel like the melee, the shooting, the free-running is really well showcased in an environment like that. You can really choreograph an action sequence in there.

We can make some of those experiences more linear for the player, as well, which is an easy way to tell a story and also give some people who prefer a more linear game a taste for that as well. There's definitely the sandbox there, and, as Stephen said, we've integrated characters from the main story throughout that sandbox, but we've also tried to craft action experiences to put finer points on the story using these interiors.

Yeah, that was an obvious question that I had while listening to you talk. Coming to melee, were you going to have a focus on interiors and not just a wide open world?

SvdM: Yeah, the answer, like Jeff said, is yes. Obviously, we need to look for ways to really bring those mechanics to the forefront, so you need these environments where you can sort of control the weaponry that the user has at that time; so that makes sense. We've done that through a lot of custom interior areas that really enhance the action, bringing the environments into the core of the combat really heavily and just play to the strengths of the game.

MS: A movie that really influenced us right from the very beginning was the Tony Jaa film The Protector. While not necessarily a Hong Kong movie, there's a fight sequence there which is basically one long, continuous fight sequence which included a lot of environmental interaction, fighting against multiple enemies, and even a little bit of free-running; that has always been the blueprint for our fight sequences.

We knew from the beginning that we really needed to have these in tiers, but, in addition to that, we also ensure that all of our core mechanics work in the open world as well.

So, even though we might not have the same level of interaction or weaponry on the street that we do in a very detailed fight interior, there's a lot of sandbox elements such as interacting with cars, walls, tables, and phone booths; just different kinds of interactions that you can get into on the street. They give it a much different style of gameplay while retaining that same seamless control.

JO: Just a thought on that Protector sequence that Mike mentioned from the Tony Jaa film: If you haven't seen that, one of the amazing things about that sequence is that it is one continuous shot. Tony Jaa enters this room, and over the course of I think five or six minutes, goes up this very long spiral staircase and takes out 50 guys or 40 guys or something like that; it's all one shot, one very beautifully choreographed shot.

He uses not just punches and kicks, but, as Mike says, the environment -- he puts guys over railings, he puts guys into televisions, he uses vases and stuff and knocks guys out. As Mike says, that was sort of a blueprint for us because it got us excited about using these interiors and this open world style of gameplay to give the player the freedom in those interiors to feel like a martial arts action hero.

Something you talked about is directing the experience and giving the player sometimes linear and sometimes less linear; what do you think about pacing in an open world game? You don't know where someone's going to fall off the critical path or mess around. Does trying to control the pacing matter, and, if so, how?

SvdM: Controlling the pacing is probably one of the most difficult things to do, because people come to the game potentially with two different mindsets: They might play a bit of the story and go, "I just want to screw around now." Then you've kind of lost the drama and tension at the point they started to engage in the game in a different manner.

I think the fact that we've stuck with a linear story, which picks up from where you've left off when you tackle the next piece, is sufficient in terms of bringing you back in where you left off so there is some continuation there; you understand where you're at from an emotional standpoint. But when we need to get you from one scene to the next because it's absolutely pivotal, we can do that. We can just say, sequentially, this is the thing you have to do next -- or just force it to happen.

Now, there's a balancing act in not doing that too often but giving the player the freedom to engage with the game, but that is both the beauty and the curse of the open world game, right? You want to give people the freedom, but you also want to give them the opportunity to experience something tightly crafted that takes them on an emotional roller coaster narrative-wise. "It's not easy" is the answer!

JO: One of the biggest things that we did was, right from the get-go, to really design out core game flow, the world, and our narrative together and have each of those elements feed off each other.

While we do have a linear narrative, we've really taken a lot of our core start and end points of our scripted missions and analyzed those areas and the routes that we think that players will take and finely crafted a lot of our secondary and ambient encounters around those. We've actually even made our own version of Google Maps where we look at all of the content in the game, and by using this program we can actually go in and really scrutinize the different routes and play-styles that players will use.

Obviously, user testing takes a big role in it, as well. As we're currently in the final stages of the project, we're moving beyond paper and moving beyond that level of analysis and really just watching what gamers are doing and how they're playing the game. It's actually really interesting just to see how different people progress through the game. Some people will obviously experiment a lot more than others; some people will plow through the storyline. We're actually quite satisfied that even people who really want to go and get to the next cutscene or get to the next key story change are still dabbling and playing with a lot of the secondary content.

I think one of the things that we've tried to do throughout this project is ensure that we have a really strong voice cast for all of our essential characters. There are, I think, well over two dozen main characters, as Stephen said, even though we were inspired by The Departed from a tonal point of view, we wanted to craft something more like an HBO series so that there are a large number of actors in there, some of them very well-known -- I'm sure that Square will release more names over the next few months.

In playing the game and in the user tests, I think people enjoy having dialogue with those kind of characters, and they enjoy interacting with those characters in the main missions and, as Mike said earlier, in the open world. I think that's another reason why the game is, in the testing we're doing, fun for people; they get to interact with these characters and hear from these actors.

To go back to something Mike said, at the beginning of his answer, it sounded like, Mike, you were going to talk about preproduction to an extent. You made me think about preproduction in the sense that you were talking about making sure all the different parts of the game support each other. Is that something that you looked at from preproduction, or was that something that, as the game took shape, you started to think about how they could support each other?

MS: We definitely looked at that from preproduction. Having worked on an open world game before, a lot of us knew how important this was. Obviously, we still make mistakes, as does anyone, and we've learned a lot more since; but we've continuously looked at those elements and analyzed how they've impacted each other throughout the course of development.

We're still even looking at that today. While we're beyond the stages of making fundamental changes to the game, there are certain elements where we'll need to address an inconsistency or guide the player toward a certain aspect of the game -- or strengthen a certain aspect of the game. While we may not have the resources available in one department, we often find that, because we've developed the game this way, we can use another medium to convey a message.

For instance, let's say all of our voice recording is done on a particular character. We can utilize something like a PDA or a text message because they convey a similar message -- or we can even go in and do something in, say, mission-objective text or whatnot. So there's a lot of tools that we can use to strengthen each discipline.

How much time have you given yourself to really take a look at the results from playtesting and really realize how you have to tweak and nudge the game in different directions like you just described?

SvdM: Obviously, our goal is to get all the content in there and then really, like you say, analyze things. The open world experience is so much about having things in proximity with each other; focusing content in the right areas -- little things like the right line of dialogue or the right music playing when you go into a place.

It's those little details that pull together the experience and make it feel like something more than just a game and a linear experience. How much time? That's tough to say. I can say we've been doing that for a couple of months now, so, all in all, I would say a good seven or eight months that we would have been analyzing the things and understanding whether the content is in the right place, what needs to be moved around, and how we can support it stronger.

JO: In addition to really heavy focus group testing of playing through the game flow, from early on in development we actually did a lot of internal focus group tests where we'd look at individual components such as mechanics or missions and really utilize focus group testing and user testing both from getting interviews and information from people and also from just watching other people -- even on the development team -- playing the game and really seeing those little things that people stumble upon or get confused with or even knowing what we should really focus more on in the game.

You can see from people playing the game at an early stage the things that they really gravitate towards, and that way we know where we should really put our emphasis.

SvdM: I think, just to close off on that point, Mike mentioned that a few of us have developed open world games before, so we've tried to bring our learning into this experience. The biggest difference for me working on this game than other games has been that there was an internal focus on the tools, in terms of being able to manipulate the flow of the game very, very easily.

The thing with our tools, even the way in which we tie some of the progression of the game together, the ability has been there from the get-go to play through sequences of it and move stuff around very, very easily and quickly so that we can start to get a proper sense of flow and a proper sense of feel. So even though there's stuff that we obviously focused more heavily on in the back-end, that has been worked on the entire development of the game.

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About the Author(s)

Christian Nutt


Christian Nutt is the former Blog Director of Gamasutra. Prior to joining the Gamasutra team in 2007, he contributed to numerous video game publications such as GamesRadar, Electronic Gaming Monthly, The Official Xbox Magazine, GameSpy and more.

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