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Q&A: SOE's Laurence On Making Kung Fu Hustle

With Sony Online now making region-specific online game content, Gamasutra caught up with John Laurence, general manager of SOE's Taiwanese studio SOGA, to explain the business model behind the newly announced PC Kung Fu Hustle online game and the
Sony Online’s Taiwan-based studio, SOGA Interactive, has their eyes set on picking up the cyber café market in Asia. They attempted to launch Everquest II there, but the project was not initially a success and was canceled shortly after open beta. But instead of continuing to localize games developed in the West, and in line with SOE's new attitude of making region-specific content, SOGA has announced a brand new online game based on Stephen Chow’s popular movie Kung Fu Hustle. John Laurence, general manager of SOGA, caught up with Gamasutra to explain the business model behind the new IP, the concepts behind the Kung Fu Hustle game, and lessons learned from the Everquest II launch in Taiwan. One project SOGA completed was launching Everquest II, but Taiwan and Asian markets are used to having a cash-op system. How did the transition of the business model in Everquest II, which is a subscription based model, turn out? John Laurence: It translated pretty easily. If you look at a game like Lineage and some of the older style games in Taiwan, probably Lineage and Lineage II are the best examples, Maple Story isn’t a great example. Even though you use a points card, so you can go to 7-Eleven and buy it with your points cards, you can still set up a recurring billing pattern similar to the monthly credit card recurring billing that we do here in the US. How are you able to convert people who are used to paying through cash-op or maybe paying nothing and getting them to pay for Everquest? JL: There is no difference because as far as Lineage and Lineage II they were all on the same monthly thing, the only difference was that you didn’t have a credit card. So what happens was the Everquest billing model is kind of the older type of model that was big in the early 2000’s and late 90’s. Even in Asia it was the same type of thing. They didn’t have the item sales games until more recently. Of course Maple Story and in Korea they have games like Dungeon & Fighter and the shooting game where you have to buy ammo and things like that, those models are kind of newer. Actually, the question really isn’t about how about those guys react to something like Everquest. It’s more like how can we take the models from Asia and bring them to the US. To me that’s the more interesting challenge because what we are doing in the states is a lot older style than what they’re doing in Asia now. Specifically, for Everquest II how many subscribers are there in Taiwan? JL: We joint venture partnered with Gamemania, which is the “GA” in SOGA. Subsequently, SOE bought out Gamemania shares so we are holding our own studio of SOE. Basically, the service isn’t operating any more in Taiwan. After open beta it was pretty much shut down as a decision between Game Mania and SOE. Let’s move on to your new venture. You just showed Kung Fu Hustle and said Stephen Chow, the director of the movie, is actually helping on game development. How did this come about? JL: Basically, Kung Fu Hustle is a Sony Pictures movie. Because of our affiliation, we are a subsidiary of Sony Pictures, we were able to start to work with Stephen Chow. Stephen Chow has an interest in a mainland development studio called Shanghai North Star. They are helping us co-produce this title with Stephen’s production company. Stephen approached the guys at SOE about making this online game and then we heard about it though Yair Landau who is the head of Sony Pictures Digital Entertainment, who brought the idea to us and our studio in Taiwan. That was the genesis of the project. Stephen and the development company in Shanghai had been really helpful about helping us with the feature list, some of the game design and also getting the martial artists and martial arts directors who directed all the moves and choreographed all the martial arts sequences in Kung Fu Hustle. You mentioned Stephen Chow was a gamer too. JL: Yeah. What has he told you that he plays? JL: He struck me as more of a console gamer from the meetings that we had with him. He was kind of an old school console gamer. The type of guy who grew up with the stuff we grew up with like Streets of Rage, Final Fight, those types of games. That was my impression as we were talking about the initial design for Kung Fu Hustle. But it was really interesting because all around his studio office he had Japanese comic books, manga, and they had an influence on the movies that he would make too. Of course, there is a natural link between those and making video games too. I guess that kind of makes sense because the gameplay style you showed was a 2D fighting game but with 3D graphics. JL: Exactly. Yeah, it was a 2D style, but presented in 3D form. It came down to the fact that there have been so many games that have attempted to recreate the old side scrolling beat ‘em up feeling from the 2D games and tried to do it in 3D and none of them have been able to do it right. If you really look at any of the reviews of games that have come out recently the main criticism was the camera. In games like Dynasty Warriors if you’re fighting really far away from somebody and doing long sweeping moves like in God of War, it’s pretty cool to have a full 3D camera. But if I need to punch straight up, if you have a behind the shoulder, camera it doesn’t look as good for the martial arts -- it’s better to move the camera off to the side. It’s a detail that was really important for us and we struggled with the camera for a long time. We wanted to do a whole 3D 360 degree camera control, but in the end it’s so much easier to do it the classic way, as far as gameplay. It’s so much easier for the player -- aiming the kung fu moves in 3D space was difficult. We chose the 2D presentation with 3D rendering and we haven’t looked back. It plays so well. With all of the new stuff that has come out in the last years as far as motion capture, 3D and the ability to render all of these cool graphics and special effects, we are really trying to take those old classic games and bring it up and repackage them for a whole new generation. You mentioned Kung Fu Hustle was coming out on PC and console, is that correct? JL: Yeah, I said that. I can’t really talk about that yet since we haven’t gotten the concept approval on the console side. We’re really in early stages of that. Obviously, I would like to release it on as many platforms as possible. I just can’t talk about that right now. I imagine making a 2D fighting game on the PC is difficult. I don’t want to have to type out combos or anything like that. How are you tackling the control scheme for the PC? JL: They way we are tackling it is keeping everything really simple. We designed the whole game using the keyboard and the mouse. Now the controls are mostly done on the keyboard. Actually it’s exclusively on the keyboard, you can use the mouse for a couple of buttons. We designed it first and foremost for the PC player for the internet cafes in Asia, which is how the guys in Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong play. That was definitely something that made it even more important for us to use the 2D style camera. By focusing on the PC we are able to overcome the problems. I think it’s the goal of a game creator to be able to be creative on whatever platform that you are working on. If it’s a cell phone you have to look at the cell phone, look into what are the controls you have available to you and how can you recreate the feeling you want with the limitations you are working with. I think we did a cool job with the PC and after you play it I think you will be like 'oh wow, you guys did OK.' For the business model you have a different concept. I remember you saying you can play a few games for free and if you win you keep playing, but if you lose you buy items. JL: I can’t talk about a lot of details, but I can talk generally about it. We haven’t kicked off the marketing campaign yet in Asia so it’s really important that we get our messaging straight so I don’t want to reveal too much about that side now. What I can say is that on the business model, look at some of the casual games that are popular in Asia, like BnB, which is kind of like a Bomberman type of game. The way that game works is after you die your body gets surrounded by this bubble and if you don’t pop the bubble within in a certain number of seconds you die. You can buy an item called a needle, which you can use to pop the bubble. It’s pretty much just a way to continue, but it’s under the context of an item. Even though this sounds kind of unfamiliar to players in the States this type of model is pretty familiar to the guys who are playing casual games out in our territories like Taiwan, Hong Kong, and mainland China. Do you think this is the type of model you would like to have for America? Or do you think that America is not ready for this and you would have a cash op model or a subscription? JL: It’s not my decision because, ultimately, that type of thing tends to be a business decision. My personal feeling is I would love to use the same model they have in Asia. It’s a different way for people to play. I think people want to have different models for paying for these things. It’s something that I would like. When I was a kid and I went to the arcades there was so much fun in not just playing the game, but being a spectator and putting your quarter on the machine waiting for your turn to play. That is one of the things I said in the presentation. We wanted to recreate the feeling of being in an arcade, but it’s happening in a virtual space and the guy is not standing next to you in an arcade he might be half way around the world. That was what we were trying going for, to create that feeling for people it is important to have a business model that speaks to that. That type of pin popping bubble is the type of business model that works for that. So, that would definitely be my preference. We’ll see what happens, but it might be different. When do you think Kung Fu Hustle will debut? JL: It will be this year. It’s going to be sometime this year in Asia. As far as the other territories I just don’t know and we’re going to have to wait. Is this a first for SOE to have a game that is coming out in Asia before the rest of the territories? JL: Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely it’s a big time first. How do you feel about that? JL: I feel totally excited about it. I think it’s great. We have an eclectic bunch at the Taiwan studio. Of course we have the guys in Taiwan working with our partners in mainland China and we have guys from Canada, Japan and from all over the world collaborating on this project. But the focus is on that territory so we have to release it there first. When we did our work for Everquest II we made the characters, they were called the SOGA characters when they were released in the US, but we made them only for Asia. As soon as US and European players saw screenshots of the work we did in Taiwan they were like hey we really like this and we want it too. Ultimately we released the stuff in the US because the players asked for it. I think this is going to be something like that too. Even though the US isn’t our primary market for this thing right now, it really is for the PC cafes in Asia, I think as soon as people see the screenshots, look at the videos and see gameplay they are going to get really excited and they are going to want it too. To simply answer your question, yeah we have to release it in Asia because we designed it there, made it for that market. I also think there is something pretty universal about Stephen Chow. You’re not going to say just because movie because it came out first in Hong Kong that other countries aren’t going to like it. That’s nonsense -- everybody loved Kung Fu Hustle and everybody loved Shaolin Soccer.

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