, the latest game from Vancouver-based indie Klei Entertainment, is the studio's most brutal game yet. With a sharp visual style reminiscent of Adult Swim's higher-budget efforts, the old-school sidescrolling brawler is a far cry from the bright, colorful art design of Klei's past games Eets
and Eets: Chowdown
on PC and Xbox Live Arcade.
Part of Shank
's style is down to the work of Jeff Agala, the company's creative director, a former cartoon animator who worked at Vancouver's Atomic Cartoons before bringing much of his staff with him to Klei to work on video games. But speaking to Gamasutra, Klei founder Jamie Cheng admitted that after Klei's colorful Eets
and still-in-development Sugar Rush
, "we were just really repressed."
The game still has neither a release date nor any target platforms -- although it was conspicuously being demonstrated with an Xbox 360 controller at this year's Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle.
We sat down with Cheng for a discussion of the conception and design ethic of Shank
, how traditional animation has influenced Klei's current creative direction, and what Cheng has drawn from his prior experience as a developer with local strategy-focused studio Relic Entertainment.
How did you end up working with Jeff Agala?
Jamie Cheng: He actually did a little bit of work on Eets: Chowdown
, the version on Xbox Live. He did some art for the minigame "Marsho Madness." We liked his stuff so much that I asked if he wanted to continue working with us on our pitch for our next game, which was Sugar Rush
for Nexon. And he said, "Sure."
He loved the games industry, and he worked for us to do the pitch for [Relic co-founder and then-head of Nexon Publishing North America] Alex Garden at the time. We put together a pitch, and since then, we've been working together. He signed on in the company permanently as a creative director. So, this is our first game which is purely [a result of] he and I coming up with a new idea, just wanting to go at it.
How long have you been working on it?
JC: We started working on this in late January. It's still really early. We're just trying to get a bit of feedback from people at this moment.
I played Eets, but this is a very different kind of game. How did you end up with this old-school brawler design?
JC: Yeah. Sugar Rush
was a little bit of a step into that. It's kind of a multiplayer brawler actually. It was a little stepping stone. But also, Sugar Rush
were rated "[E for] Everyone." We were just really repressed. [laugh]
We needed something harsh. Shank
's a game that we both always wanted to make. We said, "We want to make a game that's an old-school sidescrolling brawler with amazing combos, amazing animation, and amazing cinematography," and that's what we tried to execute on.
I imagine you were drawing from some pretty specific games. This genre has a fairly tightly-defined golden era.
JC: We get influenced from a lot of different games. When people ask me that, though, I'd say the primary one would probably be Double Dragon
, just because of the way the combos worked. It was one of the first games where you can actually do combos on people in a sidescrolling [setting].
But also, fighting games. The way you can feel the smooth animation on the different weapons, that's very fighting game-style. In Soulcalibur
, if you're switching between the weapons, it feels really smooth. I play a lot of those games, so you can see some of that come through here.
This genre and a few others, like the Diablo-style dungeon crawler, always stick out to me as being very deceptively simple, design-wise. Their mechanics are quite straightforward and usually not all that different from game to game, but very few of them actually manage to be anything more than forgettable and repetitive. But the ones that do click, everyone loves. How do you approach that issue?
JC: Right. What we tried to do is -- I don't know if you gathered this while you're playing -- make sure that it's actually really easy to do great combos in this game, but that there's a lot of depth to it as well. What we attempted, and I think we actually built it, is a lot of different method to kill somebody.
You know, my lead designer who's working on this game, he can do things that I never thought possible. I just do not see them coming. Some of the combos are up on the website, where you can throw up a grenade, then you chop up a guy, and then you bring him down onto the grenade that you threw a few seconds ago. As we progress through the game, you're going to be getting new weapons and new combos. The AI is going to get smarter, and different. You're going to want to use different weapons against it.
Did you just sit there and try to list every possible permutation? I can imagine encountering new situations in the gameplay, and saying, "Oh, nothing special happens when you do these things in order. Add one more to the list."
JC: That was exactly what it was. We sat in a room and said, "What are all the permutations? And which ones do we really want to tackle?" There are a lot of them, because it's context sensitive as well. It just kind of multiplies.
Since you guys are doing so much handcrafted animation, rather than procedural blending or something, that approach must make this a very asset-heavy game for the animators and artists. But the player isn't going to have that in mind, of course.
JC: Absolutely not. What we did is we rewrote our animation pipeline. Our animators, again, are professional animators from cartoons. So our engineers spent a lot of time making sure that they could work as fast and as smoothly as possible. With our new pipeline, it's just fantastic. That's how we can pump these things out so quickly and make them look so good.
Basically, our company is made up of professional animators.
That team composition isn't very common.
JC: Not at all. In fact, all
our animators come from that background rather than the games background.
Did you seek that out? Was that a goal of yours with this company?
JC: Sort of, yeah. When Jeff came on, he basically hired his old team.
What do you find yourself doing these days? Is it more on the business side?
JC: Of course, I do some business development, but really, I love playing the games. I love playing our games. I am one of the core creators of Shank
. So I do spend a lot of time critiquing it and making sure that the quality is on par and making sure we have the right people in place to get it executed.
For example, that goes for the music as well. We have a local person doing the music, and we want to make sure that that works well for us.
Are there any threads you can draw from your time at Relic, lessons you've learned?
JC: I would say, in that respect, obviously I learned an immense amount from Relic. Obviously. Have you played [Warhammer 40,000:] Dawn of War
? I wrote the AI for that.
Yeah, I'm a big fan. That's great.
JC: Yeah. So, if you're playing against the computer, you're playing against me.
Have you checked out Dawn of War II to see where they went with it?
JC: You know what? It's funny, I've heard so much about it, and I bought it, but I just never got a chance to play it. I got it on Steam, and I just never got around to playing it.
I feel Relic is one of the few companies doing really interesting, progressive work in RTS these days.
JC: Thanks, thanks. It was actually one of the most fun projects to work on. It was really good. And, you know, the lead designer on that game was Jay Wilson.
Oh, really? And now he's working on Diablo III.
JC: Yeah. I worked with him, and he is fantastic.
But really, the reason I started Klei was to do something different, to do it differently. Our teams are tiny compared to Relic. We're less than one-tenth of that size for each team. And the speed at which we develop the things and iterations is much faster as well. That's what I'm trying to push here.
That seems to be a mood in the air these days. Does it feel like getting good distribution for that kind of development is more feasible these days in part because there are so many people who have that desire?
JC: Exactly. Actually, it's a lot to do with the distribution channels. When I started the company in 2005, they didn't exist. It was a very hard thing for us to have a small team. But today, it's almost the ideal thing. Also, when you have a small team, you can take those risks, and you can end up owning the IP. That's huge, right? You can also get the developer recognition that's needed to set expectations for players.
It's amazing how much that model has opened up in the last few years.
JC: Exploded. It's fantastic. It's a really great thing.
How big is the team?
JC: We have 11 people on our staff, but not everyone works on Shank
. It's an average of maybe six people who work on Shank
So you have other games in development.
JC: We do do other things. We do a little bit of contract work here and there, as well as other miscellaneous projects.
How do you decide what's feasible to make? Do you do a lot of focus testing and that sort of thing, or do you just say, "Well, if we like it, other people probably will too"?
JC: We did do some research. We researched what kind of games do work and don't work. Eets
is sort of interesting, because it kind of missed the mark in a lot of ways. We learned a lot from that. It's a cute game, but it's actually pretty hardcore gameplay. [A game like] The Incredible Machine
is not a casual thing.
is really built to be a specific game with a very specific audience. I think those people have been loving it, so that's where we're going with it.
What's the scene like in Vancouver these days?
JC: It was pretty harsh in the last year. There are a lot of layoffs going on. But, you know, the community is really tight-knit. For example, we're great friends with Hothead. They're just a couple blocks away. And then there's Radical and Relic and all of those big places as well, and tons of little small studios around. It's a great place. It's a great place to have a studio.