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.