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Interview: Klei's Cheng Talks Life After  Shank

Interview: Klei's Cheng Talks Life After Shank

November 17, 2010 | By Leigh Alexander

November 17, 2010 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC

It's been an interesting journey for Klei Entertainment and Shank. After the studio's publisher, Nexon Vancouver, shut its doors in 2009, the team went right to work on a 2D brawler with a distinctive visual style.

The title appeared in 2010's Independent Games Festival and took off quickly from there -- signed by EA Partners for Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network and PC, with renowned God of War writer Marianne Krawczyk on board.

Fortunately, it's a tale that's becoming more and more common these days: Indie developers quickly finding full-scale publisher partners and making a splash before the eyes of the everyday gamer.

But it's also a new arena: what's it like for indies to come up against the Metacritic machine for the first time? What changes and what stays the same for developers when an independent game gets really big?

We decided to catch up with Klei's Jamie Cheng to ask him some of these questions, now that Shank is well past its late summer launch and received a gamut of critical reception.

Often developers focus so tightly on the grueling process of creation and launch, and then the spreadsheet-ticking aftermath of sales data; in this interview, Cheng talks candidly about facets of the tiny-project-gone-big experience that are less-discussed, from connecting with the wider audience to personal experiences.

What were your expectations for Shank's launch, and in what areas did you meet them? Any surprises?

I expected Shank to be a game which people either loved or hated, and we got that in spades. In fact, it was even more than I expected -- the dichotomy actually baffled me at first. For example, I simultaneously heard that Shank's controls are tight, amazing, and spot-on, and also that they were loose and frustrating.

We were determined to really understand the meaning behind that, so I kept watching people play -- especially those who had more trouble with the controls, and we realized that our game favors certain play-styles over others -- in this case, an offensive play-style.

Those who attacked often were rewarded a lot better than those who tried to get away. The critics to our controls were spot-on -- there was a hole in our equation that they caught, and I'm glad they did so we can learn and do better next time.

Name one way in which you are like other indies and one way in which you aren't.

The most important aspect of being indie is freedom -- independence, by definition. In the most important way, we're connected to indies by the fact that we create our own games, our own ideas, and we build it with a passion.

I love this question, because it really highlights the differences between all indies. We're all passionate about the medium of games, and we get along precisely because we embrace each others' differences. The obvious difference for Klei is that we carry different responsibilities than most indies.

We have staff with families who aren't ready to risk everything for the sake of the craft, at least not yet. So it's my role to allow us to continue to operate in the spirit of an independent -- passionate, authentic, and creating our own ideas -- while still providing a stable environment. It's not easy, but it is incredibly rewarding.

Andy Schatz recently said he feels the press holds indies and AAAs to different standards. Do you think this is true? Some say critics are harder on indies because the expectations of those with fewer risk constraints and loftier artistic aims are higher; others say critics are easier on indies because they're more personally invested in 'rooting for the little guy', and it's easier to have empathy for individuals or small teams versus corporations. What do you think?

My philosophy is to try and raise the level of conversation with the press and critics. What indies can do better than most is to talk with the press, and explain and discuss, without the PR spin, why design decisions are made. Andy is definitely right in that being indie creates certain expectations -- both good and bad -- and expectations as we know color the experience.

If we can improve the communication, then at least we can break down the preconceptions and evaluate our games with better information. Personally, I haven't always been successful at that, and in many cases its due to my own inexperience.

Do you feel that when it comes to platforms for indies, mobile and XBLA/PSN are a fairly level playing field, or is one still more viable than the other? If it depends on the title, how?

I think it depends on your situation, too. I've often said that mobile is where I would be if I was starting my studio from scratch, but as an established studio I'm at a big disadvantage. We don't have the marketing budget and contacts of a publisher, and yet we have enough overhead that there's significant risk in developing an iOS game.

In most markets, incumbents like barriers to entry, and in XBLA/PSN the barrier is actually relatively high -- from portfolio management to large costs associated with development. This makes it an uneven field for indies, but those who overcome the barrier often see big rewards, since their costs are far lower, and their marketing is often better than the competition.

As those barriers dissolve, given limited distribution, like in mobile, you don't get "perfect competition." Instead other factors such as marketing become more and more important, and there often ends up being a few really huge hits, and lots and lots of small ones. It's the middle that gets squeezed. So in my opinion even on this platform indies are on a pretty even playing field with everyone except the biggest publishers.

Is there any sense of spiritual change that comes with working with EA Partners? How are partner programs with large publishers fitting into the indie landscape right now?

We were adamant -- almost to a fault -- that we would only work with a publisher that trusted us and respected our vision of the game. To that end, EA Partners became an enabler for us to have the resources to create the game we wanted. Their attitude was more than "how can we help you succeed," they really trusted and believed in our abilities, and didn't feel the need to add value when they didn't need to.

If other publishers come in with a similar mentality, then I think the programs will fit in very well to the whole ecology as they make games that weren't previously possible suddenly possible. If not, I believe they may have moderate success, but ultimately indies are here to flex their creative passions, and despite the dollar signs indies have the option to say no.

Best thing about your experience? Most difficult?

Best: Seeing the eyes widen as friends and strangers picked up the controller for the first time playing Shank. Most difficult: Personally, it was the three months between March and June. During that time, my wife literally only saw me only in passing, and some of my close friends worked side-by-side with me. I'm grateful for the hard work our team went through and I'm thankful for my wife's patience.

What are your primary lessons, successes and general take-aways from the launch of this title, and how might you apply it toward your next one?

It took us 5 years to really understand why the company existed. We reaffirmed that creating and having creative control over our own ideas is core to the studio, and that's something I would never give up.

And then there's all the development take-aways -- the core one being that we need more playtesting of the full product. We did a ton of playtesting on the demos we showed at PAX Prime and PAX East, and the full game could definitely have gone through more user tests to smooth out inconsistencies, such as the controls issue we discussed.

The biggest success is that, against amazing odds, our team created Shank -- an original, hugely content-intensive game that has made a lot of gamers happy. I can't wait to do it all again.

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