Producer Jeff O'Connell conveys the grim atmosphere reigning over the developers at United Front Games, moments after losing their publisher and months before their ambitious open-world game could stand in a lineup with other free-roaming felons. Activision wanted a bold return for its True Crime franchise, but decided to pull the plug in February 2010. The protracted effort just wasn't guaranteed to conclude at the top of the genre.
Enter: Square Enix London Studios, a division of Square Enix Europe (formerly Eidos). At about 20 members it's a much smaller group than the Vancouver-based United Front, which had close to 180 employees at the peak of True Crime development. "We're a pretty small, tight group," says General Manager Lee Singleton. "I think, actually, a couple of years ago I did the math and I think the average amount of industry experience is like 15 or 16 years or something. We're all pretty seasoned guys."
United Front can whip out a similar resume, built on familial qualities. "We consider ourselves very close-knit," O'Connell says. "I'm sure a lot of these studios say they consider themselves a family, and we do, and we do things to foster that kind of feeling. We have a lot of events, and even though we're a very young studio, we're a very experienced studio." The studio began with Modnation Racers, a vibrant, approachable racing game built with Sony, but incorporates veterans from Bully, Prototype and the Need for Speed franchise.
"Meeting Square, which we did very shortly after the game was canceled -- and I'm probably going to use some corny expression -- was like a bright light," O'Connell says. "Right away, we met those guys and I think we just clicked with them. It's one thing for people to come in and love the game, which they did, and it's another thing for people to come in and just get along with them incredibly well and go out for drinks and meals with them, and just have a really fantastic time, and have them in the studio and have them ask questions or make suggestions, and have that show their depth of understanding." If that run-on sentence isn't indicative of real enthusiasm about this relationship, we don't know what is. Of course, you don't go from True Crime to Sleeping Dogs -- a new title that refers to the protagonist's veiled prodding of Hong Kong's underworld -- just by finding people who get along with each other. Square Enix London envisions a different future for this violent homage to Hong Kong action cinema, and disagrees with Activision on how satisfied consumers and critics will be with the end product. Sure, some of it's inflated talk, necessary for games with a staccato history, but Square Enix claims it has the numbers to prove it.
"You can probably count the number of AAA developers in the world on one, possibly two hands," Singleton says. "There's not many, right? And talk is quite cheap. You meet a lot of developers and they're like, 'Yeah, we're gonna do a 90-percent Metacritic game.' It's really easy to say, but until you've actually done that, you don't know how hard it is. You know, I've done it, it's bloody hard." (Games filed under "bloody hard:" Batman: Arkham Asylum and Just Cause 2.)
Square Enix London plays an academic role in development, offering access to usability labs -- "with mirrored glass and that kind of stuff" -- a database of professional testers, and a wealth of data that helps eliminate "those little points of frustration," Singleton says. "It's really tough, and if everything goes right it's still really hard. Generally, making games is about dealing with a lot of problems, it's really tough, so we just try to compliment the dev teams that we work with."
"We always kept working." - Jeff O'Connell, United Front Games
And how much money will Square Enix be out if the error goes beyond three percent? Singleton doesn't say, but drops the diplomacy when addressing the AAA industry's money-sucking state. "Every game is a huge financial risk, if I'm honest with you. Game development is a money pit. It doesn't matter how much you throw at it, it keeps sucking it up." Quality is your only hope, Singleton says, and it must be verifiable to warrant the huge investment. "We're not making iPhone games here, right?"
Singleton is drawn to the "magic" that he feels was already in Sleeping Dogs, and perhaps just needed some more time and tuning, while Jeff O'Connell paints a picture of dedication. Even when the plug was pulled, the lights stayed on at United Front Games.
"We always kept working," he says. "I think, obviously, when you lose your publisher, there's a period of shock that sets in, and you have to make sure that you're taking care of yourself and your people at that point and you're helping people through that time." United Front kept working on the core technology and, from what I've played of the game in its latest incarnation, a set of enjoyable mechanics given emphasis over a surfeit of city run-around missions. "We always believed in the game, and always felt that it was going to somehow make it out there because we felt what we were offering was really unique and strong. So, yeah, we didn't stop."
Stay tuned to Joystiq for a detailed look at how Sleeping Dogs has turned out after its turmoil.