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Klei Entertainment on 'The Journey to Creating Shank'


Klei Entertainment was pushed to the verge of bankruptcy during the development of its ultra-violent, Desperado-inspired action game, Shank. Studio founder Jamie Cheng described some of the more tumultuous periods in the game's development at a GDC panel on Tuesday morning, admitting that stress even managed to crack his normally calm demeanor.

In order to remain afloat and complete Shank, Klei introduced temporary (and optional) employee wage reductions with interest, and Cheng himself took out a bank loan against his house in January 2010. The studio was offered a lifeline from an unnamed publisher, but it declined the offer and opted for a fairer, less constrictive deal with EA Partners. "We kept the IP, we kept the creative freedom; it was the good stuff," Cheng said.

The gamble paid off for both parties when Shank launched in August 2010. It sold more units in the first 24 hours than the studio's cute puzzle game Eets: Chowdown had within its entire lifetime. Cheng wouldn't offer definitive numbers, but said that Xbox Live Arcade statistics reported sales of 41,000 units within the first week, "which is respectable and profitable for everyone," and a trial-to-full purchase rate of 26 perecent. PlayStation Network sales were slower (but were catching up with those of XBLA), and while Cheng wouldn't characterize the Steam performance as going "amazingly well," he mentioned that it has a "really long tail and just keeps on going."

Other challenges that Cheng highlighted included a brief bout with office flooding in the midst of development (a neighbor's dishwasher had exploded, though all of the studio's computers survived their brief submergence), and an approach to content creation that would probably appear entirely lopsided from an external perspective.

"We kept the IP, we kept the creative freedom; it was the good stuff." - Jamie Cheng, Klei founder

When members of the press were first introduced to the game, they didn't grasp that the two levels being shown represented the entire game at that point -- Klei ended up building the 13 following levels between March and June 2010, nested within 6 months that Cheng characterized as "madness." (Further madness: Shank was conceptualized in a Flash prototype during the course of just one weekend. And there used to be a double jump!)

One of the valuable lessons imparted by Shank's conclusion was the need for more organic promotion across multiple digital outlets. Cheng believes that games should be able to succeed more easily without being tied to specific promotions, such as Xbox Live's "Summer of Arcade," and that marketplaces like XBLA should support social features like gifting and recommendations (the latter, he claimed, was discussed by Microsoft "literally about five years ago.")

Shank also bumped up against the infamously turgid certification process. A patch remedying the game's hard drive fragmentation-induced stuttering took one and a half weeks to complete, but over a month to reach Xbox Live players.

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