Sleeping Dogs DLC: United Front’s supernatural love trip

By Dave Cook
26 October 2012 16:01 GMT

Sleeping Dogs: ‘Nightmare in North Point’ DLC brings the occult to Hong Kong. VG247’s Dave Cook speaks with United Front Games about the expansion and the success of the game so far.

I’m pretty sure that when many people first saw the announcement trailer for ‘Nightmare in North Point’, their initial reaction was one of deflation. It appears to be another piece of zombie DLC on the outside, and like many of you out there, I’m also really tired of the zombie gravy train that developers are currently riding.

Zombies can be done well however, but there is a sense that some studios just cruise the trend by whacking a zombie horde mode into their game, or make a brand new game with little imagination. Then they sit back and watch the profit roll in.

I’m not a fan of that at all. I want to be inspired with new ideas, not held upside down until all the money falls out my pockets into some deep trough. These trends come and go however, and who knows, maybe this time next year pirates will be the new black once more? It’s a cyclical business after all.

But I’ve got a lot of time for United Front Games, because they defied the unpopular notion that new IP can’t succeed during the console cycle’s 11th hour. They went from developing True Crime: Hong Kong, to being a studio without a publisher, and then back again. It was an inspiring comeback.

Plus the game wasn’t half bad. Its bustling Hong Kong streets gave off a real sense of place, the story was – for the best part – a real incentive to drive progression, and I never felt like I was listlessly exploring a barren sandbox devoid of activity. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a great stab at a tricky genre.

In an attempt to better understand why the studio has opted for the zombie and supernatural route, I spoke with United Front producer Dan Sochan, and also managed to tease out some information about the game’s transition from True Crime to Sleeping Dogs.

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VG247: What was the inspiration for developing a supernatural-themed story expansion?

Dan Sochan:With the main version of the game we tried to stick to a very serious, gritty crime drama, and to not really deviate from that much. There were a few moments of levity here and there, just so everything not constantly cranked up and super-intense.

As the game progresses the tone of the story gets quite dark and quite serious. But it was fun for us to think with the DLC, ‘well what can we do so it’s not just more of the same? More of the same mission formula, same characters, same sort of story?’

We wanted to have fun with other parts of, you know, Hong Kong cinema, other Chinese lore, and to play with those aspects to give the gamer something that’s unique and different. Working on something like Nightmare in North Point has been a ton of fun for us.

“We’ve been doing research on Chinese vampires, all sorts of supernatural and Chinese lore, like Peach Wood swords that were used for exorcisms. We’ve tried to incorporate all of that into something that gives fresh gameplay to the player.”

We’ve been doing research on Chinese vampires, all sorts of supernatural and Chinese lore, like Peach Wood swords that were used for exorcisms. We’ve tried to incorporate all of that into something that gives fresh gameplay to the player.

So you’d say that offering something different is the key to keeping DLC fresh?

It was just appealing for us, and we kind of feel like – as game fans as well – what we want to see in DLC is less of just the same sort of thing, especially in an open world game that you’ve already invested 30-40 hours into missions and secondary content. You want something that feels different from what you’ve been playing that whole time.

What does the plot involve? Why is all this mad stuff happening in North Point?

What’s happened is Smiley Cat was a former Triad member who had been killed for basically disgracing Uncle Po and a few of the Triads you’ve met in the full version of the game. He’s come back from the dead to wreak havoc and get retribution for his death.

He’s possessing people in the world, as well as your rival gang – the 18K – and he is trying to kill the Triads. There’s a way to defeat him, but he’s aware of it, so he’s constantly trying to get ahead of Wei to make sure that can’t happen.

So as he’s come back from the dead, he’s also been able to create this rift between two worlds, and he’s conjured up these ‘Jiāng Shī’, these Chinese vampires, so there’s a whole new enemy class that Wei has to fight against.

They aren’t just skinned differently – they have completely different moves, skills and strategies you have to use to beat them.

It seems like a lot of effort has gone into this DLC. How long have you guys been thinking about the concept and committing it to code?

For the last five or six months or so we knew we were going to be working on some DLC, so we were working on ideas at the back of our minds. We were pretty swamped and crunching long hours to get the main version of the game done, so we had some concepts, but as soon as the game shipped, we immediately went into DLC mode.

We also gave people some breaks and some well-earned vacation, but we started cranking on Nightmare in North Point right away. We also had costume packs that people have seen, and we basically had a good-sized portion of the team just diving into these aspects right away.

You’ve clearly put a lot of resources into this, so can you give us an idea of other new elements, such as weapons, enemy types and so on?

Yeah, so we’ve got a few different types of enemies that you fight against. We’ve introduced a few new combat props as well – the portal and the fire barrels. There’s the new Peach Wood sword, and there’s quite a bit of secondary content as well.

There are mains story missions throughout Nightmare in North Point, but then there are areas full of possessed gangs of 18K that need clearing out. There’s areas that Jiāng Shī – the Chinese vampires – have taken over and you need to clear them out.

”I think there’s nothing more exciting as a game developer when a game is a success. Fans really seem to have taken it on and really enjoyed the game. The community feedback we’ve received has been phenomenal.”

There are other areas where pedestrians are trapped in these ethereal webs, and to free them you have to defeat all of the undead in that area. So all of those things together make for some fun, emergent gameplay, as well as the main story missions.

It sounds substantial enough, and you have other content packs releasing around this. It must be gratifying that fan interest has sustained as well as it has. I mean, looking back from now to back when the game was dropped by Activision, what’s your view on how far the project has come?

It feels fantastic. I think there’s nothing more exciting as a game developer when a game is a success. Fans really seem to have taken on and really enjoyed the game. The community feedback we’ve received has been phenomenal, and from the media as well.

I think we are sort of an underdog. We had that challenging development cycle, and we always really believed in the game, so that’s why we were excited to partner with Square. They’ve been amazing to work with, and to make sure that the game got out there, and to give people a chance to see why we felt it was so special.

Seeing lots of positive reviews and compliments from people, and then doing fan events – like, we just got back from New York Comic-Con last week – and the outburst of positive comments from the community is just awesome.

It often felt that – throughout the game – you had really researched areas like Chinese culture, Triad codes and other things of that nature, and I think that passion at your end is visible in the end product.

We did research and spent a lot of time researching Hong Kong to make it authentic, we looked at Hong Kong cinema, and a lot of different stories – both Western and Asian films – and tried to capture all of that, and put it into a fairly large open world game.

Doing that for our first new IP was a challenge, and there was no shortage of overtime or blood sweat and tears. But we’re really happy with the end result and we’re glad to see that other people are agreeing with us.

It’s nice to see so much research has gone into it, but I think some gamers look at zombie modes and DLC and see them as saturated and shallow, but then again, you’ve said the team researched the Chinese occult and then drawn inspiration from that.

We don’t think it’s over-saturated at all. I think great gameplay is great gameplay, so I think if you can explore that particular sub-genre and approach it in a very new way…you know, I haven’t seen many Jiāng Shī games before, and I think trying to incorporate that and be authentic – like, if you have a hopping vampire – we had never seen that before.

How could that possibly be terrifying? So we did did the research, watched movies, read books and tried to capture that essence and put it into the game. So I do think there is room for that as long as the gameplay and everything doesn’t feel tired.

Can you give us an idea of how long the new story will be?

I would say somewhere around two hours, depending on people’s gameplay level. Then there’s about an additional hour or two of side content as well.

Was it just a case of dropping new enemies into North Point or have you done more with that area to keep it feeling fresh?

This is all within the North Point region and we kind of blocked off the other areas so that we could focus and do as much as we possibly could to that area. The most challenging part of an open world game is that, it can be easy to expand on in terms of creating new content, because there are many interesting side missions and stories you can spin-off from.

“We originated as a new IP, and we were then later branded True Crime: Hong Kong. So to then be, again, a new IP it allowed us to define our own identity. That’s how we started, so yeah, it’s been great.”

But the challenge technically is that we still have the same world loaded, so you’re trying to still induce the same memory budgets and constraints we had in the full version of the game, and you have to be clever to put in all sorts of new effects, enemies and animations – all that kind of stuff.

Sandbox games – to me personally – can often feel barren and lacking in content. How challenging can it be to create a sandbox that feels ‘busy’ as you have done in Sleeping Dogs?

Extremely challenging. I’d say – well I’ve been making games for 13+ years – and open world games are by far the most complicated and challenging for technical reasons, for design reasons.

Exploring and having fun in an open world, then going to a mission and allowing a player to do that in almost any order, and then balancing that gameplay so that it ramps properly – because who knows? You could be five hours into the game but you’ve just been playing secondary content.

Then you jump into a mission and it’s well over your skill level. So all of those aspects are very challenging, but it’s extremely rewarding. It’s the most proud I’ve ever been to work on a game.

How did the studio feel once the game was dropped by Activision as True Crime: Hong Kong? It must have been a real blow.

I think a lot of us were quite excited, although obviously it was a difficult time. It gave us the ability to work on a blank page, and instead of people having certain expectations – either positive or negative – of the past titles, we could then focus on, ‘here is what we’re all about’.

We originated as a new IP, and we were then later branded True Crime: Hong Kong. So to then be, again, a new IP it allowed us to define our own identity. That’s how we started, so yeah, it’s been great.

You came back, it launched and Sleeping Dogs can be considered a success in many aspects, despite the fact that some onlookers feel this is a poor time to launch new IP.

You know, I’ve heard this same thing as well, but is it a bad time at the end of a console cycle? I think people say the same thing about releasing in the summer. You generally don’t want to do that.

I think our release window in August was fantastic, and it really allowed us to have some breathing room before some of the big sequel titles came out. We had additional mind-share from people wrapping up from the summer and getting back into games.

I think it all really depends on the support you have from your publisher, and if they really believe in your game and want to make it a success, as well as a game you’ve worked on and you’re proud of – then I think you can get it out at the end of a life-cycle and it can still be a fantastic game.

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