UFG’s Sleeping Dogs : The VFS Connection

Cover for Sleeping Dogs

Sleeping Dogs is an open world action-adventure video game developed by United Front Games (UFG) and published by Square Enix for Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Since it’s release on August 14, it’s been flying off the shelves, and it’s had some great reviews — with GameRankings and Metacritic, giving it an aggregate score of 85 and 82 percent, respectively. This is also some source of pride for VFS, given that a range of some 30 people (students and faculty), including Game Design Instructor Victor Kam, who was Senior World Artist at UFG, Game Design Industry Mentor Dan Sochan, who has also been a Producer at UFG since 2007, and alumnus Jeffrie Wu, who was Technical Designer at UFG, and is currently Technical Level Designer at Next Level Games.

We spoke recently with Jeffrie Wu about his experience working on the game (starting back in 2009) and present our inteview with him here:

Sleeping Dogs Screenshot

VFS: Sleeping Dogs has an interesting history, it almost didn’t get released at all, can you tell us a little bit about it and your involvement with it?

Jeffrie Wu

Jeffrie Wu: I joined United Front Games in 2009, when Sleeping Dogs was already in development. The game was developed as an original IP from day one. I remember playing a super early vertical slice of the game and falling in love. It already had a lot of the main pieces that are in the game now, for instance: the combat and free-running — and that was before Batman: Arkham Asylum had been released! I believe it was about a month or two after I joined UFG that Activision pitched the idea of making it part of the True Crime franchise. Despite this, the team believed that for Sleeping Dogs to be successful, it should stay true to the heart and soul of the original design.

The development of the game took place during a moment of huge change for the industry. It essentially entered development in one world and finished in another. After I graduated from VFS Game Design, the industry was just starting to feel the effects of the world-wide recession. Mobile games were creating big splashes with their high profit returns, the free-to-play model was gaining steam, and besides, developing new Triple A IPs was considered a financial gamble. Eventually, most publishers started tightening their wallets and we lost a lot of developers — not just in Vancouver, but all over the world. UFG as an independent studio (not publisher owned) avoided the first wave of cuts, but Activision pulled the plug on the project early 2011. Which, for lack of a better word, sucked. I remember when the leaders had to break the news to us, they were pretty much in tears. It’s hard to argue with the passion everyone had for the project. For me, it was an even bigger shock, since I never thought that a game so close to finishing would be cancelled. If there was any sign for me that you have to be open and ready for unexpected change in this industry, it was definitely then.

During this time, UFG’s decision to remain an independent studio really paid off. Thus, with the product in hand, and all the good will they had established with Activision, they were able to shop the game to other publishers. Then, after a couple of months of settling paper work, Square Enix, who had just come off publishing the new Deus Ex: Human Revolution game to great success, came in and picked up the rights to the project (minus the True Crime name). For a cancelled project to get a second chance is incredibly rare ,and I was lucky enough to be asked to come back and help finish the project on a one-year contract. But I don’t think it ever sunk in just how big of a challenge it was going to be to complete the game in a single year with only half the team size. Not a lot of projects get afforded this, but it was a critical moment to review ourselves fully, and be as smart as possible about making everyone’s work flow exponentially more efficient and making the necessary (but painful) cuts to meet the new scope. Thankfully, Square Enix was a great fit for the project and they knew how to give an open world game the proper headspace.

For me, it was a big eye opener to see how different a particular publisher can be. Not just with respect to their philosophy, the work structure, and the way they gave hands-on advice, but also, the way the public’s relationship to the publisher can determine whether they even want to give the game a chance. Back when Activision were the publishers, there was a huge public backlash, simply for existing, which came not only from the typically vocal internet community, but also from the media. I even remember articles making the ridiculous claim that our game had started with a female protagonist that was switched later to a male one, due to an evil gender-based agenda. Just being associated with Activision at that time produced a lot of weird speculation and criticism, and it was hard to just grin and bare it. But with Square Enix, the large amount of community and fan support we received was amazing! Which was a big reason why we were able to finish the game. Sometimes you need that extra gust of wind in your sails.

Sleeping Dogs Wallpaper

VFS: How did your role evolve in relationship to the game?

JW: When I began, I started as a Junior Mission Scripter, where I got to design and script a lot of linear content. I remember my first day, I was immediately placed in a design meeting that would end up determining a big chunk of the game’s content. It was great and totally surreal. One of the things I learned very quickly was how flexible you have to be on a project of that scale. The bigger the game is, the easier it is to focus solely on your own area — but I found out first hand just how valuable it is to be aware of all the areas around you.

Big companies in our genre sometimes use workforces of up to a thousand people, and develop their games on top of tech they’d already shipped other games on. Whereas, at our peak, we were under a fifth of that, making a game on our own tech from the ground up — and doing so in less time. Needless to say, there was always an excess of work, and a need to wear as many hats as possible. So, I actually started on Mission Design, transitioned to Ambient and Living World Systems Design, then went to Character AI, until I eventually switched back to Mission Design to bring the project to completion. I don’t think I could have been luckier, having the amount of opportunity I was given. It was incredibly educational, since the design paradigms were so different between linear content and ambient systems — and I had great mentors. By the time the project finished, I had learned lots, and got to work with many great people.

Screenshot from Sleeping Dogs

VFS: From your perspective as a Technical Designer for the game, what do you think is particularly cool about Sleeping Dogs?

JW: From both a designer and a player’s viewpoint, I think the coolest moments in the game are where the mechanics start blending together. Like, being able to be mid parkour, and enter slow-motion, shooting; or to disarm a man while in melee combat, and shoot him with his own gun, all in one motion; or while driving your car, have your character climb out and leap out onto the car in front of it. Even the fact of having a prop that an NPC can be using one moment, and then all of a sudden the player can be throwing another at them, relies on using so many systems together. It’s easy enough to build mechanics that function on their own, but it’s much harder to take two or more separate mechanics and have them synergize into new experiences — and then it’s even harder once you start incorporating the way things like camera and controls are effected in a 3D space. The degree of collaboration and number of design discussions required in order to get these transitions and combinations working smoothly was amazing. But when players end up discovering these moments, it’s definitely worth it.

Sleeping Dogs Screenshot Motorcycle Pursuit

VFS: How do you think your time in the VFS Game Design program helped prepare you for your work with Sleeping Dogs?

JW: I think it’s pretty standard to say that most people will have to rely on at least one solid hard skill as their entry point into the industry. But with a game as big as Sleeping Dogs, it was definitely a huge asset to be educated in so many areas of production and development. The majority of my tasks generally required me to be doing a hard skill like scripting, but the majority of my time was spent communicating. It was such a valuable asset to know that I could, at the very least, speak in the same language and understand enough to respect the realms of the other specialties around me. The more you know about what others in the production do, the easier it is for them, and saving time for everyone is incredibly valuable. I think the role of Mission Designer really is something that requires a huge breadth of knowledge. You have to think of and approach the experience as a totality: You have to consider the lighting, the visuals, the spacial flow, the pacing, the audio, the controls and mechanics, the tech limitations, the resource limitations …the list goes on. Eventually, your experience of getting to touch a lot of these areas early on at school starts paying off.

Overall, the VFS Game Design final project experience was actually a great primer for what I’ve been through so far, and a lot of what can make or break your team is exactly the same in school and industry. Likewise, although specific best practices vary from project to project, the key to completing something with the odds stacked against you is also the same — A healthy dose of dedication and passion. I know that sounds cheesy — but it’s true.

Sleeping Dogs Screenshot City

VFS: In film, teams come together for a period of time, work intensely on a project and then go off to work on something else — but when the project is released they can always come together for the premiere. What’s it like with games? I’m just thinking that this project in particular was a long engagement for you, and for lots of other people too, so, did you get a chance to reconnect and celebrate it’s release and success together? 

JW: The great part about this industry is that it’s incredibly tight-knit. I often get to see a lot of the guys at UFG, and they were nice enough to feed me info / press surrounding the release. Everybody in Vancouver is rooting for each and every local studio, and it’s awesome how, even while at a new company, former UFG employees get to share in the moment. The Sleeping Dogs wrap party was fantastic! It might not have been quite as big as a red carpet affair, but it was a great way to get those who worked on the game back together to celebrate.

Celebration by Jeffrie and the rest of the UFG Sleeping Dogs team is certainly deserved. After a bit of a struggle, the diligent work has paid off. Congratulations to everybody involved in the project, and especially to all VFS graduates:

Game Design: Jeffrie Wu, Billy Lind, Peter Maurice, Shadi Dadenji, Kyle Jensen, Vivek Ramkumar, Anton Klock, Maitiu Morton, Sasha Dunfee, Patrick Donaghy, Boris Wong, Jordan Whitlock, Chris Savory — Sound Design: Toby Hulse, Allan Levy, Dan Poole — 3D: Heber Alvarado, Andrew Poon, Rob Starr, Karl Gryc, Terence Wong, Hani Abu-Ghazaleh, Ana Cho, Zheng Tang, Craig Shiells, Philip Minter — Digital Design: Seth Powell —  DCA (Maya): Corey Kleim; Film: James Ricker, Martin Konopa — Classical Animation: Sota Yuyama