United Front Games and Square Enix bring Sleeping Dogs back from the dead
On a wall in United Front Games’ office are five vibrant pictures featuring a young Asian man running and fighting. Jeff O’Connell explained that the images were created within the first few months of development on a new, open-world video game set in Hong Kong. The game, now called Sleeping Dogs, was released on August 14, and the story of how it came to be finished and published is one of perseverance and tenacity.
In an interview at United Front’s offices in Yaletown, O’Connell, senior producer on the game, told the Straight that the original idea for the game came about soon after the studio was created in the fall of 2007. By 2009, Activision had agreed to publish the game and had begun the work to transform it into a title in its True Crime franchise. Two years later, the publisher cancelled the title.
O’Connell called the cancellation “devastating”. Because the game started out as an original idea, he said, the developers were more invested in it than they would have been if it had been a publisher-initiated project. “We weren’t making somebody else’s game, we were making our game,” said O’Connell. After Activision withdrew support, nearly the entire team working on the game at United Front left the studio.
What mitigated things a bit, said O’Connell, was that Activision allowed United Front to try to find a new publisher for the project. And it wasn’t long before Square Enix came calling. “It was clear from the moment those guys came in the studio that they were genuinely interested in the game and the studio and the people,” said O’Connell, “as opposed to the title, the product.”
Within six months, Square had picked up the game. That gave O’Connell a chance to make some phone calls to people who had left the studio. Most came back, he said, even though many of them had taken on jobs at other studios in Vancouver.
Square assigned producers from its London studios to help United Front reframe the game. It helped that they were familiar with open-world games, having had a hand in titles such as Just Cause 2 and Batman: Arkham Asylum. “Their advice was spot on,” O’Connell admitted. The game shifted again, away from what had become a True Crime project and closer to the original idea. “I think,” he said, “what Square has done is let the game breathe. They’ve let it play out over 20 or 30 hours of gameplay instead of trying to make things too obvious in the first five hours of the game.”
Their idea may have taken nearly five years from inception to release, but the extra time, according to O’Connell, allowed United Front to make a higher-quality game. And he’s optimistic about the future. “I say that because I feel that we’ve been through what is probably the most devastating thing that can happen to a studio,” he explained. “And I think are stronger for it.”