Sleeping Dogs was one of the year’s pleasant surprises. It arrived on store shelves with relatively little hype—at least in the frantic marketing echo chamber of big-budget video games—but it impressed critics like Drew Toal and me. What impressed me most about Sleeping Dogs was how, in its own miniature abridged version of Hong Kong, it created a rich sense of place. Just like on the old Walter Cronkite TV series, “You are there,” from the bustling night market in the game’s North Point neighborhood to the dockyards of Kennedy Town.
I asked Sleeping Dogs producer Dan Sochan if he’d talk to Gameological about the game’s ability to create a convincing “there” within the limited resources of a game console, and he was kind enough to oblige. “Producer” is one of those general titles that can mean anything, but in this case, Sochan described his role as “driving the vision” and that he concentrated on the game’s missions and overall flow. He discussed the development team’s adventures in Hong Kong, how he encourages players to poke around in a sprawling world, and the difficulty of finding a voice actor to nail that amateur-karaoke sound.
Gameological: Why Hong Kong?
Sochan: We wanted to set the game in an environment that we haven’t really seen often in previous video games. I think we’ve seen the New Yorks, the L.A.s, the Londons and those kind of cities done over and over again.
What we really liked about Hong Kong is that for a lot of people who’ve never been there, it can give a sense of culture shock. We wanted to really capture what Hong Kong is all about, sort of the East meets West and how those two cultures are intertwined. Having the player be surrounded by—the majority of the people in the world speak Cantonese and Cantonese only. So we also really liked the fact that it has these ancient temples but at the same time has a sky scraper right beside it. So there was a lot of fun gameplay we could build in with that with the free running and the driving aspects of the game.
Gameological: How did you go about getting a sense of the city? I assume you guys traveled over there.
We took hours of video footage of people walking around the city and interacting with vendors.
Dan Sochan: We did numerous research trips. Anytime there was a [question] of, “What do people normally think of Hong Kong and what is actually authentic and real?” we always went with authentic. Some people were immediately like, “Oh, I would have assumed there would be more people walking around with fans or those lanterns hanging around the city itself.” That was actually some of our early concepts, and we went to Hong Kong and actually did the research and realized that’s not the case. So we took hours and hours of video footage of just people literally walking around the city and interacting with vendors and trying to make those feel as genuine as possible. We’ve had a lot of compliments and feedback from people who are from Hong Kong or who live there now and how much we actually nailed the look of certain areas of the city, the interactions, the different clothes that people wear. So we were really happy to hear that.
Gameological: When you’re watching back these videos that you’ve taken, what details pop out at you?
Sochan: I think it’s a lot of the subtleties. There were a lot of times where, you know, it’s not even a stereotype in any way, but just preconceptions we had about how people would dress or interact, or how certain areas of the city would be. And there was a lot of things even from watching a lot of Hong Kong cinema that we sort of expected, and when we went there we realized wasn’t necessarily the case. And in any of those situations we toned it down and adjusted.
So we had the massage parlors, and our idea was picturing girls on the street corners and trying to lure people in. Actually going there, we realized that’s not the case at all. They’re actually generally hidden away, and they’re not dressed necessarily overly—I guess what we sort of think in North America, like what a prostitute may wear. They actually may have something sort of sexy on, but it’s a lot more subtle. We tried to capture each of those things as realistically as we could.
Gameological: The player starts in North Point. What’s the feel you’re going for there?
Sochan: North Point is like the Kowloon part of Hong Kong. It tends to be very crowded. It’s a different residential area. Lots of old apartment buildings packed in and sort of rickety. It’s a little bit of a poor part of the city itself so we were trying to start the player in that area, and as the game progresses they start acquiring apartments in nicer parts of the city. North Point is probably my favorite area of the game because it feels very rich and authentic. It’s very crowded. And you have the night market as well just sort of jammed in right amongst all these apartment buildings.
Gameological: What about Kennedy Town?
“Wait, hold on. Did you ask about how much we pay our local gangs?”
Sochan: Kennedy Town is the dockyard area. We actually didn’t focus too much of our gameplay in Kennedy Town, but we do have some sort of wide-open space there for scenes and battles as well. It tends to be dockyards and shipyards and things like that that are a little more desolate.
Gameological: Yeah, Kennedy Town was where I did my first “fight club”-type thing. Did you guys encounter any sort of street tensions like this? Did you get a sense of Triad influence when you were in the city?
Sochan: We did definitely get a sense of Triad influence. We didn’t see any underground fight clubs though. But you definitely had a sense when you went into certain bars and restaurants, which ones were Triad-run or sponsored. Not that we necessarily felt, immediately, a sense of threat.
It’s interesting, one of the contacts we made in Hong Kong who lined things up with us—including meetings with Triad members—he was talking about Vancouver, where we are. And he was interested in, maybe in the future, starting a business here and was just casually running through costs with us. What an average employee makes. What’s average rent, how much do you pay monthly to the local gangs? How much do you pay for hydro?
And we’re like, “Wait, hold on. Did you ask about how much we pay our local gangs?” That’s just factored in there. That’s just a normal monthly cost for them. It’s a tribute. It’s protection. It’s whatever. Even if you’re trying to get into a club, nightclub scene, or something like that that goes into direct competition with them. If you want to start up a fruit stand or a shoe store, it’s sort of a known cost. The Triads have been around for over 400 years. It’s sort of ingrained in their society and intertwined with their culture.
Gameological: That’s interesting because Sleeping Dogs is very matter-of-fact about that payment system from the beginning, too. I think it’s startling to the player, as well, that this is just how it’s done.
Sochan: Yeah. It’s interesting. We have this whole mini-bus mission but a lot of players probably didn’t catch it—and I wish we did a little more exposition around it—but that is a really big deal. Running these mini-bus routes is done independently, and it is a significant source of income, and they tend to be Triad gang-run.
Gameological: The game is mostly in English, but there is some Cantonese in there, and there are some characters who speak only Cantonese. Why was that mix of language important to you?
Sochan: We really wanted the player to not just feel like this is a game done in Chinatown. So it was important for us to get [English-speaking] actors who had authentic-sounding [Cantonese] accents. For the main story characters, we wanted to make sure that their English was very discernible. But for some of the vendors and other characters, we actually did a ton of recordings in California, and then later on, we redid almost all of those ambience and world voice recordings, and did them all in Hong Kong. We thought the accents felt that much more authentic and genuine. The accents were a little thicker. So the English came through definitely not as a first language. Even if that was the case in L.A., maybe to be surrounded by so many English speakers had toned down their accents.
We like the fact that a few characters like Ms. Chu only speak Cantonese, and then some of the other characters sort of intermix it. I love how Joss Whedon does that in Firefly. He’ll kind of mix the two languages together, and he’ll remind you often, this isn’t just English speakers and Cantonese speakers; these people are speaking both.
Gameological: Let’s talk about the street racing missions for a second because they’re a big part of the city. Do you design the city around these race courses, or is it more after the fact, looking at the city you’ve made and saying, “Oh! We could make an interesting course through here.”
It often feels a little forced when all of a sudden the bridge, conveniently, is out.
Sochan: It was planned right from the beginning. Our lead race designer was one of the lead designers at Black Fox and EA for years on the Need For Speed series, so he came over right at the beginning of the project, and he basically worked with our lead world artist and they said, “Okay, here’s landmarks that we need to have in terms of the ferry terminals, and where Central’s going to be, and North Point.” We played around with the overall geography of Hong Kong and even pulling in different aspects from other areas of Hong Kong—not just Hong Kong proper.
They basically, in collaboration, built out this city with race lines planned out, making sure we had easy access from the highways to key areas. All of that was designed from the get-go. As we continued to progress through the game, we would still adjust and decide that we needed to widen some roads, narrow some, add in some alleyways. So it was an ongoing process.
Gameological: A lot of open world games have certain parts walled off at the beginning—the “bridge is out” or something like that. But in Sleeping Dogs, pretty much the entirety of Hong Kong is unlocked from the beginning.
Sochan: Yeah, it often feels a little forced when all of a sudden the bridge, conveniently, is out. And back in the day there were often technical limitations for that as well. You couldn’t have as large a world without gating certain areas. You just couldn’t load it in all that quickly. Now that we’ve been able to get beyond those technical hurdles, we didn’t want to force the player and impose any of these restrictions on him.
We wanted right away, other than the first couple of missions, to not lock you in a certain area. The reason for that being we also didn’t want to drop you into this large world, and you feel overwhelmed not having learned the mechanics. So this was an easy way for us to sort of layer things on. Like, great, learn some basic free-running. Now, learn some combat. Now that you’ve done that, you’re going to be able to go into the open-world and learn some driving. We’ll teach you about shooting.
And what we wanted to do was not allow the player to stop just because they’re now able to explore new areas, but make the areas richer in content as you meet new people, as there’s more side-missions to do in that area. And that’s how we keep unlocking versus “a new district is available to check out.”
Gameological: You also have these quasi-missions with the social hub, like the “clean drive” mission that has you keep driving at a fast clip without hitting anything, for as long as possible. What was interesting to me is that often I’d be driving along, and I’d see my “clean drive” ticker ticking up, and I’d say, “Well, I’m really going to go for it right now.” I’d be doing something else entirely, and suddenly I’d get sucked into this mini-mission. What ended up happening is, I’d do a clean drive for a minute and a half, and then I’d be in this completely different part of the city. It led me to explore places that I wouldn’t have visited otherwise. Was that part of the intent?
Sochan: That was very much the intent. We approached the open world in a different way. Often in open-world games, it feels like there’s these imposed limitations because the world is so big and explorable that story needs to be very light. That the fighting and driving and even shooting feel sort of tacked on. And the open world is fun because of havoc and chaos. But there’s no other real benefit or anything to do.
When you approach it from the opposite side and ask, “What are the main things I’m going to be doing in this world?” We want a good strong story that drives it, but outside of that, we want to have the moments when the gameplay is very fun and exciting. So the free-running, the driving, and the fighting are going to be the main things that you’re going to be doing throughout the world. And we said, while I’m doing these things, and I’m having a fun drive, instead of me just driving around aimlessly, it’s great when you see these stats games pop up to tell you that you did the longest wheelie or the longest clean drive.
All those kind of things make the open world enjoyable. Not just from creating havoc, but actually, sometimes the opposite case of driving quickly and without any accidents throughout the city. It made the open-world aspect a game unto itself as well, and it did encourage people to explore.
Gameological: We did a feature on Grand Theft Auto III recently, and one of the topics that came up was the radio stations in that game. This is another staple of open world games. It seems like maybe that’s a way for the developers to give the players a sense of their own tastes. Is the music on the radio stations the music that you heard while making the game?
Sochan: Definitely. I think especially—we wanted for the player to feel like they are actually in Hong Kong. So this contact that we met in Hong Kong, who introduced us to a lot of different people, he’s really connected in to the music industry there. So we had a lot of advice from him on what people listen to. What are the up-and-coming trends. If someone’s not listening to J-pop or K-pop, what else are they listening to there? And what kind of North American or Western music would people be listening to? We took all of that as a top priority and pushed those into the game and then asked, okay, what areas did we miss that we personally would like to listen to? Let’s get some more of those in the game.
Gameological: What’s your favorite station in the game?
Sochan: It’s actually gotta be some of the Cantopop. It’s ridiculous ,and it’s not a music style that I would normally listen to, but it definitely reminds me of Hong Kong, and I feel immersed in the world that I experienced. It’s weird, I can sing along to these songs, though I don’t have an idea, at all, about any word that I’m saying. It reminded me a lot of Grand Theft Auto and Vice City, where I’m listening to ’80s music that I would listen to back in those days, and it felt authentic. It wasn’t just listening to what’s possible now. I could be listening to an LMFAO song anywhere in the world. It was music specific to a time and era and a culture and region, and that’s what I really liked about some of those Cantopops.
Gameological: My wife was watching me play, and she asked me how many of the Hong Kong buildings you can actually go into. And the answer was, not many of them. Do you think that as the development of the open-world game evolves, that there will be more attention to the interiors? Because the ones you do have in the game feel authentic—especially the convenience stores, for some reason.
Sochan: [Laughs.] Yeah, that’s definitely gonna be in the next generation of open-world games, because there’s no loading as you go in and out of the majority of the interiors. Whatever’s in that interior has to be loaded at all times and be in the game. We can’t be as detailed as we want or have large interiors that you can really go in and explore.
We do some really clever things with the Bam Bam club and some of those places that are larger. We put a bit of a longer entrance hallway so that we could start loading the interior or the exterior as you were moving in or out of it. But we’re really excited to have future titles think about making much larger environments and interiors that you can go and explore and then seamlessly walk outside and enjoy this very rich open world.
Gameological: Who did the warbling karaoke voice for the karaoke segments? That blew me away. It’s perfect half-good karaoke singing.
Sochan: [Laughs.] It was one of the guys internally that did a lot of them. We ended up getting some of the other songs with higher voices—we had to pay a singer actor to do a lot of them. And I think it was pretty tough for him to—he was very talented guy—to be like, “Okay, that was a little too good. Sing it a bit off-key and really struggle with them.” And then we did a little bit of pitching in there as well and some post-effects. That was a lot of fun to work on. Seeing tough badass Wei Shen singing “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” was endless laughs and giggles here at the office.