The staff at Newb Review Towers have decided to get a little more hands on with the creators of some of the biggest and brightest looking upcoming games. We’re going to be starting a regular feature in which we interview the people behind the games that interest us the most.
In this inaugural edition of Speaking With…, Luke Mears contacted Klei Entertainment to talk about their soon to be released game, Shank. Shank is a downloadable game that will be available on both Xbox Live and Playstation Network at the end of August. It features a fantastically unique visual style, over the top blood and violence, two player co-op, and a script by Marianne Krawczyk, the writer of the first God of War.
Jamie Cheng, Co-founder of Klei Entertainment, kindly took the time out of his day to respond to our queries and we present the text from our interview below.
What led to the formation of Klei Entertainment?
We had been working on a hobby project, Eets, for several years, and it finally seemed to be getting to the point where we could show fellow developers and friends. The feedback was great. Overall, people really enjoyed our work which worked out perfectly because at the time I was at a cross-road for where I wanted to take my career next — I had been working as an AI programmer at Relic Entertainment for a few years by then.
So, with nothing really to lose except the few bucks I saved during my tenure, I started Klei in a rented basement with a couple friends. That was five years ago.
How many people work with you in Klei Entertainment?
We’ve grown to about 15 full-time developers in the studio – and they’re the reason I enjoy going to work every day.
Some of our readers may not be aware of this, but you operate out of Vancouver, British Columbia. How vital to your company’s survival are the Canadian Government’s tax breaks for game developers?
There are a lot of factors involved when keeping an indie studio going. Even things like the USD/CAD exchange rate can make a huge difference, since our biggest market is in the US.
In terms of tax breaks, they’ve been immensely helpful, especially in our earlier years. Telefilm was instrumental in getting Eets out the door, and they again helped during the development of N+. Does that mean we’d have gone out of business if we weren’t in Canada? I don’t know, but I do know that we’ve been both very lucky and very resourceful.
One attraction to working in a small development company is that you have control to make the kind of games that you want. Have you found this to be the case or have you had to make some compromises?
We’ve retained the most important thing to us, and that’s being able to choose projects that we really believe in as well as keep the creative control. It’s actually been quite a hard road to follow, and there have been a few close calls, but everyday we’re glad that we’ve been adamant on that. Why else would you start your own studio if you can’t work on the projects you love?
With the release of Shank you are teaming up with Electronic Arts as an EA Partner, can you explain to our readers what this means, and why it is that you decided to sign up with Electronic Arts?
EA Partners is a division of EA that works specifically with third party developers to publish and help them distribute their titles. We chose to work with them because they trusted our vision for the game, and allowed us to make the decisions we needed without compromise. They’ve also been hugely helpful in distribution — I don’t believe we’d be on both the PSN and XBLA without them, and that’s ultimately a better deal for the players.
Another game you have in development is Sugar Rush. Can you tell us a little about the game, and when we can expect it to be coming out?
That title was dropped by our then-publisher back in early 2009, and although we own the IP, we’ve pretty much been focused on Shank since then.
I can’t speak for my team, but I personally love to play a huge variety of games — it’s probably faster to talk about games I don’t play. But as a sample, I’ve recently been enjoying Monkey Island 2 SE, Puzzle Agent, Mass Effect 2, Limbo, a large variety of board games, and of course Starcraft 2.
I personally admire Bioware and Valve, for their unwavering commitment to quality – and especially Valve for their independent spirit and policy toward developers.
One of the first things that struck me when first seeing Shank for the first time was its unique visual style. What inspired the art design? I know the creative team is lead by Jeffrey Agala, who worked with Disney and is an accomplished animator, but Shank is incredibly violent, and about as far away from Disney as you can get.
Jeff always mentions Graphic Novels and Golden Age comics as his main artistic influences. When you look at it from that angle, the violence makes a lot more sense
Hiring Marianne Krawczyk, writer of God of War, to write the game’s story shows a clear dedication to the narrative, which is fairly uncommon in most downloadable titles. What does Marianne bring to the table that made you want to work with her?
Story seems to be a mostly unloved aspect of downloadable titles — we wanted Shank to push boundaries of what is possible in a $15 title, so we paid a lot of attention to the story from the beginning. Marianne and I had both lamented previously that we wanted to work on a project where we could be completely creatively free, and Shank fit the bill nicely. Once Marianne started working with us early in the project, the depth of our characters immediately jumped a few notches and suddenly the entire narrative felt more grounded.
What made you decide to make a separate story for the co-op mode, when most people probably would have been satisfied with simply being able to play the single player mode with their friends?
We did struggle with this one for quite some time. We recently wrote an article on the Playstation Blog about this exact thing. In the end, I think having a separate campaign that focuses on the co-op play, and being to make the experience deeper because of it, was the right call.
A great feature of the game is local multiplayer, which so many developers tend to leave out in this day and age; however the game features no online multiplayer. Why is that?
It was already such a huge undertaking to create two separate campaigns for Shank, and adding online would’ve ultimately hurt the rest of our game, as we’d have to dedicate a huge amount of time to that feature instead of the overall experience of the game. We decided that it was more important to polish the experience than to add an additional feature, and I hope players understand that decision.
One of the more controversial subjects in console based gaming at the moment is Sony and Microsoft’s push towards motion controls. What do you make of Sony’s Move and Microsoft’s Kinect? Do you anticipate making any games that support these devices in the future?
From a technological point of view, these controls are pretty awesome. I was able to get a really good look at the specs for Kinect, specifically, and once you understand how it really works you can certainly think up some pretty fun uses for it. But practically speaking, I have no real opinions on how well they’ll do, and internally, we haven’t made plans to build games supporting these devices.
Now that the release of Shank is almost upon us, how long until you start working on your next project?
We’re always tinkering with projects that we’re interested in, and we’re definitely working on improving the engine that built Shank. Right now we’re also working to get the PC version of Shank out the door.
Without being too specific, how many ideas do you have kicking around for your next project(s)?
We have a ton of ideas, but only limited bandwidth to make them happen. We’ve got maybe 2 or 3 ideas floating around that sound really fun, and a few of us are working on prototyping some mechanics.
Looking to the future, do you see yourselves making the jump from creating downloadable titles to boxed retail games?
Honestly, I’m not sure. We’ve tried very hard to be platform agnostic, and instead focus on the game first. If it turns out that it warrants a retail scale, then it might happen, but in the meantime I’ve been really enjoying the freedom that the smaller scale has afforded us.
And finally, if you had to persuade me to buy Shank in a single sentence, how would you do so?
Shank: the only game that let’s you stuff a grenade down your enemy’s mouth.
Sold! Jamie, thank you for your time.
Shank will be available to download on Playstation Network on the 24th August, Xbox LIVE on the 25th August, and on PC later this year.
Stay tuned to The Newb Review for our review of the full game later this month, and future Speaking With… articles.
- Luke Mears