Having worked on a number of titles in the last few years, including Eets Chowdown for Xbox Live Arcade in 2007, Klei Entertainment have garnered a lot of attention with their unique visual styles and entertaining games. It’s a trend that looks set to continue with their upcoming title, Shank. We spoke to Klei’s founder, Jamie Cheng, about working on Shank, the development process and downloadable titles.
Tell us a little about Klei Entertainment; how did you get started and what was your main focus?
Klei has the classic garage development roots. We literally started the company in a rented basement suite, where we took over the living room with second-hand computers and furniture.
I started the company with a couple friends because we felt smaller, passionate development teams could create fantastic games. In 2005, I jumped on an opportunity to take our hobby project Eets commercial. From the beginning we’ve concentrated on bringing new experiences to players and we’ve been lucky enough to continue to work on original IP.
All of your games to date have displayed a very strong visual style that’s almost become a trademark. Is the visual hook an important step to make sure your games stand out in a very crowded market?
We certainly give each game a unique look. I think it would be depressing to load up our game and not be able to tell it apart from another. But more importantly, we take a hard look at the game we’re making, and have our visuals match the vision for that title authentically. Since all of our games have a clear vision, it comes across in the visuals and I think that’s what you see.
How does the design process work for your titles? Do you start with a game play idea and form the visuals around it, or is it the art style that drives the process?
I’d say it often originates from some gameplay ideas, but it always leads to experience goals. For example, in Shank, the idea was to make a side-scrolling, cinematic experience. That led us down a path of discussions regarding visuals, gameplay, music, etc. I find it kind of hard to design in a vacuum – everything gets brought into the design process.
Downloadable games for consoles have really taken off with the current generation of machines but still seem to be finding their place in gamers’ perceptions. How are you finding working in this burgeoning part of the games industry? Have there been any real positives or negatives that stand out to you so far?
I started the company before downloadable games on consoles even existed as a viable platform. All that was available for downloadable games was either self-distribution or casual portal sites that hit the wrong target market (for us) and had comparatively poor royalties. From that perspective, the changes are amazing – we have way more options now and financially we can create larger, fuller original experiences that more people can enjoy.
There’s plenty of room to grow, of course. I’m really looking forward to the next few years as more channels pop up and the current ones improve. In general, the platform holders have been really generous to us, and I’m hoping to see more features such as pre-sales, better discovery methods and the like in the future.
Your upcoming game Shank was given a very warm reception when it was shown off at PAX this year, and rightly so. Can you summarize for us what players can expect from the game?
Wow, that’s a broad question. I sound like a broken record, but the one thing that players can expect is a 2D, cinematic brawler experience.
We’re also trying very hard to make the gameplay mesh with the visuals. One of the most satisfying moments is when people tell me that the game looks great, but it’s not until they played it that they realized the controls map into the animation perfectly – they thought the attacks were canned, but instead they felt they had full control over how Shank moves.
Because of their heritage, beat ‘em up games can suffer from being repetitive if not carefully handled. How important is planning in the early stages of a title to prevent this and how are you going about ensuring Shank offers something different?
Every game that Klei has done we’ve asked ourselves, “Why are we making this game?” For Shank, right from the beginning we said to ourselves that we’re going to create a cinematic brawler, with animation quality and gameplay that people haven’t experienced before.
I’m pretty comfortable that we achieved that with the PAX demo, but now the challenge is creating a full experience for the player that doesn’t get old. We talked about new weapons, new environments, interesting AI, and so on, though in the end it’s the execution that matters. I guess time will tell if we reach our own aspirations.
Downloadable Content has become a big part of title launches as developers look to prolong their life. How do you feel about DLC and are there any plans to incorporate it into Shank?
I don’t have much to say regarding DLC for Shank, but I can say I have nothing against DLC as long as it’s done properly. I think players deserve a game that they don’t feel is crippled because the developer wants to sell DLC, and I think it’s achievable that games provide even more via DLC.
Eets, for example, shipped with 123 levels. Then, we launched DLCs for Puzzle Packs that included not just new levels but also new items to use. In retrospect, we gave so many puzzles that very few people even finished the levels we shipped with!
You’ve yet to announce a platform for Shank but being exclusive to one platform has become something of a thorny issue with this console generation and the spiralling cost of games development. How do you view exclusivity? Has it been a positive thing for you and Klei?
I wouldn’t say exclusivity has been a positive or negative. Eets: Chowdown was exclusive to XBLA because at the time there weren’t any alternative platforms anyway. Today, the platform holders want games exclusively, but as a developer you do have options so in the end it’s about an honest discussion of what makes sense.
Has there been anything on the downloadable games front which has really caught your attention recently? If so, why?
I played through the entirity of Splosion Man — that’s amazing, considering I leave about 95% of games unfinished. The Twisted Pixel guys are a fantastic bunch of people, and Splosion Man’s simple mechanic really appealed to me.
Everyone’s been talking about Shadow Complex. To be honest, I haven’t played much of it – I loved Metroid but backtracking and collecting stuff felt quite painful in this game. The visuals, of course, are amazing – in particular there was a scene where a helicopter is firing bullets at you and the bullets pierce the water as you’re swimming in it. Am-az-ing.
On the PSN side, I finally picked up Flower and Critter Crunch. Both are beautiful games in their own right, and I’m really looking forward whatever TGC comes up with next.
And finally a quick shout-out to Scrap Metal, a locally developed game by an old colleague of mine. Their team consists of two people – if you look at the quality of the game, I think you’ll be incredibly impressed.
A big thank you to Jamie Cheng and all at Klei Entertainment for taking the time out of their busy schedules to speak to us. Eets Chowdown can be downloaded right now on XBLA and be sure to check out www.shankgame.com for all the latest news and information on Shank.