, the 2D beat ‘em up game developed by Klei Entertainment and glamorized by both its many E3 2010 awards as well as its star writer - Marianne Krawczyk (aka God of War
co-creator) - is planned for release on the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade on August 24th and 25th, respectively. Before its release, however, we sat down with Jamie Cheng - co-founder and designer on Shank - and Jeff Agala - creative director on the game - for a roundtable discussion of the development and inspiration behind Shank.
In terms of look and story-telling, were there any specific films or projects that you drew inspiration from?
Jeff Agala: We were trying to develop a more mature feel of Shank, so I went back to my roots to all of the comics I used to read as a kid. Jack Kirby, the creator of X-Men
and the Hulk
, was a big inspiration for the look of Shank. He was our main source or beginning that makes a mature feel. As for movies, we definitely referenced a lot of the old Pulp movies of the seventies, especially the new stuff that Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez have been doing, including some of Dusk til Dawn
, etc. We loved the element of violence and playfulness those movies have.
The graphic style is a little bit reminiscent of Venture Brothers. Were you guys fans of the work, and were you familiar with it going into this project?
Jeff Agala: The Venture Brothers
style dates back to that same style of drama quest and that's the same era as Jack Kirby. So they're coming off the same source material, and I've been a big fan of Venture Brothers for a while. The way they handle their comedy is awesome.
It's nice to see an original 2D game. What makes the gameplay still relevant to you in an age of 3D graphics and even 3D stereoscopic gaming?
Jeff Agala: When it comes to the gameplay, I think the one thing that a lot of people miss and are getting into with mobile games and all these reconfigurations of 2D games, is the simplicity in the control. You know exactly where you're going, you know how to move. It's all very intuitive. I find there are a lot of games out there, especially with the open walled areas where you can easily get lost and the controls aren’t as intuitive or aren't as easily learnable.
How did the visual style affect the way the characters were programmed? Were there challenges associated with getting a lot of your more diverse 2D characters working in the game program?
Jeff Agala: Yeah, they're basically for the animation. We wanted to get a beautiful traditional animation style in there, so we basically created a new pipeline to get it into the engine to run on the console. We had to do a lot of intricate transition because our animation isn't based off bones like a lot of the 3D animation. These days we have to actually animate every little transition from one pose to the next, so there's a lot of painstaking work on the animators to get that. We built a lot of custom tools to make all that stuff work out and make it work in the game.
Jamie Cheng: Just adding to the gameplay: we spent a lot of time making sure that the animation wouldn't come at the expense of gameplay, so even the first few months of development was basically just moving the guy around to make sure that it both looked great and played great. In the end it was something that we were adamant that both would compliment each other rather than function as a trade off. And as Jeff said, it was all about the transitions and painstakingly animating every single little thing so that it works.
Gaming Nexus: Were there any particular characters that were hard to design? Any characters that were left on the drawing table?
Jeff Agala: Actually, the big boss everyone saw at the PAX Expo in 2009. That was one of our first go at a giant boss battle. He was kind of a challenge to design because he had a lot more detail on him. The animators on our team were very hesitant to attach that much detail on a character and fully animate him. So, from an artistic standpoint, it was a very hard character to do. But, there’s no characters that we left on the drawing board just because of the difficultly. We challenged ourselves and we pushed the art capabilities further through the project.
There were certain segments within some of the screen shots and video that were distributed that showcased the game in silhouettes. The shadow aesthetic is something that has become really popular with games like Limbo and a couple of other titles that have come out recently. Was that something that was appealing to you from a design standpoint?
Jeff Agala: Part of our main objective here artistically for Shank was to was to get movie-style moments in there – cinematic moments – where it’s not the same old tactical game constantly. So we threw in moments like that and made the silhouette on the bridge just to vary up the visuals and to give stand-up cool moments. I think they do one of those in Kill Bill
, where it pops into a silhouette for a second and that brings your eye to that moment.
Jamie Cheng: From a game player’s perspective, it was great because the way that they animated it was really about the clothing. You could really see the characters in the silhouette clearly even though, again, it was a silhouette. So, that worked out really well, I think. The visuals do enhance the gameplay, and that showed it right there.
Gaming Nexus: There are a lot of games that use the cartoon and 2D aesthetic, but what makes Shank different?
Jeff Agala: When it comes to other games in the cartoony style, I think Shank differentiates itself because it is a little bit more mature, and a little bit more detailed and gritty. I was doing a lot of children’s properties for awhile including Atomic Betty,
so I wanted to stray away from the typical children’s cartoon. Knowing that Shank would be a very violent game, we wanted to avoid the super cartoony look. We took it to a point where it has a lot of detail. It’s almost reaching that point of graphic novel artwork and animation, and that was our ultimate goal.
What are some of the advantages and disadvantages to making a downloadable title versus doing a full disc game?
Jeff Agala: For us as an independent company, an individual developer, we were going to keep it smaller so we can keep it pure to the vision that was all killer, and not a filler type of game. We wanted it to be a nice, neat presentation that you package, and I feel like if we did a larger game there would be a lot more reasons to add more filler. So, we were allowed to keep it nice and tight.
Jamie Cheng: In terms of digital – Shank would have never had happened if we made a retail game because of a lot of different reasons. Not the least of which was that we funded most of it before we ever signed on a publisher, and that was because we felt confident that even if nobody picked it up we would be able to still publish, which we’ve done before. It really allows us to be all out creative, so we created the product before we actually shipped it out and it was what it was.
Being that the game is downloadable and the scope is a little bit smaller, how many different enemy variations are there and can you talk about some of them?
Jamie Cheng: When it comes to behaviors, I don’t know what the final count is but there’s a lot.
Jeff Agala: There’s a lot of different enemies, different behaviors and looks, etc. We both find a lot of different environments in the game, and each environment has a different set of types of enemies, and each one has multiple bosses as well.
Jamie Cheng: I think that it was interesting because we were really looking at how to vary the different enemies. From a design standpoint, it is very counter-intuitive because too many varieties means that the player can’t understand what the character is doing; they’re always surprised. So you actually want a consistent feel of: “these guys do these things and those guys do those things,” so that you can counter it properly and have a great experience.
There is definitely a balance between those two things. From a visual standpoint, Jeff was mentioning that characters would fit the visuals of each environment. That’s how we approached it, and as he said we didn’t actually count the differences. But there’s a fair amount, and at the same time we had to balance the player experience.
What types of enemies specifically?
Jamie Cheng: For example the ranged guys (we call some of them scrapers), there are the close up guys, the normal goons that just come up to you and smack you around. Then there are the more intelligent type of goons, and we actually leveled the goons depending on how smart they are. As you go through the game they get smarter, they dodge more, they block more. There are bums in our game which pounce on you and grab you. There are large guys, there are chargers.
Jeff Agala: And that’s just the regular enemy goons. There are also the large range of bosses.
Gaming Nexus: What was the trickiest part of implementing co-op in the game? Jamie Cheng mentioned on the PlayStation blog that: “...we went back and designed specific boss battles that can only be won with a second player at hand.” Could you be more specific?
Jamie Cheng: In terms of the difficulties with co-op: we tried putting in two characters into a single player mission. We found it was very difficult to tune it because it becomes a different game when you have two characters in it. When we have one character, it is a lot more deliberate.
With one character, you can see where all the other guys are. It’s not chaos. You can be quite tactical in terms of how you are fighting the enemies, and we can play around with the camera quite nicely to have these really nice moments. But once you add a second player, the camera has to track both people. You don’t know exactly where people are; you have to take into account what happens if one person moves and the other person doesn’t.
There are also more enemies, because you need more guys to fight. So it becomes a different kind of experience. Then what really pushed me over the edge was the fact that we couldn’t actually build anything that was co-op specific. So specifically about the bosses, we couldn’t build a boss where you needed to grapple him once with one character and then grapple him again with a different character, because you couldn’t be sure that there are two characters there.
So, in the end, when we split it into two missions - rather, two campaigns - it was super clear that this was the better solution for us anyway. We could focus on a co-op campaign where if a boss was a big butcher who is throwing barrels at you, you both have to be shooting the barrels at the same time. You have to cooperatively shoot the barrel and if you don’t, it doesn’t blow up in time. Here we’re able to get people to start talking to each other. When he’s stunned you have to grapple him once, drag him over to the other player and then the other player grapples him again to to do the finishing move. Those are the kind of examples we have in co-op where we can design it specifically for co-op gameplay.
Gaming Nexus: Do you guys have a favorite weapon?
Jamie Cheng: We do, but we’re not allowed to talk about it because it has not been announced. We’ll talk about it after the game launches. It is interesting though because everybody does have a different favorite weapon, which really pleases me because that’s how I knew the weapons were different enough.
Jeff Agala: For me, one of the coolest weapons of the game is the different ways to use the grenade. Grenades add a lot to the game.
Would you guys consider making a bigger disc-based sequel, or has that ever come to mind?
Jeff Agala: It’s not the first time we’ve been asked whether or not we’re going to do retail. As a studio, we’ve always thought about what’s best for the game we’re making, so really we think about the game first and then whether it fits the platform after. If it comes to the point where Shank can fit that kind of environment, then that makes sense, but honestly I think that this kind of game - the tight 2D beat em up kind of game - fits a lot better on digital distribution for us.
We'd like to thank Hiro Ito from fortyseven communications for organizing and moderating the discussion, and Jamie Cheng and Jeff Agala for their time and insight into the 2D side-scrolling action game, Shank.