Canadian-based game developer United Front Games went out of business last month. The studio wasn't widely known over its nine-year history, but it was responsible for Sleeping Dogs, one of the most underrated open world games of the past decade. In a just world, we'd be playing Sleeping Dogs 2. We almost lived in that world, too. Sleeping Dogs 2 was in development, according to two sources I spoke with, and I have the documents to prove it.
A little while back, one of my sources passed on hundreds of documents outlining United Front Games' grand pitch for Sleeping Dogs 2, as of early 2013. Another source with connections to the developer confirmed the documents were legitimate, but stressed they were a snapshot in time; these documents were revised, edited, and iterated on before Sleeping Dogs 2 was ultimately cancelled in late 2013. The game never formally entered the production phase.
(To give a sense of the timeline, the documents specifically called the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 as "Durango" and "Orbis," their codenames at the time, ahead of reveals.)
To give you a sense of what the documents look like, here's an excerpt:
I asked Square Enix for comment on this story, but the company has not responded.
Sleeping Dogs 2 would have picked up after the original game, once again following the previously exploits of (formerly undercover) officer Wei Shen. This time, Shen would be joined by a "conflicted, corrupt partner" named Henry Fang, as they explored China's Pearl River Megacity, a noted economic hub—and, yes, a real place. The player would have the ability to arrest any NPC in the world, and influence a branching storyline that swapped between both Shen and Fang.
Here's one example of how that might have played out:
"An opening scene consists of Wei and Fang talking together, discussing what the next step of an investigation should be. Deciding to split up and follow different leads, Wei's thread will follow him as he busts heads for information, while Fang plants evidence by breaking into a suspect's house. Depending on the character selected, the audience (and characters) will only see one side of the story until both threads are played. This gives us ample opportunity to explore both characters fully, and gives the player the revelatory experience of discovering both sides of the story."
Perhaps the most ambitious feature—and the most oh-so-2013-sounding, as well—was how players would interact with their version of Pearl River Megacity "using mobile devices and the next gen cloud." (The developers made it clear cloud-based questions didn't have many answers, largely because the technical specs and features of next-gen consoles were in flux.)
Playing as inspector Jane Teng, you would "manage the police force and try to control territories" from your mobile device. If you owned Sleeping Dogs 2, your choices in the mobile game influenced what's happening in the city, the gangs in control, etc. If you summoned a police patrol on a mobile device, you'd see that in-game as a helicopter flying by. If you didn't own Sleeping Dogs 2, the hope was to craft an enjoyable free-to-play game that pointed you towards the console game.
It was more than that, though. United Front Games envisioned a sprawling metagame it dubbed "massively single player," where actions you took in your game—busting a crime, taking a bribe—would adjust city dynamics in other players' games. The specifics hadn't been worked out yet—this was all theoretical—but players could focus their efforts on cleaning up specific parts of town as a community and turn crime-ridden places into livable neighborhoods.
This would be achieved by "using the cloud saves of all players to determine the global neighborhood crime levels across all games, and then mapping that crime to the difficulty level in policing those neighborhoods in the individual's games." Here's how they theorized it'd work:
I'm not sure Microsoft or Sony would have actually given United Front Games access to every save in the cloud, but they could have presumably achieved a similar result by having the game constantly feed information about the state of someone's single-player game to a server. The documents also include a rough sketch of how it might have looked on a tablet device:
Something tells me this feature would have gotten axed, if Sleeping Dogs 2 was actually coming out; when's the last time you remember someone actually pitching a second screen option for a game?
The plan was for Sleeping Dogs 2 support full-on co-op, as well, with players being able to run around the world solo or team up for co-op-specific missions and challenges. Some of these would have been as simple as vehicle races, fight club challenges, and fending off waves of enemies, but Sleeping Dogs 2 hoped to differentiate itself through the presence of procedurally generated missions that could be played in co-op or in single-player. In theory, the game would have analyzed where the host of the co-op session was in the single-player story and assemble a unique "campaign" from various existing pieces—characters, objectives, etc.
If it worked, it could have been cool, but I seem to remember getting awfully bored of Skyrim's procedural quests. According to the developers, here's how one might have played out:
"One campaign tasks players to go to the run-down gambling district to eliminate a triad that is controlling it. They meet a snitch that helps them throughout the experience. After players complete the campaign, the MSP [massively single player] decides that such action was enough to change the state of the district to a more stable one. They try another campaign later on that allows them to come back to the district, but now the snitch they met is a small business owner that gives them a discount in his store."
One element that the developers hoped would keep these procedurally generated campaigns fresh were "twists," which could suddenly turn an established mission its head. The documents use an example of a corruption case surprisingly (and procedurally) turning into a murder case when a target NPC is found dead. The biggest problem for this feature, like Skyrim, would be making sure the procedural quests didn't feel repetitive after the fifth one. Procedural content is incredibly tough to pass off as handcrafted content. We need not look any further than No Man's Sky to see how procedural content can sometimes sound better on paper.
The documents outline a host of other new additions to the Sleeping Dogs formula, though it's hard to know how United Front Games would have prioritized these ideas. One feature, the "face" system, would track Wei's standing with the numerous factions of the megacity, which would give the player bonuses and dynamically adjust mission opportunities—a little like the systems in Grand Theft Auto 2 or Mercenaries 2. The Sleeping Dogs 2 pitch also outlines a number of tweaks to the game's combat system and open world.
United Front Games obviously had big plans for Sleeping Dogs 2. As part of pre-production, and before Square Enix had given the greenlight to move forward, the developers had worked on only very basic, experimental prototypes, I'm told. The game wasn't very far along, one source said, and at the time of this project's cancellation, the core design was still very much in flux.
"There was a lot of work, such as schedule planning and proof of concept tech, that went into the Sleeping Dogs 2 pitch," said one source, who worked at the company during this time.
One problem for Sleeping Dogs 2 was that Hitman and Tomb Raider had taken priority at Square Enix, which meant there was less money to budget towards any Sleeping Dogs 2.
Complicating matters was how tough it was to make the original Sleeping Dogs. Though ultimately published by Square Enix in late 2012, Sleeping Dogs started as an extension of Activision's True Crime series in 2007. True Crime was Activision's attempt at Grand Theft Auto, with sequels set in a different parts of the world. Only True Crime: Streets of LA (the one where Snoop Dogg was an unlockable character) and True Crime: New York were ever released. The third entry, Hong Kong, was cancelled in summer 2011, despite being almost done. Square Enix later acquired the rights to the game and renamed it Sleeping Dogs.
But the journey to ship Sleeping Dogs had a profound effect on the people who made it.
"Several of our best programmers decided to move on and there was some creative turnover, as well," said the same source. "It took several years of hell to ship Sleeping Dogs and many members of the team weren't willing to go through it all again. I was one of the few that stuck around, but even in my case, it took a large toll on my personal life and mental health. Studio culture is a fragile thing and even the loss of a few key people can change the entire dynamic of the workplace."
Chances are, it was a combination of factors that lead to Square Enix passing on making a proper follow-up to Sleeping Dogs, but all my sources said United Front Games was up for it.
Though Sleeping Dogs 2 was dead, Square Enix still wanted to work with United Front Games and was intrigued by some of the multiplayer ideas they'd pitched. From the ashes of Sleeping Dogs 2 came Triad Wars, a free-to-play, multiplayer-centric take on Sleeping Dogs. The response to a new Sleeping Dogs game without its main attraction—a crime story set in an open world—left fans disappointed before Triad Wars even had a chance to enter beta.
"The feeling at the studio in 2014 was that free-to-play was the future of everything, but we never quite found a way to turn the Sleeping Dogs formula into a multiplayer game when it was always a very single player focused experience," they continued. "It's clear in hindsight but I think we also knew all along that players enjoy Sleeping Dogs because it has a fast-paced, relatively easy progression. Triad Wars turned that same game into a grind, and no amount of item drops or leaderboards could give that a long term appeal."
Triad Wars was eventually killed off in January 2016, with the studio admitting "we know it wasn't right for many of you." I wouldn't be surprised if you hadn't even heard of the game.
The last project United Front Games published was a multiplayer brawler called Smash+Grab, which seemed to build on the excellent, Batman: Arkham Asylum-like combat featured in Sleeping Dogs. Though its early access launch on Steam garnered solid buzz, either it wasn't enough (or it was a hail mary all along); less than a month after launch, Smash+Grab was shut down.
United Front Games went out of business like a lot of developers: silently. There was no final blog thanking fans, or a livestream celebrating the studio's history. Smash+Grab suddenly wasn't available to purchase on Steam, and soon, Twitter revealed the rest of the story.
"Currently mourning the best job I've ever had, and the most wonderful team I've ever worked with," said former producer Jen Timms on Twitter. "The end of a great era. Goodbye, UFG."
The future of Sleeping Dogs, if there is any, isn't clear. Open world games are ridiculously expensive to produce, and when going up against publishers like Ubisoft, who've turned making open world games into a factory assembly line, and Rockstar Games, whose Grand Theft Auto V has sold more than 70 million copies since its release in 2013, it's a tough sell.
One of my sources had a pet theory, though.
"I've felt for a while now that if Square Enix was ready to produce Sleeping Dogs 2," they said, "they'd rather give Crystal Dynamics a shot since it's a more proven studio than UFG was. Maybe now that UFG has closed, it will be easier for Square Enix to make that transition. This is just my personal tin-foil hat theory, though. I'm as clueless as any other guy on NeoGAF."
For now, all Sleeping Dogs fans can do is dream of what might have been.
(We'd hoped to release excerpts of the documents, to paint a better picture of what it's like to see a game mid-development, but the complicated world of intellectual property ownership and copyright made that impossible. If that changes, we'll let you know.)
For more info on Sleeping Dogs 2, make sure to give a listen to our special bonus episode of Waypoint Radio below:
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