United Front Games, best known for their atmospheric Hong Kong city brawler Sleeping Dogs (2012), is rumoured to be closing down.
The weight of this rumour is not slight, and deserves all the extra attention we can bring to it – true or not, at this point in time we don’t yet know for sure – because, once again, the string of events that led us here reads like yet another example of Konami-like profound executive failure.
But, to start from a beginning. According to United Front producer Dan Sochan, Sleeping Dogs – which never quite lived down its reputation as a True Crime game – actually started out as the original game Black Lotus, which was then subsequently bought and slated by Activision to be the next part of their True Crime game series as True Crime: Hong Kong. After the publisher lost faith in the game’s market prospects, with Activision’s Eric Hirshberg noting in 2011 that “The finished product was not going to be at the top of that genre,” it was ultimately poached (sans the True Crime moniker) from Activision by Square Enix, who would then release the game as Sleeping Dogs in 2012.
After purchasing the studio, the western branch of Square Enix, US and UK both, seemed equally enamoured with the project. Mike Fischer, US president of Square Enix, exclaimed in 2012,
Obviously the game was originally True Crime: Hong Kong from Activision. I can’t speak to why they let that go. I’m not going to speculate on their behalf. All I know is, they’ve gotta be crazy. Because this game is just fantastic.
Square Enix UK London general manager, Lee Singleton had also told Gamasutra that “When we first saw and got our hands on the game we fell in love with it,” describing the game as a “great big bucket of fun.”
At some point – possibly when Tomb Raider, Hitman and Sleeping Dogs all three “failed” to “effectively” (Square Enix lingo, not mine) perform up to internal sales projections (classically the moment when @JimSterling noted “Mainstream videogames have officially gone wrong“) – things turned sour. It doesn’t take much of a conspiracy theorist to imagine a power struggle between Square Enix Japan and the ROW offices, so I don’t doubt corporate cultures had a clash of it.
But let’s be real, projections aside: What was a once-canned game had already sold a total of 1.75 million copies in 2013, and has only added further millions to it since via Steam sales and re-releases on the newer consoles. Even disregarding these millions of sales, let’s take the game once and for all for what it was and still is:
A thrilling success.
After prolonged development hell, several publishers, studio migrations, and brand changes, getting a game out is a nice surprise; getting a good game out is nothing short of a miracle. Where were the Square Enix bonuses to United Front staff? The raises? The doubled budget to go all-in on a sequel that would have undoubtedly performed better than the first game in the series?
Well, what United Front Games came to receive from Square Enix was a fuck you. That’s why the news of their closure stings so very much. First, they were punished with Triad Wars, an asset flip Facebook version of Sleeping Dogs (trust me on this one – I was part of the beta), and later the Early Access game SMASH+GRAB, no longer purchasable on Steam at the time of writing. Today, on the 19th of October, United Front actually announced refunds were going to be retroactively available to all purchasers.
And then they were gone.
Truthfully, Activision’s decision was nothing sensational at the time. They were not wrong in their prognosis – just the manner it was conducted in. They were absolutely right to assess that a new True Crime game would have meant little to the gaming world pre-launch, as the series had only just spiralled out of control with the high-stakes sequel, True Crime: New York City, flopping enormously despite its Hollywood cast and grand plans for subsequent parts. It must have been a bitter pill to swallow. The brand was tarnished, and could have easily doomed True Crime: Hong Kong to mediocre reviews from the get-go.
They couldn’t have known the game was actually good, right?
When the game did come out, players and critics were quickly taken in by an engagingly violent torrent of story, one that borrowed artistic direction and a touch of the absolute fearlessness of Kane & Lynch (another series that both Eidos and later Square Enix could not have misunderstood much worse) and exciting, fast-paced gameplay that displayed great understanding of how to work around the lulls and pacing problems of the Grand Theft Auto series.
Despite being a mature game for a mature audience, it performed admirably in a sales space that doesn’t much care for that. After many rounds of successful, well-crafted DLC, and a console remastered “Definitive Edition” of the game, what other sensible avenue was there other than a big-budget multi-platform sequel?
What could have been, if not for Square Enix’s awful decision to go with Triad Wars instead? They knew the game was good – and ultimately failed to act upon it. In the words of my partner, @nabeelburney, one just has to wonder whether the game “[…] was a mistake, or a stipulation, or an inevitability.” With Team Bondi’s Whore of the Orient cancelled, Mafia III having been in development for the longest time, and with Watch_Dogs 2 carrying only modest expectations, Sleeping Dogs II could have easily occupied, even dominated the marketplace for a good while right now. At this very juncture.
I think we all expected it – especially after Triad Wars. The fact itself, that United Front Games is being closed down, is no surprise. United Front being treated with both executive malice and incompetence at two different major publishers? No surprise. The neverending depths of terrible misjudgement in the video game industry? No surprise there.
The surprise is the game. For Sleeping Dogs to have beaten so many odds along the way to become a beloved game – one that deserved to become a franchise of its own, and finally shed that ugly association to True Crime – is a testament to the development team. In the eyes of history, unfortunately, Sleeping Dogs may at some point in time begin to look like a happy accident. Big players. The little engine that could. Etc etc. The elements are there.
But for United Front Games, it was nothing of the sort: It was pure perseverance, dogged vision, and constant – consistent – battle. If this is truly goodbye to United Front… then I need to share this final thought: It’s entirely possible for a competent, all-new team at Square Enix to push an excellent if thoroughly corporate Sleeping Dogs II out on the basis of the first game. We, then, should never forget the very real cost at which it came to be.