Last week the lid was finally lifted on Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days, the follow-up to the successful third-person shooter from Hitman developer IO Interactive. Now the game is somewhat out in the open, we're allowed to say just how unique a game it appears to be. With its YouTube-style handicam presentation and bizarre leading characters, Dog Days is certainly a game to keep and eye on. We caught up with producer Hakan Abrak to discuss the challenges involved with such a project and IO's development focus.
Q: What is the big aim with this sequel? What do you want to do with this game?
Hakan Abrak: If you talk about the feel of the game, the style, we were pursuing realism with this game more than the first one. We've been asking each other, and a lot of people, what is real, today. As you've seen, we've been inspired by a lot of Michael Mann movies and Blair Witch kind of camera shake movies. But also documentary, like YouTube kind of documentaries. What we think is real today is something that's on-stage, something that doesn't have the perfect angle, Hollywood style. It's the opposite. It's something that's random. It's some guy just checking out his mobile phone and recording something that's happening, something weird or interesting. For our generation that is accepted as real, and we tried to capture that. I really think we've nailed that.
Q: Has the controversy surrounding the first game created problems for you? Does it put pressure on you during development of the sequel? Does it still cast a shadow? Or have you been able to move away from it as a studio?
HA: It's been really weird for us, because for us we've been bystanders on the sideline looking at all this controversy happening. There's a lot of things we don't know and can't do anything about, but what we can get out from Kane & Lynch 1 is, let's face it, as you say, there are a lot of people who are reading a lot of things in forums about Kane & Lynch 1. We have had a constructive approach to that. We've used that as feedback for our mechanics to fix that. We have listened, done a lot more usability testing - internally, externally - to try to get the core shooter mechanic, the cover mechanics, stuff like that, to really get that tight. I believe we've succeeded with this one. There's some stuff we just can't control. It's out of our hands. We try to be constructive about it and use it.
Q: How do you approach the discussion of your games by gamers?
HA: It's different from person to person. It's a very human thing - how much you block and how much you listen to. We can't afford not to listen, right? We can't afford not to be open and honest about it. That's what we're trying to be with Kane & Lynch 2.
Q: In what way?
HA: First of all with the team. Obviously it has an impact on the team. Feelings on the first one... It got mixed reviews, but still Kane & Lynch was a huge success. It was a new franchise and sold really well. It got mixed reviews, but it got good reviews in a lot of style magazines. But then the whole controversy with Gerstmann kind of got out of hand. You maybe even could say some of the criticism was given by people that haven't played the game but jumped on the carousel with the whole thing. You can't do anything about that, so we just tried to listen to constructive critique. Let's face it, we had some problems with the mechanics, right? I mean, that's the honest truth. We spent a lot of time trying to fix it this time around.
Q: Are you taking a risk with Kane & Lynch 2? The art direction is quite different to what we've seen before. Is it a gamble?
HA: On some level you should always take a gamble. But we believe in what we're doing with this game, the direction we're taking. We spent a lot of time pursuing the X-Factor, doing something that's different, not generic shooter. So we really spent a lot of time in pursuing what's real. We wanted to make a real crime, a brutal crime shooter. What's real for us, for our generation it's user-generated stuff. It's a YouTube documentary. It was so easy for our art direction to communicate that to each other, and it was so easy for the team to understand where we were going. It was felt that we really have nailed it.
Q: It felt familiar?
HA: Yeah, it felt familiar. Although it may feel like a risk or a gamble, I think it's not. A lot of people are used to seeing controversial stuff on YouTube. They're used to it today and they accept it as real. It's not as off a controversial.
Q: When Cloverfield came out, a lot of people said it was a great movie, but everyone said they felt sick afterwards. Have you had to do a lot of calibrating with that to gauge the right level of camera shake?
HA: In the usability tests that was one of the things we were tracking, how far we can go with the camera to get this realism before making people nauseous. We spent a lot of time on that. How can I describe it? It feels like a car on a bumpy ride. It's worse for the passenger than the guy driving it. The player can play for a long time without getting annoyed by it, in general. But in those cases where people get sick, maybe if they do that there's always the option to go in the options and turn off the shaky cam.
Q: Did you have an early build that was too shaky for people?
HA: Oh we've spent a lot of time and done a lot of iterations, really tuning it up and tuning it down. Now it's not intense enough and we have to turn it up. We spent a lot of time on the whole glitcher thing, the light distortion and saturation, a lot of time to make that just the right dose.
Q: One thing I saw in the presentation was a nod in the direction to Hitman, and Mini Ninjas on the shelf in the store. How do you feel about Mini Ninjas now? There's a big contrast to this and to the Hitman series? Are you happy with the way it went down? Do you regard it as being successful?
HA: Mini Ninjas, as you said, is quite different than what we've been doing before with Kane & Lynch and Hitman, which are a lot more violent games, a lot more grown up games. Mini Ninjas is a product of IO wanting to try something else and the core employees being older with kids of their own, and they want to try something else. It's a product that we're really happy with, with the result of Mini Ninjas. It's really cute. It's a really good game. The DVD showed pictures of Hitman and Mini Ninjas. I must say there are some glitches in the build, some placeholders in the build, so it's not necessarily the final stuff that's going into the final game. It's an early build.
Q: The original Kane & Lynch was pretty dark, and it looks like the sequel will pursue the same kind of lines. What's your take on the violence in modern day video games and the debate surrounding them? Do you have a responsibility?
HA: There will always be a debate about that - also with movies and the responsibility movies have. To be honest with you, I don't think it's my responsibility one hundred per cent with what the game does to people and the violence. First of all, we're very conscious about what we are doing. The consumer has no doubt about the type of game Kane & Lynch is. It's 18 plus. It's a mature game. So the experience has to be mature as well for the audience we are targeting. It is a brutal crime shooter. That's what it is. And we are trying to create a realistic environment and have it realistic and believable. But at the same time it's a game. We are also emphasising that it shouldn't be that real, that you don't have fun. It's a balance between it being a game and having fun, and having the realism. Obviously you have to be true to the environment, true to the characters and the story and the atmosphere, but it's about being clear on the target. It's a mature adult game. It's not a game for kids.
Q: Does Australia's strict classification rules, for example, have a bearing on the kind of games you make? Or do you stick to your guns?
HA: You might make some sacrifices and compromises, but I think first and foremost it's important for us to be true to the concept of what you're trying to do and the real experience you're trying to give the player and what we're trying to make the player feel. That's really important for us. It might have some consequences with the markets, as you say, and the ratings, but we have to be true to our creative idea. It's a balance, obviously. In Kane & Lynch, although it's very brutal, it's not like you have to kill civilians to advance in the game. It's not like that at all.
Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days is due for release on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC in 2010.