Interview With Jamie Cheng Of Klei Entertainment

A little bit about Klei Entertainment
In 2005, Vancouver-based Klei Entertainment started from a basement to become a dynamic workplace with award-winning game developers. Klei CEO, Jamie Cheng, first developed AI for Warhammer 40,000K: Dawn of War (PC) and The Outfit(Xbox 360) while working at Relic Entertainment. After selling his THQ stock and borrowing some money, he built a small developer-friendly studio from the ground up. Klei’s creative team is led by Jeffrey Agala, a long-standing director for the hit television cartoon series Atomic Betty. The team’s goal: Redefine expectations for digitally distributed games. (exerpt from Klei’s website)

You founded Klei Entertainment on your own, what was the moment or inspiration for you to decide to strike it on your own and found Klei Entertainment?
I actually founded Klei with Alex Colbert — a good friend and engineer at our studio. We had already been working on Eets for a couple of years, and I was at a cross-roads in my career. I had nothing to lose except my meager savings, so we took the jump!

How did you land Jeffrey Agala as your creative director?  His feel and artwork stylings can be felt in your games quite a bit.
Jeff first started out creating art for us on a contract basis for Eets: Chowdown. It was pretty apparent that we worked extremely well together, so I nabbed him as soon as I could and we’ve been having a blast ever since. We both know that neither of us could accomplish anything near what the two of us together can.

Where do you draw your inspirations for games from?
How do you decide what ideas to look into and further develop as games?

Is it cliche to say “everywhere”? When I’m not finagling a game, I play a lot of games, read a lot of graphic novels, and watch a lot of movies. Our inspirations come from all these places and more, and we decide whether or not to pursue an idea based on our collective experience of knowing what works, and whether we can make it absolutely shine.

We describe our games with the word “authentic”. It’s important to the crew that all the pieces fit together as a great, cohesive experience, and that we’re able to create something that lifts the experience into something memorable and surprising for players. If we’re confident we can do that, then we can continue discussing making the game.

What are the steps you take as you develop a game?
That’s an interestingly broad question.

I definitely don’t pretend to have the “correct” method of creating a game, nor do I have a formula. For Shank, we started with a theme and feel for the game, then started prototyping the mechanics. First in Flash that I wrote over my holidays, then in a brand new game-play engine written by Kevin Forbes. We spent a good month just moving Shank around the screen to get the feel right before moving on to building the first level. In September, we created our vertical slice — the PAX2009 build that showed us clearly what the game acts and feels like.

In parallel, I was working with Jeff and our writer Marianne on creating the story and setting of the game. Once the story and demo came together, we began cranking on the content and went into full production.

What are the most compelling aspects or parts of a game to you?
We treat games as a whole experience. So tight, responsive gameplay can’t come at the cost of fantastic art direction or a great narrative. All of these things need to be there and they all need to support each other. That’s how we end up with an authentic experience that players can connect with and remember.

What games have you been playing recently?
Define recently 🙂 In the last couple months, the game I’ve been playing starts with an S and ends with a K, and it’s not “Skank”.

Going back a few months, there’s been quite a few. Mass Effect 2, Uncharted 2, Assassin’s Creed 2, Street Fighter 4, and there’s a little freeware narrative game called “Eternally Us”. I think I fit in some old school LucasArts adventure games in there somewhere too.

The initial reviews for Shank look really good, OXM recently gave the game a three and a half out of four quarters.
Sweet! I’m looking forward to getting the game out for real.

Where did the idea for Shank come from?
Shank was created by Jeff and I through our love of old school gameplay, and movies like A Better Tomorrow and El Mariachi. We took the core concept of Double Dragon, and wanted to raise the bar in terms of gameplay, animation and thematic experience.

Give your own breakdown of what we can expect from Shank, in respects to play, art style and story.
In one sentence, Shank is a 2D cinematic brawler inspired by classic beat ’em ups and graphic novels.

When people play the game, they tell me that they love the way the game moves — everything they try does something different, and even toward the end of the game they’re still finding new ways to control Shank. The visuals are obviously something we’re very proud of, and some of the later environments are also my favorite.

From a story standpoint, we created a tighter, personal revenge story. We didn’t want yet another epic storyline, and Marianne welcomed that after writing God of War.

A common misconception is that Marianne dropped in late in the process, but as you play the game, it’s clear that we would never have been able to integrate the story like we did if the process didn’t start and end with the narrative.

Do you have an official release date for Shank on XBLA, PSN and PC?
Not yet! So far we know it’s coming out this Summer.

After the release of Shank, what’s next for Klei Entertainment?
Well, we’ve been creating original games for the last 5 years, with lots of ups and downs along the way, but I’ve been loving every step of it. I don’t see that changing any time soon.

Finally one last question, what advice would you give to someone looking to enter into the video game industry?

In my opinion, creating games is the most important thing you can do.

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