The date was February 9, 2011, and Stephen Van Der Mescht had just concluded a meeting that no executive producer wants to have. That morning, he’d arrived at work as the person in charge of steering True Crime: Hong Kong, United Front Games’ first open-world action title, towards completion. But now he was the man in charge of a game cast by its publisher, Activision, into limbo. It was a turn of events that no one at the Vancouver-based studio had seen coming, and one that even managed to catch a few staff at the publisher by surprise.
“The people that came up to cancel True Crime,” Van Der Mescht recalls, “one of them was actually the VP on the project. And he didn’t know this was happening, even the day before. The strategy from Activision came from on high. A lot of the people in the trenches weren’t aware of the strategic shifts that the company was going to take. The VP… and, I think, the COO came up to the studio.”
Activision’s emissaries weren’t just apologetic, the United Front Games team recalls, they were as upset as the development team. Just as this was the first cancellation that many of the studio’s employees had experienced, it was the first cancellation that these particular representatives of Activision had ever had to administer.
“I remember I was sitting on a bean bag chair in one of our conference rooms when I heard the news,” recalls producer Dan Sochan. “They were extremely respectful in telling us. It was extremely hard for them. We all understood the realities of the situation, and we had them in one case tearfully telling us what was happening. It was not a good day for either company.”
Nonetheless, it was particularly bad for United Front, which now found itself empty handed, contractually speaking. Not only did Activision own the True Crime brand, but it effectively owned the game, character and mission designs that the studio had built with its financing. All United Front had to its name was an in-house open-world engine. Van Der Mescht sums up the studio’s mood in the aftermath of the cancellation: “It was pretty devastating, to be honest with you. There were people there who had poured four years of their lives into something that we could see would be worthwhile. It was a hard day. There were a lot of people who were very upset. You feel very emotional about it, but my job immediately is starting to think about how we keep studio intact, how we keep the team intact.
“Because, you know, at the end of the day, from a company perspective, we’ve all been around the block. One of the things about United Front Games is that our average … development experience is more than ten years per employee. It’s an experienced studio. So, you know, after the pure emotion dies down, we also understand it’s just business and that’s how business works. And our business very quickly became, ‘OK, how do we salvage this thing?’”
Four years prior to that awful day, however, United Front’s business had simply been making a great game. The studio formed in 2007, and was full of veterans from EA Black Box, Rockstar Vancouver, Volition and Radical Entertainment, so racing titles and open-world action games featured heavily on its collective CV. With the racing game talent occupied making ModNation Racers, it seems almost inevitable that when senior producer Jeff O’Connell met with creative director Mike Skupa and Sochan to outline the studio’s second project, something like True Crime would emerge. Except, of course, it wasn’t called True Crime at its inception.
“We connected with Activision immediately,” explains O’Connell, “and they encouraged us to work on our own pitch to them for a new open-world franchise. At that point, Mike and myself and a few other guys came up with the idea of a game about a police officer in Hong Kong. We were inspired by Infernal Affairs, and the western version, The Departed, had just won [the Academy Award for] Best Picture the year before.
“A lot of us were fans of old Hong Kong cinema,” adds Skupa. “Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee and John Woo stuff. But since Hong Kong cinema had already influenced so many games and Hollywood films, we really wanted to take a fresh angle on it. Around that time, there was this new wave of Hong Kong cinema coming out; there was Infernal Affairs and the films of Johnnie To, [which] had a darker, more serious tone.”