Mike Skupa doesn't ship games often - two in the last 16 years - but when he does, you take notice. He was the design director of undercover cop game Sleeping Dogs, and one of two principal designers on Rockstar's back-to-school classic Bully, both still loved by fans today. Seven years after Sleeping Dogs released and three years on from developer United Front Games' collapse, he's finally ready to talk about what he's been cooking up.
But as eager as I am to hear about his next game (and don't worry, we'll get into that later), I'm keen to find out how he reflects on the ups and downs of his career so far. His successes haven't come easy: the joy of creating Bully was only made possible by 80-hour work weeks that left him burnt out, he tells me. The "fairy-tale" release of Sleeping Dogs was followed by years of uncertainty and aborted projects, culminating in him being told, with no notice, that the studio was out of cash.
Last month, I spent an afternoon with him in Vancouver's Chinatown, where his new company Brass Token is based, to make sense of it all. He told me how paper rounds and bottle rocket wars inspired Bully's design, how he came to dislike Rockstar's "company-first" culture, how being kept in the dark about United Front's finances made its closure hurt even more, and how he's pouring the last 20 years - the lessons, the struggles, and the grief of lost loved ones - into an unannounced story-driven third-person horror game targeting a release in 2020.
Skupa started making games in his teens when he and a few friends built a text-based multi-user dungeon (MUD) called Majorud and sold it to bulletin board systems around the world. It kept him busy for several years until, at 21, he bumped into an old friend from the Street Fighter community in a grocery store. The friend worked at Prototype studio Radical Entertainment, which at the time was making sports and licensed game, and it just so happened the company was looking for a designer. Skupa, keen to make inroads in the industry, jumped at the chance.
So began his formative years as a developer. Radical was where he found a love for third-person combat mechanics, not least while designing PS1 beat 'em up Jackie Chan Stunt Master and rewatching every Jackie Chan film he'd ever loved in the process. He also found his storytelling feet: because he worked on licenses, he had less control over narrative, so he learned to embrace whatever wiggle room he could find. "There's some liberation in that. You've got your boundaries, and you can be really creative within them," he says.
But he yearned to work on original ideas, and after seven years honing his trade he got his chance. Take-Two Interactive had just muscled into Vancouver by buying Homeworld: Cataclysm developer Barking Dog, creating a new Rockstar office in the process, and the allure was instant. Grand Theft Auto 3 and the recently released Vice City had "shaken" the industry, Skupa says, and Rockstar Vancouver instantly became the place-to-be for action game designers in the city.
Skupa felt he'd developed the skills needed to make the next big Rockstar game, and, partly through connections with old Barking Dog developers, landed a job as one of Bully's lead designers. At first, it was everything he'd hoped for. "Creatively it was a phenomenal time," he says. "It was a very ambitious project, we were constantly pushing to be as creative as possible. I'd never felt that level of freedom before."
Open-world action games were still relatively rare and Bully's focus on teenage life was unusual, which meant the team were treading new ground, and had scope to experiment. Skupa drew on Shenmue and classic adventure games for inspiration, and the nature of the story let the designers inject their own backgrounds into the game.
He wanted to capture "the sense of wonder and freedom" of his teenage years, and recreate specific memories such as being chased by authority figures and other kids. "When I grew up, me and all my buddies had paper routes, we'd ride around on our bikes delivering papers and getting into bottle rocket wars. Those were really your action-packed moments of being a child, and trying to get those things mechanically into the game was really important."
The team would sit around telling stories from their pasts: Skupa grew up nearby to Tony LaBorie, another Bully developer, and the pair chatted about myths surrounding people they'd both known. "If you look at some of the first and last names of the characters, they are based on real people," he says.
As they reminisced, the tone of the game shifted. It started out darker, more "dog eat dog", with less emphasis on overcoming bullies, but as it began to reflect the team's memories it became more uplifting. "The triumph of the human spirit wasn't a big goal [early on]... it actually shifted, and became much more about overcoming the odds."
But Skupa and his colleagues had their own odds to overcome just to get Bully over the line. As fondly as he looks back on the game, he also says development was "exhausting" and chaotic. He and others routinely worked 80-hour weeks to keep up with Rockstar's expectations, which were often out of sync with development deadlines - or in some cases, at odds with the kind of game the Vancouver team wanted to make. (Rockstar failed to respond to Eurogamer's request for comment on this feature.)
Early on, the team rarely heard from Rockstar's New York headquarters, and when they did, it would often change the direction of development, forcing staff to work an "extreme amount of overtime" to get back on track. Some happily stayed late, but others resented it. "One of the biggest problems happens when people are just expected to work late, or they're expected to hang around just to make it look like things are busy. It tires people out, and it also takes away from those times you do need to work a little harder to really make something magical," he says.
Sometimes, Rockstar simply expected too much, given the team's deadlines. It was very much a "love-hate relationship" between the two offices, he says, and instructions from New York were occasionally ignored, or misunderstood, or even given to developers that were no longer working on Bully. It didn't help that the studios' tastes were so different. Former Barking Dog developers came from strategy game backgrounds, and some weren't keen to make a game about teenagers living in a violent world. "A lot of people in the development staff did not like the concept," Skupa says.
The tension left Skupa "terrified" Bully would be cancelled any minute. But in the home stretch, the teams' visions began to align. "When we actually started seeing some of the marketing stuff come out, that was the first time the team really felt, wow, this is actually happening," he says. "Everyone was just focused on the game, and not having different opinions on what the game should be, or whether it was ever going to come out."
It helped Skupa push through the crunch: he admits he considered quitting Rockstar during Bully, but ultimately stuck with it because he knew it would be a special game. "It was very trying, it was very exhausting, and that went all the way to the end. [But] it was a lot easier to manage when we saw the finish line. I wanted to put everything I could into the game, and that's a lot easier to do when you're passionate about where something's going."
He didn't know it at the time, but Bully would be the one and only game Skupa shipped at Rockstar. After its 2006 release, the company shepherded the team onto Max Payne 3, and Skupa was excited to work on what he assumed would be a more straightforward project. But even during pre-production, he could feel it "going in the direction" of Bully, he says. "Hours were starting to pile up again at the company. I just didn't feel I could go through another difficult project like that [...] I was feeling quite burnt out."
Skupa wasn't enamored by the culture at Rockstar, either. He loved the games, and enjoyed working closely with friends. "But the company culture itself... it can be very tricky when it becomes about the cult of Rockstar. It was very much a company-first mentality," he explains.
"I'm not sure what it's like now, but I never felt that there was a huge level of compassion for the individuals, and that made it a very trying place to work. On the one hand you're making some of the greatest games in the world. But on the other hand, the level of appreciation for you as an individual... it was very difficult."
As much as he wanted to leave the crunch behind, he was also drawn to the promise of a fresh idea. United Front, backed by Activision, was creating a new IP: an open-world martial arts thriller about an undercover cop in Hong Kong. He joined as design director, and Activision gave the team both support and creative freedom. Skupa says his first year at the studio was the best of his career to date.
But then it all changed.
Six months after he joined, Rockstar released Grand Theft Auto 4, and Activision soon saw Sleeping Dogs as a direct competitor. "That was not even remotely within our design, not even remotely within our capabilities," Skupa says. "People [would] say to you: 'It's got to have everything GTA has. People want rocket launchers and they want jetpacks.' [...] Another time, I was told this game is going to be like Rush Hour. If you want to make that game we should stop, go back into pre-production, and talk about making that game. But you can't just change a game like that."
Activision even pushed through a second version of the script without telling the lead writer, Skupa recalls. "We had two scripts: one of them was a lowbrow... you could almost call it a comedy, and the other was the script of the game we wanted to make." The team exploded in size as Activision sent more and more producers to Vancouver, and soon Skupa didn't recognise half the people in the office.
The publisher branded the game True Crime: Hong Kong - a decision that "horrified" Skupa. It was mainly a surface-level marketing ploy, and behind the scenes the team were still making roughly what they'd envisaged, but it widened the gap between what Activision was promising and what the developers could deliver. That gap grew and grew until, eventually, True Crime: Hong Kong collapsed.
Creatively, it was a "relief", Skupa says, but it crippled United Front, which cut more than half its 200-odd staff and was left without an active project. It needed a new idea to fill the void. The two Skupa remembers clearest were a "reboot of a dream licence" that he says he can't talk about, and a new IP called Made in Detroit, which he hasn't spoken about publicly before.
Made in Detroit was a "pre-apocalyptic game" in which players would drive across the city, meeting different characters including children, scavenging items and protecting a prized possession as the world crumbled around them. "It was like a mix of The Last of Us and Mad Max," he says, with a bit of Cormac McCarthy's The Road thrown in.
It never got out of pre-production, but that didn't matter because Square Enix swooped in. It bought the rights to True Crime: Hong Kong from Activision, liked what it saw from United Front's demo, and was willing to give the studio a second chance, this time under the Sleeping Dogs banner. To Skupa, it seemed almost too good to be true.
"It felt very strange. This doesn't happen in this industry," he says. "I was cross country skiing with my dog Logan, and I got a phone call from a random person asking me when True Crime was coming back. I was like: 'How did you get my phone number?' I thought it was almost like a joke." But Square was serious, and United Front hired back developers it had let go when Activision canned the game, some of whom walked away from brand new jobs to return. Together, the team finished what they started. "It was a fairy-tale ending for a lot of us," he says.
It was also, sadly, the high point of United Front's rollercoaster existence. Skupa, now creative director, worked up more original IPs, the most memorable being Mechanica, a third-person shooter set in San Francisco - another game he hasn't talked about publicly. Robots were prevalent in Mechanica's futuristic world, and one day they were all hacked during a huge convention. You were an everyman robot handler dealing with the aftermath.
"It was very cool and colorful. It was a bit like The Division or Borderlands with a heavy narrative, and an online co-operative component," Skupa says. Publishers were interested, but he can't comment on exactly why the game fell through.
United Front was also looking at free-to-play multiplayer games. Smash and Grab, an online brawler, made it the furthest, entering Early Access in September 2016. But it was dead before it had the chance to succeed: just a few weeks later, United Front staff were informed the company was bankrupt. Skupa had sensed trouble, especially when the company announced and launched the game on the same day. "At that point you're kind of like, 'there's an unnecessary rush here,' " he says. But the end was still sudden, and for Skupa, incredibly disappointing, because he was assured he had more runway. "At the time, I said I didn't want to promote a product that's not going to [come out], and I was promised: 'No, we have enough money to go for six more months,' " he explains.
He'd worked with United Front's founders since the beginning of Sleeping Dogs, and yet still he'd been kept in the dark, which made it hurt even more. "I understand how difficult it can be to manage things like that. But I think in a situation like that, just being more transparent where things are... people could have been looking for work prior to that, people could have been preparing themselves."
As if that weren't enough, Skupa's dog Logan, a Husky-Northern Inuit mix, had passed away the week prior from cancer. Skupa kept a dog holder in the office, and clearing that up alongside his other belongings was tough. "That was really tricky for me. That was super, super emotional."
But there was a silver lining. "I had been wanting to go off and do my own thing for a long time at that point [...] for one reason or another I wasn't brave enough to just do it." Now, he had no choice, and he already knew what he wanted to make. At United Front, he'd travelled with his dog up the west coast to take reference shots for a potential horror game, and he now flung himself into it.
He's channeled the emotions of that time into his new game: both the grief of his dog's death and the events of the summer before, when he got married and his father passed away. "That for me was a good excuse to avoid that grief, and keep busy," he says. "I think a lot of that grief is going into what I'm working on right now. It's a horror game, and that's a great channel for some of that emotion." That personal touch benefits the game, but it can also be uncomfortable and distracting. "I've found it's not something I can strategise around. Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's bad. It's probably good for you long-term."
The protagonist of his new game, previously called The Chant during development but currently unnamed, will have to face her own struggles, too. She's susceptible to panic attacks, and the setting is a rural island retreat where she's seeking help. Throughout the game, you'll meet an ensemble cast of characters, talking with them and solving tasks together. Skupa says he often finds video game horror "too dark": the next game's horror is more "other-worldly", and it will blend supernatural elements into its combo-based combat.
It will also have a dose of satire, and a crafting system that draws on pseudoscience and fringe metaphysical theories. "We take things like crystals and sage, you can create these items to craft arcane weapons," he explains.
As the hero begins to lose her mind - which is one of her stats - the boundaries between her reality and the supernatural will blur. Skupa is keeping schtum on the story, but Brass Token, now six developers strong, has built a motion capture suite in its office to bring those characters to life on-screen. "We have a small cast of characters so that we can really focus on you meeting them when things start, and then as everything unravels, you can see them change," he says.
The story will be, as it has been in Skupa's other games, central to its success or failure. He says the main character "isn't a reflection" of himself, but the game is very much a product of everything he's been through in the last 20 years. "You mine from your well, and there are certain elements of my life I've brought into it [...] it's a story I wanted to tell that draws on a lot of things I've seen, or seen around me, and people I've met."
The game is still in early development: Brass Token is currently funded by the not-for-profit Canada Media Fund, and is seeking partners to help it bring the game to PC and one major console. It's a world away from Skupa's days working with deep-pocketed publishers but even at this early stage, it sounds like it will be his most personal game yet.