The following article is based around an email interview conducted by our team with Jamie Cheng, CEO of Klei Entertainment. For the uninitiated, Klei Entertainment is currently developing Shank for Xbox Live Arcade for summer release.

Redefining digitally distributed games

About five years ago, a young video game developer with some big ideas on how small game companies should work walked away from a position with an established developer in the hopes of completely redefining how digitally distributed games were made. Jamie Cheng sold his shares of THQ and went out on a limb to accomplish his dreams. This is where the story of Klei Entertainment begins.

After a quick foray into downloadable games (Eets: Chowdown and n+ both for Xbox Live Arcade), Klei has made it clear they are serious about accomplishing their goal. But no game has made as strong a case as Shank.

“Why the heck hasn’t anyone else made this game?”

When our team first saw Shank at PAX, we were blown away by the art direction and the general concept for the game. An intense debate ensued as to what the true inspiration for the game was. It felt part spaghetti western, part grindhouse film, part Cartoon Network original series, and part Rambo. So we had to hear it straight from the team. Here is how Jamie Cheng described it to us:

There was definitely an element of “why the heck hasn’t anyone else made this game?” We love – I mean LOVE — Desperado, graphic novels, and all the other elements that you’re talking about. It seemed obvious to us that gamers loved them, too, and that we could make that game.

Shank is a pulp fiction revenge story through and through. We didn’t set out to make an epic story where the world is at stake – we wanted to have a ton of fun making this game, and have people enjoy the ride. I think there’s going to be a lot of moments of “holy crap – did they actually put that in?” Yes. Yes we did.

Believe it or not, Shank is a 2D game that pushes a high end system to its limits

When it comes to PC development, there is always the issue that games may not run on all systems. There is a wide range in specs for computers in use, so that thought must always stay in the mind of the developer. Xbox Live Arcade however provides a standardized platform. And this was something Jamie Cheng was very grateful for this time around.

Our previous project to Shank was on the PC platform, with a very low spec – we got the game running on a EEE PC! We decided to go to a platform where we didn’t have to worry about technology and focus on creating the game. Honestly, it was a huge relief to develop for higher-end systems and really just go all out on creating our vision. There’s so much to be explored in the 2D world that hasn’t been touched, and on a hardware like the 360, we can really great some amazing looking visuals.

I mean, 9 layers of HD parallax is nothing to laugh at.

Shank is about taking the idea of the retro beat-em-up and creating a new experience – a 2D cinematic brawler. We hope that players feel the ode to the classics and get excited about seeing all the great things that can still be explored in 2D gaming.

Shank: “It’s not violent enough…”

Violence in video games has become a hot button issue politically in recent years. California is already in the process of trying to push through a bill that would place harsher restrictions on who can purchase “overly violent games”. While we are sure some companies intentionally seek out violence just for the shear gore factor, Jamie Cheng made it clear that wasn’t the goal with Shank:

In terms of violence – the only thing I’ve heard so far is that it’s not violent enough – no joke. But we respectfully disagree – we want to make the violence mean something – we didn’t want to devolve into “how do we make it more gory”, because that loses its appeal very quickly. In a Tarantino film, it’s not a gore fest. Instead, there are key moments of painfully highlighted moments of violence, and that makes it awesome.

If Boondock Saints and Double Dragon had a baby, you might see combat similar to that found in Shank

While Shank will have a story and there is more to the game than just violence, the reason gamers are going to flock to it is the combat. As such, Klei Entertainment has done everything they can to keep gamers entertained over the course of the game. Jamie Cheng feels that gamers are going to be extremely impressed when they get their hands on the game.

The combat and movement controls are definitely the focus of the game. The way we designed the combat stays true to the old beat-em-ups – you’re the unstoppable train against the sea of bad guys.

But we spent insane amounts of time tuning the combat to make it incredibly fun and satisfying to chain your attacks together and discover new moves. Back in the day, Double Dragon was amazing because you could grapple an enemy and knee him a few times – in Shank, you have 3 weapons constantly equipped, and you’re earning weapons that you can swap in as you go through the game. When using the weapons, we actively think of ways to surprise the player – we know what players want to do but we achieve it in a surprising manner. For example, when a player tries to turn around to shoot someone behind with pistols, we do a cross-over Boondock Saints-style attack.

That, and the Boss fights speak for themselves. I won’t ruin that for you.


We’d like to offer a big thanks to the entire team at Klei Entertainment, specifically Jamie Cheng for taking the time to chat with us about Shank.