Sleeping Dogs Research

2010 – 2011 for Square Enix/Activision & United Front Games

At United Front Games, I had the pleasure of working with an incredibly passionate team on an ambitious new IP: a new open-world action-adventure game, featuring best-in-class martial arts combat, shooting, and driving, set in Hong Kong, for PlayStation3, Xbox360, and PC.

The studio wanted in-house user research so that the team could observe players in tutorials or missions and adjust gameplay quickly.

As the studio's User Research Lead, I established and ran our user research practice:

  • Collaborated closely with design and product stakeholders to understand intentions and determine research goals.
  • Conducted usability reviews and in-depth competitive analysis on to inform how gameplay tutorials could be improved through consistent timing, streamlined information, and giving the player multiple chances without punishment.
  • Worked on basic tutorial prototyping for tests with in-house scripting tools.
  • Created the user testing lab and research practices based on project goals and requirements, and trained and led user research assistant.
  • Designed and ran user studies. Translated data into concise, actionable reports which successfully informed game improvements. Over the course of 9 months, we playtested over 150 players in weekly/daily sessions.
  • Coordinated methods with Activision's centralized Games User Research team.

Testing Player Comprehension and Mission Difficulty

The player character is Wei Shen, an undercover police officer in Hong Kong.

We playtested the learnability of a wide variety of gameplay mechanics, including hand-to-hand martial arts combat (including knives), shooting, driving, and navigation in the world.

Wei Shen in Sleeping Dogs

Challenges with Vibrant Open World Environments

We collaborated with gameplay and UX designers to understand their goals and find areas where players were unintentionally getting confused or frustrated.

For example, our UI team iterated heavily on the readability and appearance of the HUD elements, as the vibrant palette and realistic environments could make it difficult for players to notice or read critical cues. The vastness and variability of the world meant frequent testing, and often being more heavy-handed in the visual design than we originally expected.

Sleeping Dogs Minimal UI on vibrant environment

Coherency between Environmental and UI cues

We worked with design to test the display of in-game cues, as the team worked to establish a consistent relationship between a cue's appearance in-world and in the HUD/minimap.

Sleeping Dogs Cohesion between 2D HUD and Environment Cues

Teaching Players What To Do Without Telling them Everything

We iteratively tested teaching moments and tutorials, tuning the HUD and mission elements so they would be timed to appear one after another, and ensuring the mission system gave the player ample opportunity to try out new skills as they were introduced.

Sleeping Dogs HUD notes

Game Release

The game was first developed with Activision as the publisher, and called True Crime: Hong Kong. Partway through development, Activision sold the publishing rights for the game to Square Enix, who released the game as Sleeping Dogs. The game was received well by critics and fans, and a live-action movie featuring Donnie Yen is in progress.

Note: Due to NDAs, images here are part of press releases and/or publicly available, and are illustrative of the gameplay features (combat, player movement, driving, shooting) that were the focus of our studies.