Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with Frogwares, the Ukrainian developer of Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments and, more recently, Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter on PS4. The interview below covers all sorts of interesting stuff from the studio itself and how it approaches the Sherlock Holmes IP, to its next game The Sinking City, the studio’s Lovecraftian-inspired open-world adventure.
And yes, the fact that Sherlock Holmes bares more than a passing resemblance to Jon Hamm in the most recent game, did in fact come up. See? We ask *all* the hard-hitting questions here at PlayStation Universe.
Without further ado then!
PSU: Since the formation of Frogwares over fifteen years ago, how has the creative direction of the developer changed, if at all?
Frogwares: 15 years is a long time, especially in gaming. It seems like technology is evolving at a head-spinning rate, and gaming culture is no longer just a small niche – it’s part of the global collective popular movement. However, some things don’t change. No matter how much technology you have, no matter how big is your budget, creativity is king. We’ve always wanted to create games that we ourselves would want to play, and to make games that bring something new, fresh and out of the norm – and that’s something that will never change with us. It’s hard-coded into our DNA.
Also, we changed how we develop games as well. During this time, our mentality on how we start and finish a project altered. In the beginning we were a very vertical organisation, making decisions from top to bottom. However, we changed that way of thinking, and we are more open, horizontal, and we mix the teams up as well. It creates this “collage” of work, a piece that’s completed by everyone in the studio. It’s a really fun way of working!
PSU:The advent of PlayStation VR affords creators a great deal of additional creative latitude when it comes to immersion and storytelling. Does Frogwares have any future projects with PSVR in mind?
Frogwares: Nothing official for the time being, but we are aware of how much of a statement VR made, especially this year. However, technology is great only when you know how to use it, and I feel that developers are still looking at VR and trying to “figure it out”. We see that for the moment, there are two types of VR games. There are games that allow you to slap on the goggles and see the world in VR, but you’re still restricted to using the pad (an experience that could work without VR), or games that are more like experiences – short and relatively easy games that are almost tech-like demos. The holy grail is to create a AAA-style game exclusive to the VR platform, and that’s something that every studio (even us) would kill for.
PSU: With the impending release of PlayStation VR and a mid-cycle hardware release, how is Frogwares adapting itself to keep up with its peers in the developer community?
Frogwares: The one thing we’ve learned over 15 years is that in order to survive, you need to adapt. We are looking closely at all the latest trends that are happening, and we definitely do not want to be left behind the rest of the competition. However, we also want to look at what the players want and see what systems they adapt. We will be watching this field closely, as it is one of the areas that really excites us.
Saying all of that, it’s not the tech that makes a great game. It is it’s soul, it’s story, that “x-factor” that makes the game stand-out. There are so many great games that you wouldn’t call technologically advanced (Stardew Valley for example, which we are big fans of by the way), but the love, the goodness, and the fun that you have just blows your mind and you cannot NOT have a smile on your face when you are playing it! That’s also a big factor in a game which we cannot forget!
PSU: Magrunner: Dark Pulse was a fresh IP on PS3 that was underrated by many outlets, is there a temptation for Frogwares to return to original IP and if so, should we expect anything in the near future?
Frogwares: Actually, we are working on a new IP as we speak. The new project is called The Sinking City, and it is a Lovecraft-inspired open world game, where the player will discover a mystery that’s truly out of this world.
PSU: Despite being a highly enjoyable detective adventure, The Devil’s Daughter suffered a little from a technical perspective with screen tearing and frame rate drops. With this now being the second PS4 title developed by Frogwares, how difficult has it been to develop for consoles alongside the PC version of these games?
Frogwares: Switching between the two platforms certainly provides challenges for us as developers. However, there is no excuse in technical glitches, so therefore we released a patch that solves those issues, and give the players the best possible gameplay experience they can get. Once again, in order for us to stay ahead of the pack, we need to keep overcoming these challenges, and the best way to do it is to test, talk it over with the team, test again, and repeat the process until all of our community and fan base is happy with our game.
PSU: Taking into account the age and technical limitations of Unreal Engine 3, why has it been employed in both of the recent Sherlock Holmes titles instead of a more seemingly capable engine?
Frogwares: Unreal Engine 3 is still a very powerful beast, even by today’s standards. And although an engine makes a difference, it’s what you do with it that really matters. There is that old adage that says it’s not the tools that make the craftsman, and it also rings true here, in game development. We feel very comfortable with UE3, and we know quite a few tricks with it, so we’ve decided to stick with it for the production of The Devil’s Daughter.
PSU: When it comes to creating the characters of Sherlock Holmes, is there a temptation to venture beyond the original source material and take further inspiration from the recent television show and movies?
Frogwares: Temptation? It is more than that. The thing is, when you create a new chapter for a character like Holmes, you cannot help but to lose yourself in all the impulses around you. And you start to feed your imagination with the books, the TV Shows, the movies. It’s natural that you do so, as you crave to see what others see in those characters. However, it’s not just the Sherlock world that we consume – music, movies, ballet, and other artistic endeavors that feed your soul are also an inspiration for us. Even the words of your own daughter can end up in Katelyn’s mouth 😉
Our Sherlock is a mixture of all those great images, sounds, experiences, and desires that we shared. It’s a formidable concoction!
Sherlock Holmes IP
PSU: Since 2002, the Sherlock Holmes IP has been synonymous with Frogwares with eight core games in the franchise being released to date. With this in mind, why were the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle chosen to be effectively the flagship franchise for the developer?
Frogwares: Apart from the fact that Sherlock Holmes really is a global name, the world and the characters that Arthur Doyle created are just sooo good. He is an iconic character – a genius that lives in his own dimension, who is completely asocial but necessary to the society. He always questions the world around him. He also breaks taboos and his intelligence gives him the right to do so. At the same time, he is bored, he despises the societal norms to the point that he hurts. He always looks for the next case to give him that fix that he craves.
Now, when you take Holmes and the world that Doyle created, you have yourself ingredients for amazing gameplay engine! You have:
– An amoral hero with superhero-like qualities AND superhero flaws
– A character that only accepts very mysterious and apparently impossible cases to solve
– He fights great villains and meets characters who are abused by a cruel society.
All the ingredients for a great game are there – all we need is to provide the player with tools that are designed to help solve the cases… without teasing and revealing what is the truth.
Turn over the page for more on Sherlock Holmes, and the new open-world adventure, The Sinking City.
PSU: Arguably, one of the weakest elements of the Sherlock Holmes titles has been the action scenes and perhaps more pointedly, how awkward and jarring they feel. Going forward are these a priority to be addressed for future entries in the franchise?
Frogwares: In TDD, we wanted to give more freedom and more free-will to the player. For us, it is not something new – it is part of a progression in the gameplay, in the character deepness, etc. Action was not decided prior to the story, it imposed itself because of the character, because of the plot and the vision of the game. As always, when you try to experiment and evolve, some people may not like the new direction that you take. However, there are also those that appreciate the change, and like the new direction that you take. We found that there were group of players that enjoyed these action sequences, and were glad that we introduced them. What we will do though is we will take all the player feedback that we received, listen to our fans and our community, and decide which direction we will take. For now, we are still listening, and if anyone wants to add their opinions and suggestions, then we are here to listen.
PSU: One of the things that we enjoyed about Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter was that Watson had a much greater role and worked a lot more closely with Holmes to complete some of the puzzles. In future Sherlock games will we see more of this?
Frogwares: To be honest, there were a lot of us in the team that wanted to add more Watson! He’s just an awesome, loveable character in the Sherlock stories. Right now though, our focus is on The Sinking City – our own original IP. However, it doesn’t mean that we won’t be coming back to the world of Arthur Doyle in the future. We just don’t want us to grow stale with the subject, that’s all!
PSU: Sherlock in The Devil’s Daughter looks very much like Don Draper (Jon Hamm) from the hit TV show Mad Men, while Watson looks like Jude Law’s take on the character as seen in the Guy Ritchie films. Is this a merely a coincidence or should I invest in a new pair of eyes?
Frogwares: We’ve used quite a lot of different characters as an inspiration for ours! We used many references for different parts of our characters – how they talk, how they move, how they look, what they wear, how they act, etc. For the Devil’s Daughter, we needed Holmes to be younger and a bit more modern to fit the overall story. He is a father of young girl, and he wants to be a good influence on her – even though sometimes it may not work out (he tries though, just have a look at the book he is reading every time he moves from one location to the other 😉 ). If our Holmes was too old and stiff, audiences might not connect with him and he wouldn’t build that credibility of a caring father. So yes, we had a lot of candidates for references, but we won’t spoil it for you to tell you which ones!
PSU: More so than its predecessor, The Devil’s Daughter felt a lot more open to the player with Sherlock’s 221b Baker Street residence being sat in a central hub of sorts that could be explored by walking out the front door. Will this notion of hub locations be expanded upon in future entries in the Sherlock Holmes franchise?
Frogwares: The Sinking City, our next project, is a full open world experience, and I guess The Devil’s Daughter is an evolutionary step in that direction. In the Sinking City, you can definitely expect bigger locations, bigger zones, and much more to discover.
PSU: After The Devil’s Daughter, where does Sherlock Holmes go from here?
Frogwares: Honestly? We’re not sure. We want to take a bit of a breather from Sherlock Holmes – we do not want to ruin this character for us and by forcing ourselves to keep going with it. For the moment, we want to explore and sink in into our next project. But that doesn’t mean that Holmes will not be back!
A future Sherlock could as well take advantage of bigger and more immersive locations. It was quite nice and “refreshing” for us to be able to take Holmes out on the streets. It made him feel even more of a detective mastermind!
The Sinking City
PSU: How far into the development of The Sinking City are you guys and is the title still on target for a 2017 release?
Frogwares: It’s still early to speak about a release date – we are now in the midst of creating our city, filling it with monstrosities and insanity! We are all bursting with imagination, running around and co-creating this whole new world. It’s a rather exciting and thrilling moment! There is a big buzz around, but we just got to make sure we do not awake what is asleep under the water 🙂
PSU: With The Sinking Title being billed as an open-world investigation title inspired by the likes of H.P. Lovecraft, can we expect to see similar gameplay systems to the most recent Sherlock Holmes titles?
Frogwares: I guess that gameplay is always attached to the core idea of the game. In Sherlock, it’s about logic, hence using deduction and many other features connected to it. In The Sinking City, logic is thrown out the window, and you are replaced with insanity, curiosity, and terror. We do have an investigation scheme in The Sinking City, but soon you’ll see that the more you discover, the more questions you will have. Doubt and insanity will slowly creep in. What is actually happening? – those are the questions you will be asking yourself in this city. We’re very excited about what we brewing up, and we hope the fans will like it as well!
PSU: Beyond the possible integration of such established systems, what new gameplay elements are Frogwares hoping to bring to The Sinking City?
Frogwares: Honestly, as much we would love to tell you all about it, we don’t want to spoil it already :D. But we will definitely show you more of the title in the near future, so stay tuned!
PSU: The Sherlock Holmes games have pushed Unreal Engine 3 to its absolute limit; are you sticking with that same engine for The Sinking City or considering something different technology?
Frogwares: For The Sinking City, we will be using the Unreal Engine 4. While technology doesn’t make the game, we need a strong foundation that will support our city, our world, our effects, and our imagination.
PSU: In particular, what examples of Lovecraftian fiction has Frogwares taken as inspiration during the development of The Sinking City?
Frogwares: Frankly – all of them! Personally, I love At The Mountain of Madness, even though it doesn’t have a direct relationship to the game itself. The Lovecraftian world/genre/style is sooo wide and fans of his body of work are really passionate about it. In fact, we work very closely with Lovecraft fans to make sure we are creating a world that would fit the imagination and works of Howard Phillips. You can see the passion in them – they worship his work. Maybe they are part of a bigger cult? Who knows…
PSU: Thank you so much for your time!
In case you missed it when we published it back in June, you can catch our review of Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter, here.