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. Nine 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.