Exclusive: Mark Media Interview

Drew Parker over at Mark Media was kind enough to answer a few questions about Mark Media and Shuyan the Kung Fu Princess.  This interview was provided to our patreons early, and now available on the main site. Check it out below!

TorontoGameDevs.com: Tell me a little bit about yourself, and Mark Media. The history of the studio, when it was formed, how big are you guys?  How long has Drew been in the video game/tech industry?

Drew: Mark Media started in 2009 originally as a TV animation company called Mark Animation.  In 2011 we evolved into games, and in 2015 we now also do TV documentaries and films.  We're currently at around 50+ people.  We have two core gaming properties right now, Shuyan the Kung Fu Princess, which is targeted at the mid-core market, and Miaomiao, which is for preschoolers.

As for me, I started as a game programmer over 12 years ago, worked up to a Technical Director position at Mark Media, then transitioned to my current role as Creative Director on Shuyan the Kung Fu Princess.


TorontoGameDevs.com: What's it like to work for a tech company in Canada, specifically Toronto?

Drew: There is a lot of funding support and incentives for game and tech companies in Ontario, like from the Canada Media Fund (CMF) and the Ontario Media Development Corporation (OMDC), so that is a huge benefit for companies working on digital properties.

And in Toronto there are all kinds of game companies, from Ubisoft to Phantom Compass, so being here is great for networking around games, both on the business and personal fronts.


TorontoGameDevs.com: Shuyan is a game about finding the essence of kung fu through self-restraint.  What kind of challenges did this present while designing an action/fighting game? 

Drew: A bunch.  But one of the biggest challenges was trying to design a combat game that feels like a combat game, and yet isn't a combat game.

And what does that mean?  The real essence of kung fu is to not fight.  The Chinese character for kung fu literally means "to stop the fighting."  With Shuyan we are trying to get to the essence of kung fu instead of the cliche.  And while the cliche of smashing a room full of enemies is fun, and we still want that action and excitement, we want to hit that deeper meaning of finding self-restraint through kung fu training, and using your power to give mercy to others more often than destroy everything.

But the goal and mechanics of practically every single melee game, and even every combat game, is to obliterate the opponent with as much force as possible.  So how do you make a combat game about not doing that?

So more specifically the design challenge becomes following enough genre conventions to give the right emotions and experience, but breaking enough conventions to provide a new and unique experience. And what's the unique experience we're going after? Feeling like a kung fu master who effortlessly flows around opponents deflecting their attacks, and spares them by throwing or disabling them instead of crushing them.  So we have a system for that, the soft kung fu system.

But if you only flow around enemies and deflect attacks, that is pretty counter-intuitive for players based on every single game they've played.  And it's the same with kung fu training, people start off thinking kung fu is only about fighting.  So we discovered through playtesting that we actually have to have a hard kung fu system, lead with that to match player expectation, and then gradually introduce the soft kung fu mechanics - then people get it.


TorontoGameDevs.com: How does the gameplay design reflect this core idea?  How do players respond to the philosophy?

Drew: The game design reflects the core idea of self-restraint and kung fu philosophy in a number of ways.

In the fighting system, you can choose at any time how much force you want to use -- how much to punish your opponents. And you choose between using hard kung fu, which has more explosive attacks and kicks, and the soft kung fu, which has more throws, arm locks, and deflective type movements.

In the narrative, when other characters take advantage of you or attack your self-interest, you decide how far to push the line when dealing with them.  Also, the combat and narrative systems interact, so for some characters how much punishment you give them in the arena will affect how they respond in the narrative.

And finally, of course all characters remember how you treat them, so the smaller altercations start to add up.

So through all these systems, the player can choose how to express themselves and treat the other characters, while trying to achieve their goals. They choose whether to follow self-restraint or not. But the kung fu master is constantly teaching them this philosophy and way of life, and isn't always obvious or apparent how exactly to follow that philosophy, and that philosophy may even be in opposition to the player's self-interest and goals.

In terms of player response, we find players are very open to the concepts of kung fu philosophy, as long as we don't confuse players by not letting them punch people first. In other words, we let them get a bunch of enemy smashing out of their system first before we introduce the philosophy.

We find players are very interested in the unique premise of a "merciful" kung fu battle, and they enjoy the quick weaving back and forth of narrative and combat.  But we're still building, testing and refining the broader strokes of the narrative with the kung fu progression as we try to nail the best experience possible.


TorontoGameDevs.com: The game utilizes manga/comic elements in the narrative.  How important was crafting the story along with the gameplay, and who was the team that worked on the script?

Drew: The story is very important to the experience we want to create. The gameplay revolves around this idea of journeying towards being an authentic kung fu hero, which at its core includes absorbing and utilizing the kung fu philosophy through kung fu training.

But to be truly tested on whether the player chooses to follow that kung fu philosophy or not, they must be presented with a number of dilemmas and contexts which compel them to do otherwise.

Kung fu is actually a way of life -- when I took kung fu my teacher said even professional fighters spend less than 1% of their lives fighting, so you've got to get something else out of it -- which primarily is this philosophy. But then your understanding of that philosophy is tested in life's decisions, and so we have a branching narrative to test the player's understanding of the values at the center of kung fu.

We brought onto the team three amazing writers who worked on games such as Mass Effect 2, Batman: Arkham Aslyum, and Star Wars: The Old Republic to help us craft a powerful branching story to achieve these goals.

Our Senior Game Designer, who previously worked on the Thief series, met constantly with the writers. In a narrative game the story design, game design and level design are all very tightly linked.  So the writers and designers work very closely together to ensure all the relevant game and story elements present were in sync and reinforcing each other.


TorontoGameDevs.com: Anything else you want to share about Shuyan? What has you most excited about the game? When can we expect it to come out? Where can gamers keep up to date with the game?

Of course for me everything about the game excites me!  But I think I'm most excited about how the game is trying to capture an authentic kung fu spirit.  How it features true kung fu movements, true kung fu philosophical teachings, and a true kung fu approach to dealing with aggression -- using something that can melt aggression... not fighting force with force, but something more powerful, which is empty, free of intention, and mysterious.

Kung Fu is closely tied to the Tao, and the founder of Taoism Lao Tzu said, "He who controls others may be powerful, but he who has mastered himself is mightier still."

So capturing the kung fu spirit in the game... that's what I'm most excited about.

In terms of release date, unfortunately I can't give any official word on that. But a good site to keep an eye out for updates on the game is here: http://www.gamerkungfu.com/


Thanks again to Drew for answering our questions, and Julia at Mark Media for setting everything up. We'll have more on Mark Media as time goes on, but keep in mind that they are hiring at the moment.  Make sure to stay tuned to TorontoGameDevs.com for the latest on Mark Media and all other game developers in the Toronto area.