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Popular wisdom says Square Enix’s Grand Theft Auto-like Sleeping Dogs started life as an entry in Activision’s True Crime series, but that’s not exactly true. The open-world action title began its development at Activision, but it was neither Sleeping Dogs nor True Crime: Hong Kong at the time.
Sleeping Dogs was, at one point, intended to be the next entry in the True Crime series. The franchise had encompassed two games, True Crime: Streets of LA and True Crime: New York City, and was a rather blatant GTA clone, though it featured a central gimmick of satellite image-based city recreations. Rather than being planned for True Crime from the start, Sleeping Dogs was simply retrofitted to the franchise before shifting to another publisher entirely.
What would eventually become Sleeping Dogs started as a game concept called “Black Lotus.” Who pitched the concept is not entirely clear; a 2010 Gamasutra report suggests it was Treyarch, the studio now best known for Call of Duty, but a 2012 IGN interview with Sleeping Dogs developer United Front Games suggests it originally came from that studio instead. Regardless, this concept was pitched to Activision as an open-world action title, similar in style to famous Hong Kong action films.
The reason Black Lotus was passed over has never been officially confirmed, but the aforementioned Gamasutra investigation alleged the original concept was deemed unworkable by Activision because it had a female lead character (Activision later denied this, via Eurogamer) inspired by Lucy Liu. However, given the concept bore superficial similarities to a Grand Theft Auto-style, open-world crime title, it was reworked to fit into the True Crime series, according to Gamasutra, with a male lead.
Even after this conceptual rework, True Crime: Hong Kong never became a finished product. It was being developed by the now-defunct United Front Games but was canceled in February 2011. Then-CEO of Activision Publishing Eric Hirshberg said at the time (via Eurogamer):
“Even our most optimistic internal projections show that continued investment was not going to lead to a title at, or near, the top of the competitive open-world genre. In an industry where only the best games in each category are flourishing, to be blunt, it just wasn’t going to be good enough.”
Square Enix bought the rights to True Crime: Hong Kong from Activision in 2011, when the game was already in a mostly complete state, according to Engadget. The company gave it a new title, Sleeping Dogs, and launched the game in 2012. Ironically, it became a much better GTA-style game than its one-time parent series. A Sleeping Dogs sequel was once in the works, but it never got off the ground.