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An inside look into EA Sports UFC 2 with series director Brian Hayes

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EA Sports UFC 2

Among the hardest things about rebooting a video game license as big as the UFC's is building a new foundation from the ground-up. Developer EA Canada experienced that hurdle last year. The team, led by executive producer and creative director Brian Hayes, had no choice but to scrap the gameplay and design elements that had been exhaustively molded over three previous generations of games by now-defunct publisher THQ, and begin anew on the latest generation of consoles under a new franchise umbrella.

The result was EA Sports UFC, a game that graphically looked every bit as impressive as could be expected from the same publisher that counts FIFA and Madden NFL among its yearly credits, but one that drew mixed reviews from gamers and critics alike, with many hardcore MMA gamers lamenting a buggy launch product and sparsely populated Career Mode.

The building blocks for a successful franchise were in place, though. Now, 18 months after the release of EA Sports UFC, Hayes hopes the time he and his returning team at EA Canada have spent fine-tuning and adding to that formula will shine through in the next chapter of the series, EA Sports UFC 2, which is slated to release in Spring 2016.

"I don't want to jinx ourselves, so I'm knocking on wood right now. But it has been a far different development experience working on UFC 2 than it was working on UFC 1," Hayes told MMA Fighting. "The combination of, it was a new license for EA Sports, it was two new consoles for the development team, and it was a development team put together from a few different [groups] -- there was a fair amount of growing pains.

"A large part of UFC 1 was really building that foundation. We've done all the remodeling and additions to the game for UFC 2."

The beginning phase of the sequel's public rollout began in earnest this week, as EA Sports released its first vision trailer, announced UFC women's bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey as its cover athlete, and introduced a wave of series evolutions with a press release on Friday. Prior to the announcement, we sat down with Hayes to explore those features in-depth and discuss the challenges of forging a game from the ever-shifting furnace of mixed martial arts. (Ed. Note: Portions of this conversation have been edited for clarity and concision.)

Star-divide

Shaun Al-Shatti: So right off the bat, I want to start by asking you about something that felt like the biggest point of emphasis from the material I saw, and that is the new knockout physics system. What is that system and how does it differ from the first game?

Brian Hayes: So how it differs from the first game is enormous. Basically, all the knockouts that happened in UFC 1 were actually canned animations that were either hand animated by animators, or we captured them with a stunt actor in motion capture. The reason we did that is -- in the past, one of the game I worked on many, many years ago, Fight Night 2004, had full physics knockouts, which were hilarious at the time but also completely unrealistic, because you punched the guy and it was like a marionette had his strings cut. It didn't look like a real human body being knocked out. So you had a real lack of realism, but you had tremendous variety. As games start to look more and more realistic, it certainly looks really weird if you put that kind of simple ragdoll physics on really realistic looking characters, like we had in UFC 1. So we had canned knockout animations, which looked realistic, but also were very repetitive.

So our animation and physics engineers got to work on a system that is procedurally driven. That means it's driven by physics, but there are a lot more components that take it several steps beyond just clipping the strings of the marionette. There's actually a sort of simulation of a semi-conscious person trying to maintain their balance, or legs reflexively maintaining stiffness. Literally our Lead Gameplay Engineer sent me an e-mail the other night -- it was Thomas Almeida's KO of (Anthony) Birchak from the event this weekend. Like, the KO that happened in that fight looks so much like some of the KOs that are happening in our game in those same positions up against the fence, except our KOs are being generated just by physics and math and genius coding on the part of the guys who work on our team.

So it's us being able to have no knockouts really being the same, in terms of they're not canned knockout animations -- they're driven by what direction the strike is traveling, what direction the opponent who is getting hit is traveling. Momentum, physics, all of those things play into creating an outcome that is realistic, tremendously varied, and super, super rewarding. So when you see the replays of you sending guys to the mat with tremendous force, it's that awesome couch-play moment where you point in your friend's face and tell him how much he sucks, because look at how incapacitated he is. It's really fantastic.

Al-Shatti: Traditionally, I feel like the hardest part of building any UFC or MMA game is always the grappling. Jiu-jitsu and wrestling are such fluid systems, they really don't translate well to the rigidity of the controller. But from what I read, it sounds like you guys overhauled your grappling mechanics for this game. Could you elaborate on that?

Hayes: That's definitely the biggest challenge. If you have any experience grappling, you know firsthand -- the really weird thing about grappling is that you can do it with your eyes closed, because it's really about feeling weight and balance and leverage, etc., as opposed to seeing that your foot is trapped in lockdown position or something like that, right? It's not about position. It's about feel. So it's a really challenging thing to give people an experience that can only be communicated visually.

'When you see the replays of you sending guys to the mat with tremendous force, it's that awesome couch-play moment where you point in your friend's face and tell him how much he sucks.'

One of the big things that really held it back previously was that, certainly to my knowledge, every MMA game up this point has always been more of a turn-based grappling experience. By that, I mean once the fight went to the ground, the first person to initiate a move became the offensive player, and the other person was by default relegated to being defensive only. So if I took you down and I was in full guard, and I started trying to pass to half guard before you did anything, the only thing you could do in response was defend my attack. Then if you did that correctly, you could try something and I could try and defend you.

Now it's pretty easy to understand why they've all really been built that way, because when we undertook building it this other way, it was a tremendous amount of work. We had to add a ton of animations to the game to support two players' simultaneous interaction. But what we have now is the ability to say, hey, when the fight goes to the ground, say we land in full guard, I can start trying to pass half guard to the right, but simultaneously you could starting trying to stand up another direction, either by triggering backward or moving laterally. That's something that's never been there before.

It's kind of hard to explain the difference it makes, but if you could picture -- imagine if the stand-up game felt that way, similar to UFC 1 on the ground. What that means is, okay, we're standing in front of each other, and if I throw a punch before you do, you would be unable to throw a punch back. All you could do is block. And if you block correctly, then you can throw a punch back at me. It's a very sort of stilted, unresponsive experience, and that's one of the reasons why the stand-up game always felt very rewarding (compared to the ground), because you could pick up the controller, run towards each other, and even if you have no clue about anything, you could mash buttons and you'd end up punching and kicking each other until somebody falls down. But the ground game was so much more of a black box of, ‘why can't I move now? Why can he move?' So developing this sort of two player simultaneous movement is a big step forward to making the ground game feel a lot more responsive like fighting on your feet, which we take as a big win.

Al-Shatti: So is the submission system still going to remain intact then -- that little Octagon mini-game? Or is that being overhauled as well?

Hayes: No, the submission system is going to remain pretty much intact. We're making some updates to the visuals of it to hopefully make it a little bit easier to understand for some people who may have trouble getting it. But we did get a lot of feedback on that submission system last year, people who were like, ‘it's a little challenging, but once we got it, this is the best submission system we've ever seen.' Once a few people said that, we said, hey, we're not going to mess with this too much.

But there are some nice little wrinkles. We've added submission chaining, so in submissions where it makes sense, you can chain from a triangle choke to an armbar. Stuff like that. That's in the game, and there's some new submissions from the clinch as well. We only had submissions from the ground last year, but now if you're in the clinch, you can jump into a triangle or go for a flying armbar, stuff like that, which is pretty cool.

Al-Shatti: The MMA world has shifted dramatically since the first game, largely with the Reebok deal and the nuking of the sponsorship landscape. That was a long-standing feature in previous iterations of the game, things like sponsors, customizable shorts and apparel. Is a majority of that going away now, with Reebok taking its place? Or will UFC 2 still be relatively customizable in that regard?

Hayes: No, you're right, UFC 2 is going to feature the new UFC fight kit line, because that's what the sport looks like. The removal of all those other brands and fighter clothing, that's what the sport is like now. We're always working with our licenser to recreate as authentically as possible what their sports look like, so that's what EA Sports UFC 2 is going to look like.

Al-Shatti: So we can expect lots of black-on-white and white-on-black when it comes to fight shorts?

'It's not about position. It's about feel. So it's a really challenging thing to give people an experience that can only be communicated visually.'

Hayes: Yep. The interesting thing about it is that, now, similar to games like FIFA or Madden -- you know how you have a jersey selector before going into a match? How in those games you pick from a home or away (jersey), or you might be able to pick an alternate jersey? Same thing here. You can pick home or away, the neutral or the national color kit, or the champion kit color, depending on what game mode you're playing in.

Al-Shatti: One of the biggest criticisms of UFC 1 I heard last year, and myself experienced, was that the Career Mode perhaps wasn't quite as robust as past titles. I know you can't speak much on it, but is that something that was a big focus of the team this time out?

Hayes: It certainly was. There has been a big focus on trying to add some new wrinkles to experience of Career Mode this year. We basically completely overhauled everything, from the fight offer to your training, to what (jumping from) one fight to the next will feel like. We're trying to make that as varied as possible, provide some sort of ups and downs and different challenges for you to overcome fight to fight, as opposed to what was more of almost a hamster wheel experience on UFC 1. So yeah, that's a huge one. And the other thing is that you'll also be fighting far less fictional Career Mode opponents in the game this year, because UFC 2 is going to have -- by a good, good margin -- the largest roster that there's ever been in a UFC game. So that's something we're pretty happy about, too.

Al-Shatti: That was actually my next question. How expanded should fans expect this roster to be? Are we talking at least top-15 of every division?

Hayes: So, it's tricky to say. I don't know if I can say top-15 of every division, because I don't know what the rankings will look like on the day we ship. But even if there were a top-15 in every division, that would only be 150 fighters. That is well under the roster number that the final game will ship with. We're going to have significantly more fighters than that.

I can't say the final number just yet, because again there might be some movement on the UFC's part. Somebody might get cut from the UFC who we thought was going to be on the roster, but now they're not going to be. So I can't give a specific number. But top-15 in every division, that's a breeze. We will have more fighters than that, for sure.

Al-Shatti: That was actually something I pleasantly surprised with the first game, that you guys kept releasing updates after updates of new fighters for free. It felt like an interesting way to add longevity to the game and keep things fresh.

Hayes: Oh yeah, and it's been very important, because -- and I mean, you work in MMA, so you're aware of this -- things can happen so quickly in the UFC, right? As an example, hey, when we were working on UFC 1, T.J. Dillashaw just lost to (Raphael) Assuncao, so he didn't make the cut for the roster. And then, oh, injury replacement, injury replacement. I remember I was sitting in the crowd watching Dillashaw-Barao 1, like, I just have a feeling this kid is going to win and totally (mess this up for us), because the game was launching the next Tuesday. He's going to win and we're not going to have their bantamweight champion in the game at launch.

So we just have to be able to keep doing stuff post-launch to react to that kind of stuff. And you're the MMA outlet, so I don't think I'm breaking any rules here, but another perfect example of that is Sage Northcutt.

'We're trying to make that as varied as possible, as opposed to what was more of almost a hamster wheel experience on UFC 1.'

Al-Shatti: (Laughs.) Super Sage!

Hayes: Yeah, so he's not going to be in the game at launch, because he just came out of nowhere. We were already finished, we had already locked down the entire roster. So I don't want there to be any surprises, in case he just goes crazy and wins something nuts in the next three months. We know he's amazing. We know he's young and incredibly good-looking. (Laughs.) So he will be in the game soon, assuming he continues to live up to his potential. But that's the exact reason why we need to be able to keep updating the game post-launch, because you never know how quickly or how out-of-nowhere the next potential superstar could be coming from.

Al-Shatti: So Create-a-Fighter mode now covers both men and women. Considering that women were absent from the first Career Mode, was that a challenge to implement? And is it something where you're going to throw an Invicta FC into the game to serve as the minor leagues?

Hayes: Well, it certainly is challenging to implement, and that's one of the reasons why we weren't able to put it in UFC 1. Originally when we signed the deal with the UFC, that was actually before the introduction of the women's bantamweight division. There was a significant amount of time we were spending on UFC 1 where the best guidance we had was, you know, Dana White saying, ‘women would never fight in the UFC.' And then everything changed. We had to scramble just to get the women's bantamweight division into the game, and we didn't have the time and resources to build a female create-a-fighter system for UFC 1.

So it is very labor intensive, it's the kind of feature that takes a lot to get done. But as far as the Invicta FC sub-license, that's not part of the game. It could be part of it in the future, but it's not something that we've discussed. We're really focusing on the sort of core UFC experience at the moment.

Al-Shatti: So the strawweights are going to be in there as well, right?

Hayes: Oh yeah. I would never -- Joanna Champion is one of my favorite fighters right now. There is no way I would not have the women's strawweight division in this game.

Al-Shatti: Hopefully they don't introduce a women's flyweight division within the next two months to just mess with you.

Hayes: Oh no, please don't. Please don't. (Laughs.) Now I'm knocking on wood again.

Al-Shatti: Well lastly I have to ask about KO Mode, because I'll be honest, that sounds exactly like what my brother and I would always play on UFC 1. Our fake and occasionally unenforced ‘no ground fighting' rule. Could you elaborate a little on how that came to be and how it will play out?

Hayes: Well, it sort of came about two ways. One, we heard plenty of anecdotal feedback from fans who said exactly what you just said. There would even be hardcore fans who would say, ‘hey, I love the game, I don't mind the ground stuff, but I like to play with my brother or my dad or my buddy who just doesn't get that stuff. So when I play with him, we have a rule of no ground fighting.' That was [a big] piece of feedback we got from the community.

Then the other thing is that when we were working on the knockout physics feature, and internally we were making videos to communicate to the team and executives what the feature was about and how it was coming together, we had debug features in the game that, we could set the game to basically be one-punch KO, or two or three or four hits to KO the other guy. And we would be doing video capture, and they would become really intense video capture sessions, to where it's like, wait, we're trying to capture a video but we just spent three minutes dancing around each other being super evasive. (Laughs.) Like, we're sweating, we're getting really intense, because we didn't want to be the one who actually got KO'd.

It was actually the video capture guy who said, ‘hey, this would be an awesome game mode.' And I was like, ‘you are absolutely right. This would be an awesome game mode.' So we basically sort of took those two things together and worked on creating a far more robust feature than just turning on the debug setting. But that's really the goal behind it. That, hey, sometimes you don't want to do virtual jiu-jitsu, so having a Knockout Mode is always fun.