Game preview: EA Sports UFC

By Alan Bell

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Announced at E3 in 2012, EA Sports UFC immediately caused quite a stir in the gaming community.

The first part of a multi-year, multi-product partnership with the Ultimate Fighting Championship, UFC - when it releases next year - will bring Fight Night sensibilities to an all-new sporting code for the first time, making it an interesting prospect for a whole range of gamers - even those who aren't familiar with the sport itself.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship has been around since 1983; what makes now the right time to make a game about it? "The obvious reason," UFC's creative director Brian Hayes explained to me, "is we signed a long term licensing partnership with the UFC. Why did we do that? There's a couple of reasons. One, it's one of the fastest growing sports in the world right now, so that's a pretty cool partner to have. Two, the head of EA Sports (Andrew Wilson) is a tremendous mixed martial arts and UFC fan, so that's always a benefit! And three, it's a great opportunity to do something new, because we have a new technology - the EA Sports Ignite engine - and we have new platforms coming out (the Xbox One and PlayStation 4) so it's a great time to launch a new partnership like this and hopefully make waves and make an exciting new title for new platforms."

Brian - you might remember him from EA's press conferences over the years; he makes quite an impression at a videogame themed event - isn't new to gaming, development, or sports related to fighting. "[I'm a] HUGE fan of UFC," he enthused to me shortly after we finished a few rounds in an early version of the game. "I've been a huge fan of boxing, obviously, I have a lot of experience working on the Fight Night games, and I've been a huge fan of the UFC since its inception really."

"Although, my appreciation for it has changed significantly as the sport itself has changed. When the first UFC 1 came out, I remember renting that on VHS and that was more of a spectacle, right? Just kinda crazy. Not too many years ago, the sport really started to evolve into a legitimate athletic competition between highly trained, highly conditioned athletes, and it's only becoming more and more that as it continues to grow. I've been a fan since the first UFC, and I'm a bigger fan now than I've ever been - hopefully there's more and more people like me out there every single day."

I'm new to the sport personally; I get that it's a "thing" (it's hard to watch anything on Sky Sports these days and not be exposed to it, after all), but I've yet to become as engrossed in the code as some people clearly already are. What is it that people are so enamored by? "Dana white has a really great way to explain it," Brian suggested, "and we tend to agree with him. It's that 'everybody understands fighting.'"

"The story I made up one day is that if you took a human being from before the UFC was invented, sequestered them away from civilization - like Charlton Heston['s character] from Planet of the Apes, when he went away and then he came back to Earth. If you brought him to a UFC event and you sat him in a seat, and he just looked [and said] 'oh look, there's an Octagon. A cage. Two guys just walked into it, and they're both dressed like they're prepared to, maybe, combat each other?'"

"You wouldn't have to explain to him what's going to happen. He would just get it; 'oh, there's two guys in that environment? I bet they're going to have a fight.' And you wouldn't have to explain to him what 'fight' means; human beings get that on an instinctual level - we've been fighting for various reasons, any sort of reason, ever since we became human beings."

"The fact that it's now a sport or a competition is something that's part of our human nature; it's part of our DNA. Every single organism, whether it be a single-cell organism - they battle for survival in your bloodstream, rams battle and butt heads on the mountain top, silverback gorillas battle for bamboo shoots or whatever - it goes all the way through every living organism on earth: competition is in our DNA."

It's hard to deny, we sure do like fighting each other. On any random day, any random TV news show will readily confirm exactly that, and it takes little imagination to understand why that popularity translates well to videogame form. But speaking of games, what can we expect from UFC when it hits store shelves next year? Short of two guys grappling in an octagon, EA have revealed relatively little about the game so far.

"In terms of features and modes," Brian explained when I asked him to detail what gamers should expect, "we're not speaking specifically about career mode or online features (etc) right now because we're still so early in development we can't say with 100% concrete certainty how everything's going to line up. Yeah, there's going to be a singleplayer experience and yeah, there's going to be online features and modes. But right now, we're really just talking about and explaining what our vision is for the core gameplay, as relates to that 'feel the fight' message and bringing the fighters to life like never before."

"Feel the fight" is the slogan EA are using to sum up the very core of UFC; the technologies that will combine in order to create a simulated fight experience designed to draw players in far more than previous games have so far. Examples shown include the way in which fighters actually express their feelings in their faces, showing emotion and actually tracking their competitor in a realistic manner as the fight progresses. From the game camera - the distant, third-person one implemented in the alpha build, at least - it's a subtle inclusion at best, but it - combined with numerous other technologies - all add up to something that could mean UFC is the first to make a serious attempt at bridging the uncanny valley.

It sure looks the part already, anyway. The build we were able to play was limited in the extreme; you could perform a wide variety of kicking and punching attacks (including some of the more spectacular, like one where you run up the wall of the octagon and kick your opponent in the face), but there were no grapples and no take-downs (where the two fighters engage in a struggle on the mat.) They're coming, Brian assured me, but they're not yet in a place where they're happy to demonstrate them to a gaggle of the world's media such as was assembled at Gamescom.

We did get shown a video of the ground-based grappling in action, however, which toggled between having the new body deformation technology enabled and disabled. With it switched off, the fighters appeared much as you might imagine; grappling together as they might do on an Xbox 360 UFC game - were it to exist - in a way Brian described as "action figure-like." But then they showed it with deformation switched on. All of a sudden, I understood what a big deal this technology is and just how much it's going to change the way all sports games (not just fighting games) look from this point onward.

Deformation, if you're not familiar with the word, simply means that the fighter's bodies behave much more like a real human being than what we're used to in videogames. Instead of simulating the shell of a human being, UFC's Ignite Engine actually constructs what amounts to a virtual human being - complete with bones, muscles, and skin. When hit, this virtual person's body reacts like you'd expect a real person's to: their bones say solid but the mix of muscle, blood, fat, and skin wobbles around on top of it in a realistic reaction to the impact. In slow motion, it looks amazing, and in a grapple (where the fighters are making multiple points of contact) the effect is stunning.

That's not the end of the tech that the fabled EA Sports Ignite Engine is bringing to the table, either. Another example is the way in which skin discolours in order to show exertion or fatigue. When the fighters are really straining (like in the video of the two chaps struggling on the ground), you see their muscles stand out on their necks (for example) and their faces turn pink. It sounds minor, and you might need to be told to notice it, but that's because your brain is accepting it as real - not because it doesn't make a difference, because it does. It looks sensational in action, even this early in development. Combined with some next-generation experience, polish, and post-processing, I suspect the slow-motion videos people export from UFC next year really are going to blow people away.

But, like I said, there's only so much to glean from the version of the game I actually played at Gamescom. To find out how it will work in detail, we have to rely - for now - on what we're told and shown, by people like Brian.

"There's definitely meta elements," Brian explained when I quizzed him about the presence of deeper strategy than was apparent in the build we had just played together. "That's the sort of stuff we worked on in Fight Night. That's different to your traditional 'arcade' fighters; those games generally don't involve any concept of stamina, they don't have that simulation / sports aspect. Whereas in a UFC fight or in a boxing match, stamina has always been a fundamental part of making that a believable sports / combat experience."

"It's an important part of any UFC fight - how much gas does your fighter have in the tank, how much is he spending round to round, and what does that mean when it's one minute left to go in the fifth round of a championship fight? Is he gassed out or does he have enough to try and finish the fight against his opponent? We have to make sure that the health and stamina meta game exists in our game; that's what makes the sports fighting experience fundamentally different from your traditional arcade fighting experience."

The arcade game point is an interesting one for me; sports games tend to walk a fine line when it comes to finding and serving an audience. They need to appeal (and then provide accessibility) to fans of the sport that aren't necessarily gamers in the traditional sense, and they must provide the depth of experience and feature set that hardcore gamers are looking for - or risk flailing around in some sort of awkward middle ground.

So who's EA hoping will embrace UFC? The answer, of course, is all of the above. "I don't like to expect anybody to play it," Brian explained, "but I hope everybody will play it. I don't have the right to expect anything! But our goal is to make the most authentic, fun, and accessible UFC experience we can."

"From our experiences working on Fight Night, we know games like this can have real mass appeal; I've met countless people who have come up to me and said 'oh man, I'm a huge fan of Fight Night' and I'd say to them 'oh are you a big boxing fan?' and they just don't have the first clue about anybody [in the sport.] They would say 'oh yeah, I know Mike Tyson' but so does everybody!" Brian exclaimed, laughing at the memory of what was clearly a frequent occurrence.

"There's a whole lot of people who are not boxing fans that love Fight Night, so we think there's the potential for there to be a whole lot of people who don't really know the UFC but they're going to love this game because, again, people get fighting on an instinctual level and people love competitive experiences where it's one on one. You don't have to worry about your AI goalie or whatever - it's all in your hands, it's the purest essence of videogame competition that you can have and we think that's really appealing. It's obviously really exciting stuff; you don't have to be a UFC fan to think 'it would be really cool to run off the side of the cage and roundhouse somebody in the head for a knock out'; no matter who you are, you're probably going to think that was pretty damn cool!"

Despite their intentions of creating a realistic simulation that's closely tied to the real-world sport, there are some things that can't be recreated virtually; lines that they won't be crossing. "While we're looking at presenting an authentic level of visual damage," Brian explained, "there have been some UFC fights in the past that probably take the level of physical damage to a point where we would require an age rating that we don't want to target for. That's not every UFC fight, obviously, but there have been some UFC fights that we're not going to [attempt to duplicate]. We're not going to let it get that bad. But that's really the only thing - in terms of authenticity - that we're not going to be *that* authentic with."

"Certainly, in the videogame world, there are aliens are getting murdered and all kinds of things are going on, so I don't think there's anything happening in the UFC game where the ratings board's going to be like 'woah, this is crazy!' I mean they're used to rating all kinds of videogames, so nothing in this game would necessarily shock them."

As to exactly where those lines are drawn? If you're not a fan of blood and just can't help Googling things you read about, this is absolutely the time to stop reading. Still here? You were warned... "I think it's just the amounts," Brian clarified. "Sometimes, in a UFC fight - like Cain Velasquez vs. Bigfoot Silva [UFC 146, May 2012] was pretty gruesome; [another] really good example is BJ Penn vs. Joe Stevenson [UFC 80, January 2008]; the human head just has a whole lot of blood vessels in it, very near the surface, so when you get a cut - near the cranium area - it bleeds a lot. It always looks way worse than it is. The BJ Penn / Joe Stevenson fight; if fans reading want to see what I'm talking about, you can just google that and you'll see an example of visible physical damage that we will not be simulating in EA Sports UFC because it was quite excessive!"

As an outsider to the UFC, something that immediately struck me was the potential for the game to serve as a gateway into the sport itself; a concept not lost on either EA or the UFC, it turns out. "We certainly hope that the game will have that effect and I think the UFC certainly hopes the game will have that effect," Brian confirmed when I raised the possibility. "Just like I said about the Fight Night experience: I think there's the possibility that this game will be so fun that people will play it and because they play it they'll learn about people they may not have known before; whether that's they didn't know about Georges St-Pierre or Anderson Silva or Jon Jones, or maybe they knew about those guys but they didn't know about some other fighters, and the game will introduce them to those personalities and those fighting styles and next time they hear about a fight and it's that guy they'll be like 'oh yeah I know him from the game' and hopefully it helps to educate everybody more about the UFC, the fighters, and the sport itself."

One thing that became increasingly clear throughout my time with Brian was just how fanatical he is about the sport; this is a man who brings genuine passion to his desk when he turns up on a Monday morning - there's just no way he could have learn as much about the topic as he clearly knows if he didn't have a keen interest in it already. With that in mind, I asked him about what excites him about the sport at the moment as a way of closing out the interview and giving me a place to start from now that my own interest has been piqued.

"I'm excited by the growth of the sport," Brian replied, "and how frequently they're putting fights on - whether it's on pay-per-view, free television, or the next season of The Ultimate Fighter - if you're a fight fan, you never have to go too long without seeing a compelling match up somewhere. In the UFC itself, one of the things I'm really excited about recently is the featherweight division; it's incredibly stacked with phenomenal talent. Like Jose Aldo is amazing; [another] one of my favorite fighters is the Korean Zombie - they just fought, it was kinda unfortunate they both got really banged up in it and it had to end kinda early. Frankie Edgar's in that division and he's just an amazing talent and even guys ranked four or ten, eleven, twelve... are all super talented guys and it's an amazing division. Whenever I'm watching a card I'm always hoping there's going to be a featherweight division on there because that division's so deep you just know it's going to be a compelling match up."

But would he have a go himself? If you've seen the man, you'll know why I asked him; he's stacked and he walks like a man who can backup anything he's got to say, should it come down to that. "People say that all the time," Brian exclaimed when I queried him, laughing - not entirely convincingly, I might add - at the suggestion. "I might look built for it but the deceiving thing is I'd have to lose about 40 pounds to make it down to the lightweight division, which is where I'd have to fight to have a hope of lasting more than 30 seconds. I've trained a little bit in boxing and kickboxing, and just minutely in jujitsu in the past, but... I'm a game developer for a reason!"

Since 2012, however, next to nothing has been revealed about the game - until now. At Gamescom in August, I had the chance to play a few rounds on an early build of EA Sports UFC with Brian Hayes - the game's creative director - then pepper him with questions about it.

It's still far too early to make any kind of definitive call about the title, of course, but what I played and heard definitely piqued my interest.

Platform: PS4, Xbox One

- nzgamer.co.nz

- NZ Herald

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