Interview

EA Sports in the spotlight

Product manager Oliver Hughes talks shop

Created in 1993, the EA Sports label has been responsible for an entire range of authentic sports games, spawning the ludicrously popular FIFA franchise as well as the definitive golf game in Tiger Woods PGA Tour. Also responsible for the Fight Night boxing series, NBA Live basketball games and NHL ice hockey titles, the EA Sports range continues to represent the peak of fully licensed, highly accurate and incredibly realistic sports games with annual iterations of their core brands.

This year sees the EA Sports range expand with two completely new games and the return of one that's been on a three-year hiatus. We popped over to EA's offices in Guildford to talk to Oliver Hughes, Senior Product Manager for EA Sports about their 2010 line-up and what we can expect from this year's newcomers as well as the usual big hitters.

So, Grand Slam Tennis is your first tennis game for the Wii?

Yes, it's actually the first tennis game EA have made in about 20 years, I believe.

And what was the biggest challenge in bringing the game to the Wii?

Well, firstly it's brand new so we had to develop it from ground zero and we're not just developing a game, we've also got to license all the players, license all the menus, license all the tournaments and also we have to market it from ground zero, as there's no legacy to lean on. It's always challenging to do stuff that's new, but it's also an opportunity. I think that we've gone through the dev cycle and it's been great fun. The Wii has made it really cool for us because it lends itself perfectly to tennis, but the things I've mentioned were the sorts of challenges (we faced).

How tough do you think it was for the dev team to get the physics and nuances of tennis just right for the Wii?

I don't make the game so I don't really know about that, but I would say that making a game for the Wii, it must be natural. You swing a racket, you swing it with your arm, so I'm sure it was quite complex getting it right and making sure the control system works correctly, but I actually think the guys have done a good job. The team who worked on it managed to make the control really sensitive with or without MotionPlus and they've managed to build a load of authentic tennis movements into it. I'm sure there were a lot of challenges in doing it, but I think they've done a great job.

Do you know how the developers got the most out of the MotionPlus peripheral?

Again, I'm not sure. I'd imagine that the Wii MotionPlus presented both opportunities and issues. It was new, so they didn't know about it while at the same time, there may have been things that they wanted to do with the standard WiiMote that they couldn't before, and now they can with MotionPlus. So, I'm assuming there were challenges and opportunities, but like anything new it might take time to get it right. I think from what I've seen and what I've played they've done a pretty good job with it.

Are there any plans to introduce MotionPlus into any of the other EA Sports brands?

We've announced Tiger Woods and Grand Slam Tennis and I'm pretty sure Sega announced their Virtua Tennis game and there's Wii Sports Resort that I think are the only four games at the moment that have been announced will be supporting Wii MotionPlus. I'm sure other people will follow suit. I'm sure we'll do it with other games; I just don't know what they are.

Coming back to Grand Slam Tennis specifically, what was the reason for adopting such a distinctive art style?

What we wanted to do with the art style was make a game that's fun, accessible and authentic. The first thing that we had to get right was the gameplay. That had to be nailed. It had to be a fun game to play or people wouldn't come back and play it. Second thing was licensing all of the players and venues, and the third part was making sure it looked and played authentically. I think that the players in the game look like the players in real life. They're very recognisable; their playing styles are very identifiable, unique and authentic. The graphic style is very fun and very suitable for the Wii platform.

Would you say that it appeals to the broadest audience possible?

Yeah. It appeals to the nature of the platform and the capabilities of the platform. We didn't try and bog down the processors trying to produce high fidelity graphics. We'd rather the processing power went on the gameplay so we went with a graphical style that was fun and accessible.

As a rare venture into tennis for EA, are there any plans to expand the franchise across all available platforms?

When we originally announced the game back in Leipzig last year, we did say then that it would also be out on PS3 and 360, just not at the same time. They'll probably be out later in the year.

Are these versions going to adopt a more realistic style than the Wii game?

It'd be wise to assume that they'll conform to the standard EA Sports style of play.

Talking of realism, how important is it to have all of the proper licenses and one hundred-percent authenticity in an EA Sports game?

I think it's really important. It's one of the key pillars of what EA Sports stand for. All of our games have licensed content, licensed people, licensed venues, licensed tournaments and that's what makes us number one in our industry, I think.

If I said to you, 'let's play a tennis game,' and you ask me if it's got Federer, Nadal and I say no, but they've got Joe Bloggs and Joe Bloggs' sister, you wouldn't bother. You wouldn't want to play as Joe Bloggs' sister! So, yeah I think it's important and it's what people want.

Moving onto EA Sports games in general, how hard is it each year when you're releasing annual iterations of a game like Tiger Woods PGA Tour, to come up with new features every time?

It's a challenge, but I think we do a very good job with it. Every year we have to make sure we innovate and add new content and keep developing, keep building on what our community tells us they want. We've been making Tiger Woods and the PGA Tour games for fifteen, twenty years now...

I remember playing one on my Mega Drive way back...

And I think it was on the PC before that, so it's every year we have to add something new. In Tiger Woods 08, people had problems with the online mode, so with Tiger Woods 09 we introduced a massively improved online mode and simultaneous online play. This year we've built upon online even more. Last year, people also weren't satisfied with the putting, so we've improved the putting and then added new modes, new courses and some new players. Every year there's a challenge, but it's like every game when you're making a sequel; you have to keep making sure that you bring something new and fresh, otherwise people just won't buy it.

What's the most significant new feature for Tiger Woods 10 then?

The first thing you do is improve the things that need fixing, so we've improved putting and online play as well as adding some new bits of content. This year Tiger Woods 10 is all about tournament golf, so firstly we're launching the game earlier than usual. We're launching in July ahead of the PGA season, which allows us to take more advantage of the tournaments that are going on. We've added the USGA and US Open license, so now we've another major tournament to market the game around and get people excited about the game. They're the main additions, but the there are things like dynamic weather, which is a pretty cool feature and there'll be other things that we'll announce in the next couple of months that we're pretty excited about.

Do you ever have a massive list of features for a new game and hold some of them back for the following year?

I'm sure there are people in the development teams that have a list as big as the wall of things they want to put in there, but I think they go down the list and say, 'we need this now, and we'll maybe leave that until next year.' I don't think it's a case of, 'here's our ten-year road map, here's what everyone's getting each year.' If there's a ten-year road map, it's probably factoring in cost or time or a license that's maybe unavailable or taking longer to negotiate. It's not like we're this evil company that's as thick as thieves. Every year we want to give people the best game we possibly can, but obviously having priorities means certain features might take longer to get into the game.

Can you give us an overview of the EA Sports 2010 line-up?

Well, if I were a gambling man I would assume there'll be an NHL, an NBA, a Madden, a FIFA, obviously there's Tiger, Tennis and there's another Fight Night coming. There's also EA Sports Active, which is our fitness offering that's out around the end of May. I think that's the complete line-up. This year we've been very much like, this is EA Sports and we've added two completely new games this year as well as Fight Night, which hasn't had an update for a few years since Round 3.

So, a big year for EA Sports then?

Yes, we've got a very big blockbuster line-up for the Sports label. I think it's a kick-ass year. I mean I've played almost all our games that are out this year including Fight Night 4 and EA Sports Active, and they're absolutely top-notch games.

EA Sports Active is clearly your response to the popularity of Wii Fit then?

Well yeah, it's a fitness game for the Wii. I actually think it's fantastic. Wii Fit very much took a more eastern, wellness approach - core balance etc. I think our game is very westernised, more about cardio-vascular fitness. I think it'll be really appealing to a lot of people and it really can get you fit. It's a cool game.

Fight Night this year is absolutely brilliant too. Fight Night Round 3 was initially the killer app game for PS3 and number 4 just totally blows it away. It really is fantastic.

What's the biggest thing we can expect from Fight Night Round 4 then?

The big inclusion is obviously Tyson. It's Tyson's first videogame appearance since Tyson's Punch-Out!! on the NES. There are all the usual great boxers in there and the same control system using the analogue sticks - it's brilliant.

Which version of Tyson are we getting then?

I think there's actually three...I'm not quite sure. I think there's multiple versions of Tyson in there from the young bruiser, to the um...I don't think you can bite ears, but there'll be various levels of Tyson.

But no Frank Bruno?

I don't know actually! I've only seen it, but it's not a game I work on. It just looks like a really great game.

Can't wait to play it! Thanks for your time!

You might also wish to peruse our recent previews of Tiger Woods 10 and Grand slam Tennis.

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