I'm due to call MMA fighter Jason "Mayhem" Miller at 1:30 p.m. PDT. I dutifully dial the number right on time, wait a few rings, and then hear a voice on the other end pick up that immediately launches into a foreign language.
"Comment ca va?"
For a moment, I'm thrown for a loop. The guy is speaking a language I don't understand…but his accent is terrible. I regain my composure and launch into my introductions. "Hey Jason, this is Brian Ekberg at GameSpot."
More non-English. I get the impression that Miller is on the other end of the line and he is messing with me.
"Sorry, I don't speak Spanish," I reply. Now it's Miller's turn to be confused, but only for a microsecond. "Umm, sorry man, that was French," he quickly corrects me with a dubious tone in his voice.
Facepalm. Time to move on and quickly--as it's clear to me that the man known as "Mayhem" enjoys verbal sparring every bit as much as he likes getting down to business in the cage. By the looks of things, Miller is always "on"--whether it's blindsiding an unwitting journalist with some off-the-cuff French or confronting bullies in the MTV reality show he hosts, "Bully Beatdown." For video game fans, particularly those who follow EA Sports MMA--the upcoming mixed martial arts game from the House That Madden Built--Miller is known as the guy who pulled off one of the more convincing and memorable pranks in recent video game history.
While visiting EA Tiburon (where EA Sports MMA is being developed), Miller and Tiburon staff joined forces for an elaborate prank on the game's head developer Rob Hyder. Seemingly upset by his fighter's attributes in the game, Miller confronts Hyder in dramatic fashion, scuffles with other EA employees, and generally causes…well, mayhem. It's a profoundly uncomfortable scene upon first viewing--with Miller getting right up Hyder's face (to his credit, Hyder doesn't back down or lose his cool), before letting him in on the joke. Check out the full video of the prank on YouTube.
I asked Miller about the genesis of the prank. "We were doing a stopover…to consult on the video game," Miller said. "One of the producers…approached me before we even met with the [Hyder] on the game and told me that 'We're going to play a prank on him. You can push me, or you can do whatever. We're going to show your stats being really low, and we want you to flip out on him.'
"I'm like, 'Flip out on him? Oh, come on, no problem at all. Like, you know, I got this.' I'm an expert at flipping bananas, right? So, I flip bananas and…right at the point where I was like, 'This is getting way too mean.' Like I'm really being a jerk here--I let him go.
"So, it was a good; it was a good experience. It was real funny, and those guys got me back recently at the Madden Bowl [in Miami]. They got me back pretty good because they made my character dance like a [expletive]. So, I was pretty bummed when I saw that animation, but I say they should leave [the animation] in [the game]."
For EA's perspective on the infamous prank, I turned to EA Sports MMA executive producer, Dale Jackson.
"Only about three of us were in on it, and the other people [in the room] went and changed their pants afterward," Jackson said with a laugh. "It was pretty bad. We were on the Madden floor around all the development going on, and all the shouting and lots of cursing and lots of furniture banging around starts happening. In the video, you can see me going to the door and stopping people because [there were] guys outside the door ready to come in and defend somebody."
The hilarity of the prank illustrates the friendly relationship Jackson and his team have with the fighters who are on the roster. The development team has spent lots of time with the fighters, looking for any kind of insight they can use to make the game a more realistic experience. Whether it's consulting with Mayhem or Randy Couture or recording mo-cap with Cung Le, the approach is to get as much information as possible on the different fighters in the game to re-create their styles as accurately as possible.
"We sit down with them here at the studio and everyone's a little different," Jackson said. "Mayhem and Cung are gamers, so it's great to sit down with them and let them play the game…give us feedback on [things like] 'I'd like to be able to throw this combination off of this kick.' They give us a very specific feedback on gameplay and things like that. When we sit down with Randy Couture or some of the other guys who aren't as much gamers, they give us feedback on, 'Yeah, he would never do that.' So, they're giving us the stuff that allows us to build the AI to be more like what they'll really be.
"We can go and watch all the footage in the world, but, you know, Randy may have fought some of the guys numerous times or Scott Smith has fought them. Different people have fought these guys throughout their time. And with [former UFC referee] John McCarthy…sitting down with him is like opening an encyclopedia of fighting. If the guy hasn't been in a ring with a fighter three times in his career, he's been at more fights three feet away from the fight than anyone in the world. So, getting insight from him has been huge."
For a specific example of fighter comments appearing in tangible form in the game, we turned to Miller, who describes some of the feedback he had for developers after seeing the game. "They did a great job of animating their [fighter animation] transitions. Like when [a fighter is moving] from grappling to striking and just getting back to stand up. They did an excellent job of that.
"But there was one small detail. For example, in most every fighting game when the guy gets hit with a good shot and gets rocked, he just falls down backward, which is very unrealistic. That doesn't always happen. You don't hit somebody in the chin and he just falls back immediately. Sometimes they fall forward or sometimes you'll be rocked really bad but just enough where you know you can just shoot in on the guy's legs to try to take him down…to kind of get your bearings back for a moment. They added that into the game after I was there because we played the rough demo and I just noticed that, 'Hey man, I hit the guy. He always falls backward. That doesn't happen in a real fight.' Sometimes you go, 'Oh, man, I'm hurt,' and you grab the guy."
EA Sports MMA will use a modified version of the Fight Night engine, so it's natural to assume that the game will have the striking game down cold. But, according to Jackson, the complexity of the sport of mixed martial arts has resulted in a lot of work to that engine in order to properly replicate what happens in the octagon. "The striking controls are pretty naturally mapped," Jackson said. "They feel good on the sticks. The one thing that was a weakness when [Fight Night Round 4] came out was their lack of button controls, and a lot of people ripped them apart for them. We knew that from the very start, too, that we wanted button controls in there, so we've added that. We've also had to do a lot of different things. In the boxing AI, there are only so many things you can do. You have a few main stances and so many punches you can throw out of it. The world opens up to a whole different level in MMA, and so a lot of different AI hooks had to be added and different ways to teach the AI how to fight."
Stamina, too, will play a role in fights, though Jackson is still playing his cards close to the vest on exactly how it will be implemented into the game. "Without going into too much detail, stamina affects just about every aspect of the game," he said. "It's a three-round, five-minute round sport or five five-minute rounds in the championship [bouts]…it's an endurance test in its simplest form. When you put in striking and grappling and everything else…and how much it takes out of you just to be out there and getting into position to do something…making sure you have the gas in the tank to finish it when you get there is important. So all of our submissions take into account your stamina when you started and how much stamina it takes to try to lock in that submission and close it out."
While I've got him on the line, I ask Jackson for some thoughts on this weekend's Strikeforce event in Nashville (which will air Saturday on CBS), which he calls "the card to watch this year." There are three championship bouts on the main card, Jake Shields vs. Dan Henderson for the middleweight championship; Gegard Mousasi vs. Muhammed Lawal for the light heavyweight belt; and Gilbert Melendez vs. Shinya Aoki for the lightweight championship. An avowed MMA expert, Jackson has encyclopedic knowledge on all these competitors, calling out Lawal's resilience vs. Ryo Kawamura in March of 2009, whom he beat after suffering an ACL tear in the first round, or the submission skills of Aoki who, according to Jackson, has broken three arms [of opponents] in his career.
Jackson avoids straight-up predictions--which is probably the correct choice considering his position. "I've gotten to know a lot of these guys, and before, I could just root for somebody and kind of watch it analytically and surgically. Now I don't ever want to see one of them lose."
As for Miller, he'll be fighting on this weekend's card too, but MMA seems to be just one portion of Mayhem's burgeoning career. In addition to his show on MTV, Miller regularly appears on Sirius satellite radio and has even studied acting (no wonder he can keep a straight face when punking unsuspecting developers). It's clear that Mayhem is always looking forward to the next big thing. "I'm not just 'Mayhem the fighter.' I'm 'Mayhem [the] Mogul.' I'm doing everything. Hell, I want my own EA video game where they have [me] walking the streets and cleaning it up. You know what I'm saying?"
Provided I could pull some Mayhem-inspired pranks, I'd be up for playing that game. Are you listening, EA?