Since 2006, I haven't missed a single UFC event. Whether the fights take place in Vegas on a Saturday night or in Macao at the crack of dawn, there's something about the young sport that demands my undivided attention. I might lack the technical proficiency to pull off the slick sweeps, pinpoint punches, and tight transitions that professional mixed martial arts fighters have in their arsenals, but I've been drawn to the pay-per-view events for as long as I've been aware of the sport.
It's an undeniable passion of mine, so as you'd guess, I've played just about every UFC game that's out there. Sure, I didn't enjoy myself while trudging through Global Star's UFC: Sudden Impact or Crave Entertainment's UFC: Tapout, but I couldn't keep myself from indulging in MMA's unique brand of action in whatever form possible.
It hasn't been all bad for MMA games, though.THQ managed to do the UFC name justice with the Undisputed franchise, which looked and, for the most part, felt like a real UFC event. EA also found some success with EA Sports MMA, which managed to blend a deep roster of non-UFC fighters with Fight Night-esque controls.
Still, there hasn't been a single game that makes you feel like you're actually locking in a tight guillotine choke or transitioning from a loose half guard to a commanding mount. MMA doesn't have a solid video game counterpart for fans to call their own, but EA looks to change that this year with EA Sports UFC.
We've seen very little from the company's first crack at a licensed MMA product up to this point, but speaking with creative director Brian Hayes last week gave me hope for the game's future. Not because he passed along early gameplay footage or an exclusive screenshot to convince me of his team's work. Instead, what grabbed my attention was his deep passion for the sport of MMA.
"People understand fighting," Hayes explained. "Let's say you took a guy who had been in space for 100 years with no idea what was happening on planet Earth, and the first thing you did when he got back was take him to an event. And he was sitting in the crowd, and he saw a cage and two guys walk into it, and then the door shut. Even a guy who had spent the past 100 years in space...he'd probably understand that these guys aren't about to knit."
Hopefully for the more casual people, we can give them a broader appreciation for the multitude of different things that can happen.Brian Hayes
The project for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 looks to make you "feel the fight," and while Hayes doesn't necessarily think fans will be spurred to train in the complex martial art of jiu-jitsu after dropping the controller, the former Fight Night developer hopes that the game will give people a greater appreciation for what these athletes are capable of.
"I don't think we're trying to teach anyone [how to fight], but hopefully for the more casual people, we can give them a broader appreciation for the multitude of different things that can happen in a mixed martial arts fight by getting them more immersed in it," Hayes explained. "Hopefully, that'll lead to growing fandom of the game, as well as growing fandom of the sport."
That level of immersion can be achieved only by a team familiar with the many facets of MMA. With this in mind, the animators, producers, and even Hayes himself have been training in the physically taxing, technically complicated art of Brazilian jiu-jitsu since the game first entered development. This has allowed the developers to understand the sudden nuances of striking, grappling, and body control to a much higher degree.
Hayes also let me know that Kron Gracie, renowned grappling instructor at Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, has been monitoring the game's submission animations over the last few months. The academy instructor has a first-degree black belt in BJJ, a black belt in judo, and more than 15 grappling championship titles to his name. Although he has yet to make his MMA debut, there are few people as well versed in the many techniques featured in the game as the Gracie family.
Fortunately for the EA Sports UFC team, CEO Andrew Wilson has been training with Gracie for quite some time. Wilson then used his experience with Gracie to infuse the game with a more authentic feel, and the impact of the Gracie touch was instantly apparent when I saw the game in motion at last year's Electronic Entertainment Expo. Instead of depicting binary submissions that start as a simple hold and skip to its limb-bending resolution, EA Sports UFC allows arms to naturally bend to their breaking point. Veins bulge as a fighter desperately battles a choke, making the ground work just as thrilling as the bombs being thrown on the feet. It's a technically sound approach, and this commitment to mechanical accuracy has helped Hayes understand just how difficult it is for these fighters to step into the cage and compete for up to 25 minutes.
"You don't have to have firsthand experience wrestling with a wrestler for very long before you realize that all the stuff that you thought looked very easy while watching TV is insanely physically taxing," he explained. "Having come from an MMA gym and having some firsthand experience of gorilla-strong guys manhandling me and throwing me around, I was just amazed at the stamina, technique, and explosiveness of these UFC athletes."
The joints and tendons of the programmers have been pushed and pulled for the sake of tighter gameplay.
Not every developer participating in these sparring sessions has come out unscathed, either. Training like a professional MMA fighter puts the body at risk, so the joints and tendons of the programmers have been pushed and pulled for the sake of tighter gameplay. "Producer Nate McDonald ended up getting his toe caught in between the mats and snapping a tendon, and one of our animators who actually won a Vancouver BJJ championship in his weight class...one day he armbarred me about six times in five minutes," Hayes conceded. "I couldn't go past 90 degrees for a while."
It's this combination of the development team's MMA training, Kron's BJJ guidance, and next-generation technology that has me believing we'll finally see virtual fights analogous to what happens in the real UFC octagon. Hayes argues that none of this would have been possible if it weren't for the horsepower of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and he remains stunned at what these pieces of hardware allow his team to do.
"I've been making this game for a year and a half, and I still geek out at what the fighters look like when they're walking out to the ring," Hayes admitted. "Our goal was to bring the fighters to life like never before, and being able to deliver on that objective is probably the thing I think everyone on the team should be most proud of."
I'm never going to step inside the octagon and face down another man willing to break my arm to get his hand raised. For that, I feel pretty fortunate. However, this might be the closest a game has ever come to simulating each and every element of MMA, and a strong debut could mean big things for the future of the UFC brand in the world of interactive entertainment. "There's a huge opportunity for the sport, and as a result, for this game to be a very successful franchise all over the world," he said. "I think those are our plans starting now and into the long-term future."