There was a buzz of sorts around EA's arcade boxing game FaceBreaker when it was released in September. Unfortunately, that low-level buzz turned to high-decibel complaints when the final game didn't deliver on its promise of laugh-out-loud characters and compelling gameplay. Although the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of FaceBreaker met with a harsh critical and commercial response, the Wii version of the game, subtitled K.O. Party, is still full-steam ahead and set for release next week. In anticipation, we hit up the game's producer Trey Smith for a frank conversation about the failures of the original game and what his team is doing to make sure K.O. Party is a knockout.
GameSpot: The reception to the original FaceBreaker was pretty negative, so let's start with how fan and critical reaction has shaped K.O. Party. What did you guys learn from the original game that you're looking to fix and/or improve upon with the Wii version?
Trey Smith: First off, we knew we wanted to take FaceBreaker K.O. Party on the Wii in a different direction than on other platforms. Our mantra from day one was "FaceBreaker K.O. Party is not a port!" If we've all learned anything about developing games for the Wii, it's that in order to be successful, you have to build the game from the ground up specifically with the Wii in mind and cater to its strengths. With K.O. Party, we set out to create an arcade boxing experience that you can only get on the Wii, and we're very pleased with the game we ended up with. We were bummed by the lackluster reception of FaceBreaker on the PS3/360, but we hope that people will give K.O. Party a fair shot because it truly is a completely different experience. We've been humbled, but still think we've got something special.
As far as the Wii team addressing the issues that people have had with the 360/PS3 versions of FaceBreaker, we think we have. Once we started getting feedback on what people liked and didn't like about FaceBreaker on other platforms, it confirmed that we made the right decisions.
1. Slow down game speed--We knew that we were going to have to slow things down across the board when we decided to go with a gesture-based control scheme instead of buttons. It takes longer to punch than to tap a button, and under the hood it takes a bit longer to accurately detect things in order to get the responsiveness we knew we needed to get the gameplay where we wanted it. Slowing things down a bit--our animations run about 80 percent of what they did on the PS3/360--makes the game more about reading your opponent's actions and then reacting to them, and less about guessing. This is key. FaceBreaker K.O. Party takes strategy. You can't just go in and "waggle mash" if you want to be successful against human opponents and AI. We think one of the major hang-ups that people had on FaceBreaker 360/PS3 was the game speed was so fast that it didn't allow you the time to learn, and in turn effectively use, the many weapons in your arsenal on the defensive side of things. We feel that slowing things down creates a much more balanced and enjoyable experience on both the offensive and defensive ends of the spectrum.
2. No button/waggle mash--We felt from the beginning that we wanted FaceBreaker K.O. Party to be all about strategy, so we drastically reduced the amount of damage and effectiveness of jabs and, in turn, juiced the damage and effectiveness of the charge punches/hooks, which are key to our counter and parrying system. So if you go in and try to "waggle mash" against someone that knows how our defensive mechanics work, you will absolutely get your a** handed to you. Can I say a**?
GS: We prefer "tushy."
TS: 3. AI--We are very aware that the AI on the PS3/360 was...uh....extremely difficult? While this was intentional and at the time what we thought the PS3/360 consumer wanted, we knew it was not the direction that we wanted to go with the AI on the Wii. We knew we wanted to try and find the sweet spot of challenging-but-enjoyable AI, and I think we nailed it. We've got two difficulties in our single-player campaign, "Brawl For it All"--lightweight and heavyweight. Lightweight is a great place to get your feet wet, learn the ins and outs of the motion controls, and start unlocking stuff. We've found in our focus groups that it takes your "average gamer" about two to three hours to play through BFIA on lightweight. With heavyweight, we wanted to make sure that we had something in there that was a solid challenge for the even the most seasoned gamer. It usually takes our best tester around four to five hours to play through heavyweight, depending on which character he's using, and he's been playing the game for months. I played thru BFIA on heavyweight a couple weeks back and it took me about six hours...and not once did I want to throw my Nunchuk and Wii Remote. Every time I lost it was because I failed to execute, not because I felt like the AI cheated.
4. Gameplay depth--On the gameplay side of things, we knew we wanted to takes things a bit further than the 360/PS3 versions. We felt that defense needed a "boost" and added a meter to our parry mechanic. When you parry your opponent's punch, a meter appears, and if you release your counterpunch within the "green zone," you deal big-time damage. This is something that adds further depth and strategy to the defensive side of things and is also one of our most satisfying gestures with our motion-control scheme. It feels so good to parry your opponent's punch and then land a devastating counterpunch of your own. And the "green zone" within the parry meter changes based on which character you are boxing with. If your character is good at parrying then the green zone will be big, and if they're not so hot the window is smaller. Also on the character-differentiation side of things, we decided to make some boxers left-handed and others right-handed since, unlike the 360/PS3 versions of FaceBreaker, we separated left and right punches. Some boxers deal more damage with their right punches and vice versa. Finally, we wanted to give each character a weak spot, high or low, where they take more damage.
5. Exclusive multiplayer modes--One of the big things that we feel makes a successful Wii title is a solid multiplayer experience. Slapping in a handful of bad minigames doesn't count. We've invested heavily in creating two compelling multiplayer modes that you will only find on the Wii version of FaceBreaker. The first is T.K.O., which serves as our team battle multiplayer mode. Here, you draft three boxers and use them against up to three other players' team of boxers. One by one you match up against your opponents in one-fall matches, winner carries over damage into the next fight, until the last boxer standing wins. Drafting characters' forces, you to learn how to play with more than one character in order to be successful. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of each character is key to making sure you're picking the right character for each match-up. When you win a match that you are an outright underdog going in, it feels really good. Also, if one player is much stronger than the rest of the group, it allows the other players to gang up on them. We thought about adding an artificial handicap to this mode for the more advanced players, but we found in focus groups that you guys are more than capable of policing yourselves.
The other exclusive multiplayer mode is Punch-O-Matic. This mode is meant is for up to four players and is kind of like a slot machine that spits out who fights with who, where you fight, and the conditions of the bout. We did the math and I think there's something like 100,000 possible combinations, so you're going to be hard-pressed to see the same match twice. We've got some pretty crazy scenarios in there that we feel will give you guys hours and hours of fun when you have people over to play. Some are pretty basic, like fighting at a hyperfast speed. Others are more arcade-like, where you have to avoid hazards in the ring to avoid being stunned. Then there's "Xterminator," where one player controls a humongous killer robot that has 60 seconds to KO their opponent and the other player just has to survive. It's really fun stuff that offers a good experience for a group of people with varying experience and skill on the Wii.
GS: Was there ever the suggestion that the Wii version be canceled outright? How confident is the team in the ability of this game to deliver where the original game didn't?
TS: There was never, ever, any suggestion that the Wii version should get canceled, because we had a feeling from the get-go that FaceBreaker probably fit the Wii better than the other consoles. We knew we had an edge from the beginning because punching using gestures is just flat-out more fun than pressing buttons. With the Wii, there's an extra step of immersion that takes place when you are acting out what you want your character to do and he does it. It just sucks you into the game on a deeper level. We feel this is probably the biggest differentiator between FaceBreaker on the Wii and the other versions, and we have invested heavily on our motion controls.
As far as the team's confidence in our ability to deliver a quality experience on the Wii with FaceBreaker K.O. Party, we feel we have. We've had a blast playing the finished product together and can't wait to take K.O. Party home to play with our friends and family. We're confident in our game, but humble enough to know that we've got an uphill climb ahead of us.
GS: What features is K.O. Party carrying over from the original game, and what features are unique to this game?
TS: I mentioned before that we are carrying over the single-player campaign, "Brawl For It All," but we've got a couple of tasty nuggets in there that are unique to K.O. Party. We thought about doing our own animations from scratch, but ended up sharing the majority of animations from the 360/PS3 versions because, hey, they look pretty damn cool and fit perfectly with what we were doing on the Wii. And we used the base template for the AI from the PS3/360 versions, but we ended up rewriting most of it, so I'm not sure if that's even worth mentioning. Too late. But other than that, we've built FaceBreaker K.O. Party from scratch. All art, characters/environments/effects, were made from scratch. The motion controls from scratch. The two exclusive multiplayer modes from scratch. All in all, there are hundreds of things, both large and small, that you will find unique and different with the Wii version of FaceBreaker once you hop in and start checking things out.
GS: The original game was a button masher; how do you go about translating that frenetic gameplay to Wii controls without exhausting the player?
TS: I addressed this earlier when I mentioned that we slowed down the game speed and pulled back on the effectiveness of jabs. And adding the parry meter and providing you with more defensive options will naturally slow things down and add to the overall strategy of things. I think it's important to mention that there wasn't a single mention of fatigue during our numerous focus groups. This is something we kept a close eye on throughout the development cycle because one of the biggest complaints about Wii boxing is that it's utterly exhausting. When we asked the focus groups if they thought the game speed was too fast, too slow, or just right, well over 90 percent answered "just right."
GS: FaceBreaker's AI felt cheap at times--how has the game difficulty/AI changed in K.O. Party?
TS: On the PS3/360 versions of FaceBreaker the AI's decisions we're literally made frame by frame at 60 frames per second. It often felt like you may have beat the AI to the punch but under the hood the AI was one or more frames ahead of you. With K.O. Party we made sure that those windows were more forgiving and gave you enough time to see what was going on before you have to react to it. Like I mentioned earlier, we set out to find that sweet spot with the AI between challenging and enjoyable and by all accounts I'm confident that we succeeded.
GS: Are there any new characters we should know about in K.O. Party?
TS: Just one. And he/she is unlockable by completing Brawl For It All on the heavyweight difficulty...or if you happen to know a certain classic, secret gamer unlock code at the start screen.
GS: How do the game's graphics fare on the Wii?
TS: You know, I moved over to the Wii team full-time once we got things up and running on the 360/PS3 versions of FaceBreaker, and the one thing that I thought was going to be the biggest step down was the visuals. I was wrong. I think our artists and technical artists did a spectacular job of really pushing the Wii to create visuals that I feel rival just about anything on the Wii to date. They made some very smart decisions early when they decided how they wanted to render the characters and environments, and then created the tools they needed to polish them up to what you see today. And all of this on top of some of the most advanced animation tools we at EA Sports have ever hooked up to a Wii. This was a big win for us, and I think everyone is going to be pretty surprised at the high quality of visuals that FaceBreaker K.O. Party has to offer.
GS: One of the best features of the original was the ability to create characters using a PlayStation Eye or Xbox Vision camera. Will the Wii version have something similar?
TS: Well, I think we've all learned by now that you can build the most robust and compelling character-creation feature on the planet, but if the fun factor isn't there to support it, it's wasted. We chose to focus the majority of our effort from day one on FaceBreaker K.O. Party on gameplay, motion controls, and creating a compelling, social multiplayer experience that you can only get on the Wii. Although it was a tough decision at the time to hold off on building a "create a boxer" feature on the Wii, this first time out of the box, I'm confident we made the right decision.
GS: What's the future of the FaceBreaker series? Do you think there will be a sequel?
TS: I'll letcha know after FaceBreaker K.O. Party comes out November 11th. In all seriousness, developing new IP from scratch is not easy. We've learned a lot and would love to do a second round of FaceBreaker.
GS: Thanks Trey.