Sega recently invited us over to its North American headquarters to speak with Randy Hauser, producer of NHL 2K2 for the Dreamcast. Houser was more than happy to share his design philosophies for the game and the concepts behind its development. Houser was also willing to share some of the advancements to come in future installments of the franchise including online and franchise modes.
GameSpot: What were the primary goals you had when designing NHL 2K2?
Randy Hauser: We wanted to make a game that reflected real hockey. The biggest thing we want to do at Sega Sports is make sure that the vast differences between the players is reflected. There are a lot of different reasons why different players are in the league. Some are very fast but not much better at anything else, and some are checkers. We have to make sure that they all have value even though they can't score or do some of those things.
GS: As far as the NFL 2K series is concerned, it takes more of an arcade approach instead of being a rigid simulation. Does NHL 2K2 take that same approach, or are you going for more of a straight sim with the game?
RH: It's not really a straight sim because you can be better than the player you're using in the game. If there's a player who doesn't check a lot, like Pavel Bure, you can use him to check if you like. So it's not a real simulation, but it is reflective of real hockey in that you have to slow it down and set up plays. For example, take players like John LeClair. He's not fast or nimble, but he's huge and he's got great hands. So if he's on the ice, you wait until he's in position and then you throw the puck at the net. The real aim is to show off the different values that these guys have. LeClair has a high value, but in other things besides skating.
GS: What sort of visual enhancements have you made to the game for this year?
RH: There are all-new models with more polygons and [they're] a little bit smoother. We have all the arenas and third jerseys. The game runs at 60 frames per second, so the animation [appears] smoother. The animation flow is different. We're using inverse kinematics, so a lot of things, like the goalie's glove meeting the puck, are more exact. In some other games the goalie makes the save but the animation doesn't quite match up, so we're able to mathematically move his glove.
GS: Why are there no online or franchise modes in NHL 2K2, and do you look to have these features in future installments in the franchise?
RH: As for online, it's up to the hardware manufacturers to come up with a model.
GS: Do you have an ETA? Do you think that next season it might happen?
RH: Microsoft is supposed to have something going on, but they haven't really let us know what they're doing. Rumors are that the GameCube has something, but we haven't seen any sort of online matching service or anything like that. But yes, we're building the game in such a way that will make it easy to transfer the information online. As for franchise mode, we're planning a very in-depth franchise mode. The first glimpse of our new franchise mode at Sega Sports will be in our baseball products. We're really happy with the new franchise mode, and hockey, football, and basketball will be deepening the franchise mode. But really, the focus this time was to improve everything on the ice--the AI, the models--and to make the gameplay experience the best we could. And the stuff that's not actually the game, like broadcasting, we'll add to.
GS: I know you took the season off last year, but how long has this game really been in development? Have you worked on it the entire time?
RH: No, there was some time before I got here that had to do with deciding if we were going to do it and what was going on with the Dreamcast. And then the decision was made to show that we could make a really great hockey game. We used the Dreamcast first because we have that basis. So it's been about a year or 13 months from start to finish. We're using a lot of the existing code, so we redid a lot of the graphics and used a lot of the season and simulation stuff.
GS: Now that you're wrapping up development, what are you most proud of as far as its progress is concerned?
RH: Whenever you're doing really in-depth AI it's scary because if it doesn't come together you end up with a really hard game that no one can play. We had a lot of ambitious things that we wanted the user to be able to do with the players, and we were able to get most of those things in like the sliding poke check and the [dynamic] dump around the boards. But mostly it's the fact that you have to play with different teams differently. If you play a season with one team and then play a season with another team, it's a completely different experience. Philadelphia is a huge grinding team that's hard to knock off the puck, and they throw it in front of the net. They have all these guys in the crease, and the defensemen can't get out of the way. When playing with Colorado you can't play like that. If you have a poor goalie, you'll have to play more defensively. If you play as one of the expansion teams, you'll have to be a really good user.
GS: You'll have to actually learn how to play the game.
RH: Right. You'll have to take advantage of your chances. If you get a power play, it's going to be very important to score.
GS: What are some of the additions to the control scheme? The last game was kind of cool in that most moves were performed with the analog stick, but you never really had that cool deke that would overpower the defenders.
RH: We have a couple of automatic dekes and a sidestep move that were motion-captured by Chris Drury. The dekes are contextual so that if you're in the middle of the ice, he'll go side to side, and then there's a shorter deke if you're closer to the goal. If you're by the boards you'll do a sidestep. Another contextual move is protecting the puck. He'll either put it between his skates or hold his arm out to fight off the defender. Our dump is contextual as well. If you're behind the net with a defenseman and you want to clear the puck or start a breakout, you can do a board pass around the corner. In the offensive zone you can roll it around the boards for a dump-and-chase and then go forecheck. We have a block and also a sliding poke check.
GS: I think the sliding poke check is cool.
RH: I believe it's the first time it's been included in a hockey game. What used to be the standard in hockey during a two-on-one would be for the defenseman to take the guy without the puck. But now the shooters are so good that they tell their guy to attack the guy with the puck using a sliding poke check and force him to make a play. But a way to get around that is the flip pass, which [NHL 2K2] also has. It's just like a saucer pass that goes over the stick of the defender, or you can do a loopy lead pass that only a few people in the NHL can perform. We also have a contextual block called the block dump where a defenseman blocks off the boards. So instead of blocking the puck, if you're trying to keep the puck in the offensive zone your defenseman will keep his stick against the boards. You can also take control of the goalie and do some cool things. Personally, I don't do that because I always end up shooting it in my own net.
GS: You said that the on-ice action was the focus of development for NHL 2K2. For future installments what are you looking to improve?
RH: The way we have the engine set up now, it's going to be very easy to add to the AI or tune it. So we're already talking about what we're going to do to make intelligence and toughness matter more. Right now a good defenseman doesn't have to be a bruiser. Nicolas Lidstrom isn't a big checker, but he's a great defenseman. Chris Pronger is a big checker and he's a great defenseman. What we'll be adding is when the puck goes into the corner. Right now it's mostly size that makes the difference, but we're going to adjust the guys who are gritty and really good at doing that.
GS: So you're going to continue to evolve the AI?
RH: Yes. And we have to upgrade the broadcast engine and not just cutaways in the game that show cool stuff like the bench, but sort of integrating the announcer with what is going on. The overlays will be connected to what the announcer is saying. The announcer will say, "Detroit's got a great power play," and then the overlay will come up showing how great it is. The announcers will also be able to do some great stuff with the Telestrator because there are goals where you don't know who the goal went to. There are a lot of really cool non-goals that you'll be able to see on the Telestrator as well, where it will deflect off the post and you'll be able to see that the puck didn't cross the line. That will be the big focus--to add immersion in that way--and then also the franchise mode.
GS: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us.
RH: Thank you for stopping by.