Top Spin is the upcoming tennis game for the Xbox. The game is the first entry in the genre from Microsoft's Salt Lake City, Utah based Indie Games studio who worked closely with French developer Power and Magic. We talked to Matthew Seymour, program manager for Indie Games to find out what to expect from the promising game.
GameSpot: How did you become involved in developing the game?
Matthew Seymour: It has really been a long time in "video game years" since anyone topped Sega's Virtua Tennis and Mario Tennis. So, we felt there was a big hole to be filled, and we wanted to be the one's to do it, considering our love for tennis and our experience creating sports games across the board.
The tennis genre has a lot of room to grow, and games like Virtua Tennis have proven there is quite a big audience out there. We felt that we could create a tennis title that not only surpassed Virtua's feel and fun factor but could take the tennis genre to new heights with a much more realistic look and a much deeper experience.
GS: What is the team's background?
MS: Well, at this Microsoft studio (Indie Games) we already specialize in the individual-based sports titles, having had some success with our Links golf franchise, and now [we're experiencing some success in] snowboarding with our Amped series. It was natural for us to make a go of it within the tennis space.
After deciding we wanted to create a tennis title, we were fortunate enough to meet with an interesting, progressive, and passionate developer called PAM (Power and Magic). This group had tons of experience creating soccer titles in Europe. They loved Virtua and Mario Tennis but possessed a lot of great ideas of how they would improve on these two staples of the genre. This meeting took place just over two years ago, and we are proud of this partnership and look forward to doing many more projects with PAM in the near future.
GS: How did you approach bringing tennis to the Xbox? Did you look at any games for inspiration?
MS: As I've mentioned earlier, Virtua and Mario Tennis. They both set the bar and brought very different things to the table. Virtua Tennis was all about ease of play and quick, back and forth action, while Mario Tennis mixed it up well because of all the great stuff you could do with spins on the ball.
GS: How did you settle on Top Spin's gameplay? What determined the balance between sim and arcade?
MS: With all due respect, I feel that Virtua Tennis is too "arcadey." At its core, it's just a game of Ping-Pong. It lacks depth and flattens out after a few hours of play. We felt we could create a tennis game that was easy to get into but would also have depth and realistic tactical elements, like the actual game of tennis. Balance is about two things: ease of play and depth. When I hit a drop shot in Top Spin, I want it to be the real thing and not something that kind of looks like one. This shot is a big weapon in tennis and is very effective. After all, there's nothing like seeing your opponents surprised and have to run their butts off to get to one of your shots, only to receive it too late and hit the ball into the net.
GS: How did you settle on the game's control scheme? Were you worried it would be too complicated for people who were used to arcade-style tennis?
MS: We spent a lot of time trying all sorts of different layouts and control schemes. Again, in the end we focused on the balance between ease of play and depth. So, with the A button, for example, we decided on providing the user with a safe shot. This "safe shot" works great when first playing the game or when you are out of position and just need to get the ball back in play. However, if you are in a good position and want to put a spin on the ball or take a risk, you can use any of the other buttons. I am particularly proud of our design with our "risk shot" (right trigger). This is a mechanic no other tennis game has done. This shot is risky to pull off, but it's something you can master with practice. After all, sports are all about risk--the most legitimate form of gambling. Just think about the Hail Mary in football or going for the three-pointer at the buzzer in basketball. In Top Spin, we have included the same thing to make it true to sport.
GS: What did you feel the game needed to have, in terms of modes and/or gameplay, to be a contender?
MS: Early buzz already shows that gamers are extremely excited about playing tennis online. Tennis is the perfect game for online gameplay, with its one-on-one, fast-action competitive play. We also have an interesting career mode in which gamers can create their own player and decide for themselves what their player's strengths and weaknesses will be. What really makes this game different is no single player will be able to master all the tennis techniques/skills offered in the game, nor can he or she top off all of his or her stats, so to speak. This feature makes for diverse and interesting play when gamers take their career characters online. For example, at some point during your career you may have to decide if you want to become the greatest of clay court players or be the best serve and volleyer. When playing against someone online, you must find their weaknesses and exploit them while capitalizing on your own strengths.
GS: Tell us about how the character customization feature came about. Why include it? How deep is it?
MS: It's all about diversity and individualism. Top Spin has an extremely powerful "player creator" in which gamers can create characters with distinctive play styles and very unique looks--right down to being able to sculpt your player's nose. This is important, considering this game is expected to be a huge Xbox Live title. Our goal was to have such a powerful player editor that no two players would look alike, and you'd actually be able to recognize an online opponent by his or her face and play style rather than his or her Gamertag.
GS: Tell us about the Xbox Live features in the game. Was there any one feature you're especially happy about including?
MS: I am excited about our official persistent leaderboard in which gamers around the world can literally compete to become the number one tennis player in the world. Top Spin is also part of the XSN Sports lineup. Within XSNsports.com you will be able to create or compete in tennis leagues and tournaments against people worldwide, and you can even participate in mini-tours.
GS: What's been the biggest challenge in developing the game?
MS: If I had to pick one, I'd say the toughest was instilling life into our most recognized licensed players--Pete Sampras, Anna Kournikova, and Martina Hingis. Many of us are very familiar with these people, having seen them on TV or in print. We know them as the real deal, so when we make them for a game, they have to glow with life, [they have to] breathe, they have to have that sparkle in the eyes, and the light has to shimmer off their skin. If you don't have these things, the game is up!
GS: What have you learned from this experience that you'll take with you to the sequel?
MS: While showing Top Spin, we learned that gamers are excited about an immersive tennis game that brings together a fun and intense singleplayer, multiplayer, and online experience. We're not thinking about a sequel right now, but we are looking forward to the feedback we receive from gamers worldwide after they play Top Spin.
GS: Thanks for your time.