College Lacrosse 2010: Bringing the Cage to XBL

We chat with Carlo Sunseri about bringing the sport of lacrosse to the Xbox Live Indie Games channel.

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Before College Lacrosse 2010 was lacrosse, it was soccer. More accurately, the coding roots of College Lacrosse 2010 (released today via Xbox Live's Indie channel) can be found in the Xbox Live Indie game Fitba, which is a soccer game currently available on the Indie channel for 240 Microsoft points. Jonathan "Fritz" Ackerly, the programmer behind Fitba, massaged the code to fit the physical mechanics and rules of lacrosse into it. He was also guided by Carlo Sunseri who self-financed the game and whose years of experience with the real sport of lacrosse fueled the project.

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"I've been involved with the lacrosse community my whole life," said Sunseri, who attended college and played lacrosse at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh. He also spent two years coaching the RUM team after graduating with a degree in business management. The evolution of coaching lacrosse to re-creating it in pixilated form came not just from Sunseri's passion for the sport but also from a lack of competition. "There's never been a true representation of lacrosse in the video game industry. There was Blast Lacrosse for PlayStation. It was indoor [lacrosse] though."

A quick check of the GameSpot database reveals a couple of other lacrosse games out there, including a mobile game called Brine Lacrosse released in 2005 and last year's Activision-published Big League Sports, which was a collection of sports minigames that included lacrosse. So, when looking to fill that lacrosse-shaped gap in the gaming industry--and do so on a budget--Sunseri turned to perhaps the most logical place: the Xbox Live Indie games channel. Along with his partner, programmer Jonathan "Fritz" Ackerly, Sunseri looked to turn Fitba's soccer game into College Lacrosse 2010. We recently spoke with Sunseri about the game and what it's like bringing lacrosse to life on a limited budget.

GameSpot: So, this game sort of took me by surprise. I didn't know it existed until I saw it on our site. Give me some background of how it came about and how you decided to start this project.

Carlo Sunseri: Well, I've played lacrosse my whole life--went to college and played at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh. And then, once I graduated, I coached lacrosse there for two years. So, I've been involved with the lacrosse community my whole life, and there's never been a true representation of lacrosse in the video game industry. [There] was Blast Lacrosse [] for [the] PlayStation. It was indoor, though. So, there's [never] been actually field lacrosse--no outdoor. So, it's always been a dream of mine to be part of building a lacrosse video game, but it was always a long-term dream…basically, never anything that I thought would ever come to be. But it was always a dream, and I always wanted to play an outdoor lacrosse video game. When I was at Robert Morris, I had heard about the XNA [game development software] name when Microsoft announced [it]. They [called] it like the YouTube for video games or something.

GS: Right.

CS: I saw that, and I was like, "Wow, that could be perfect for building a lacrosse video game." But that was like four years ago. And around April, I was looking through the Indie Games, [or back then] it was Community Games, and [College Lacrosse 2010 developer] Fritz had just released his Fitba soccer video game. So, when I saw that, I was like, "This can definitely be lacrosse. I mean, with a little bit more development. It has all the ball physics. I mean, it probably won't be the best game ever, but you know we could definitely make this into lacrosse."

And I e-mailed him and he was very responsive. And he thought he could definitely do it. We met, had a webcam meeting, and figured out what we would need to do to turn his Fitba into College Lacrosse 2010. Essentially, we agreed to build the game, and I hired him for five months to [port] his soccer video game into lacrosse.

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GS: In terms of changing the game to fit lacrosse, what kind of changes did you have to make from the original game? I mean, obviously, you have animations and things like that. And the ball's got to change sizes, but were there any, like, sort of fundamental changes you had to make?

CS: Well, better ball control. I mean, he had his soccer game set up pretty good where [the ball] wouldn't just stick to your feet: You had to control the ball. So he increased the level of control on the ball, you know…move the ball from the ground up to the guy's chest and then eventually added the stick and moved the ball to the end of the stick. [He] made the field smaller [and] moved the goals out 10 yards. Because in lacrosse, you can go behind the cage; in soccer, you can't. You know, shut off your front formations that the guys go into when transitioning from offense and defense. When clearing the ball from the defense, the offensive zone…they set up in different formation. Adding the physics to the sticks…so with the right joystick you can control the stick on defense and throw stick checks and try to whack the ball out of the offensive player's stick.

[All of these] things that I was pretty amazed that Fritz could do. Once he even just made the game where the guy could pass the ball around real fast, like lacrosse. I was like amazed. I was like, "It's awesome!" They had no arms, no legs, but all they could do was pass a ball around the circle. I was ecstatic.

GS: How many sort of iterations have you gone through leading up to release? Can you talk about how the game has changed from those original points when you finally got passing to work and some of the milestones that made it feel more like lacrosse as you went?

CS: Oh yeah. There've been 61 versions. Each week, he would send me an update, which I would test and give him my feedback on. So, the process has been pretty awesome for me. I mean, to be directly involved with getting to test each version and see the transformation--from a very simple soccer game to what College Lacrosse 2010 is now--is pretty amazing. I actually put a small progression video together where it shows, like, that first version and them just learning to pass the ball around to implementing the models--lacrosse models--and adding the stick. But overall, I think when he added the ability to control the stick on defense…in being able to actually, like, move your stick around and throw stick checks on a guy that's carrying the ball…I thought that was pretty amazing. Again, when he put in the ability just to pass the ball around real quick--like lacrosse--I thought that was pretty cool.

We tried a bunch of different shooting systems. At first, we had it where you could lock onto the cage with the right trigger and then you'd release the right trigger to shoot, but we didn't like that. So, we went with the right joystick shooting, which is another step, which was…I mean, upped the gameplay 100 percent.

GS: So, you have to be accurate with how you move the stick in order to have a more accurate shot? Is that a fair way of putting it?

CS: Yeah. It's very similar to all the other hockey games out there. You pull back away [with the right stick] from the cage and push toward the cage to shoot. The longer you hold the right joystick back, the harder it will shoot once you push it forward. The major difference is that [unlike in NHL 10 where] you go straight down and then straight forward, this is 360 degrees. So, if I'm top left away from the cage, I have to pull back top left away from the cage and then go toward the cage to shoot.

GS: Down toward the right?

CS: Yeah, exactly.

GS: Got it.

CS: And then you aim with the left joystick as you're shooting.

GS: As you've been going through all these different versions of the game, have you given other people a chance to, sort of, be testers with you and check out the game? And sort of fine tune things along the way?

CS: Oh, yeah. When I coached at Robert Morris, one of my really good buddies coaches there also, and he was directly involved the whole time…just us playing and trying to figure out how to simulate outdoor lacrosse the best we can. And I had people coming in and out all the time at the very beginning of the project, and they'd look at it and be like, "This looks like Pac-Man." And I'm like, "This is so awesome! This is going to be the next lacrosse video game!" And they all looked at me like, "All right…let's put on a real game here." And I'm all frustrated, like, "Why don't you guys want to play? This is awesome!"

But now it's really come together. People are starting to see the huge following that it has, the passion that the lacrosse community has for this game, and how bad they want a video game.

GS: Lacrosse is obviously big on the East Coast, especially in New England, but around the rest of the United States, it maybe is not a well-known sport. Is there any concern there? What are you doing to get the word out?

CS: Well, I mean, they say that lacrosse is the fastest growing sport right now. I mean, in California, it's exploding. In Denver, they have two professional lacrosse teams that are the most successful professional lacrosse teams in the country. Texas is starting to really pick up the game. So, the spread of the sport is just…I mean, it's exploding right now. We're at, like, a tipping point for this sport. So, I hope College Lacrosse 2010 really helps take lacrosse to the next level, spread the game across the country, and really make it truly mainstream. But to get the word out, I've been mostly using Facebook.

GS: Right. The game has a lot of Facebook fans.

CS: Yeah, I mean, there's actually a petition on Facebook that has 160,000 people that are asking EA to make a lacrosse video game. So, I kind of saw that….and there're forums all over the Internet that these young kids are just begging for a lacrosse video game. So, I've been using the Internet, really, to try to spread the word. And we've got a pretty good response, and it's been pretty crazy so far.

GS: This is a college lacrosse game. Was there ever any thought to try to go after the Major League Lacrosse license? Or how did you decide on going with the college game? Was it simply because you wanted to do outdoor lacrosse?

CS: Yeah. I mean, that's what I grew up playing my whole life…is field lacrosse. And they had Blast Lacrosse, which was indoor, and it seemed like the demand for an outdoor game was a little bit stronger. I did some basic market research through Facebook. I set up an ad and put, "Lacrosse Video Game. Click here to tell us what you think." And, I mean, I got a ridiculous response--something like an 80 percent click-through rate on these ads.

And I asked them--the user[s]--what they thought the best name for the game would be. I listed out, like, 15 names, and College Lacrosse 2010 came back as the most popular. So, that's what I went with. [The game is] not NCAA licensed just because they are going to a charge ridiculous amount of [money]. I've done my best to talk to them a little bit, but at this point, it's just not financially viable for us to do that. But it's definitely our goal long term to get all the NCAA-approved teams and be able to actually use college lacrosse team names.

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GS: We've talked a lot about the things surrounding the game, but tell me about the game itself. What can you do in this game? Just tell me about how you play it; what modes there are and that kind of thing.

CS: You know, it's your standard sports game. You got your just local single-player Season mode, and then you have your multiplayer two-to-four players. You can build your own teams. That was kind of our workaround for not having the NCAA license…and allow the user to build their own team and they can make any team they want, high school, pro. They can adjust and make their own jerseys, different colors. They can customize their stick, the shaft of their stick, the head of the stick, make those different colors. There's Training mode. There's, like, a simple passing game, how many passes you can make in 60 seconds. If you complete a pass, the time goes up. If you drop the pass, the time goes down. There's free shooting where you can just go out on the field and practice shooting by yourself and just get used to the controls. There's a thing called "Braveheart" where it's one-versus-one, who can score the most goals in one court or one-versus-one.

And then there is also statistics. It keeps your user statistics, how many passes you've made in your whole career, your win/loss/tie [records], your shooting percentage, how many goals you've scored, how much possession time you've had. And then there's also scoreboards or…so you can compare your stats and how much money you've earned to the rest of the people that are playing College Lacrosse 2010. Because the more you play and the better statistics you have, the more money you earn. Once you earn money, you can upgrade your equipment to earn better attributes in the game, which is another pretty sweet function that brings a little bit more replay value to the game to try to earn the best gloves, try to earn the best helmet.

GS: This is for all the members of your team? All of them get the same helmet?

CS: Yeah, yeah. It's, like, more of your profile. So if I'm logged in under my Xbox gamertag, then whatever team I use has that upgrade. So, if I have the level-two helmet, no matter what team I play with will have that level-two helmet.

GS: So there's that element of progression there?

CS: Exactly. The more you play, you can earn a faster shot. Or you can have more powerful body checks, more powerful stick checks, and take the ball away from your opponent.

GS: Let me ask you about the AI in the game. As a former lacrosse coach, how did you approach making the game realistic?

CS: AI, for me, was a little bit more difficult. I kind of explained to Fritz about the game more of, like, formations to get into as the ball is transitioning into offense…the different formations you can be in on offense. On defense, we worked in a double-team system, so you can send a second guy to go play the ball by pressing Y. It's like an on/off switch, so you press it once the onscreen display comes up. It says, "You're doubling the ball right now," and two guys will actually go play the ball.

GS: Like a help system--help defense?

CS: Exactly. Two guys go to play the ball. Then all the guys on the backside bump over a guy and lead the farthest guy away from the ball open. Fritz did an amazing job with that…getting the defense to share responsibilities and switch guys and constantly shift. I think the defense is pretty impressive AI wise. [When it comes to offense], people in the lacrosse community [are] pretty picky on how the game is supposed to be played and what they, in their minds, think of lacrosse. So I hope it lives up to what everyone wants.

We had an issue where the guy would just go straight to the cage, and, you know, it was definitely pretty frustrating at times, but we got them moving the ball. You draw the double team, you draw two guys to you…obviously, there's one guy open. So Fritz got them passing the ball around much better and, you know, from trying to find the open guy in front of the cage…and when they are in shooting space to let it fly and score some goals. But I mean, I'm never going to say right now that the AI is the best it could be. It's fun, and I truly think that multiplayer is the strength of the game, but the AI is decent enough that you can, if your buddies aren't around, play and have a good time and get challenged by the computer.

GS: Did you have any specific games that, sort of, inspired you to create your own game? Any games that were particular favorites that made you think, "Hey, I'd like to do this!"

CS: I've always been a huge gamer. I love video games. Every night, I'm playing video games. I was just on there checking out all the Indie games and just downloaded the…"I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MB1ES!!!1", which is pretty fun.

GS: I know the game you're talking about. That game is nuts.

CS: But you know, when I was younger, I loved Zelda, Super Mario Bros., and NHL. We play online a bunch--me and my buddies. When I was in high school, we played Madden a good amount. So, I'm really into gaming pretty much my whole life…so [it's] definitely a dream comes true to be involved in building a video game. And then the fact that it's a lacrosse video game is, you know, out of this world. I'm so thankful I have the opportunity.

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GS: Are you already thinking about the next lacrosse game? Or are you just focusing on this one for right now?

CS: No, we're thinking about the next version already. We need to see how well the lacrosse community responds to this version. It is our goal to turn around and make College Lacrosse 2011 probably [in] the spring…updating this version and making better graphics and all-around better AI, better gameplay, better online experience. It's my goal to make lacrosse video games as long as I can. But it really…it's all depending on how well this game does because I'm basically a poor college student that needs to make some of my initial investment back before I can invest again into College Lacrosse 2011. But it's definitely a long-term goal to continue building lacrosse video games.

GS: Thanks for your time, Carlo.

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