Discussing The Major Changes And Surprises In ‘EA UFC 2’ With Creative Director Brian Hayes

The cover stars are set. Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor are ready to move some units with CM Punk helping out in the crossover appeal category, and the UFC is enjoying one of its most successful years ever. Now, EA UFC 2 has a big challenge to meet after a fun yet deeply flawed first attempt fell short of many expectations.

Of course, EA UFC was gorgeous. It showed off the power of the next-gen consoles, and laid the groundwork for potential sequels to impress even the most hardcore MMA fan and fighting game lover, but what exactly has the team been working on? EA UFC 2 is currently scheduled for a “spring 2016” release, which is quite a fast turnaround considering the first game’s June of 2014 release.

To get to the bottom of things, we spoke to Brian Hayes, Creative Director of the EA UFC series.

How were you able to pull off such a relatively quick turnaround?

Most often if a game has a two-year cycle, what would happen would be a fair amount of sort of temporary downsizing. People who you wouldn’t need at that point would go off and do another game in production. In a two-year cycle, you first have the portion of it that’s design groups thinking together. That didn’t happen much. The whole team pretty much stayed on board right after EA UFC 1. And you saw all the updates that were done post-launch – we just stayed working on it immediately after it launched and never really stopped. That’s really the key reason why the 18 month cycle didn’t seem like that fast of a turnaround.

With Knockout Mode, are there rounds or are you going until someone’s knocked out?

It’s not really rounds in the sense that it’s a timed 5 minutes, there’s no clock for the round. It’s a best of 3 and each round ends with a knockout or a finish that is driven by the knockout physics of that game. If you play a sort of traditional arcade fighters there’s always that best of 3 system in play. Because if you get caught out there in the first round in 20 seconds then you have a second round to get back in the thing. It’s not a very timed round system but a finish round system. So you can do sudden death where the first knockout wins or you can do best of 3, best of 5.

So I’m assuming there’s no long load times between the matchups. With that said, is there a functionality to be able to rematch friends online without going back to the main menu and loading?

You mean Knockout Mode specifically?

In general, online play with friends. We would do rivalry matches and we would always rematch. You’d usually have to leave the game completely, go into player selection, load back in…

That functionality still does that not exist, but that’s something that we are still looking at. There’s an interesting legal ground as to what we can say is being done post-launch. But again, titles are being supported post-launch with additional features and content. Right now that functionality does not exist online. More importantly to you, Knockout Mode is only available offline, like multiplayer on the couch. That’s not because we don’t think it’d be totally awesome to play online, but it was somewhat of a later addition to the game. Sort of mid-development. We found that if most fights go to the ground, they get back up and keep it a kickboxing match. So we’ve done a lot to the game to try and improve the grappling, make it more accessible, because not that many people were playing there.

So when we were also developing the new knockout physics, we were putting together a video to show internally so our marketing execs see that it’s really cool. So we were putting together this video showing off the knockout physics with myself and character artists, including those who work in marketing, and you’d have this debug setting where the first three punches were a KO and you’d have these really intense matches where there would be this circling around the octagon, trying to find an opening. This is actually really fun to play, but it came along quite late in development in that 18 month cycle, so we were only able to get it support offline for the time being.

In the last game, it seemed like there was a lot of picking and choosing between procedural animations. In EA UFC, if I threw a flying knee and they went for a takedown at the same time the animations sort of nullified each other and nothing would happen. Are we seeing those animations filled out in EA UFC 2?

There’s a vast, vast multitude of player interactions that can happen. We’ve certainly covered a lot more. I still would expect that at some point there’s still going to be some outlier, fringe interactions that still come up. If you’re throwing a spinning kick and someone goes for a takedown, we now have a takedown where you get the person’s back kind of thing. The KO physics themselves actually solve a lot of really complicated two-player situations. For example, if we have one guy doing a superman punch of the cage and the other guy was doing a capoeira heel kick, now you can get a knockout where a guy gets hit in the air and falls down to the ground. The procedural physics for the KOs does resolve a lot of those situations, but we’ve also done some motion capture for areas that were problematic. We needed additional content to solve these situations because you couldn’t allow the physics that looks totally goofy. We’ve done quite a lot of work on both avenues.

I know this isn’t the best example considering it’s a UFC product, but it seems like a very Fedor/Andrei Arlovski type animation system. Like, flying in the air and getting knocked out, something like that?

If you’re able to pull it off, that can certainly happen. A lot of thing would have to come together in order for that to happen. Number one: you need to have your opponent hurt and on the verge of getting KOed. Then they’d need to be coming at you with something flying so that you can knock them out of the air, but it’s certainly possible.

Have you done any work on the judges?

There’ weren’t any tremendously clear shortcomings that we were aware of. When you start redoing the game and adding to it, like we’ve done with the entire ground game and the way it works functionally, judges look at transitions and how they’re scored, top position, that sort of stuff. The game feels so much different on the ground now that we have to make sure the virtual judges in the game are aware of how mixed martial arts has evolved within EA UFC 2. With changes to core gameplay, there have to be some correlated work on the scoring system as well.

CM Punk is in the game. Was that something you guys came up with or UFC?

For us that wasn’t a thing we talked about a huge amount. Our biggest thing was really that we were trying to get the roster to be as big as we possibly could for a couple of reasons. One: it makes it a little cooler for UFC fans when they’re playing Career Mode and there’s more than 8 or 10 guys in the weight division they’re playing that are real UFC fighters.

There’s the new live events feature, which is kind of a fantasy pick-em game in our game, but then there’s also the ability to get bonus points by making your pick happen in the game. If you’re playing a live event in our game right now, like the event coming up this weekend, you can say you think Robbie Lawler will win by KO in the 4th round as your prediction. You can get bonus points by picking Lawler and trying to KO Condit in the 4th round. At the end of that fight, you get bonus points for sure for that, but if your pick was right, you get a more rewards based on how many points you earn over the course of the event. Having a really big roster allows for more playable bonus point fights and that allows more features. So we wanted to make sure we had a huge roster and as we’re going through it we’re trying to pick recognizable names that people want to play with and events coming up. So whoever CM Punk’s first opponent is, hopefully we’ll have them in the game.

Are you going to have to unlock the roster or is it available from the outset.

The ones who would be unlock-able would be the sort of pre-order exclusive characters.

Like Bruce Lee in EA UFC.

Yeah, Bruce Lee was unlock-able last year and Royce was unlock-able last year. There are some pre-order characters that you can unlock if you preorder the game.

Will there be any surprises in the women’s’ roster divisions? Perhaps a single 145-pound female?

There are no surprises of that nature at this time.

Will Bruce Lee be back?

I don’t believe I can officially confirm or deny any such messaging just because of where we are. I guess you can do some deductive reasoning and figure – would we only sign a one year deal with Bruce Lee?

I don’t think so. This is where I would put a winky emoji in the interview if I could. So, does the Reebok sponsorship streamlining the amount of sponsors on short and such a weight off your shoulders?

A little bit. It’s a little bit easier in some ways, but it comes with its own complication as well. Reebok has been around since July of this year, but it took some time for us in development to get the reference in hand to get our artists to build this stuff. Then there’s also the unique challenges, like with the previous apparel, they have shorts and logos that go on it. With this new apparel system that the UFC has, it’s a little bit fluid. There’s new national emblems being added on a somewhat regular basis. Like if there’s a guy fighting on a card and he’s from somewhere and they need a new country emblem for that. Even more o is the dynamic text stamping of names. That’s something we’ve never had to do before in UFC or Fight Night. Maybe Fight Night with the waistbands, but not UFC. You know, take Jedrzejczyk and dynamically stamp it on five potential kits. So there’s a whole lot of rendering technology that we didn’t have. Obviously we were able to borrow parts of it from other games like NHL that have sports jerseys, but there was a certain amount of not worrying about this individual licensing and vendor stuff, but then working on a different set of problems with rendering technology and other things we had to solve.

Now that there’s leg kick TKOs, which are new to EA UFC 2. Can you get hit in the leg in the first round and have it affect the whole fight?

No, it comes and goes. We had a big discussion with our Game Changer group where there was a democratic election process on our forums and also Operation Sports. There were 8 guys who came up to the studio to see gameplay development. We had a big discussion about leg kick TKOs and how they should work. In reality, Thiago Alves or Jose Aldo, if this was a realistic simulation, they could screw your leg up with 3 kicks. Or one kick.

We couldn’t make a game that was enjoyable for people if there was that kind of potential exploit available in it. The limping is not like a Melvin Manhoef/Robbie Lawler type of thing where the leg is not going to get any better and the only thing you can do now is land a big shot and finish the fight. You have to balance those things to some degree with how impactful they could be in the real world and in order to make a strategically balanced gameplay experience. Our priorities are always a competitive, fun experience and that will tend to supercede if something will be 100% authentic to a recreation of mixed martial arts. You can take more kicks from Jose Aldo in the game than you can in real life.

The blood and damage was brilliant in EA UFC. What’ve you done to improve it this time around?

It’s not like we thought it looked so amazing it didn’t need any work done, but there were bigger issues and things we had to focus on for the game. That goes into your first question about the turnaround. When we came out of EA Sports UFC 1, the bigger issues were the game not having the greatest amount of breadth and depth, especially with the ground features being a little challenging for people. The fighter variety, the AI variety, issues like that. Some places we really needed to shore that out. It’s not like we came away from the game and everyone said the fighters looks really bad, that damage is underwhelming. Actually, people think this is pretty good. we didn’t want to spend too much time focusing on that, but we did spend time improving lighting and rendering and shading to sharpen things up. Technologically speaking, the blood works. The way it satisfyingly flies out of your opponent’s mouth when you hit him and flies through the air and lands on the mat and you can see the contact in a slow-motion replay. That’s all still there. It looks sharper than it did last year just because of the overall improvements to lighting and rendering, but it wasn’t something we needed to reinvent – there are bigger priorities. So in short, we didn’t do a ton, but it does look better this year. It is still super satisfying. Something that attaches onto it is the new knockout system because all the knockout results are so much more varied and rewarding in and of themselves that when you add on those damage visuals it sort of accentuates them, super rewarding.

You see how Robbie Lawler has evolved his striking style and now he’s very, very active, moving his head, moving his feet. How has the footwork changed?

There has been some animation polish that we’ve done, the locomotion, the fighter basic logic. Last year we had dashes and you could do a little side step, we’ve added modified sidestep. So there’s short and long lunges. So if you hold left shoulder or L1 button when you flick the left stick to lunge, you could get a big lunge if you’re holding L1 or a short if you’re not. There’s some footwork variety there, it feels really good when you fight with guys like Dominick Cruz or TJ or whatever. We’ve changed the head movement as well. There’s the Fight Night style with 360 degree left stick control over head movement as opposed to little slips that you could do last year. We’ve also changed the blocking controls so there’s a high block button and a low block button as opposed to a catch-all weak block. As a result, the parrying controls are slightly different as well. The defensive fighting controls have been refined and adjusted to help provide a more responsive fighting environment.

Onto the ground game. If you got on top you would almost always win, and it was almost always dominant. Can you now sit on guard and inch away at them and advance less dominantly?

Fundamentally, the biggest change we’ve made is the addition of simultaneous two-player control on the ground. You take how the ground game worked last year or in any other MMA game up to this point, it’s always been a system where it wasn’t clear to users who gets to go first necessarily, but whoever does go first. Say I take you down in UFC 1 and start to pass you guard, once that interactions started, you as the fighter on the bottom have no options except to defend my attempt at pass to get to half guard. What you are doing was determined by what I started doing first. There’s a sense of lack of control over your fighter. You can only do what you do by the fact that I did something first. That’s a reason why ground game has always felt clunky. Now, I shoot for the same takedown and start to pass guard left or right and you could deny that, that’s still available to you, but you could try and scoot your hips back and try and get up right away. There’s the dynamic of how good of a ground fighter am I compared to you, and what’s our stamina. You could be trying to do something at the same time as me, basically two offensive maneuvers, though getting up is more defense, you could do something that’s in reaction to what I’m doing, it’s just your movement, and you might be able to complete that before I complete my pass to half guard.

And that can happen in any position on the ground. You could try and go for a guillotine before I get to half guard. That whole idea of doing things independent of each other. My actions on the ground are not predicated on how to respond. It’s now more responsive and fluid activity on the ground. That means a lot more stuff can happen on the ground, those concurrent transitions that happen at the same time. Trying to help people with what’s available to them to do, there’s sort of a grapple assist that’s on by default when you hit the ground. When you get into position, there’s be a little red stick icon showing which way to push to stand up or more to half or side control or what have you. To help people who are less familiar with the ground game and for guys like you and me to help make it more transparent and show what you can do. If I want to get to side control I push this way, if I want to get to on top, I push that way, I get it. That’s the biggest change to the grappling, the simultaneous two player interaction and what that means in terms of making it feel responsive. Changing the way the ground game works on a foundational level and adding the grappling assist to hopefully, and testing results are positive, make it easier for people get how to get places you want.

Like a scrambling system.

That’s one of the biggest things – the ground game is so much more active now. I’m sure there’ll be a lot of emerging gameplay that we haven’t discovered, that happens all the time. You start transitioning one way to see if you can get your opponent to bite on a denial in that direction and then switch and go in another direction. It feels completely different than any ground game that has existed previously to our knowledge. And adding more assistance for people who have shied away from it previously.

EA UFC 2 will arrive Spring 2016 for Xbox One and PlayStation 4.