The ‘EA UFC 3’ Director Talks The New Career Mode And The Future Of MMA Games

The sport of Mixed Martial Arts is one of the most challenging to adapt to a digital realm. In an MMA fight, there’s the ground game, the stand up wars, and everything in-between, from clinching to cage work. Over the last five years, EA’s Vancouver studio has delivered one of the prettiest and smoothest MMA game experiences, but with UFC 3, they’re tearing down the previous foundation to its core.

Now, they’ve rebuilt, stronger and better. The latest iteration from the MMA sim from some of the team that brought us Fight Night, is innovating in ways that would seemingly take years in a relatively quick turnaround. The beta from last year showed that this game is leaps and bounds beyond any striking system before it, and a Career Mode that sends you around the world of the UFC accompanies it.

There’s a lot to look forward to with UFC 3, so we discussed the challenges of scrapping years of work with game director Brian Hayes, who belives the best is yet to come.

This is the third game in about four or five years. How do you feel? You’re in crunch time I’m sure.

We’re actually just sort of came out of crunch time when the holidays started. Just basically the timeline. We’re working on some, sort of, you know, initial updates of the game, just based on the beta feedback, but basically we managed to sort of lock things down just over the holidays so the team could have just some peace of mind, some peace and quiet, as opposed to you know, pulling their hair out over the holiday.

So we’re kind of through, that which is pretty nice, but in terms of how we’re feeling? Me myself personally, this is the most fun I’ve had playing the game for the longest period of time during development. Certainly on any UFC game, and quite possibly on, any game I’ve worked on. When we integrated the new Real Player Motion tech and got the updated gameplay features working, we were having so much fun right away. So its been a blast to basically be playing UFC 3 for several months now, and sharpening my skills to a level that I think, you know, maybe I’ll be able to win a few fights for at least two weeks once it goes live.

Its certainly different. It’s kind of risky as well. The players that are accustomed to playing a lot of UFC 2, you generally don’t see this level of change to the core game play from one generation to the next, you know? But, we were really, really quite confident that it was the right decision based on everything that you could do, to sort of just bring a lot of strategic depth to the gameplay overall. So yeah, certainly it can be, the first day or two can be a little bit of a rude awakening if you have a lot of deeply ingrained habits from extensive UFC 2 or UFC 1 experience but overall the game is much better for it.

When did you guys decide to pull the trigger? Because I’ve been following (Gameplay Designer) Geoff Harrower’s blogs and I spoke to him quite a bit during the beta, but when did you decide to scrap what you had going over the first two iterations of the game?

It was pretty early on, once we sort of got a chance to prototype the RPM tech and really just get our first sort of, handle on what it was going to provide to the gameplay, what’s it going to feel like when you know players get their hands on it. That initial hands on experience that we had internally, we saw the potential and decided to go for it.

But it was pretty risky. We knew that. It was risky in terms of, okay are we going to be able to get all this work done in the time that we have and get it to the level of quality that it needs to be? Thankfully we have been able to do that, but also, there’s still just a risk of it being a big change, and some people are going to have a little trouble picking it up. Especially if they’re previous UFC 2 players, but the only thing I can say is that its so worth it. It is a much better, much cheaper, and much more exciting fun game than its ever been.

I remember a few years ago you said: MMA is one of the hardest sports to replicate in a game, you would need a million buttons to do everything. Now the feedback from fighters, gamers and people who cover the sport is that this is the best representation of striking that they’ve eve experienced. How do that make you feel, when you hear feedback like that?

Really, really, really, really, really good. Yeah, that’s, that’s exactly the feedback that we hope to hear. And its really rewarding. Even ourselves, the Real Player Motion tech and how its changed how we do motion capture has had a lot of auxillary benefits as well beyond just making the game look and feel better. We can do motion capture with an athlete so much faster now because of the way we capture the data.

So that gave us the opportunity this year to have upwards of you know like say a dozen actual UFC fighters up into the studio, because now it only takes us about a half day to do you know a shoot with an athlete whereas previously it would be you know maybe two days or more and it would be a pretty tedious process.

This year it was really cool to be able to have you know Corey Anderson, Uriah Hall, Dennis Bermudez, all the guys up in the studio and when they got their hands on the game, even in early development, they were like, “okay wow, this feels, this feels really good,” and “I’m able to do things that I expect to be able to do as a fighter” and more of their actual real world fight knowledge becomes useful to them. It’s still a little apples and oranges playing video games and getting hit in the face in real life, but it was really gratifying to hear all those comments for sure.

So with that motion caption technology and the RPM tech, is this a new beginning for EA Sports and EA UFC or is this the combination of years of work?

When it comes to stand up experience it’s really a new beginning. Every element of stand up gameplay, locomotion, head movement, blocking, all of the strikes, combinations, everything got thrown out. We built it from scratch.

And its not just the animation technology making its user more responsive and look a lot better, we also allow for the ability to strike on the move, which then necessitated a little of a control change, but then we also doubled down on refining the health logic and the stamina logic and looking at things like stopping power and frame advantages and one of the really big things is the vulnerability system which is why you keep on finding yourself getting KOed. One of the really cool things about it, at least that I’m experiencing and that I’ve heard comments to the same thing, is that even when I lose, I always know a half second before I get knocked out that I’m going to get knocked out.

I know the mistake that I’ve made that is going to give my opponent the opportunity to finish me off kind of thing so there’s, very seldom, almost never for me, an experience of, “Hey, where the hell did that come from?” It’s like, “No, I leaned into that roundhouse kick, I ducked under that uppercut, I shot for a take down when he was throwing an uppercut.” You know its different things that will you now increase the damage of an opponents attack, you know, through your own fault, and it all makes sense.

You guys are very much listening to your fans, to the message boards, to the degree where I feel that this game is almost shockingly different than the previous iterations. As a game developer did you expect to be able to go all in like this? I mean, the last game came out, what, a year and a half ago, almost two years ago?

I mean, by the time we launch it, it’ll be 21 months. It was a risk. It was, when Geoff and Liam, the lead people, the designer and the lead game play developer came up and said, like, “Here’s what we want to do, we want to throw out all the work we’ve done on striking in the previous year, and start from scratch.” We’re kind of like, “Yeah, we’re going to have to have a proof of concept here. Give me something that we can feel so that we know that we’re not, you know, just jumping blindly.”

And you know, like I said, we were able to get something tangible, something we could feel very, very, very early that gave us the confidence of yes, lets invest in this heavily, and bring it along as far as we can. And then there was also, sort of, a shocking amount of change from one iteration of the game to the next.

Now the tournament, you said that damage can carry over. Is it customizable, is it online or offline?

Let me go through it one by one. It is offline only. It is customizable in the fact that you can name the tournament, you can choose its weight class, whether its like combined weight classes or strict weight classes. You can decide whether or not there is various or persistent damage or not. You can also adjust, sort of gameplay settings. Like you tweak stamina, you can tweak damage, you can tweak acceleration speeds, etc. And then you can make it an 8 or a 16 person bracket.

I know that THQ’s old game, UFC 3, also had a tournament mode and that was offline as well. Is there some sort of technical hangup that makes it difficult to host these online?

Well the tricky part is getting people to show up, right? Other games have done tournament things where its like, “Hey, we’re going to tell that this is a seated tournament and show you a bracket,” but really they’re just randomly throwing people into your next match and making it sort of feel like you’re going through a tournament when really, the 16 people we show you at the beginning are not really the people that you fight. That’s what it comes down to, the appointment setting, and really how do you guarantee that the 16-seed is going to stick around?

What about three or four friends that are online and just want to do a 16 man tournament and each person selects four characters?

Yeah, I mean, that is an opportunity to look at, but yeah, at this point, we just got the couch mode version done first.

Okay, Career Mode. It’s cool WFA is back in this game, but why have tournaments but no PRIDE Mode? Did it have something to do with animating soccer kicks and whatnot?

Yeah, I mean, there’s certainly some big things about PRIDE Mode in terms of, there’s game play, rule changes that are required, and gameplay animations that would be required to support that. There’s also just the physics sort of stuff, like fighting in a boxing ring with the ropes, and that works totally differently. And it kind of pains me to say this, and I’m sure it’s going to pain somebody like you to hear this, but like, its…

PRIDE is dead?

No, it’s not really that. I mean, PRIDE never dies. But I mean, its more so that, if you think about, when the GSP comeback, and I remember reading some pieces about that, and how the UFC themselves, they were kind of like, you know, “hey, why is the buzz for this lower than we expected?” And I read a couple articles that said like the research that was out there, and that they has done, they realized that the, a large number of fans that have gotten into the UFC was with the growth of Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey, which basically happened just after GSP retired. So to hear that, I mean, forget PRIDE, for there to be people out there that are like, “Who’s this GSP guy that they’re making such a big deal about?”

That is for the truly, truly, truly hardcore. And so, its just one of those things where, you know, it’s a bigger priority for us to focus on improving Career Mode and improving overall gameplay. Again, not to say that there aren’t people you know, on the team like, “Hey, we should look at pride mode.” And I’m one of those people, but it always does come back to okay, like, we’re trying to make, we’re trying to satisfy the largest number of people and stay current with where the sports going. And, yeah, its just an unfortunate sort of reality that time moves forward and we’re only ever getting further and further away from PRIDE, but it still never dies.

So why not have Strikeforce and why not have all these other organizations that UFC might have the rights to in order to at least add more diversity to the career mode?

Well, to me, that’s just a larger, sort of, larger sort of licensing/partnership discussion. The integration of the WFA was something they used as a minor league in the old Undisputed series, and we’ve wanted to bring in a minor league experience as a career mode introduction in UFC 3.

So it was just a smoother sort of integration. But the big thing for us was we wanted to have a minor league introduction to your MMA career and then have a system where your promotion in that minor league can lead to multiple paths to the UFC. So you totally kill it in the WFA, you know, you’re going to get called up to UFC with a contract pretty quickly. If you’re doing okay, you’ll get invited to a season of the Ultimate Fighter and you can go through that. If you don’t do good on TUF, you might get sent back to the WFA and might have to spend a few more fights there to sharpen your skills. Or if you, you know, make it pretty deep on TUF, you’re going to get a UFC contract that way.

So, just having that variety, and a more authentic beginning to a UFC career is something that we wanted to achieve. But, in terms of adding all other kinds of promotions that, you know, this is a UFC game that, you know, the UFC themselves are more interested in certainly, you know, promoting the UFC brand in it, and so are we.

That makes sense, and I’m really happy to hear that you can get cut and then you can rebuild yourself back up in the WFA. Now, you have, obviously, the Career Mode, you have, exhibition matches, online play, but the big thing that I think that every other EA sports game has that EA UFC does not is a Dana White mode. I wanna be able to run the UFC like the franchise mode in Madden.

People ask for it, like if there’s a universal mode, or a manager mode. It is unfortunate that mode doesn’t exist in UFC 3, and again that really comes down to coming off of UFC 2. We try as much as possible now to look at in game telemetry and user feedback from people that are playing the game, and one of the big things we saw that was that a really large number of our users play career mode. And, what we saw from UFC 2 was that there was a really large number people that thought it was okay but it could have been better.

So that’s where we said: there’s kind of like, the old way of doing things. It would have been, “well, we’re making a new game, lets add a new mode.” And probably underserve, you know, or just not do a whole lot of revolutionary changes to core gameplay and not invest really heavily in an existing mode. We looked at our game telemetry and we knew that 85 percent of fight time in our game is spent standing up, striking. And we said, “okay we can make a really big impact, we can really blow peoples minds by really revolutionizing standup gameplay experience.”

We also knew 90 percent of players in UFC 2 played career mode, but a lot of them didn’t finish their career. They felt it wasn’t necessarily as engaging, as deep as it needed to be. And so we said lets invest heavily in career mode as opposed to, lets just keep on adding modes, and modes, and modes to the game that they might all, not necessarily get to a level of depth and quality that we want them to be at, and that fans want them to be at.

So I think that, that’s a strategic decision and I think that moving forward, hopefully we’re in a point now where we have really strong foundation for still only the third integration of a UFC game. Moving forward, now we’ll feel comfortable to stand and we’ll continue to expand the breadth and depth of the game. But that being said, we did drastically improve career mode, made some huge additions and improvements to Ultimate Team, we added the tournament mode, we added an AI recorded system to practice mode as well to do, cause with the new striking system, so now you can go on to practice mode and record some combination to you now practice against. So, that’s not to say that we didn’t spread the love across the entire game, cause we did.