x360a Talks Virtua Tennis 2009 with SUMO Digital
Written Friday, May 22, 2009 By Dan WebbView author's profile
Earlier on in the week we trekked down to one of SEGA’s HQs in the UK, just south of London in Bretford, to sample the delights of Virtua Tennis 2009. We got chance to catch up with Toby Allen, Virtua Tennis 2009 Producer, and Kenton Fletcher, one of the game’s designers. We touch on a whole array of talking points during the interview ranging from the yearly serialisation of sports titles, the competition, what’s new this year and even Balls of Fury. It’s a long one folks, so grab a drink ... and a tent and brace yourselves.
x360a: So it’s been three years since the last title, what can we expect to see that’s new and improved with VT 2009?
Kenton Fletcher: Well World Tour for a start. We’ve put a massive amount of focus into making that a huge experience split up into amateur and professional tours. We’ve got 500 new custom players. New events all over the place, the charity cup ...
Toby Allen: The Davis Cup, online integration, more character customisation, the shop with 1,500 items, and a few updated stadiums ...
KF: We just packed an awful lot in there really.
TA: We have the new Shanghai stadium, the Dubai stadium, new character roster, sponsorship matches. Obviously the Wii version which is new and exciting. And yeah, more of VT 3 but just newer, updated, better and fresh.
What sort of tweaks can we expect to see gameplay wise?
TA: You can push things a bit more. Lobs now are probably easier to do with regards to against the AI. The animation for the diving has been removed and now you sort of stumble ... it feels a bit better and is very much a visual thing to a certain extent but it just feels that much better. You’re not completely on the floor.
No diving at all then?
What was the main reason for that?
KF: Basically we got so much feedback from people saying that it broke up the flow of the game so it just seemed that this [ed: the stumble] is a lot more of a natural motion.
TA: It’s a very harsh penalty for new gamers and they find themselves diving all the time because they don’t know the whole way to master VT ... which is to get into position, build up the power, make sure you have the right shot and counter your opponent. If you don’t know that, or do that at the beginning then you won’t be able to enjoy it as much. So the diving was very much like a penalty so we sort of tweaked it a bit. This also came back with feedback from AM3 who developed VT in the first place.
KF: It was feedback from everyone, including us because we’ve played VT 3 an awful lot. It did become annoying after a bit so this time round ... we fixed it.
Would you say you listened to feedback much then? Was it something you went out and got?
KF: We actually spend an inordinate amount of time on some forums and things.
So just cruising the web and seeing what you can find then?
TA: The press tell us a lot, the fans on the forums, Facebook ...
KF: That’s one of the nice things as well, especially with forums, people out there aren’t expecting developers to be reading what they’re saying, so you get more of a ... people aren’t bothered if they go “that’s just completely rubbish,” it’s like “fair enough, we’ll listen to what you’re saying” ... we might not necessarily believe everything we read.
TA: Yes, we also know if sometimes people are wrong or not sort of appreciating the game the way they should be. It doesn’t mean we’ll take on everything that they say, but we’ll be open to listening about it.
KF: If you’re starting to pick up the same bit of feedback from 10 different places, you start to cotton on.
TA: Often it’s feedback that we’ve thought about internally, that we just haven’t either had time to change, or either thought, “well, this is big enough to change, is it worth changing?”
KF: Occasionally we do get stuff though that we just haven’t thought of. It’s just nice to have that fresh voice.
What sort of roster can we expect to see in VT 09, how many characters are there?
KF: We’ve got 22 licensed pros ...
TA: Yeah, that’s 19 through the World Tour and then you unlock Becker, Edberg and Henman.
And the other two ... far right?
TA: The other two are King and Duke.
And they’re unlockable or open from the start?
KF: Yeah, we brought back the King of Players tournament from last time but spiced it up a little. This time it’s full of players that have previously been real world number ones ... I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that ping pong film with ...
TA: Oh I know ... Balls of Fire with Christopher Walken.
Balls of Fury? Quite a recent film?
KF: Yeah, that’s it. We just had this vision of like playing Federer and ...
TA: What goes through your mind?
How many stadiums can we expect to see this year?
TA: We’re up to about ... 22 with night versions, and doubles we go up to about 40-45.
And do the surfaces play totally different?
TA: Well all the clay ones will play like you’re on clay ... the grass, etc. Slight modifications once you’re on the actual court, but they’re very subtle so that you feel at home, but they’re just little tweaks here and there.
You were talking about building the atmosphere and bringing the crowd into play, can you talk a little about that ...
TA: Basically, we’ve got a 3D crowd which is really a visual change to make sure that you see the crowd clapping, cheering, being there, getting excited. The size of the crowd will vary per stadium and whether you’re in the amateur tour, or pro tour; or if you’re just playing randomly in exhibition it will just vary.
On top of that, you’ve got the 3D sound to make sure that it sounds like a crowd. I mean, you put it on 5.1 and it sounds like you’ve got the crowd in the background and you’re feeling the pressure ... the intensity, and that’s one of the things we really like. I’ve played sessions on VT where you’ve played for an hour online and you have a rally where you got up to 6-deuce, or something like that, and it just becomes so tense. In VT3, you just never had that crowd experience, that extra level of pressure, as if someone was expecting something and really that’s what we kind of endured to see and hopeful people enjoy seeing that. To add to that, we’ve also brought in a camera view that allows you to see all that ... which is all running at 60 frames per second.
Just drop that in there *laughs*
KT: It takes a lot of hours to get it to that *laughs*
TA: It just creates that environment you know ... you watch Wimbledon these days and that build up gets really captured.
KT: Recently tennis, especially the crowds at tennis, has become more like football and more like “RAWWWWRRRR come on!!!” rather than the nice polite clapping. It was due.
What sort of license have you got for equipment and all that?
TA: None for equipment. We tend to stay away from all that mainly from an accessibility standpoint ... it allows us to be more free.
Like put pirate costumes in it?
TA: Yeah, pirate costumes are in it. The pro players all have their licensed gear so we don’t shy away from that. We try and stay real realistic about that, but in terms of the shop, we like to have the freedom.
So the mini games are back and seem like a shy away from traditional tennis stance. I believe there are 12 ...
TA: 12 this year, yup.
Where do you get the inspiration for some of the mini games because they’re quite random in nature?
KT: Obviously we brought back the favourites from previous games but a lot of it is just sitting round throwing ideas and if something sounds like it’s funny and fun, then they take it forward and prototype it and things just ... form.
TA: There’s a lot of just concepting and just deciding ... what can you do with the mini game. You’ve got sort of the basic principle of ... you’ve got balls coming at you and you having to react ... well what do you do? You can either react by avoiding them, running towards them, try to collect stuff. We went a bit crazy with SST (SEGA Superstar Tennis) with that regards so we have experience with that, so we’re able to look and say ... “we’ve gone a bit mad here, let’s tone it down and add a bit of cutesyness from VT 3 that people love” ... and yeah, sort of goes to what we have.
KT: What we’ve also done this time is made the mini games as slightly optional ... they do play a part in World Tour where they build up your experience bars, but we’ve also lined up avenues for you to do that, so that people don’t have that thing of ... “I’ve GOT to sit and play this game.” If you want to play serious tennis through World Tour, you’re more than welcome.
TA: It’s a different experience because in VT 3 you had to build up your stats and use mini games as training sessions, whereas now it’s more of a change from spending 5 hours just playing tournaments against amateurs to build up to go into pros.
KT: If you play the mini games they do build up your experience which unlock various play styles but because you have other avenues to do it, you get that choice.
How would you say the Virtua Tennis franchise compared to the Top Spin franchise, you’re other real competitor?
KT: We come from quite an arcade background with Virtua Tennis and with that you need the kind of thing where you can walk up to a game and be able to play it. We don’t want the player to have to spend like an hour or two learning through how the controls work. It’s about accessibility for us.
TA: Yeah, it just takes a life time to master really though. That’s a principle we like to maintain, some kids pick it up and play and love it, and for us, that’s really nice to see. Top Spin is very simmy, it does its own little thing and it wants to be very gritty and realistic ... we’re not in that area. We try and stand on our own and make sure that we keep VT what VT is ... and that’s a fantastic game.
KT: We just want that glamour feeling ... we want you to play the game and feel like, “oh yeah, I’m in this big match” and we don’t want you to feel ... “ok, I’m droning through.”
TA: It shouldn’t be effort. With VT you play the game and you go, “wow, I just played an hour of VT and it’s been intense and it’s been fun,” rather than “oh wow, it’s been effort , I’ve had to work my way to make sure I’m in the right position.” It’s a lot more natural and straightforward I guess.
How do you feel about the whole yearly serialisation of sporting franchises? You guys haven’t seem to have adopted that, but you’re in the minority and do you think you’ll adopt it eventually?
TA: I don’t mind it to be honest. I think it’s one of those things where from one point of view it makes sense because you have games where there a lot of changes, like football, when you have a massive amount of changes. If you didn’t do it yearly people would get fed up, people wouldn’t be able to play with the new upcoming players, there’s a lot of young guys out doing well.
Well Pro Evo for one have used a patch to up-date those sort of things.
KT: Quite often though there will be an enormous amount of work that goes into those though. It might seem like they’ve thrown in a few new players but someone will have to do all the facial modelling and all that stuff. People say it should be a patch, well do you want to pay for all those dozens of people spending months producing it?
TA: Yes, and you also have the legal aspects unfortunately which means you have to license everything and make sure all the clubs are renewed and everything. So as a total span of work, it can take up to a year just to make that. So, it’s ... nowadays you have the ability to download a quick patch and update but it’s one of those things where you have to go “this is a full production.” It starts a year before hand, so it might take up to two years to get to that version. It feels rapid because that’s our business. I don’t particularly mind them. I know there is some negative feeling that it’s a bit too fast and it’s just cashing in basically but it depends though, if you want to spend the money on buying an update, then cool, go ahead.
KT: What year did VT 3 come out in? ... 2007?
KT: We’ve already had people saying “oh, you’ve been away for quite some time, what made you bring VT back?” and that’s only after two years.
TA: For me, it’s just about making things fresh. If they don’t want to buy that year’s version, they can just skip it and go to the next one. We’ve seen a break with Fight Night, but people will still be clamouring for a fighting game. To be honest, we’re open to feedback about it.
So will you ever go yearly?
TA: If people are excited about seeing yearly updates, that could be an option. We certainly have the technology at SUMO to do that. So it’s really a question of, if there’s enough feedback and players want to see more players and stadiums and that type of thing, then yeah.
What about through DLC?
TA: Well maybe through DLC, not through this version though but possibly for the next version, that could be something that we consider. It’s just really about voicing your opinion on it. I’m sure ourselves or SEGA will go “there’s about 20,000 people there that want DLC with new players, etc,” so you know.
What was the reason for the name change? From numbered to yearly?
TA: That was something SEGA brought on really. We just tagged along.
Was there any specific reason? Did they say why they were changing it?
TA: No, it was pretty much, they just changed it. We don’t really have much choice with the names and some of the previous names banded around were quite ... So, we’re quite please that it’s 2009.
So they were thinking of rebranding it totally?
TA: Just watch that space I guess. We’ll see.
Any names you want to throw out there ...
TA: *laughs* No, no, no.
Just fishing for info, don’t mind me *laughs*
TA: *laughs* No, no, it’s alright ... we’ll stay quiet.
SUMO and SEGA’s Virtua Tennis 2009 is out in stores across Europe next week on May 29th. Better get resting that serving arm. For more info and impressions on Virtua Tennis 2009, check out our hands on preview here.