(If only Jermain Taylor had done more of this over the weekend in real life against Carl Froch rather than virtual Roy Jones, Jr.; screen cap from Fight Night Round 4)
As a boxing fan, I’ve been eagerly anticipating the release of Fight Night Round 4 this summer. It hits the stores for XBox 360 and Playstation 3 on June 30. But plenty of video game scribes have called it one of the most anticipated video games of the year overall, and EA, the makers of the game, have been promoting it as such and slowly rolling out tidbits about gameplay, the real-life boxers it features — 40-plus in all, more than any other boxing video game ever — and so forth. Early reviews of said tidbits are highly positive. I personally love what I’m seeing and hearing, but I had some questions of my own, as a long-time admirer of boxing video games.
Two producers of the game agreed to do an interview with me, and I tried to tackle it as a little bit more of a boxing aficionado than a video game expert — with your input, I might add. What follows is a transcript of our chat from this evening.
For the interview, I spoke with Brian Hayes and Mike Mahar. They call themselves true boxing fans, and they sound like true boxing fans to me. We talked a little bit beforehand about how much I liked Round 3, despite my complaints. I consider it the finest realistic-style boxing video game so far. And the two men were careful to praise that game, but they have clearly listened to the complaints about Round 3 and are intent on addressing them.
(I’m “TQBR,” AKA, The Queensberry Rules.)
TQBR: Start, please, by telling me what’s new and improved about Fight Night Round 4 compared to Fight Night Round 3.
Brian: Far and away the single biggest thing that is new is, well, everything. We built the game from scratch, essentially. Fight Night Round 3 is a great game… but it was very early on the next generation console… Fight Night Round 4, one, has a totally new game play engine. It’s basically a physics-based animation system that allows for a great deal of things that never could be done before. Things like collision detection. Fighters can get so close together and fight on the inside, pushing and shoving. Graphical quality is stepped up. There are improvements to overall game play and depth of the single-player experience. The short version is, everything.
Mike: I guess the big takeaway from what Brian said is the physics-based game engine. Because you bring up Fight Night Round 3, not to be disparaging, but the complaints from hardcore boxing purists are that in Fight Night Round 3, there wasn’t any true infighting. One character could not get close enough to have their body pressed up against another boxer. As good as that game was, the single biggest thing when you get a chance to play the game, is that we worked from the ground up on the actual mechanics of fighting so that they rely on physics. You can take Tyson’s head and stick it right in Ali’s chest and throw bombs on the inside.
Brian: Because that didn’t exist, there was really only one distance to fight at. Now because you can get close there’s a difference between close and far away. Another extension is we’re able to take much more authentic or realistic representations of every fighter. When you have a guy like Muhammad Ali or George Foreman, a long fighter, or shorter fighters like Frazier and Tyson, there’s a reason they fight the way they fight. Tyson didn’t fight on the outside because he had shorter arms. We have that strategic balance, the tug of war between inside and outside fighting. Fighting with tall rangy fighters in Round 4 feels really different.
TQBR: Why Ali and Tyson on the cover instead of current boxers?
Mike: Good question. One, because having Mike Tyson in a video game for the first time in over 10 years is a really big deal. People have been clamoring for that for a long time. My personal opinion is that, one of the single biggest questions you still see on the message boards is that it always denigrates into an argument over who would beat who. I think it’s pretty obvious, honestly. They just argue endlessly on message boards about who would beat who. They argue about what would happen if that fight would really take place, and this is the first time in the last 10 years where you can find out for yourself.
Brian: I think of myself as a huge boxing fan and so is Mike, and obviously Ali… the Sportsman of the Century, is one of the most recognizable faces in the entire world. Tyson had a Barbara Walters special. LeBron James hasn’t had a Barbara Walters special… It’s a level of notoriety that few athletes in any sport are able to obtain and certainly in boxing right now you’d be hard pressed to say who’d we put on the cover instead of Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson. Those are tough shoes to fill.
TQBR: You’ve slowly released lists of boxers featured in the game, and just last week Robert Guerrero announced he’d signed a deal with you. How has the process of signing fighters worked, and are there some you wanted but couldn’t get?
Mike: I can’t talk about some of the fighters we haven’t released yet that are in the game. The metaphor we’ve used previously about getting boxers into the game — it’s akin to a boxing fan asking, “Why won’t those two guys fight each other?” Getting boxers in the game is pretty much the same thing as making fights, to some extent. Some guys want too much money. Brian has a neat story from a few yeas ago, we were in Vegas to see Mayweather-Judah… and we happened to be in a restaurant and saw a past heavyweight —
Brian: — a past heavyweight titleholder, we could say —
Mike: — a past heavyweight titleholder past his prime. Brian approached the guy and said, “Hey what’s going on?” He wasn’t working on Fight Night at the time, but he was at EA. He said, “I could put in touch with our guys, perhaps get you into the game.” Details got passed on to the manager. We got a phone call. The guy wasn’t really interested in being in the game for any price. What he was interested in was having his own video game with him on the cover. There’s only one other guy we have who has his own name on a video game and that’s Tiger Woods. This guy wasn’t the Tiger Woods of boxing.
Brian: That is an extreme example. Certainly with boxers, being in the ring by yourself, there’s really a group of people around them that make an effort to bolster their confidence. While for me it was a completely crazy expectation, around that boxer, there was probably someone saying, “Champ, you know you should have your own game champ you’re the man champ.” That’s the culture always hyping yourself up. Going into the ring by yourself, boxers have to have that confidence to think they’re the greatest.
Mike: We ship Fight Night Round 4 to more markets than the American markets. We have eight weight divisions. We strive to get good fighters, licensed fighters, in each of the eight weight categories. We want to represent and have reach in all of the regions we ship to with boxers they can relate to.
Brian: Some of the folks, as we’ve announced new rosters, on the message boards — boxing fans can be tremendously fickle. I’ve heard virtually every one of the greatest fighters of all time called a bum on a message board. “Felix Trinidad was a bum…” Actually, you know they’re all pretty great. When we announce the roster people say, “Why do they have this person in the game? They suck…” We’re not going to please everyone.
TQBR: One of the discussions we had on the blog was, how much does it help current boxers to be on the cover instead of in the game with a cover that sells more copies of the game and get seen by people who don’t usually follow boxing?
Brian: Great point. We try to articulate that point sometimes. I did work on Round 4 and 2. I’ve spoken with some boxers who weren’t in the game back then. They said, “I would have done this for free just so I could show my kids that, ‘Hey, I’m your daddy and I’m in a boxing video game.'” But when you’re dealing with athletes’ managers and their agents very few of those people are interested in how that kid thinks. If you look at the units the Fight Night franchise has sold and compare it to people paying to see boxing… It’s the biggest selling boxing pay-per-view in the history of the world. In a sport like boxing that is somewhat — I don’t know that promoters and managers that might be like old-timers that are used to a model of doing things that isn’t necessarily up to date, [who think] the idea that maybe this video game thing is a good avenue for exposure.
(A Fight Night Round 4 simulation of the upcoming weekend’s Manny Pacquiao-Ricky Hatton fight had Pacquiao winning by late knockout.)
TQBR: I’d like to know a little bit more about how these new fighting styles work; in particular, Emmanuel Augustus has such a cult following as one of the strangest fighters in the sport – how hard was it to develop his style for the game? Did he get his own, or you can you create a fighter who dances while he punches?
Brian: There’s two components to style of any fighter we have in the game. One is the way that they look and the other is the strategic decisions they make that they apply from round to round. While Emmanuel Augustus is a very unique guy, we qualify him as an “unconventional” fighter who doesn’t do conventional things like work behind the jab or keep his hands up or what have you. We have essentially a lot of different AI strategies that we can assign to different fighters and the animation that they look like when they fight. For the motion capture, we brought in amateur boxers and local pros and not very many of them were familiar with Emmanuel Augustus. Myself, I’m a tremendous fan of Emmanuel Augustus. Because he was in New Zealand or somewhere, I had to do it [the motion capture] myself. I hope I did him proud… and yes, you can create a fighter who can have Emmanuel Augustus’ dancing style.
Mike: We were talking about the roster. One thing we have is a feature called photo game face. What it allows the user to do is upload images of themselves or friends… You can take those photos and make themselves or our friends in the game…
TQBR: What are you doing about the artificial intelligence? Among fans of Round 3 I know, including me, that’s the biggest complaint – that it was too easy to win fights.
Mike: It’s a two-step process. The first thing we did is we set up a system in the game called real AI. One of the engineers set up a program… For Round 3, let’s say we’re making Emmanuel Augustus, we can say, “Crank up the jab, decrease his right hands, make him lead with a jumping left hook.” They have to do all that through code. It renders the boxing experts like us useless. [The engineer] set up a system that allows Brian and I to actually record the movements of us playing the game. All we have to do is turn on the game and play it. We’ve watched hundreds and hundreds of boxers and we have a huge fight library. We were able to record that right into the game from the game itself. Each boxer, percentage-wise, will act like himself. That’s the first thing that addresses difficulty. The other is that we’ve basically got four difficulty levels. One of the thing is you can go in and bust up the AI on the default level no problem, or career mode. You have to remember as an advanced user, that we’re making the default skill level easier and purposely so that it’s playable for a large range of people. That’s no different than any video game – we want people to come in and play it and get a good feel for the game. If you so choose, you can then ramp up the difficulty level. We’ve got it tuned right now so that the highest diff levels are extremely challenging. One of the derivatives is that the AI can actually adapt to your skills.
Brian: We did things a lot of – take James Toney stuff. We emulate the way James Toney likes to sit in the pocket, slip punches, throw counter rights. We recorded behaviors to get their style right. We do a lot of recording for, situational recording, where we need a response for this action. If you were doing this to the AI, we record as many different viable responses that we can. Say, something simple as a jab. OK, well I’m going to throw a jab, the opponent throws a counterpunch. He slips to left, throws a right to the body. Or steps back, throws a straight right. Any type of response that a boxer could make to the opponent throwing a jab, we record that. In any situation where you’re having success with the AI, it can start to choose with the toolbox. If it finds one that works it can start using it more often. When you find a response to that, it comes back with something different. It’s like the chess match that boxing is. Some fights – I was talking to Winky Wright, he threw a jab and Felix Trinidad never adjusted to that…. I would say that is an example of non-adaptive strategy. If he punches you and you let him, he’ll just keep doing it over and over again.
TQBR: Another issue I had is that you sometimes had to knock down your opponent seven times or so before you could knock them out. That just doesn’t happen in real life. But also, a fighter would sometimes, when he was hurt, become a defensive master. I understand that’s changed?
Brian: We’re definitely — the knockdown thing was something that bothered everyone, ourselves included. We’re definitely changing that in terms of making that more realistic. You shouldn’t expect to see seven, eight, nine knockdowns for each boxer. As far as the opponent becoming hurt, in Round 3, there were so many knockdowns, they tried to make it harder to knock a guy down so there wouldn’t be so many. In our game there are less knockdowns. When you get a guy hurt what you see so often in real life when he is hurt and stunned and about to go down, the ability to finish them off is not so challenging. They generally don’t become Floyd Mayweather for 10 seconds. You can flurry an opponent and corner them. It’s a little easier. Being stunned and getting into a spot of trouble, it’s much different.
TQBR: I don’t understand this, but in the new trailers of the game, there have been some people saying the graphics look good, and some complaining that they look bad. Is what we’re seeing essentially the finished product?
Brian: There were some issues we did address with some of the things, like complaints about people being big around the midsection. The graphical quality, the lighting, the textures, we’re at where we’re at.
Mike: Fight Night Round 3, visually, still holds up. But I also believe, and the proof in the pudding, it had some really cool-looking still images; our game does that easily. When you get it and play it, I don’t think there will be any comparisons. To play the game, it looks stunning.
Brian: The other thing about it is, for Round 3, it was 30 frames per second. Ours runs at 60. When I first came onto Round 4 to work on the game, that was one of my biggest concerns. It’s not a launch title so we’re not going to get a pass… we’re going to have to look better than Round 3. They built a really nice-looking Ferrari. We had to build a better-looking Ferrari that’s faster and that gets more gas mileage. It’s really smooth and fluid when you play it. The difference when you go back and play Round 3 is stark… The boxer models, the musculature, everything looks better.
TQBR: Joe Tessitore is still doing the color commentary, yes? Have you added anything to that?
Brian: Joe Tessitore is doing the play-by-play, Teddy Atlas is doing the color.
TQBR: I didn’t know Teddy was doing the game. How has that changed things?
Mike: It’s added so much. The commentary is something people complained about for Round 3. It focused on Joe himself. When you put all that weight on one guy, it’s why you don’t see any boxing broadcasters with one guy. When we brought in Teddy, they work so well together, they can ad lib and feed off each other so well. It makes things much more alive. There’s analysis. They can joke and banter with each other. We’re doing a much better service. What’s interesting as a historical anecdote, in some of the early days of Knockout Kings, they worked with Teddy Atlas. The way they used to do the audio back then
was rather audio-by-numbers. Read this line and this line exactly or it wasn’t going to work, that kind of thing. When we first contacted Teddy Atlas he was hesitant to do the game again because his previous experience wasn’t all that fun. He said, “I looked at the script and I thought I wouldn’t say that.” Just the way we designed the system… it was much more open-ended. We allowed them to ad lib a great deal. The stuff they’re saying is stuff they would be comfortable saying.
TQBR: It seems like there’s a lot of anticipation out there from not only boxing fans, but video game fans in general.
Mike: Hopefully we can make them all happy.