It’s a story right out of Monday Night Raw: A long-reigning champion, forced to vacate his title. A list of hungry contenders, aching to pick up the mantle. Who has the drive and experience to make a title run of their own?
In this case, the title is not a championship belt but the WWE video-game license. While it may no longer be the most prestigious title in all the land, it’s still a hot commodity that could flourish or flounder depending on whose waist it’s strapped around. It was also conspicuously absent among the items up for auction in the THQ fire sale. The absence conjures up images of wheeling and dealing in a smoky backroom of a gentlemen’s club, hopefully featuring seedy characters that would make Captain Lou Albano and “Classy” Freddie Blassie proud.
In seriousness, we have a clear frontrunner in title picture in the form of 2K Sports. Of course, anyone who follows wrestling knows that the twists and turns aren’t over until the final bell rings.
THQ and Yuke’s first teamed up for PSone’s WWF SmackDown!, released March 2000. It christened a new era of WWF video games: a new publisher and developer for the license, and a new brand based on WWF’s burgeoning supershow. THQ and Yuke’s were no rookies, however. The former published several successful WCW games; the latter developed games based on the New Japan wrestling promotion.
SmackDown!’s sequel, WWF SmackDown! 2: Know Your Role, released just eight months later. The series became an annual fixture on Sony hardware before going multiplatform (and next-gen and portable) with WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2006. For fourteen games in 13 years, the team kept up an unbelievable pace. The latest entry, WWE ’13, garnered some of the series’ best reviews.
While Yuke’s never made a game to top AKI’s WWF No Mercy – fans and critics lament floaty hit detection or recycled assets – it continues to be on time and within budget for each installment. Meanwhile, its competitors all but disappeared. Yuke’s is the last wrestling-game developer standing. Can it succeed without its crafty ringside manager, THQ?
The Top Contender
IGN makes it seem all but official: 2K Sports is the next publisher of WWE games. Were that to come to pass, I couldn’t be happier. 2K’s NBA series is a veritable how-to guide on successful annual video-game iterations. It was a pioneer in the use of online for both multiplayer and updates. Its Jordan Challenge mode in NBA 2K11 (followed by NBA’s Greatest in 2K12) gave customers a reason to pick it up beyond just updated rosters. Its level to detail is impressive whether it’s about post moves or cloth textures. Those are all areas upon which WWE games have taken inspiration or could benefit.
WWE games would also be a good expansion of the emaciated 2K Sports brand. Major League Baseball 2K has had more disappointing seasons than the Chicago Cubs. The NHL 2K series was discontinued following NHL 2K11 only releasing iPhone and Wii versions. Top Spin is a respected tennis simulation, but even Serena Williams would get racket-smashy at the thought of annualizing that franchise.
EA is still a viable home for WWE. It’s the new home for Ultimate Fighting Championship, which until a shocking E3 press announcement had been a THQ license. Many believe the two may meet up under the EA banner. Electronic Arts has experience in the pro-wrestling arena, publishing a few WCW titles around the first SmackDown’s release. Add in their boxing series Fight Night, and EA could become the one-stop shop for games featuring shirtless guys with balled-up fists. Perhaps the company could take one of its existing combat engines and tweak it to be sports-entertainment-enabled.
Another option is that WWE may do what wrestlers call “going into business for itself.” Who’s to say it couldn’t strike a deal with Yuke’s and essentially publish the games itself? That may or may not require a partnership with someone like an EA Partners, though WWE has a huge home-video division with extensive reach. The company’s even opened up its own movie production department, WWE Studios, so it’s no stranger to going DIY with different forms of entertainment. That way, it could keep a tighter grip on its property with a potential of taking home more of the profit.
Here’s where I make things a little more personal. I worked at THQ, shipping three WWE games as season mode designer, writer, and cutscene director: SmackDown vs. Raw 2009, 2010, and 2011. I have seen what goes into putting out one of these games in such a short time and with a limited budget. It’s both horrifying and astonishing.
I saw pieces of code left over from the PSone days. I saw blank stares when mentioning concepts such as stream-loading. Yuke’s is quite literally a sequel factory, for better or worse. They are very good at it. If someone isn’t, they’re weeded out very quickly – including former members of AKI who did not last very long at Yuke’s at all. If you are a good designer or project manager, you can use this information to help shape a good game. If you ignore it, you do so at your project’s peril.
While wrestling is about a couple guys tossing each other around, numerous rules and conditions must be taken into account. You have an ever-changing roster of fighters, each needing to be made unique while fitting into the collision field. You have hundreds of two-character, motion-captured moves that take place in a 3D interactive space. You have a plethora of match types to contend with. The bulk of data is enormous, and Yuke’s has it all done – the product of over a decade of hard work (though some parts definitely look it). There is no one out there who can come close to matching that, and it would take years just to try.
The sad fact is wrestling is not as popular as it once was. I was a minor-league professional wrestler from 2000 to 2004, and I’ve seen the natural ebbs and flows of the industry. However, the advent of mixed-martial-arts (UFC) gave people a new and in some ways superior cathartic venue for combat. Nobody will yell at you that UFC is “fake” (though I assure you pro-wrestling is much more realistic than naysayers claim). Mixed-martial-arts is also more approachable; last weekend’s UFC on Fox featured a main event with two guys who where both 5’3” and 125 pounds.
I don’t know that pro-wrestling will bounce back from this slump to regain the ground it’s lost in the last decade. Ratings and pay-per-view buys are nearing all-time lows. The audience just isn’t interested – whether it’s because they’ve found something new or tire of what’s presented to them. Bringing back The Rock on a temporary basis will have temporary returns, but new stars are not emerging quickly enough as guys like Randy Orton and John Cena grow tiresome to fans. WWE is committed to having a roster that fits a certain physical mold, instead of looking for interesting spins on the theme. Parallels can be made with WWE vs. indie wrestling and the debate between triple-A releases and indie games.
The downswing of the WWE product, of course, affects sales of its video games. With earning potential lowered, a publisher isn’t going to assume as much financial risk to release a title. Putting together a brand new team, building or licensing a new engine… that all takes time. WWE’s stock has steadily declined, so it needs the video-game money sooner than later as well. All of this adds up to the fact that Yuke’s is all but assured to continue as the developer of WWE games. But my advice isn’t as simple as that.
Here’s where I play coach and dish out my personal advice (“The views expressed herein are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of Gamasutra”). Let us assume that IGN is right, and that 2K Sports becomes the new home of the WWE video-game license. If that proves incorrect, then replace 2K with whichever company holds the title.
First off: Hooray for you and congratulations! It’s a great license in great hands.
Second off: Here’s what ya do, 2K Sports. Retain the group formerly employed by THQ, and retain Yuke’s as developer. They’re already likely well under way with WWE ’14. We’re talking design docs done, scripts written and approved, new aspects begun, etc. This will be the most efficient way to get a new game made.
Now, give those same people a month off. They’ve been sweating the THQ shutdown, and are probably stressed. While they catch their breath, you pore over said WWE ’14 docs. You’re in charge now, so if you don’t like something, change it. After all, you guys have been doing annual sequels almost as long and more profitably.
Here’s the tricky part, 2K. You’re going to have to take Yuke’s to school. Pick your best, most patient programmers and send them off to Yokohama Japan. Their job is to teach Yuke’s as many of the tricks of the trade as they can in two to three months. Yuke’s still thinks character models need to be 20,000 polygons (they don’t know about normal mapping). It’s vital they learn how to get more than six playable characters onscreen at a time. Show them how to load data quicker and easier overall. Give them some collision guidance. These are things they haven’t had the wiggle room to assimilate in years, but have been major concerns for players. Keep a couple of your guys around if need be to monitor and mentor these new techniques. Trust me: You’ll love Yokohama.
Now, delay the game. Don’t worry; I’m not talking a year here. I suggest delaying for approximately 4 months. It’s no coincidence that’s the exact amount of time I suggested above for breathing-room and new concept learning. Here’s another not-coincidence for you: Instead of shipping a game in November, when it’s going up against all the heavy hitters (WWE ’13 released the same day as Assassin’s Creed III, for example), put WWE ’14 out in late March or early April. Not only is that a less-crowded release window, but it’s also the same time as WrestleMania, WWE’s equivalent of the Super Bowl.
The New Champion
I have faith that, combining the experience and passion of Yuke’s and THQ’s design team with the track record and skill of 2K Sports, we can have the excellent, technically sound WWE video game that we’ve all been dreaming of. And if that doesn’t work, Plan B is to just completely rip off and update WWF No Mercy. Either way is cool by us.