EA Sports UFC is promising, but there's 'a good chunk of work left'

Brian Hayes is proud of the progress on his UFC game to this point, but he knows there's still a long way to go before it's ready for public consumption.

"We're post-alpha, so everything's in there and you can test it and play it, but that also means that we can find all the bugs and places where it needs to be tuned and balanced. So there's still a lot of that work left to be done," said Hayes, creative director on EA Sports UFC at developer EA Canada, in a phone interview with Polygon last week.

"When we've been showing people hands-on [demos], just, we're managing expectations."

We spoke with Hayes about how far EA Sports UFC has come since E3 2013 — when EA showed off nothing but a bare-bones demo of facial expressions — and how far the developers still have to go.

"It's still not shipping until spring of this year, and we're really targeting, like, very late spring of this year," said Hayes.

According to Hayes, the strongest element of EA Sports UFC in its current state is its graphics. That's one of the most important pieces of the presentation package that EA Canada wants to deliver, and Hayes said that elements like real-time lighting throughout arenas and sub-surface scattering on fighters' skin really help make players feel like they're watching a UFC fight on TV. And that level of detail is made possible by the power of new hardware, he said.

The Fight Night games on the previous two generations of consoles were some of the best-looking titles on those systems. Boxing games, and other fighting titles like UFC, benefit from having to render very few individuals in high detail; everything else adds to the fight atmosphere, but it's not as important as the fighters in the ring. However, because EA Sports UFC is being made exclusively on the new consoles, the developers aren't being forced to take the same shortcuts they had to take before.

"We were never able to do wide shots on Fight Night because the performance couldn't handle having more than four characters on screen at a time," Hayes explained. "We used to have to dance around the issue and hide the fact that people weren't in the scene."

wide shots are an important perspective

That's not the case anymore. Hayes told us that wide shots are an important perspective in EA Sports UFC, and rattled off a list of all the people who exist in and around the Octagon: the referee, announcer Bruce Buffer, broadcasters Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan, UFC president Dana White, the Octagon Girls and the press. They're all represented in wide shots in the game.

At the same time, there's a lot about EA Sports UFC that's still a work in progress, Hayes acknowledged. When we interviewed him after E3, he told us that the developers were aiming for a level of visual detail that would allow players to read the flow of a match by carefully watching changes in the fighters' skin and disposition. Back then, he said, "I'll be able to look at my fighter's face, and through his facial animation, and the fact that his head is turning purple and the veins are popping out in his forehead or his temples, [I'll be] like, 'OK, I'm getting really close to this being over right now.'"

According to Hayes, EA Canada is still working to get that particular feature up to par — the skin changes don't communicate that information at this point in the game's development.

"The exertion thing, it's not tuned to the point where you can reliably get that kind of gameplay information from it," said Hayes last week. "Nobody at this point has necessarily stopped and said, like, 'Oh wow, I must be really tired, because I can see how red my guy is in the face.' But that's just more a matter of, those visual features and their tie into the gameplay mechanics still have a lot of tuning to be done."

"we want to make the game accessible to as broad an audience as possible"

EA Sports UFC's control scheme is mostly set at this point. Mixed martial arts is a complicated sport in terms of the variety of actions a fighter can take, and it was important for EA Canada to "represent all that variety," but "make sure the controls aren't unnecessarily or unduly complicated, because we want to make the game accessible to as broad an audience as possible," said Hayes.

The four face buttons control striking, one per limb, while the left stick and the bumpers modify those attacks: left bumper for a powerful blow and right bumper for an acrobatic one. Holding the right trigger will block incoming attacks, but it's not completely effective unless you correctly block high or low, which is done by holding the punch (high) or kick (low) buttons in conjunction with the trigger. Blocking includes a lot of contextual animations: Your fighter may swat a strike to the side, or dodge it altogether. Skilled players can also evade attacks manually by using the left stick to move their fighter's head out of harm's way.

Blocking engages EA Sports UFC's countering system, which is similar to the one in Fight Night. A well-timed avoidance of an attack will give you a split-second window during which your opponent has to recover from missing the attack, and if you can hit them at that time, the attack will deal more damage than usual. Being able to take advantage of counterattack windows requires an additional level of skill that players of traditional fighting games, like Street Fighter, will already be familiar with.

"It's about finding out what strikes your fighter has at their disposal and when's the right time to use which one," said Hayes, noting that evading a quick jab won't give you a long enough window to strike back with, say, a tornado kick.

The effects of a fight will become more visible over time. But with the game being rated T for Teen, you won't see anything nearly as gruesome as the broken tibia and fibula that Anderson Silva suffered during UFC 168 last December. "The damage system in our game is more limited to tissue damage, whether it be cuts, swelling and bruising on the face, or bruising all over the body," said Hayes. EA Canada has included some submission animations that hint at injuries, but there's nothing particularly graphic in the game.

Submissions are a complex and key element of UFC fighting, and while they play out in EA Sports UFC as a minigame with an on-screen component, that description is somewhat reductive. "We wanted it to be more than just, somebody presses a button, then you see a submission and both players wiggle a stick or hammer a button to see whose athletes are better," said Hayes.

EA Sports UFC is still being figured out

Every submission hold in the game proceeds through five stages, getting progressively more locked in over time. The battle rages during each stage: The offensive player is trying to further lock down the hold and take it to the next level, while the defensive player is attempting to escape. You have to make it through all five stages in order to get your opponent to tap out.

However, Hayes said the developers may end up taking into account factors that could shorten the process, like fatigue or preexisting damage from the fight. For example, if your leg has taken a lot of hits and your opponent tries an ankle lock, she might only need two or three stages to make you submit.

That element of submissions, just like many other parts of EA Sports UFC, is still being figured out.

"The key point is that it's still not done," said Hayes. "There's still a good chunk of work left for us to be doing."

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