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EA Sports UFC's creative director on building a game to 'make people do double-takes'

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Electronic Arts is essentially rebooting two of its sports franchises within the next year, and it's going about both brands in the same way.

EA Sports' NBA Live and UFC series aren't in identical places, with the most notable difference being that UFC has no competition while NBA Live's competition — 2K Sports' NBA 2K franchise — is one of the most critically and commercially successful sports series in existence.

NBA Live is at a further disadvantage because audience perception of the franchise is at an all-time low, since EA failed to ship a new entry in the franchise twice in a row (in 2010 and 2012). EA took over the UFC license from THQ last June, six months before the latter company filed for bankruptcy. THQ published three well-regarded UFC Undisputed games, and mixed martial arts (MMA) fans don't seem to be worried about EA's plans for the license.

EA released the non-UFC-licensed game EA Sports MMA in 2010. But its first title under the new licensing agreement, EA Sports UFC, is for all intents and purposes a reboot, not a straight follow-up to that game. And according to Brian Hayes, the game's creative director at developer EA Canada, the studio is focused on getting gameplay right above all.

During a brief presentation at E3, Hayes showed Polygon a video comparing EA Sports MMA to an early prototype of EA Sports UFC. As he played an animation for a rear naked choke, a submission hold, Hayes pointed out that in the older game, the attacker's arms appeared to hover above his opponent's body. In the EA Sports UFC footage, one fighter's arms were properly locked around the other combatant's neck.

"We want to show these fighters coming into contact with each other across the entire surface of their [bodies], and be able to convey the tightness of the choke, or a body triangle, or all that kind of stuff, so that it just brings the fighters to life in a way that we haven't before," said Hayes in a phone interview with Polygon last week. The developers are also aiming to eliminate that telltale video game movement: the appearance of fighters sliding across the Octagon, the UFC ring.

Conveying information naturally is another area of focus for the team. According to Hayes, the next-generation EA Sports Ignite engine lets the developers do things that were impossible on the current consoles. That includes using data from a 360-degree head scan — done with 18 HD cameras — for almost every fighter in the game. We saw that technology in action when we visited EA's E3 booth, where we messed around with an interactive EA Sports UFC demo that allowed us to see three fighters' faces expressing a variety of emotions.

The limitations of current-generation consoles meant that although in-game fighters looked like their real-life counterparts, there was "a level of character performance that we couldn't achieve" in the Fight Night series of boxing games, said Hayes. "The characters didn't come to life; they didn't really seem aware; there was no sense of emotion, intensity, awareness on their faces during gameplay."

EA Sports UFC features a new facial animation rig, and the head-scanning technology encompasses the capture of specific facial expressions for individual fighters — "we actually know what Jon Jones looks like when he's screaming," said Hayes. Those elements coupled together will allow players to follow the flow of a match by reading the fighters' faces. The developers are also implementing dynamic body deformation and vascularity, so damage and blood flow will be visible in real time over the course of a fight.

"You get a sense of the exertion that they're putting out in different situations in the fight by just actually reading the changes on the surface of their skin," Hayes explained. "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.'"

But Hayes disagreed with the notion that a HUD-less experience is the ultimate goal, and noted during the interview that EA Sports UFC will convey information through an on-screen HUD as well as through the fighters' appearance.

"we actually know what Jon Jones looks like when he's screaming"

"I think from a visual presentation standpoint — and again, for bringing the characters to life — we want to do as much as we can to make it look like a real fight, and to make it possible for you to know what's going on and make decisions and inform your strategy without using the HUD," he said. "But at the same time, just from a game design perspective, games do allow us to provide more information that can be helpful to users."

In essence, said Hayes, a HUD is crucial because it makes the game comprehensible to people who might be more casual fans of UFC.

"Some people will watch a UFC fight — they're UFC fans — but just by looking at a TV match, not everybody knows who's winning, or what actually is going on," Hayes explained. "We have the ability to provide information to support that, or to augment users' understanding, so I think we're always going to take advantage of that as well."

EA Canada tried something new with Fight Night Champion in 2011, delivering a cinematic story mode with its own protagonist instead of a user-created boxer. While Hayes said a similar setup is possible in EA Sports UFC, he pointed out that Fight Night's story experimentation didn't come until the fifth iteration of the franchise.

a HUD-less game isn't the ultimate goal

"I think that a cinematic experience would be something that we might look at in the future of this franchise," said Hayes. "But for EA Sports UFC numero uno, I think what we will look at doing is [building on] some of the learnings that we had from that single-player experience [in Fight Night Champion]."

One of those lessons is a differentiation of the fighters players will face, which takes after the scenario-driven nature of Champion's career mode. Hayes said he wants players to feel like each successive fight is a distinct experience against a unique opponent: For example, one might have a punishing left hand that you have to avoid, while another might be a submission specialist.

Prior to serving as creative director on EA Sports UFC, Hayes worked in a variety of roles on all five Fight Night games — Fight Night 2004 (2004), Fight Night Round 2 (2005), Fight Night Round 3 (2006), Fight Night Round 4 (2009) and Fight Night Champion (2011). According to Hayes, much of the Fight Night "brain trust" transitioned to EA Sports UFC, and the team is hoping that it will do for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One what Round 3 did for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360: help define what's possible on new consoles in the generation's early days.

the team hopes EA Sports UFC will help define what's possible on new consoles

At the dawn of a new generation, most third-party publishers are releasing their late 2013 and early 2014 games as cross-generation titles in order to take advantage of the massive install base on PS3 and Xbox 360. But EA Sports UFC was a next-gen title from the start. While there was "some investigation" of doing a current-gen version or porting the game down, EA decided that development resources were better allocated to building one game and designing it with the future in mind, according to Hayes.

The developers' goal, he said, is to figure out, "How are we going to make people do double-takes in the store when they see the game out in a kiosk?"

EA Sports UFC is set for release in spring 2014 on PS4 and Xbox One.