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How EA's loss could be golf fans' gain in The Golf Club

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With the future of video game golf at EA Sports in flux, one developer is teeing up a simulation that's more than just relief for virtual golfers, but a possible contender to Electronic Arts' own titles.

The Golf Club will be the first original title in three years from Lunenberg, Canada-based HB Studios, which primarily performs contract work on sports games for publishers such as Electronic Arts. HB and EA have had a fruitful relationship for more than a decade, but The Golf Club only exists because of a recent hiccup in that partnership that had nothing to do with HB.

The most recent entry in EA's long-running golf franchise was Tiger Woods PGA Tour 14, which was released last March on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. That series was known as Tiger Woods PGA Tour until October, when EA and the legendary golfer parted ways. But shortly after the launch of PGA Tour 14 last spring, a report indicated that EA had decided to cancel the game that would likely have been released this spring as Tiger Woods PGA Tour 15, even though the company had reportedly been planning to outsource the development of that title.

"We last year had built up a golf team in anticipation of potentially working with EA," said Peter Garcin, executive producer on The Golf Club, in an interview with Polygon this week. "We were potentially going to work with them on doing a port — making some of the Gen 3 versions, the 360/PS3 versions — but then that [...] work, that bidding process, didn't come through.

"It wasn't till later that we learned it was because they were canceling, or delaying — putting the whole series on hold," Garcin added. EA, alongside last fall's announcement of its breakup with Woods, said it had begun working on a new PGA Tour title for "mobile [devices] and next-generation consoles."

When HB's arrangement with EA fell through, the studio decided that it still wanted to make a golf game, so it began development last spring with initial plans to release the title on PS4 and Xbox One. Once the studio started building The Golf Club, it realized that the game had "a lot of cross-platform potential," and the title is now being made on Windows PC as well. In particular, many of the team's ideas for The Golf Club are features that you don't usually see in mainstream sports games: a major focus on the social sharing of user-generated content, with a basis in a robust course creation tool.

"We had a number of really [...] what we felt were innovative ideas that we wanted to explore that we probably would not — that are harder, maybe, to explore under the confines of a yearly franchise," Garcin explained.

As HB said when it announced the game last week, the bedrock of The Golf Club is a course creation setup that the studio promises will be simple enough to use with a controller and deep enough to allow players to build the course of their dreams.

the bedrock of The Golf Club is a robust course creation tool

The creator includes procedural generation technology that HB put a lot of effort into, and the engine gives users the ability to produce a playable course almost instantly just by providing a few parameters like the natural setting and time of day. From there, players can change elements like the width of fairways, the size of greens and the number of bunkers. They can then go deeper to tinker with everything, like altering the terrain or adding natural features such as rivers and trees, or they can design a course entirely from scratch. According to Garcin, HB's technology ensures that the computer-generated course layouts are just as fun as hand-designed courses.

"It's one thing to just generate some landscape and chuck some holes down. But it's another thing to generate it in a way that it seems like it's actually fun to play and is based on real-world construction and that kind of stuff," said Garcin.

He added that the developers have already tried recreating real-life courses using the in-game tools, and they've been able to approximate those existing layouts pretty well: "You can pretty much create any course that you want, and any sort of aspect of that course, using the editor — or you can get very, very close."

Users will be able to upload and download each others' courses, a feature that HB hopes will provide endless replayability. The developers facilitated this by devising a way to keep file sizes down: Instead of downloading all the assets for a course, players just download a relatively small piece of data that gives their game the instructions to generate that course locally in the course creator and make the same custom edits that the original designer did.

By including a course creator in The Golf Club and allowing for infinite sharing of custom courses, HB is sidestepping the traditional basis for simulation sports games: real-life leagues, brands and athletes, which require costly licensing deals. You won't see Tiger Woods or Rory McIlroy in this game, but Garcin believes that licensed content isn't as important for a golf title as it is for, say, a baseball or football game, because players tend to have an attachment to their created golfers instead of real ones.

"It's an opportunity for us to differentiate ourselves as well. We're obviously a smaller studio, and don't have the kind of leverage that the big players would," Garcin explained, discussing the course creator and the lack of licensed golf stars.

HB is also building an expansive suite of multiplayer functionality into The Golf Club, such as the ability to play with friends even when they're offline by competing against "ghost" balls. And the game will set you up with rivalries by matching you against players of a similar skill level. HB is aiming to make the content sharing and the multiplayer features accessible across platforms, but that may be easier said than done, as far as the consoles are concerned.

"You can pretty much create any course that you want"

"There's absolutely no technical reason that we can't do that. That's a goal of ours," said Garcin. "There's obviously, you know, there are platform requirements that, in certain cases, might hinder our ability to do that to the full degree, but we're going to push as hard as we can to make that a reality for people." He added that cross-platform usability is more likely to happen between PC and either console, as opposed to between PS4 and Xbox One.

HB hasn't yet decided whether it will self-publish The Golf Club; the studio is currently "exploring a number of options" on that front, according to Garcin. At this point, HB is conducting closed beta testing, and the game is on track to be released this spring on all platforms.

"We might look at doing an Early Access kind of thing. Because we really want to get it out there as soon as we can," said Garcin, noting that in that case, the PC version would be available ahead of the console releases. "The core of the game is available and ready to be played. And there's still polish to be done, but we'd be excited to get it in people's hands." HB also intends to regularly push post-launch content updates.

EA hasn't yet confirmed that it won't put out a new golf game this year, but it said last spring that it didn't plan to release one until after March 2014. The company released each of the last few Tiger Woods PGA Tour titles by the end of March, just before the Masters Tournament. The Golf Club may be the only option for fans of simulation golf titles this year, and the game looks like it could provide them with something they haven't seen before.