When 2K Sports does motion capture for its WWE game, it does so with a full, regulation, touring ring provided by the wrestling circuit. Turnbuckles, ropes, steps, even those dastardly kendo sticks hidden underneath. The WWE sends an official ring setter-upper to make sure it’s all regulation whenever they’re filming.
Yes, Mark Little, WWE 2K15's executive producer, has jumped off of the top rope.
"It hurts like a —" Little said, catching himself before saying what I figured to be a 12-letter word. "I jumped off onto one of our thin crash pads and still hurt myself. It hurts. It really hurts."
Motion capture is just one realm in which 2K Sports is promising a much more polished gem when this game arrives in late October. Last year, the explosion of Planet THQ sent everything it owned hurtling through space; the team at Visual Concepts, 2K Sports' in-house studio, woke up one morning with a huge asteroid called WWE in its back yard, wondering what to do with it.
So last year wasn't really the time for overhauls. Work already had begun on the 2013 edition of the game when THQ cratered in January. After acquiring the license and the game, 2K's influence was seen mostly in its marketing, built largely by Yuke's Future Media Creators, which has made WWE video games going back to 2000.
"Obviously we were all very happy to be able to get the license, be a part of the WWE universe, bring on a new team, and still get a game done in the midst of what was an absolute disaster," Little said. "So the fact we were able to get WWE 2K14 done is a testament to everybody who was involved in that project."
2K Sports has a full-size, traveling WWE wrestling ring in its studio. With kendo sticks.
But it was still a game that showed a lot of age and a lack of polish in its core gameplay and visuals, and commentary. This is where Visual Concepts comes in. In its first full year managing the game — and the series' debut on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One — Yuke's still is a full partner in development, but Little vows that WWE 2K15 will show the polish and attention to detail that have made the NBA 2K series so highly regarded.
That's where the wrestling ring comes in. Little says WWE 2K15 will feature at least five times the animations of any previous WWE title and while that's something developers across all sports titles like to tout, its benefit should be recognizable in this one. WWE 2K has suffered from a lot of popping in and out of animations, some rather brutal transitory movements, and very long animations that instead of being interruptible by the player, appear to be sped up.
It should be noted here I did not see any gameplay in what was basically a table-setting discussion at E3 2014 with Little. These are his assurances, not my impressions. Still, 2K's basketball title is well known for having animations upon animations that make its brand of basketball fluid and balletic, and give players a greater sense of control over the players. That's what WWE 2K15 is going for.
Supporting that will be full head and body scans for basically every wrestler, and I was shown comparisons of John Cena in WWE 2K14 and what he looks like after the scan. Straight away I noticed Cena now has creased lower eyelids, which does a lot for how you judge the realism of his look. I was shown some new facial expressions, also taken with the head scan — so this was Cena himself making the faces. The lighting systems used on the NBA 2K series also will help out, removing the plastic sheen bare skin had in the past. Little said the new lighting and rendering systems will be a part of the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions as well as the next-generation version.
Bodies also will be better proportioned — Little showed me Cameron, one of the Divas and a star of their reality show. Cameron was based on a more generic female body type in WWE 2K14; her curves are more accurate in the latest modeling. Clothing and other textures also are improved under better lighting, especially Cena's trademark jorts.
In gameplay, Little didn't get into specifics but laid down the game's new goal: "We're not a fighting game featuring WWE superstars." Visual Concepts wants matches to have a pacing similar to that of a real WWE event. Little concedes the basic impossibility of replicating something scripted, but has it as a goal anyway, just to give matches less of a free-for-all tone.
"At no point do I think we'll get it to be quite the same as a broadcast, just because of the scripted nature of the event, especially between two humans," he said. "The choreogrpahy that goes on in a match in the WWE is a very different thing than what we'll be able to replicate. But what we will be able to bring to life is that opportunity to have that experience. So if you want to use the ring psychology of a wrestler, the match will play out like a normal wrestling match should."
I asked if this meant the toolkit players have used to construct rivalries, storylines, run-ins and other staples of televised pro wrestling also would get an overhaul. The toolset is very deep, but users are thrown into its deep end with a balky tutorial and a laborious assembly process. Little wasn't commenting on that feature today, but said, "I think you should expect us to build upon what's been there. Some of it's going to be rethought, specifically inside the context of a match, we're going to rethink of a lot."
The roster reveal is a huge marketing campaign for 2K Sports, so there was no way I was getting much more than a peek at E3. However, Bray Wyatt will make his debut in this series (though the man who portrays him appeared as Husky Harris in WWE '12, and be joined by mainstays like Cena and Hulk Hogan, as well as another star on the rise, Roman Reigns.
Bray Wyatt joins the roster this year.
Finally, Visual Concepts is going to bring its best-in-class commentary to bear on WWE. No other sports studio does presentation like Visual Concepts, so when they say they're improving the presentation, it rates plenty of trust that they are. Announcers Michael Cole and Jerry Lawler have now spent about 35 hours in the booth recording new lines — most of them together. I heard an introductory clip in which they bantered about The Undertaker and it sounded a lot more natural. Lawler, recorded separately, had a tendency to overact as himself and here he is what he's supposed to be on the show — the analyst, chiming in with his take on whatever Cole has just described.
My sense of it is that Visual Concepts is very much in charge of this project, with Yuke's still very much needed to implement the polish and the changes and improvements 2K is feeding them. "It's a partnership between the two of us," Little said. "In a lot of areas in the game, yes, we're the one fronting that up. But it's still very much a partnership.
"Yuke's has a very long history of making this game, and some people would tell you it's good and bad, but they have a lot of expertise and knowledge about making WWE wrestling games," he said. "My job is to find a way to pull the best out of both groups."