Pierre André still carries around the feeling from six years ago. I asked him about it last week and he responded like it had all happened the day before. "Oh, it felt like crap," the video game developer said, spitting out the words.
2K Sports' cancellation of the Top Spin series at the end of 2011 was little regarded at the time and less remembered today. But it really did kill a series at the apex of its appeal. Sports video gaming has eternal martyrs like NFL 2K and MVP Baseball and NCAA Football, but for a series terminated in its prime by the publisher — not by a lawsuit, bankruptcy or an exclusive licensing agreement — no waste of genius stands out quite like Top Spin's.
"It meant throwing it all in the trash can and never doing it again," said André. "Not only that, but the team would never be working together again."
Today, André and a handful of his old 2K Czech mates are together working on what they consider the proper heir to their work on Top Spin 4. Tennis World Tour, announced back in May, is coming in 2018 under publisher Bigben Interactive, which has delivered a number of boutique sports titles, from handball to rally racing, to consoles and PC over the past two years.
"We're approaching World Tour like we would have with Top Spin 5," André told me by phone during E3 2017, "in that the game will be very close to what we had in mind for Top Spin, with the shot control and the movement of the player models. The meta-gameplay and tactical, strategic layer is where we will be innovating the most."
"What we would have done on Top Spin 5," said André "is in the character building, the playing style and the player's strategies." That will all be realized in Tennis World Tour, he promised, wrapped in a career layer that indulges the player in the feeling of being a top professional in world tennis, with off-the-court interactions coming into play, too.
Tennis World Tour will step in as the first full-featured, simulation quality sports video game for tennis on the current console generation, when it launches. That means the usual suite of created-player customizations, a career mode and licensed professionals to battle against throughout a championship season. Tennis World Tour won't have ATP or WTA licensing and its venues and championships will all be fictitious, but against that roster of real-world all-stars, André and four other Top Spin alumni hope to deliver what they would have if they got the chance to do Top Spin 5.
"It's going to be much more open, much more elaborate than just a character and statistics," André said. "You're going to have a game plan, you'll have a skill deck, and you will have to make a game plan for your next match, how this will play out based on your skills and weaknesses," and the other player's.
For example, Roger Federer (who will appear in the game) is a notorious slow starter, even as a winner of 18 grand slam tournaments. Not only will a player have to strategize to take the lead on him in the early sets, they'll have to weather his inevitable wake-up late in the match.
"At some point, he will start attempting very unique shots, and start making tricky rallies," André said. "A single player with a specific match plan and attitude can find and fight him. He may not be dangerous at the beginning of the match, so this is where you have to take him."
Yet Rafael Nadal (pictured above), who just won his 10th French Open title, "is going to be extremely demoralizing to play against," André said, for his ability to fetch everything at the baseline.
Breakpoint Studio, the venture created to deliver Tennis World Tour for Bigben, can concentrate on such subtleties even as it builds the rest of the game from whole cloth because of the lessons André and others have already learned. "There's no working in the dark, trying to feel how aiming or shot power should work," he said. "We know how these elements should be balanced together. This is the kind of knowledge we've acquired."
Breakpoint Studio is a team of about 20 and it will scan in more than 30 professionals by the time Tennis World Tour launches next year. Despite the small team size, André is confident that technology available today, which wasn't around six years ago, will help them pull through to a finished product of console sports simulation quality.
Even if Tennis World Tour ends up as the redemption of Top Spin, the disappointment that Top Spin is gone still lingers. André and his cohort had made tennis, of all things, viable as a console video game series, with as much right to be on the shelf as Madden or Pro Evolution Soccer. More than just functioning or being a cult favorite with message-board enthusiasts, Top Spin 4 was a critical success.
"When you do a sports video game and you're iterating on specific features and technology, and you can brng it to a high level of quality, and especially when you get critical acclaim, you're feeling validation," he said. "You know you can keep the game up there in the rarefied atmosphere with games like NBA 2K." That's what made the cancellation so painful. It would be one thing to wash out as loser in sales or the Metacritic score, but Top Spin 4 beat both expectations.
"It was at the point where it would not become a risk anymore," André said proudly. The only thing the developer could control, quality, would not give the publisher qualms. Still, 2K had them in 2011, and so that was that.
Tennis World Tour will be Pierre André's reply, his statement they were wrong. Few video game developers get the chance of such a rebuttal, much less six years after the fact.
Roster File is Polygon’s column on the intersection of sports and video games.