|Get In the Ring with EA Sports Fight Night Producer Michael Blank
INTERVIEW by Gabriel Montoya (Feb 9, 2007) Doghouse Boxing
I used to think I had the life. Covering the fights. Meeting boxers and boxing people I had previously only seen about on TV. Getting to be on assignment in Vegas or L.A. It seemed the life. Then I had the chance to speak to EA Sports producer Michael Blank. When we spoke, Mr. Blank was fresh from over seeing the Christmas release of Fight Night Round 3 for the PS3 and was on vacation in Hawaii. In fact, Mr. Blank answered his phone from the beach when I called and it was then that I realized that while I do have a life, Mr. Blank has the life. “It’s a dirty job but somebody’s got to do it,” he said with a laugh as the wind and waves faintly crashed in the background. In the span of thirty minutes, we would cover where the game is going, what to look for in the newest PS3 version and how the way the sport is changing will effect future versions of the best Boxing game ever made.
Gabriel Montoya: Can you talk to me about the differences between the X360 and the new PS3?
Michael Blank: We wanted to do a whole host of things. As you saw with the 360 it really is what people thought Next-Gen gaming was about in terms of the most incredible visuals you’ve ever seen not just in a boxing game but also in a sports game. It really is the pinnacle in terms of the photo-realism of what the boxers look like. And in addition to the visuals, it also has amazing game play. It feels like you are the boxer. We wanted to extend that on the PS3 and give people a reason to buy it (the PS3 version). The first thing that comes to mind is the visuals. We pushed the envelope even further by making (the boxers) look engaged. When boxers are in the ring, their muscles are tight, their tendons, their veins are popping out. We really wanted to create that look in the game. So their muscles, whether they are a big guy or a small guy, look intense. Like they are in action. We made the skin look more realistic with lines and pores and sweat. We wanted to further intensify what damage looked like on the boxers face. The bruises and swelling and blood that comes down from the cuts was made to look more realistic, hyper realistic. So when you are fighting this latest version of Fight Night you feel these boxers are the most incredibly lifelike human beings that have existed in a video game environment. So that was the visual aspect that we wanted to intensify.
Now on the game play front, we wanted to change the experience. We wanted (the gamer) to play the game in a way they hadn’t played before. That is why we created the ‘Get In The Ring’ feature, which is boxing in the first person. And the goal behind the feature is to put you in the shoes of the boxer. To fight with your own eyes. And to cover what it is like to punch and get punched. And to get that feeling when you get punched in the head. What that momentary loss of focus is like. That flash of light in your head. For people who don’t box we wanted to create that experience. When you fight in ‘Get In The Ring’ mode, everything is in first person mode. When you get hit you get flash of lights, you get blurs. Everything around you starts to look as though you are getting hit in the head. And your face gets damaged, as your eyes get swollen, the screen will begin to constrict and get dark spots. Eventually you won’t be able to see things from one side to the other so you’ll have to learn how to protect your head and fight more strategically than you would if you were fighting in third person. So everything about the mode is designed to make you feel what it is like to either punch your opponent or get punched.
When you hit your opponent in first person it is that much more gratifying because you can see the grimace on their face. You can actually feel as though they are experiencing pain. It is a whole new experience that is exclusive to the PS3 version.
Also when you are playing in first person multiplayer, you play in split screen. So when you play in HD or widescreen you get two full screens. When I am playing against you, I get the best of both worlds. I can see myself getting hit and see myself hitting you. The reaction we have gotten from consumers is that we really have recreated what they think it would be like to be in the ring boxing. And if they have boxed they have said that it really does sort of reenact that whole experience.
The last thing that we did was ESPN integration. Which is again exclusive to the PS3. We have an amazing relationship with ESPN, which allows us to pull content directly from them. So when you play Fight Night and are connected online you get full up to the minute highlights, scores and updates that are happening in the world streamed directly to your console so you never have to leave the comfort of your couch to see what is happening in the world of sports. You get ESPN radio shows, ESPN.com articles, live ticker updates. So you really get the whole of sports in Fight Night Round 3 and you never have to go to the computer or switch to TV to check out the scores or a highlight show. So we are real excited about that as well.
GM: Will you be getting Wednesday Night and Friday night fights highlights as well?
MB: Yes. We are also working with ESPN Classic to get classic footage of some of the amazing bouts that have happened over the years. So you will get a special treat if you buy the PS3 version with this exclusive content from ESPN.
GM: Will this be exclusive to the PS3 or will it eventually be on all console versions of Fight Night?
MB: We plan on pulling all the ESPN stuff across to other versions when we are ready to release the next version of Fight Night.
GM: Will the ‘Get in the Ring Mode’ be a standard feature as well?
MB: I suspect so. I think we will be able to do even more interesting and exciting things with the ‘Get in The Ring Mode’ as we progress through the years. We anticipate this will be a real exciting feature and play a larger role in future versions of Fight Night.
GM: The Nintendo Wii just came out. Are you planning on doing a version for that system with its revolutionary controller system?
MB: We’re talking about it right now. We’re contemplating and we definitely feel there are some exciting things we can do with the Fight Night franchise and the Wii. When you play Wii Boxing it is a very simple experience and I think that is what they designed it to be just to let you know that you can throw punches. With Fight Night we have an amazing simulation of Boxing and so we need to take those Wii controls and tailor it to what the Fight Night consumer might want to experience. We are looking at it right now and I am sure you will something some time in the future on the Wii.
GM: That’s going to end up being a helluva workout.
MB: (laughing) Absolutely. That’s good. We want people to get a bit of workout. If you like playing sports games and are excited by sports it is a good way to give you the best of both worlds.
GM: Are you able to talk in detail about future versions of Fight Night and when we can expect Round Four?
MB: I can’t right now. We are currently figuring our game planning for subsequent years. I am not at liberty to talk about what the future plan of Fight Night is…I suspect we are going to do a lot more and open it up. We really want to revolutionize the Fight Night experience like we did with XBOX 360 and PS3 versions. When we bring it out in the future it won’t be a small update. Let’s put it that way.
GM: Is downloadable content something you are looking into? Where you could download fighters?
MB: There is no question we want to take advantage of what the new consoles offer and downloadable content is something we are looking into.
[Writer’s note: The next few questions come directly DoghouseBoxing’s forums]
GM: Why was there a decision to not put the ref in the ring?
MG: We made a conscious decision. The ref does play into the experience without being seen. The ref will stop fights or deduct points. When you have a confined space like in a boxing match, the ref was in the way. We made a decision to not spend time working on ref AI and we put those efforts towards boxer AI. I think if you out the ref in there it wouldn’t add to the experience. It would be different but I don’t think it would add… We want the experience to fun, exciting and fast paced. And I think if we truly recreate the sport of boxing and use fatigue in a way to make a guy clinch more or use the ropes might be fun. But the clinching aspect and when you aren’t throwing punches in a video game just isn’t fun. We had to take what is best in boxing and recreate that and downplay the stuff that makes the sport a little more mundane. In every sport there’s aspects that aren’t as fun as the action part of it. That is another reason we believe that the ref [doesn’t need to be seen].
GM: Why is the Burger King a promoter?
MB: (laughing) The Burger King is one of the sponsors of the game. It’s always a delicate balance of putting in enough [sponsors] or not putting enough in and we thought The Burger King was an interesting guy to put in the game. In the future we’ll figure out a way to best incorporate more of our sponsors.
GM: The promoter aspect is interesting. Getting offered money in career mode to throw a fight. Is that an aspect of the game you will expand on in future versions?
MB: Absolutely. There’s no question that there is a whole side of boxing that really isn’t explored in the career mode. And you’re right. The promotional [aspect] …different promoters, belonging to a gym, and all that kind of stuff we are talking about how to bring all that into career mode. There’s no question we need to make the career mode more robust and more realistic in terms of all the things you would have to do if you actually had a boxing career. We are fully exploring all those pieces for the next version.
GM: One of the things I love about Madden Football is that you can alter the individual AI of the computerized opponent to make the game harder as you get better. Is that something we could see in the future of Fight Night’s evolution?
MB: Well, the different difficulty levels in the game do change the AI to some extent. We also recognize that there are some ways to go in terms of making the AI as realistic as possible while again preserving what’s fun about the sport of boxing. So yeah, that’s something we are exploring through different paths… Different ways that [the user] can manipulate the AI on the game. Sort of incorporate more of a user control where you manipulate how hard the game is, what kind of style your opponents will be…that kind of thing. So yeah, we are exploring that as well.
GM: At this point, compared to Madden, for example, it’s like comparing an infant to a teenager. You guys still have a lot of room and time to grow and develop.
MB: Absolutely. Absolutely. But you know, they are different experiences. They are different kinds of games. Will Fight Night ever be as complex or deep as Madden? That is a good question to ask but I am not sure our goal is to be as complex as Madden. Madden is a game where there are millions of people out there that know and understand football. They understand the teams; they understand the people. A lot of that lends to why Madden has become such a deep and complex experience. I think the consumers expect that.
Boxing is a different sport. There are a lot of people out there who will buy Fight Night who don’t necessarily watch the sport of boxing. What they want to have, though, is a real and fun fighting experience. And one that feels and looks like boxing.
GM: Can you talk about how you put together the roster? I noticed in earlier versions you had Floyd Mayweather, Jr. and Tito Trinidad and then the next year you didn’t. Do you just try and keep relevant to the moment boxers as well as legends or is it simply a case of having to renegotiate every time you make the game?
MB: We always go with a good mixture of the hottest current boxers and historical guys that everyone knows and loves. Like we brought in Ali and Joe Frazier. Ali is the most famous boxer of all time and whether you follow boxing or not you know who Ali and Frazier are. And then you have other guys like say Corrales and Winky Wright. Two current guys who if you follow boxing you know who they are but if you don’t watch boxing they are still really fun to play with. So we try to get the best mixture of the most current and the most recognizable.
Signing boxers is also a challenge. That also impacts each version of Fight Night. Because… [laughing] boxers are interesting guys, they are interesting people. It’s always an exciting challenge trying to sign a good boxer for the game.
GM: How much of your budget does that eat up? What percentage would you say?
MB: That’s a good question. Some of our relationships go back along way. Ali goes back to the original versions of the game. I can’t say the dollar amount but I can say it is sizable.
GM: When can we expect the next version of Fight Night?
MB: That’s a good question. We are currently figuring that out right now. I can’t give you an exact date. It won’t be within the next year, I don’t believe .The reason for that is that we want to revolutionize that game again. Just like the XBOX 360/ PS3 with the punch and amazing visuals we want to take the next leap for the next Fight Night. I can’t give an exact estimate… it will be within a year from now is my current estimate.
GM: I think the main complaint from fans of the game is the career. With Madden doing the whole Superstar mode thing boxing fans are looking for that for their game.
MB: Absolutely. We get that. I think a lot of our users don’t think we read the forums but we do read the forums. We read them religiously we know what people like and dislike. We know that with the career mode there is a desire for us to blow up and make it be an amazing experience. Bring in things like promoters, belonging to a gym, expand training, bring back ratings and do all that kind of stuff that we read about in the forums. We are definitely taking note of that.
Our goal also in the next little while is to get more involved in the forums. So there’s an EA Sports forum out there. There is a group of people who have put out a list of things they want to see in the next version. We are going to be responding to it. We’re going to get involved in the forum to let people know that we do care and we are reading what they are saying about the game. We want to work with the people who love the game to make it the best boxing game ever.
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