"Top Spin" is one of the most addictive franchises in all of sports video games. So when I heard 2K Sports was announcing the latest game in the series and that Roger Federer would be able to return shots between his legs (2K calls this the Federer Tweener), and Andre Agassi is featured with a virtual mullet, I hopped on the phone with associate producer Michael Kelly and brand manager Ryan Hunt to get all the dirt I could on the latest iteration, due out in 2011.
Jon Robinson: What's the one thing from "Top Spin 3" that you felt needed to be immediately addressed and changed heading into "Top Spin 4"?
Michael Kelly: We always listen to our fans and our critics with every game, but the one thing that was really divisive with "Top Spin 3" was the gameplay controls. The learning curve was pretty tough for a lot of people, and as a result a number of our fans and reviewers had a hard time getting into it and finding the depth that we thought we had in the game. The people who did stick with the game, they loved how much depth was in the game to explore, but that learning curve hit a wall for a lot of people. So the thing that we're really focusing on with "Top Spin 4" is we've totally revamped the gameplay controls, animations, and opponent AI, so if you're familiar with "Top Spin 3", you're still going to be able to pickup and play right where you left off, but for someone who is just starting out or who didn't go too deep with "Top Spin 3", it should be a lot easier to pickup and play. That's the biggest thing we worked on -- the accessibility of the game -- while at the same time allowing for all of the depth we had in "Top Spin 3".
In fact, "Top Spin 4" is even deeper. We've had over 3,000 new animations put in. We have signature styles for all of the players, so you'll see Nadal with his top spin shot from behind the baseline. You'll see the Agassi double-handed backhand down the line. Those shots are all in there and specific for the player. And you can do all of these shots very intuitively in "Top Spin 4". These moves are all fluid. If you're playing as a specific player, they'll play like that player. They'll have strengths and weaknesses, preferred areas of the court, preferred style -- whether you're a serve/volley type of player, an offensive baseline player, a defensive baseline player -- stuff like that.
Jon Robinson: How crazy do the shots get? Do you have Federer running back and hitting the ball between his legs?
Michael Kelly: We definitely have the Federer Tweener. We have between the legs shots and pretty much any shot you can think of. I don't think there is anything you can't do in "Top Spin 4" that people have done in real life. If you're running back from a big lob, you can totally do a no-look fling, you can totally do a tweener.
Jon Robinson: You say that the game will be easier to pickup and play, but how are you actually planning to accomplish this with the control scheme? How are things changing from "Top Spin 3"?
Michael Kelly: Easier is kind of a loaded word. I don't want to suggest that the AI is easier in any way or that you won't have a challenge. What we really tried to do was go with the notion of pick up and play. The two goals with any 2K Sports title are authenticity and accessibility. So besides doing a great sports simulation game with great presentation and everything else, accessibility is really a factor that we think is going to push "Top Spin 4" to the top once again.
To better explain it, when you look at "Top Spin 3", we had the press and hold feature that you find in any sports game. It's very common to hold down a button and let go at any time. That's how you charge your meter for golf or baseball. So what we are doing in Top Spin, that's still the preferred way if you want to do a good, powerful shot. You can hold down the button and let go at the right time to get the perfect release. That's still there, but another thing that we've added is a quick tap. If you look at that meter, it's actually divided into three sections. There is a quick tap section at the beginning of the meter, you have your main, regular section, and then the very top of it is where if you get it full, you get a very powerful shot down the line or an overhand slam. But that quick tap is for those people who might not be that hardcore into sports games. You might just be a sports enthusiast or a casual gamer. Tennis games have been around since "Pong" and "Tennis for Two". They've been around for a long time and tennis is a good video game in general, so you might not be a hardcore gamer but you want to enjoy "Top Spin" as well. We are hoping that after spending some more time with the game, that they will then find the benefits of using the tap and hold mechanic. We want everyone to be able to enjoy it at the beginning, then explore that whole "Top Spin" experience and play a competitive, strategic round of tennis.
Ryan Hunt: To add onto that, this is still a work in progress but we're really happy with where it's at right now. It's a lot more fun, it's engaging, it's exciting, and we've been gameplay testing the controls for a few months now. We want to get this right for all gamers, whether they're hardcore or someone who is more casual. We're really trying to make "Top Spin 4" the best tennis game to date.
Jon Robinson: Has serve and volley play been improved from "Top Spin 3"?
Michael Kelly: I think it's called turbo at the moment, but when you're doing serve and volley, and you want to slam a 140 mph serve then rush the net because the return is going to be weak, you get a quick boost of speed to rush the net, but you'll take a hit to your fatigue to counter-balance that. It's not turbo like "NBA Jam" or anything like that, but it just gives you that quick boost.
Jon Robinson: Can you talk about the lineup? How many pros are going to be in the game?
Michael Kelly: Anyone who pre-orders the game at Gamestop in America, they'll get an extra costume for Andre Agassi that will have the classic mullet. We've got more players in "Top Spin 4" than in any other tennis game to date. We haven't announced the full lineup yet. That will come at a later date.
Ryan Hunt: As far as we know from our competition at this point, we have the most tennis pros licensed of any tennis game. We have 25 current pros and legends, and that's more than EA or Sega has had, and it's more than we've ever had as well. We're excited to listen to our fans and include as many of their favorites as possible given the budget constraints and licensing challenges that we face.
Michael Kelly: And while we're not talking about too many of the new features just yet, there will be a My Player mode so you can go in and make anyone who is not in our roster.
Jon Robinson: "Top Spin 4" seems like an obvious game for the Move or Kinect. Will the game be playable with the new motion controls?
Ryan Hunt: It's not something we're talking about at this point but it's something that we're definitely exploring. At this point, it's so early and we have a lot of exciting news to come, but I don't think we can confirm or deny this. There are still a lot of balls up in the air. At this point I don't think we can even talk at all about whether or not it's feasible or will be in the final product.
Michael Kelly: I can confirm that it's something we are looking into, but I can't confirm or deny that it will be in the final product.
Jon Robinson: Can you talk about some of the improvements that were made to the game's visuals?
Michael Kelly: Besides gameplay, we always want to improve our presentation each year, and with sports titles in particular, this is always a big deal. Every iteration of the franchise, you want to give the player more than a new roster, and the gameplay controls are a huge part of that, but we've also done a lot on the broadcast-style presentation. When you're playing, the crowds are going to get a lot more amped up. We've redone some of our graphics engine with new lighting and some other technical stuff, but we have high-res player models and textures, and we've done a lot of photo sessions and video study of all our pros. We have over 3,000 new animations, and that goes into that signature style, where players will not only play like themselves, but look like themselves. You want the actual swing movement that you'd expect. When you add that many new animations, it really helps in the responsiveness of the controls and goes along with our accessibility goal.
We've also done a lot trying to capture dynamic crowds, so if you have a really long rally, you will hear the crowd react to every single shot, and when you finally get the winner, the crowd will just go crazy. Or if it's a really close shot and somebody runs it down and does the between the legs shot, the crowd will react accordingly. They'll even react disappointed if you blow it at the end. It's really cool and something that we're really excited about.