When it comes to THQ's WWE Smackdown series, wrestling fans can get a bit obsessive. From the tights to the masks to the entrance music to the finishing moves to the taunts, if there is even one movement in the game that doesn't look exactly like it does in real life, popular wrestling message boards blow up with remarks of "Epic Fail" and how they will never buy the game again because Chris Jericho's entrance is the old entrance before he turned heel and because he's wearing pants in the game and not the super short tights he wore on the latest edition of Raw.
The thing is, WWE isn't like the NFL where there is an offseason to fill in rosters, features, or even rules changes. In the world of professional wrestling, there is no offseason, making the lives of the Smackdown development team a bit hectic as they try to juggle a roster of 60 wrestlers who are constantly changing titles, gimmicks, ring entrances, and tag team partners.
And while WWE's flagship show is seen by one of the largest audiences on cable television on a week-to-week basis, their Smackdown video game series has become not only the top selling wrestling series, but the top-selling fighting game series of all time (take that Tekken!).
"Look at WWE on television and seeing what these guys do, from being put through tables to ladder matches, the argument could be made that wrestling is like a video game turned into real life," explains Smackdown's creative manager, Bryan Williams. "These guys are like modern day superheroes and they are just a perfect fit for video games."
So what does Williams and his team at THQ have in store for Smackdown vs. Raw 2009 and the group of spandex-wearing superheroes know affectionately by their fans as WWE Superstars? ESPN sat down with Williams to get the dirt on the upcoming game, a title that marks the tenth anniversary for the series.
ESPN: What's the one new feature you think wrestling fans will be most excited to play in the new game?
Bryan Williams: Feature? How about features, I can't just name one. [laughs] The one that we started our whole campaign around is Create-a-Finisher. It's one of those modes that fans have bee requesting for many years now and we had a design in place early enough where we were able to go to the mo-cap studio and capture move after move after move. There are over 500 moves in this mode that you can use to create your own finishing hold and you can really get in there and be creative, giving your created superstar his own move and not just copying somebody else's move in the game. You can even link up to 10 animations in the game. It's almost like pieces of a puzzle or Legos in a sense, where you take a piece and then build on it or piece together up to ten of these move parts to create your own signature finishing move.
ESPN: Can you breakdown one of the finishers you created?
Bryan Williams: I created one called the Bout It Crusher that is really cool. It starts with an eye-poke, two fingers right in the eyes. When the guy is bent over I grab his head like a DDT, but I catch his leg and do three fisherman's suplexes followed by a spinning fisherman that goes into a pin with a bridge. That's the ultimate to me, but you can literally go in and create anything you see on WWE or any other promotion. Really, your imagination is your only limit. I've been playing it for the past six months and I'll go in today and spend 30 minutes, and I'm still discovering new motions or moves that I didn't even know was in the mode.
ESPN: How have the tag team matches been improved this year?
Bryan Williams: We've had tag team matches in the game since we started the series, but it has been a while since we've paid attention to the tag matches and given them the attention that they deserve. We know what a big component multi-player is to our game, both offline and online, so we thought we'd really blow out tag matches this year and make sure they really stand out from one-on-one matches. So to that end we've included a whole bunch of new abilities and functionalities that you can do in the tag match. The biggest change that players will see are the abilities we've given to the illegal man on the apron. In past games, you had the legal guys in the ring wrestling and having a good time and then you had their partners waiting on the outside, bored, with nothing to do but press a button to ask for a tag into the match. So it really wasn't fun if you were playing as that illegal partner.
This year we gave that illegal guy a ton of stuff to do that will actually help their partner in the ring. You can distract the referee. You can grab the opponent inside the ring if they get to close to your side of the ring, and you can grab and hold them for your partner to do strikes or double team moves. You can generate a hot tag, which is a first for the series this year. A hot tag occurs when the legal man has been getting beat up and he keeps trying to make that dramatic tag to his partner only to get pulled away at the end. This really gets the crowd behind that beaten up superstar so when he finally does make that tag, the partner comes in like a bat out of hell and lays waste to both the legal man and the illegal partner on the apron, setting you up for your finisher and potentially ends the match with a pin. This is all user controlled, and we've added a cool God of War style mini-game that the incoming partner has to do to correctly perform the hot tag. So you can potentially fail at the hot tag. It's a high-risk, high-reward ability that I think fans are going to take an immediate liking to.
ESPN: What should gamers expect with the addition of the Inferno match?
Bryan Williams: This is a match that I believe has only been done about five times, and that's because it's so dangerous. I hope they give these guys bonuses for fighting in this match. It's a rare event, and when it occurs, it's always a big deal. And like create-a-finisher, this is another one of those match types that fans have been begging us to put in the game. Again, we're listening to the fans. It may take us a couple of years, but we do listen.
The Inferno match is a one-on-one match where the ring is surrounded by fire. There's a real simple stipulation to the match: The first superstar who can burn the other is the winner. Visually, it's breathtaking to behold. The gameplay is very cool as we came up with a mechanic where you have to drag your opponent towards the flame and try to burn them. It came together really, really nice and I think the fans are going to appreciate it. After the match, you'll even see the fire extinguisher come out to put out the flames. [laughs]
ESPN: How has the game's story mode changed this year?
Bryan Williams: It's going to be a lot different and all the changes that were made were definitely for the better. Our new story mode is called Road to Wrestlemania and it essentially is six different stories being told representing popular WWE superstars across all three brands. We even have a tag team story in there as well so you can either play as a single player or play with a friend. We've got John Cena, Triple H, CM Punk, The Undertaker, Chris Jericho, and our tag team story stars Batista and Rey Mysterio. The tag team story utilizes all the cool stuff we added to the match and you can play with a friend or hammer it out by yourself.
What's cool, though, is that each one of these stories has been created with the superstar in mind. For example, we have a story involving Triple H. He came in and did all of his voiceover for the game, and our designers got together with WWE creative to put together a story that represents each of these superstars, so you'll never see one of these guys acting out of character. The past couple of years, this is something our season modes have been guilty of, but no more. When you play through the mode as Triple H, you're getting 100% unadulterated Triple H, and the same is true when you play through as John Cena or The Undertaker. The dialogue that they say, everything about their story will ring true, just like it does in programming. There will be no shared cut-scenes, either, as all of the cut-scenes will be character specific. Every story you'll see something completely new and each story will take about four-to-five hours of gameplay. It's a meaty part of the game this year. We have some branching, some alternate endings, and a lot of cool gameplay elements that you can only experience in Road to Wrestlemania.
ESPN: You mentioned Triple H doing voiceover. Did the other wrestlers come in and do their own voiceover as well?
Bryan Williams: Of course. Any superstar in the game, whether they are playable or just being featured in a cut-scene, came in and did the actual VO. We didn't get any fakes.
ESPN: But what if I want to play as Shelton Benjamin or someone who isn't featured in Road to Wrestlemania? Is there a season mode for other wrestlers as well?
Bryan Williams: In addition to Road to Wrestlemania, we also have another brand new mode simply called Career mode. Like the name implies, you can take any superstar on the roster, including a diva, including a created superstar, and you can go through an entire year as a superstar collecting championships. All of the championships will be available in this mode and as you play you can improve your attributes. It won't have all of the cut-scenes and VO of Road to Wrestlemania, but it will be an area of the game where fans can take their favorite superstar and take him through multiple years. You can take Shelton Benjamin and go from Smackdown, maybe take him back to ECW or Raw and build your character. You can earn a whole bunch of new abilities, and more importantly, gold. If you're playing as Shelton Benjamin, that gold is what it's all about.
ESPN: How tough is it dealing with a product that is constantly changing? You have Chris Jericho in the game but now his character, his tights are completely different on the show. Are these the types of things that are going to be updated with downloadable content?
Bryan Williams: Jericho finally came back and we've got him in the game. I love Jericho to death, he's the freakin' man, but you're right, he's completely changed. His entrance is different, his attire has changed, he doesn't even do the Walls of Jericho pose anymore. We have his old entrance in the game, we don't have his new incarnation. It's just one of those things. It would be nice to say that there was a definitive cutoff but a lot of it just has to do with our schedules here at THQ in terms of when we have to go to QA, when we need to hit Alpha and all of that kind of stuff, and that changes every year. We really do the best that we can to wait and push back that deadline just so we can get everything as up to date as possible, but like you said, WWE is always evolving, and they have to in order to compensate for injuries, introducing new characters and whatnot.
ESPN: Who are some of the newer wrestlers who weren't in the game last year who fans should be on the lookout for?
Bryan Williams: Shelton Benjamin wasn't in the game last year and I'm really glad he's back in. I love his moveset and he's got a great finisher. Santino is also really fun to play as. One of the things I'm really excited about with this game is the fact that not only is our roster significantly bigger, we have a lot of guys making their Smackdown debuts which is always fun. Triple H, Undertaker, it's always a safe bet they're going to be in the game, but it's always fun to play as some of the new guys like Santino. We have like 30% new characters. We are also doing downloadable content and we're going to be unveiling what that is as we get closer to release. But one of the reasons we're excited for DLC is that it's just one more tool we can use to ensure that our game is as current as our programming. I can honestly say that from a fans point of view, they are really going to like what we have in store in terms of downloadable content.
ESPN: Creating wrestlers has historically been one of the most popular features in the series. Beyond finishers, what else can we expect in terms of new face paint or attire?
Bryan Williams: An argument can be made that Create a Superstar is the most popular feature in the game. Aside from all the new features and new matches, you can't get around the fact that a large segment of fans are always looking for what's new in Create a Superstar. We definitely gave Create a Superstar a lot of attention this year. The last couple of years we made steps to replace the 2D and painted on parts with all 3D parts, and in 2009 we did that yet again. I'd say that 70% of all parts are now all fully 3D and they look beautiful. The fans can definitely expect to see all new parts, new facepaint, we've added 25-30% new content in the mode including some new motions in create an entrance as well as new moves in create a moveset. We have a ton of new moves as well.
One thing we really wanted to concentrate this year on, though, is just gameplay. This is the most responsive Smackdown has ever been. The gameplay is really, really good this year. We didn't reinvent the wheel, we just fine-tuned what we had in place last year and I think when gamers get their hands on the controller, they'll instantly recognize how much smoother the game plays this year.