The Sports Desk – A New Era For Video Game Tennis

Tennis isn't a major sport in America, but through video games such as the successful Top Spin series from 2K Sports, gamers have learned to love playing a sport that's about raw physicality, timing, miraculous comebacks, and demons both internal and external. Sports gamers were thrilled when publisher Bigben announced earlier this year that Tennis World Tour was in development by a studio (Breakpoint) that featured talent from the Top Spin series.

I talked to Pierre André, game designer for Tennis World Tour (a role he performed on Top Spin 3 and 4) about returning to the video game sport, what it has to do, and how it's going to surprise gamers. "All the emotion of sports that make tennis great, we are trying to hardwire it into every match."

Tennis World Tour is scheduled to come out in 2018 for the current consoles and PC. André says that the studio is working on bringing the title to Switch, but it might come out later than the other systems.

Obviously a lot of time has passed since Top Spin 4 – is making Tennis World Tour's gameplay a matter of taking some of the things people really liked from those older games and improving them for the new generation, or is it better to start over from what people might expect? 
No, right now, I think that what has been done with the previous tennis games is definitely something that we can build upon in terms of gameplay, in terms of game modes. I don't think there is any reason to try to do a complete overhaul of the genre, especially since you don't have a ton of ways to make good tennis gameplay when you have the same gamepad and the same controls. We're keeping what worked and what proved to be an excellent recipe with Top Spin 4 from a control and gameplay perspective and building on that. [We're creating] another tactical and strategic layer that hasn't been done before, which is I think the real area where improvement needs to happen.

I don't know if you're talking about any licenses or how important or not important that is for you… 
Massive. I mean we're releasing the game with 30 pro players [Roger Federer, Angelique Kerber, and more have been announced – ed.], so from a licensing perspective, it's been seriously taken for sure –equipment as well. The only area where we did not gauge so much investment – because I think it's not as important as for the pro players or for the equipment – is the venues and tournaments. These will be fantasy venues and tournaments.

I imagine tennis is very tough because there doesn't seem like there's a one-stop licensing shop like there might be with other sports. 
There is no one-stop shop and so you have to negotiate with each player individually, and for the venues you have to negotiate with the venue and with the sponsors inside of the venue. For the equipment, it's a bit more easy because these guys are dealing with products that they're used to licensing. So it's a smoother workflow, but yeah, it's a headache. It's an absolute headache. And the choices you have to make to satisfy both your own ambitions as a developer and what the community expects, given the different countries, it's excruciating. I's painful.

Video game tennis has some fundamentals that the older systems did fine with, but are there gameplay things the newer ones can help with? 
Yes, absolutely. There is a very simple thing that you learn early when you make a tennis game. [It] is that everything you do is driven by the animation and if you can have more animations then you will have a more subtle and a more accurate gameplay. You're going to allow your gameplay to have more different outcomes. After a year and a half in development having a rally that runs from beginning to end that looks like something you could see on TV is something it took years for us to achieve on Top Spin, given the previous constraints. So definitely – new systems mean much better games.

How important are modes to you? Some sports franchises have so many of them, but is it more important that you hit the gameplay than offer modes that people might not play or which may be underserved? 
In our case, Breakpoint is a completely new studio. It's a new team making a new game. So in their case, it's very important for them to have a very balanced proposition to cover the offline mode as players would expect, with the career mode that takes you from the bottom of the ladder to the top. To have an online mode that is competitive and that allows players to be match-made correctly, and to also experience this World Tour experience where you play tournaments, you can get eliminated. Every week there is a new number one champion of the world. They don't expect minigames as much, they don't expect a story mode as much. What they want is career mode offline, World Tour mode online, and that is important to nail down.

From a gameplay perspective, the biggest question people have is, "Is it going to be realistic? Is it going to be a simulation?" So basically, "Is it going to look like and feel like Top Spin?" This was the primary objective. And the second one is, "Is it going to be balanced? Am I going to be able to play different playstyles and perform and enjoy a server-and-volleyer as much as a baseline addict?" And this is very much the focus of this very game.

One of the things that always irked me about many tennis games is that you could sit in no-man's-land (when you're neither at the net nor back behind the baseline) and not get constantly burned. Is that a gameplay situation you're going to address
This is a very, very complex topic because if we want to be faithful to what tennis should be, we should punish these guys big-time. Which means when you receive a ball in your feet, like your chances of missing are gonna be super high. But the other problem is a beginner is going to be in no-man's-land all the freaking time. I think ultimately, it is something that the player should learn, and the game should allow the player to feel the struggle in the no-mans-land, and at the same time, be tipped enough, and the tutorial should be obvious enough, to teach them how to move back behind the baseline.

But it's funny that you point that out because this was one of my biggest realizations in Top Spin 4 doing the first play tests with the first users. I was like, "Okay I know the problem. The problem is not timing, it's not the gameplay, it's they move inside of the court all the freaking time." So this time around, we're going to be facing this issue as well. And I think it's up to us to make it challenging, to make it a problem to be in the no-man's-land, and to be smart enough and forward enough with that issue because we know it's going to happen, so that the players learn to get back behind and feel the difference when they hit the ball properly and at the right height.

How about in terms of different types of courts; should gamers really feel the grass or clay a certain way? 
I mean there is one obvious difference, it is the animation. You slide or reach the ball differently when you're on clay or grass and your direction changes are also going to be different. It's much more slippery. It's actually quite a challenge to learn how to play baseline defender when you're on clay or on grass. The second thing is ball physics. I think ball physics, when you're a developer, you can tell and you can see a big difference. When you're not a developer, maybe not as used to seeing the ball on different surfaces, it's going to be harder, but yeah, I think for sure we're going to take it into account. Animation is going to tell that you're playing on clay big time.

Is there anything you can say about the game's career mode, what it consists of? 
In career mode, you're going to have two characters that are going to guide you through the career, the coach that is going to handle everything – technical and mental training of a character – and the agent. The agent is going to handle the business side, and so you will be managing both aspects of your career, and some of the events are going to be playable and some of the events are not going to be playable. That's going to contribute to both the storytelling and the strategic choices that you're gonna have to make in your career.

Are you interested in historic players at all? 
I can not say for sure…

Since Top Spin 4 came out to now, I was wondering how your approach to video game tennis might have changed as the real-life game has progressed? 
It's funny because we haven't talked about the biggest innovation we have for Tennis World Tour yet, and this very much stems from what you're talking about. One thing that was nailed, as we said, in Top Spin was the addictive nature of the game. So, the second-to-second gameplay on-court was pretty great, and this is what earned us the rating that we had. But one thing, personally, I think lacked – and was a big, big defect of the game – was it was very monotonous. You would enter a match and play from beginning to the end kind of the same way if you were a serve-and-volley player or baseline attacker. Also, from a balance perspective, the fact that these playstyles were pretty monolithic meant that the balance would be easy to break. Like the baseline attacker was always an extremely domineering playstyle in the series.

Right now what we're working on – and what is the strongest innovation, is what we decided to do – was to create a game plan system in which before each match, it would say, "Okay, I know my player, because of his specializing and because of his career, has learned this many tactics, and I'm gonna pick these five to play against this opponent." So, you would write down, you would basically state your strategy for the match and when you enter the court, and as you play, your skills and abilities are going to trigger and make you play in a certain way. And you know, the balance of the match is going to change just like a real match, and what you're trying to achieve is all the suspense of the turning point of one player being the underdog and suddenly coming up and starting to beat his opponent and to have the upper hand. All these scenarios, all the emotion of sports that make tennis great, we are trying to hardwire it into every match, and not leave it up to the players to figure out the strategies and tactics, but really to give them a deck and to give them clear control over how they want to play that match.

Is that something you would change during breaks or between sets? 
Good question. We need to experience it, we need to work on it. Right now, it's something that you define at the beginning of the game. We have passive and active skills. I think we need to move forward with the development and have more time under our belt experiencing and playing one-to-one, and then we'll decide whether you can change it mid-court, whether your opponent knows of your skills or whether he discovers them one-by-one. There is a world of balance and there is a world of new ideas to come up with, but what I know for sure is that breaking the monotony of the game is extremely important.

That's tennis. You sit there in the breaks between games thinking, "Okay, how am I gonna do this? What's my strategy? This isn't working." 
"What do I know? What is my edge? In which area can I be excellent and when am I going to trigger this?" And also just like in a game like Hearthstone where you say, "Okay, I have a strategy. I have a deck of cards and a deck of skills that I want to use, but I don't know how exactly it's going to unfold, and when my cards are in my hand, I will have to play them best." This is a great feeling, this is a great challenge. It's a mix of planning, and chaos, and reacting and adapting to it. In a way, it's very similar to tennis, because on-court when you watch tennis – real tennis – your athletes are never going to perform exactly the same. They have their style, they have their approach, they have their strengths and weaknesses, but every match, they're going to surprise you in how they're going to actually play out, react, and adapt to whatever's happening. This is very much the kind position you want to put the player in – from both a simulation perspective, and from a game balance and design perspective. To me, this approach really combines the best of both worlds.

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Have a suggestion or comment? Put it in the comments section below, send me an email, or reach me on twitter at @mattkato.

 

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