While most were busy doubling down inside the Mandalay Bay Casino or enjoying legal open containers in the TapouT infested streets, one peculiar vehicle rolled into the Mandalay Bay parking lot in Las Vegas. American video game developer and publisher THQ populated the high-end tech truck with their best and brightest. While they were there to enjoy the fi ghts too, their primary objective was to recreate them.
Stuck between the hills of California from which the state takes its “Golden State” nickname, THQ’s headquarters in Agoura Hills is free from oppressive L.A. smog or Hollywood’s glamour. A blue sky is out on force, borrowing from the beauty of Malibu’s clarity sitting on the other side of the hills. The offi ces are sleek and could double for the set of Grandma’s Boy. I try to ignore WWE memorabilia everywhere while looking for mixed martial arts posters, and fi nd the heart of the UFC squad is down through a Fight Club-style stairway.
There are no dim lights and testosteronedriven insomniacs though—just a typical offi ce not unlike the one that spawned Tyler Durden. But there is fi ghting. And it’s on a fl at screen TV in all its glory: UFC Undisputed 2009.
“With creating this game, our basic pillars were, create a game that’s true to the brand of the UFC…and true to the sport of mixed martial arts,” says game producer Neven Dravinski.
No matter how plugged in the world becomes, some things have to be done the old fashioned way by damaging the odometer. Not all fi ghters could come to THQ or partner developers in Southern California for threedimensional scans, which capture photorealistic representations to be rendered into digital characters. So THQ came to the UFC. Jon Fitch and even trainer Greg Jackson were brought into these portable studios across the country.
The result—wherever the session took place—was so realistic “that if we got a fi ghter who was maybe two weeks after a fi ght and maybe partying, we’d get a model back and, go, ‘Oh okay, we’re gonna have to tighten you up a little bit,’” Dravinski says. “As real as it gets, really at some point gets too real. We still have to make these guys look good.”
Dravinski’s allusion to the UFC’s offi cial motto is the mindset that dominates the team behind the game. In swag-ridden cubicles, they adhered to the golden law of game play.
It was a principle put forth by senior producer William Schmitt. For all the atmospheric bliss of a live MMA event, it would mean nothing without solid striking and smooth grappling. “We picked this up two years ago and we weren’t sure it was gonna take off,” he says, “But we were sure we were gonna make the best game possible.”
The hype came soon. Failed titles like UFC Throwdown, UFC Sudden Impact, and two UFC Tapout games left MMA fans without a king for their consoles. When the UFC came out of a troubling contract with other developers, it’s something that caught the attention of Shmitt.
“We noticed there was a hole in the market for MMA games. There had been at that point for about 3 years. After watching the UFC, we had a true belief that it was gonna become a very big thing,” says Shmitt. “So naturally we went for the strongest license in MMA.”
In fact, he was sold on the UFC by simply watching their pay-per-views. So THQ brought in an all-star cast of their own to bring MMA’s stars to digital life. Shmitt launched EA Sports popular boxing series when it was still “Knockout Kings” and their NASCAR series too. THQ added former Activision staff, who worked on the critically acclaimed Call of Duty franchise. They wanted to avoid the pitfalls of the last MMA games—Undisputed 2009 was designed from scratch in conjunction with Japanese partner Yukes—and establish a game to smash the market yearly like Madden NFL.
Over two years of sweat and hard work have gone into ensuring the game lives up to expectations. They could have rushed it, admits Shmitt, but that’s not what this process was about. The aim was to “replicate the pay-per-view experience as much as possible” points out Dravinski. “Our big focus was making the best action in the Octagon. Period.”
It took seven weeks to build each fi ghter in the game—there are over 80. A fi ghter’s prowess was determined by studying hours of tape and attempting to quantify it. When the UFC had Saturday events, THQ had tapes by Monday. The UFC provided all audio from UFC 40 and on. Audio engineers put Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg into a booth together for upward of 30 hours and had them call real-time action from the game.
Since Goldberg and Rogan alternate between play-by-play and color commentating, THQ found it integral to have them together, especially since the announcers talk over one another. Some clips are even lifted straight from events, requiring no voice over from the duo. And because they didn’t have to talk over each other in the THQ audio sessions, they can fi nish their stories like Goldberg’s inside insights to training camps or Rogan’s Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu clarifi cations. Another integral player in crafting the game from the UFC’s side was matchmaker Joe Silva.
“Who’s gonna be relevant when the game comes out? Where do you see the fi ghts going?,” asks Dravinski, refl ecting on bouncing the UFC’s roster around with Silva before determining the fi nal fi ghters. “So working with Joe is obviously an incredibly great asset; he has such a great insight into all these guys.”
THQ took the game to the brink. They only stopped adding and altering content based on events after UFC 94. After watching Keith Jardine turn Chuck Liddell purple with strikes, bruising was added. When Frank Mir beat Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira standing, Mir was adjusted accordingly. Trips to Japan for months at time to work with Yukes were made. Despite such detail, just a few weeks after, producers were yelling at the game, cursing that it sucked and they could never release it.
It’s due to their ambition. They had so many features they wanted to see in the game that they couldn’t possibly do for budget or time constraints. Liddell’s and Jardine’s odd striking styles were left out. Southpaw stance couldn’t be included due to the collision system. Clay Guida was given the option of cutting his hair—it would cause clipping, which is absent from the game—so he could be i n it. He declined. But these shortcomings are already being added to the game—over two months before the release of their fi rst game, THQ has begun its second installment.
With 60 frames-per-second, real sponsors, and a fi rst-of-its-kind cloth system for fi ghter shorts, THQ has an intensely real game on their hands. The standout is the joystick-centric ground system dubbed “Ultimate Control” that allows for slick and easy movements in the complex world of grappling. Dravinski believes they’ve crafted a sports hybrid that teaches an MMA fan how to enjoy a video game and a gamer the components of MMA. Fans fought for the opportunity to give the game a try at an informal unveiling at UFC 95.
“For us it was refreshing, even though people had no clue about the game at all, they were able to pick it up, knock people out, have fun, get into positions,” he says, adding over 300 fans have played it and 80 media outlets, garnering an overwhelmingly positive review. While Mike Swick wasn’t happy with his rating in the game, fi ghters like Michael Bisping and Quinton Jackson have enjoyed it. Marc Laimon, who coached THQ on the intricacies of grappling, was an instant fan.
“When they sit and play the game, and they’re like, ‘Holy shit! This is actually a real MMA game.’ For us, like that’s the biggest kind of compliment.” If all of this isn’t reason enough to pick up the game, UFC President Dana White tells THQ he’s going to make his XBOX Live gamer tag available to the fans. And who doesn’t want to prove to Dana White they’re undisputed?