A chat with the creator of Undisputed, the game that wants to do justice to boxing
Have you ever come across an arcade boxing machine?
It's very simplistic. There are no analog sticks or directional buttons. There is simply a small punching bag that folds in and out; you hit it with as much power as you can muster, and a score appears on the screen. That's the entire game. There is a compelling element to such simplicity, so it's unsurprising that a crowd was gathered around the machine when I strolled around the WASD game event recently in London. I was at WASD to interview Ash Habib, the founder of Steel City Interactive, about his new game, Undisputed, the most promising traditional boxing game since EA's Fight Night Champion.
People may have been excited over the boxing machine - and indeed, I gave it a try too, which unfortunately sent my glasses flying out of my front pocket - but actual boxing represents much more than the simplicity of hitting something as hard as possible. It requires far more strategy, footwork, polished skill, and timing, along with various other elements. Undisputed (which is now in early access via PC, with console versions planned) is trying to capture much of this complexity and break new ground in the realm of boxing games.
Ash Habib's interest in boxing started much like mine did: Muhammad Ali. He grew up hearing about the famous heavyweight, and his first real memory of boxing was his parents showing him interviews of Ali. (He also mentions his eldest brother Asif as an influence.) But, he adds, "the real actual catalyst" was from Sheffield - Prince Naseem Hamed, the gifted and theatrical featherweight champion of the 90s. It's no coincidence that Habib himself grew up in Sheffield. "Just kind of seeing how [Naseem] went from nothing to almost changing the face of boxing, that was a bit of an eye opener just in terms of entertainment."
Sheffield has a strong history in regard to boxing in general, mainly due to the celebrated Ingle Gym; aside from Naseem, it has produced various world class fighters that Habib names such as Kell Brook, and Sheffield is also where "90 percent" of the Steel City Interactive studio resides.
While Naseem was the catalyst, it was the Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward fights, famous for their excitement, that turned Habib into a "hardcore" fan of the sport. (I imagine that he must have thus been delighted to meet Ward, who is in the game and was also seen with Habib at PAX East.)
Aside from boxing, his other passion is gaming. He has a long history with video games, having grown up with a ZX Spectrum, a Sega Master System, the Super Nintendo, and the Amiga. He "played boxing games on every platform, pretty much", naming 4D Sports Boxing as one that left a big mark in how the player could increase the fighter's stats. He has a very clear admiration for the popular EA Fight Night games too, noting that the series "took boxing to a whole new level". It's not just boxing games; he also loved playing Panza Kick Boxing, a martial arts game.
He asked himself what he'd liked about every combat game he'd played, and then aimed to "create something that has the best of all of them." He doesn't wish to stop there, though. He wants to do things that have never been done before, like players being able to "take a knee" during a match. (Boxers in the actual sport sometimes do this when badly hurt and trying to buy time and recover.)
Another thing Steel City Interactive has come up with is called 'loose movement', a feature that can be switched on and off where you can move your boxer in a more natural and realistic manner. Habib points to how unrealistic movement can be in other combat games, how players have become used to fighters "floating along the floor".
"You ask any boxer on the planet and they will say that is not how you move or throw a punch."
It's also about having fun, he says, "because boxers themselves have fun in the ring", referring to loose movement as a way of "showboating". He warns that you are at greater risk of getting knocked out when using it, though, due to your fighter's hands being lower in this relaxed state.
I've complained about movement in boxing games in the past too, so I was eager to try the loose movement feature. It did have more of a realistic smoothness, with fighters skipping to the side and back and forth fairly well, even if it's still not quite as quick as I'd love, at least not with the fighters I tried out.
There is even an option to feint in the game, a key part of many real combat sports where you trick your opponent with fake attacks, something that I personally haven't seen in a boxing game before.
Habib's apparent appreciation for British boxers also offers him a chance to do new things:
"Boxing games of the past, they always just had one or two British fighters sprinkled in as a little token," he says, and "the rest of the roster was made up of pretty much American boxers, so for me it was a case of -- it's a good opportunity to try and show the best of British as well." He mentions examples such as Frank Bruno, Ricky Hatton, and Carl Froch -- and notes that the latter "has never been in a boxing game" until now.
There is a career mode planned, which was easily my favourite part of the Fight Night games, as they allowed me to go through an immersive single-player simulation of being a boxer. In the career mode Habib and his team are developing you will even be able to hire a cut man (someone in your corner who attempts to stop blood flowing from potential cuts suffered), a boxing trainer, and a manager, and "each of those aspects will affect how your career goes."
At the time of this interview, the latest early access update to Undisputed hasn't been regarded well by some in the fanbase, with complaints of spamming, cheaters, bugs and the like in the online mode. I ask Habib what he made of this reaction. He acknowledges the complaints, specifically the "ghost punches" and "desync problems".
"We fully know that there's issues that we need to resolve. Unfortunately some of them aren't ones that we can fix overnight," he says, adding that the studio has probably made things difficult for themselves by trying to stay true to boxing and thus having to deal with more complex problems. "Having made this as a boxing fan I didn't want to go down the easy route."
"I'm not willing to really compromise on the actual core gameplay. But the issues that we have encountered -- there isn't anything that we've currently got in the game that is in a state where we're concerned about that it's unfixable. So for us it's just about having that time -- because we are a small team -- just having that time to go through all those issues and you know, fix them one by one."
It's clear that Habib is ambitious and passionate about the sport and Undisputed (at one point he chuckles and says that he could "talk for hours" about the topics we covered) and this is reflected in what I played of the game. I don't know how well it will eventually all come together, but I'm excited by the potential I see, and by what Habib is planning.
When Undisputed is finished, whenever that may be, I ask him if there is one quality he wants it to be remembered for.
"I think...for me...that has to be a case of: we've done justice to boxing and the sport," he says.
"That's the first thing that I would want them to think, that we have taken care of what we're trying to achieve here, we have put a lot of thought and effort into what we are trying to create," that "this feels like boxing and we've done it justice."