Okay, so we've long since realised it's all make-believe. And, to be honest, we don't watch it on the telly any more. Yet we still tune in for Yuke's annual SmackDown! updates. Force of habit? Nah. They're just damn good games. With its latest offering, SmackDown! vs. Raw, Yuke's and THQ are taking the series online for the first time, and making another clutch of changes that should help the series retain its lead over the rest of the genre - including publisher's stable of other-platform wrestling titles. During a recent press event in London, we caught up with THQ creative director Nick Wlodyka to try and find out what keeps the series slamming.
Eurogamer: You've talked a lot about the new features you've got in the game. Obviously, you've put a huge amount of money into developing the game. Do you think there's enough in there to keep everyone interested this time round?
Nick Wlodyka: Absolutely. One of our goals for this year was to make the game a fantastic experience. With or without a licence, so even if we didn't have the WWE licence this had to be a great game. The WWE licence was just the icing on the cake. With Here Comes the Pain we made a significant jump, but the jump we're making this year is far greater. We've touched every area of the game, and the features we've touched will definitely make a noticeable impact on the game. But those features aren't what's going to make that huge difference in the product. Unfortunately, I'm bound and gagged to talk about the really, really cool things that are happening in the game, but some of the things I can talk about today are important in their own way. They definitely change gameplay, the graphics looks a lot better, the broadcast presentation make the overall look and feel of the game a lot more different, and so on. [Since this interview was conducted, THQ also confirmed that SmackDown! vs. Raw would feature online play over PS2 Online.]
Eurogamer: What about the coming together of Raw and SmackDown!? Raw didn't get anywhere near as much critical acclaim on Xbox as SmackDown! did on PlayStation 2. Is SmackDown! vs Raw going to be released on Xbox as well?
Nick Wlodyka: This is for PS2 only. You shouldn't think of Raw being only on Xbox. The Xbox game is actually WWE Wrestlemania XXI. So each platform still has its own specific game.
Eurogamer: How do you feel about that? Would you prefer to see this game on both PS2 and Xbox?
Nick Wlodyka: I think there are strengths and weaknesses to both approaches. There's a part of me that really wants to see this as one franchise so we can dedicate more time to making the best overall game. I think one of the challenges that we face, in all honesty, is that the games that were developed for GameCube and Xbox up to this point weren't as strong as they should have been. So, we're playing a lot of catch up now. I think this year with the GameCube product we're at a point where we should be, and we're confident we can get to that point with Xbox. With PS2 we've made a huge leap, so we're doing really well with that. One of the advantages of developing three separate products is that there's not only one way to make a great wrestling game, and different fans enjoy different things from their gaming experiences. The WWE has a plethora of storylines, so each game can very much have its own story line and they're very enjoyable to play through.
Eurogamer: It must be a major bonus to be able to incorporate the Raw storylines into SmackDown!...
Nick Wlodyka: Yeah, that's a good thing. What we tried to do with this product was not to make something that was "in name only". There is very much that Smackdown! vs. Raw feel, and that happens from the moment you turn on the game. So straight away you have to choose whether or not you want SmackDown! or Raw as your sort of backdrop. If you choose SmackDown!, the presentation you'll see will include all the things you see in SmackDown! programming. If you choose Raw, everything you see will be from Raw.
Eurogamer: What do you have planned for next generation development?
Nick Wlodyka: The point where we are with games now, there's so much competition out there and people are spending so much money on development, that you can't spend just 10 or 11 months of development on a product. Even annual franchises are taking 16, 17 months, so right now we're already starting work on the next version of SmackDown! vs. Raw and we are looking at the next generation and how we're going to evolve this game, so to speak.
Eurogamer: How are you actually going to evolve it?
Nick Wlodyka: I'm actually really, really worried about next year, let alone the next generation, because there are so many things that have been done this year, so it's like, "OK, how do we make this much of a splash next year?" And there are always two things. One, there are you marketable features, online for example. That's something that's easily marketable. Then there's a lot of stuff in-game that really changes the overall feel of the game, but doesn't necessarily translate well to marketing. I mean, for next year, there are a lot of areas that we need to address. There can be a lot more done with the characters for example, making them feel a lot more like their real-life personas.
One of the problems we have with current generation platforms is memory. So, in order to bring out the true personas of the characters we need to do a lot of animation, and one of the problems that we have right now is that we can't cram any more animation into the products. So, this year we've had to pull out moves we've had in the past. That's the problem: you have to pull stuff out in order to add new innovations. And that's what we're going to be able to really exploit in the next generation: we're going to be able to add more animations that's going to make them feel a lot more like the characters, but there's going to be a lot more AI that we'll be able to process in a faster manner.
So the behaviour of the AI will be a lot more complex. We'll be able to outline a lot more situations. Take Chris Jericho. At some points in the match he'll start slapping his opponents and giving them little kicks. There's no way of doing that right now, apart from telling the game that that's what Chris Jericho does after, say, 10 minutes of the bout. And that doesn't really make sense if he's been taking the brunt of the abuse for the match. It'll allow us to take in allot more factors, like he's been dominating the match, he's been taunting the crowd, it's at such a point in a match, he's just done such a move And there are so many of these. That's just one area.
Eurogamer: When Bill Gates showed Xbox for the first time in Las Vegas, the Rock was with him. We assume you're planning on being up there again when Microsoft shows Xbox 2?
Nick Wlodyka: In terms of having a product?
Nick Wlodyka: I can't comment on that. It's a good question, though.
WWE SmackDown! vs. RAW is due out exclusively on PS2 this November.