Breaking A Virtual Sweat: The Making Of A Sports Game

The traditional—or perhaps stereotypical—relationship between computer nerds and jocks is one often characterised by bruises to the face, wedgies up the arse and dignity down the drain. But, as the developers behind Australia’s latest AFL and NRL games on PSP show us, it doesn’t always have to be this way.

Nestled within the creative hub of Melbourne, a small studio by the name of Wicked Witch Software have been hard at work developing not fantasy games where the sedentary can find themselves escaping reality (although such games are a part of their repertoire), but two sports titles based on activities that couldn’t be further away from the actual act of game development itself. As they sit and program at their desks, the images appearing on their screens show the fittest and burliest of athletes executing spectacular sporting moves and taking the roughest of tumbles.

As curious it is to hear about the usually tech and programming oriented making games about an activity that we normally wouldn’t associate with their industry, the managing director of Wicked Witch Software and producer on the titles AFL and NRL Challenge, Daniel Visser, has said that it’s really not that bizarre a coupling.

“Sports games have been around on video game systems ever since Pong and, I dare say, after table tennis, soccer was not far behind… so in this regard, a lot of the work has been done. Gamers are familiar and expect general controls and interfaces which are common to many sports games,” Visser said.

“These games appeal to the sport lovers primarily… [They are a]fantasy for sports fans to experience that is beyond playing in the yard or watching the sport on television.”

And there are bucket loads of truth in that statement. With the success of titles such as the FIFA, Pro Evo, and a plethora of sporting and athletic simulations that have made their way out onto consoles over the past two decades, sports games definitely have a noticeably large market. But of more interest is how these games, which have proven incredibly popular with gamers and sports fans alike — are made to begin with. How do game developers take a physical activity that is so well known and understood by such a wide demographic and turn it into a successful video game? At what point does the tough and rough side of AFL meet the intricately geeky programming side of game development, and when do they know they’ve gotten it right?

“Each sport does present its own unique challenges,” Visser says.

“A huge amount goes into making any game; official games have their own challenges. We absolutely have to study the game, the players, the culture, the technical details, deal directly with the AFL and NRL to get a huge range of official information on the game, the teams, the players, the stats, the stadia, the rules, the advertisers, the television and radio personalities, official photo shoots, 3D modelling players, animating them, taking motion capture data, recording sound effects, sourcing music, focus testing, bug testing, approval processes and much, much more. The list is very extensive!”

The team behind AFL and NRL Challenge consisted of sports fans and those who knew nothing of the sports in the beginning, so a lot of the time was devoted to communicating ideas and understanding the way the sport work, Visser explained. For a studio whose portfolio features a range of licensed movie games such as Space Chimps and Ned Kelly, MMORPGS, puzzles and strategy games, the team had to take a different approach to making a sports game.

“Sports games are fairly different from an RPG or RTS,” Visser said.

“The good thing about a sports game is that the ‘game’ part is the same thing over and over, even though it does have lots of rules, this can make it easier to test than an RPG, that has hundreds of unique levels.”

“On the other hand, in an RPG you can usually make up parts and work around problems; when you are making a simulation of something that is real, you are forced to work on implementing almost everything!”

So it seems there is a middle ground where the geeks and sports heads can meet, mingle, and nut out a game that both sides can play without the threat of abominable wedgies. Or, in Wicked Witch Software’s case, both sides may even be able to win each other over.

“People here have developed much more of an interest in the sports, which is good to see!” Visser said.

“The best result for us is to ensure we satisfy gamers and sports fans as well as everyone in between!”

Playing With Balls is Gizmodo AU’s week-long look at the technology behind the sports we love, from the jerseys to the balls and everything in between. Go your mother’s team!