Feature: How a Picnic Shaped the Development of Sports Champions and Its Sequel
Posted by Sammy Barker
Motion in the ocean
Despite the device being on the market for over two years now, few developers have managed to get the same precision out of the PlayStation Move as Zindagi Games. The second-party studio – which is based in the heart of sunny California – describes itself as a motion control specialist, having already shipped three top titles for the peripheral.
Among the company’s back catalogue is Sports Champions, the very first showpiece title for the PS3’s anticipated motion device. Developed alongside first-party powerhouse Sony San Diego, the game was packaged alongside every new wand in North America, making it the best selling PlayStation Move title to date. It was an opportunity that the developer recalls being both “scary and exciting”.
“Our relationship with Sony came about because our president Umrao Mayer had worked with some of the guys at Sony San Diego in the past,” the company – which prefers to be credited as a group – tells us in an exclusive chat. “They really wanted to work together on something. We came up with an idea, pitched the project to Sony, and off it went.”
Incredibly, the pitch slotted perfectly into the motion control research that the platform holder was quietly conducting behind the scenes. “A few years prior to PlayStation Move we were investigating various motion controller technologies and the Zindagi Games pitch fit in very nicely with our plans,” adds Sony San Diego senior producer Jeremy Ray of YouTube dubstep fame.
The resulting pitch evolved into Sports Champions, which quickly presented itself as an important cog in the PlayStation Move’s launch line-up. “It was really exciting for us to be included in the initial PlayStation Move bundle,” the studio recalls. “As developers, we want as many people as possible to play our games – and being bundled helps make that happen.”
Being packaged alongside the peripheral itself meant that the title had to take full advantage of the motion controller, which is something that the developer was aware of throughout development. “From the beginning of development our mantra internally was, ‘does this show off the technology?’ So, while it was a challenge, it was always our focus,” the studio notes. “We knew we had great developers, but there was definitely the nervousness that comes with doing something new. The type of 1:1 gaming we were trying to deliver hadn’t really been done before, so we were doing a lot figuring it out as we went along. There was a definite exhale when each one of the games hit the point where we realized, ‘This really works’.”
In order to properly showcase the peripheral, Zindagi Games had to select the right sports. It eventually opted for an unusual blend of table-tennis, beach volleyball, gladiator duel, disc golf, bocce, and archery. Naturally, we were eager to learn why the developer selected such a curious mix of events. “We really wanted to show off the 1:1 technology [of the PlayStation Move], so we chose sports where we felt we could make a core mechanic with 1:1 control,” the studio states. “Bocce, interestingly, came about from a company picnic. A bunch of guys were having a blast playing Bocce and everyone saw it. There were five sports [in the game] at the time, but a little while later we decided to add a sixth. Bocce was floated, and people remembered the picnic. We had a little experience with the controller already so we knew that it would be a great fit.”
But while Bocce may have been the last addition to the roster of events, it was table-tennis that really stole our hearts. The simple first-person mini-game really took advantage of the PlayStation Move’s accuracy, and ultimately evolved into a simulation of the real sport on harder difficulties. Considering we still play the mode today, we couldn’t resist asking whether there were any plans to turn the activity into a full-blown PSN release. “Internally there are a lot of guys who really love table-tennis too, so the idea of a standalone title has floated around,” the company teases. “Unfortunately, we don’t have any current plans for that game.”
Internally there are a lot of guys who really love table-tennis too, so the idea of a standalone title has floated around
Despite setting the sales charts alight, Zindagi Games opted to take a break between Sports Champions and its inevitable successor. Medieval Moves was released at the end of 2011, delivering a decent on-rails adventure game that re-purposed many of the core mechanics from the studio’s sports title. “The vast majority of the work for Sports Champions 2 was done after Medieval Moves was completed,” Ray says, though the studio did set aside a small team which spent the year prototyping ideas for the sequel. According to the developer, that process was much simpler second time around.
“On Sports Champions 2 our engine was much more mature so we were able to do a lot more rapid prototyping of ideas,” the studio explains. “We just kept the ones that worked the best.” It eventually decided upon bowling, boxing, skiing, tennis, golf, and returning favourite archery. The decision to re-purpose the bow-and-arrow mini-game was down to “fan demand”, the studio points out.
But while the requests for more archery action may have been overwhelming, they pale into insignificance compared to the number of people asking for online multiplayer. “We totally understand the desire for online multiplayer, but this is a feature we unfortunately are unable to support given our constraints,” the company laments. “This decision was not made without careful consideration. A very bare bones online multiplayer implementation might have been possible if we cut enough of our new features, but we weren't okay with doing online multiplayer unless we could do it right and without sacrificing so much to the rest of the game. As you might imagine this is something we will continually to look at very closely going forward.”
Multiplayer may still be missing, but, as the developer rightfully acknowledges, Sports Champions 2 boasts a number of banner improvements. Chief among them is the overhauled visual style, which hinges on a character creation component. The developer believes that this feature “personalises” the entire experience – and helps to counter complaints that the original title was a visually unappealing game. “The avatar creation [system] in Sports Champions 2 is a lot more fun that just picking a character. Now you’re a champion.” Other graphical enhancements come from the inclusion of crowds, which the company reckons bring the game’s “environments to life”.
The simplification of the title’s calibration sequence is another example of the major improvements made to Sports Champions 2. This, according to Ray, is something that both Zindagi Games and Sony San Diego have been working on since the original release. “You can see the evolution of this through our titles,” he explains. “Sports Champions requires 3-point calibration before every match, Medieval Moves requires 3-point calibration once per gameplay session, and now Sports Champions 2 doesn’t even need 3-point calibration at all.” The solution – which the developer states was a “big step” for the entire team – facilitated features such as Party Play in the final game, which allows you to pass the controller around in quick succession and play fast-paced multiplayer sessions without any frustrating pauses in the action.
With the sequel done and dusted, we were eager to learn which sports missed out on the final release. “Dodgeball and paintball are two games that get floated time and time again when we are coming up with ideas,” the studio tells us, prompting a bitter glance from Ray. “The same goes for some of the big sports like American football and basketball. We haven’t done them because we thought we could make a more fun game with the sports that we did choose.”
We try and make sure that we only do sports where we think we can clearly demonstrate superior motion control over the competition
Of course, that doesn’t stop company brainstorming sessions from getting extremely animated. “The list of sports under consideration is extremely long, and the discussions can get very heated,” Ray concurs. “We try and make sure that we only do sports where we think we can clearly demonstrate superior motion control over the competition.”
Sadly, the developer refuses to confirm whether it’s working on a third entry in the popular sports series. “We want to continue working with Sony to use great technology to make the best games possible,” the studio says with a wry smile. We’ll keep our fingers crossed for that full-blown table-tennis title, then.
What activities would you like to see added to Sports Champions? What is your favourite pastime in the recently released sequel? Let us know in the comments section below.