We got the chance to sit down with Brian Hayes, creative director behind UFC 4, to talk all about career mode and the quality of life changes coming to EA Vancouver’s MMA sequel.
Here’s the interview in full:
What differentiates the career mode of this one to the previous UFC games?
Brian Hayes: The biggest difference between career mode on UFC 4 and previous ones is really the non-linearity, or the unscripted nature of the journey you can have. So, that was a lot of the feedback that we got on previous iterations was that it was pretty much: fight to get here, fight to move up the rankings; here’s a rival that’s going to be the same rival all the time, regardless of where you get to, or how you get there. So, we wanted to bring a lot more variability to the experience, and give the player more choices, and make sure those choices add consequences.
So, one of the biggest differences is, for the first time in our career mode, you can actually decline fights. That’s a pretty huge one. So, you can get offered a fight against somebody you think you might not be ready for, choose not to take it. That will have ramifications. That fighter might then start calling you out on social media, and how you respond to that can impact your relationship with that fighter. If you’re respectful to them, it might actually form a friendship, and then they might be less expensive to come to your gym and train with you in the future, and learn moves from.
Or you can taunt them, and be disrespectful, and build up hype for a future fight, when you think you would be ready to take that fight. But then obviously, if you decline fights the promoter might not be happy with the fact that you do that, if you do it too often. And you could actually be sent back down to the minor leagues, to the World Fighting Alliance, in which case you’d have to win a couple more fights there and get a call back up to UFC. So, there’s a whole lot more variability, non-linearity, to how career mode works based on the user’s choices and the consequences of them. That’s the biggest thing we’ve focused on.
How fluid is that sort of thing, then? Because, say you form a friendship with a fighter by being respectful to them. What if they then come to your gym to train, and you knock them out, like you showed in the trailer?
BH: Then there’s the opportunity for things to get a little bit funny, yes. If you do [KO] somebody in a training session, then in the future there’s the opportunity to release a clip of that training session on social media to build up hype for an upcoming fight. It’s not the most sportsmanlike thing to do, but it has happened in the past, so we kept those elements in there.
So, again, how fluid is it? Again, it really comes down to how many waves you’re making in the water. If you don’t rock the boat, it might still feel like a fairly linear career mode, if you just make the expected decisions or whatever, but you have the ability to make waves and rock the boat as much as you want. So, it’s really up to you.
And what about when it comes to text messages? Because it looks like there was a kind of multiple-choice narrative thing going on there. I was wondering how deep that is, and how that impacts your career?
BH: That ties into the connection relationship system. Basically, where it’s most important is your relationship with other fighters. So, when they message you either after you’ve received a fight offer, or you’re about to receive a fight offer, or after you decline a fight offer, how you respond to those messages, either positively or negatively, will determine your connection with that fighter, your relationship. You can strengthen the relationship. That’s when they become a more amicable training partner. If you make it a more contentious relationship, that’s when they become a better dance partner for a big hyped-up fight.
So, if you’re mean to people, you can potentially earn more money that way, and then if you’re nice to them, then you’ve got a better training partner?
BH: Yes. So, still the fundamental goal of career mode is to become the greatest of all time, and those objectives for becoming the GOAT are based on real-life UFC records. Some of them are promotion-based, like pay-per-view buys, career earnings, all that sort of stuff. So, you’ll need to be able to drive hype and increase your popularity to accomplish those objectives, if you want to become the greatest of all time. So, it’s never a bad idea, at least once or twice in your career, to maybe try and really focus on hyping things up really huge, and making a massive blockbuster pay-per-view if you can.
I saw that another new thing was that you can grow your abilities in the ring now, a bit like Skyrim’s RPG levelling system, where you learn through doing. Can you tell me how that works?
BH: Yes. It’s the evolution system, or fighter evolution system, is what we’re calling it. You get better at what you’re doing. So, as opposed to there being separate minigames, or HUD-based menu systems where you do that, you use those interfaces to earn a couple of integers to put towards attributes and whatnot, all the training is accomplished either in fights, or in sparring sessions. So, you can spar in four different disciplines. That’s MMA boxing, kickboxing, wrestling, and jujitsu. And then there’s also a heavy bag training opportunity that offers a lower risk of injury.
But basically, every time you throw strikes, or use different ground transitions, or submissions, what have you, those moves get better. You earn evolution points towards levelling up each one of those moves. Then, when you level up a move, you earn bonus evolution points that you can then spend towards upgrading attributes, or purchasing perks, to improve your fighter as well. Everything is based on what you’re doing in the cage, either via sparring or fighting to improve your fighter.
So, if you never really spread your wings and expand your toolset, you’ll become a very, very effective, but one-dimensional fighter. If all you use is just one-two and a light kick, you’ll have really devastating one-two and a light kick, but if the fight goes someplace else, or if your opponent keys into what you’re good at, and has an answer for it, then you’ll find yourself in trouble with weak attacks at your disposal. So, it forces you to spread your wings, diversify your toolset, work on your weaknesses, in order to make them better.
Did you mention just then that there are no minigames – have you killed them off?
BH: Yes, correct. The minigames are sparring sections and/or the heavy bag training sessions. Our philosophy there was that fundamentally, a training game, if we’re going to use it to give you the opportunity to make your fighter better, we should also give you the opportunity to continue to get better at playing the game. So, all the sparring sessions have, again, a sparring opponent that is using a particular aspect of MMA that you can focus on. And each time you go into a sparring session, there will be two things. One, a sparring challenge, which’ll be like a small goal you can accomplish to earn bonus evolution points, as well as a bonus towards some particular move.
So, I might go into a kickboxing sparring session, and then from that session, there will be, let’s say, a 20% boost to evolution on my front kicks. So, when I go into that sparring session, it’s like, ‘Okay, well, I could level up my front kicks really fast if I land a bunch in this sparring session. So, I’m going to go into this sparring session and focus on trying to land that front kick, because I know I can level up that move faster than I could in a regular sparring session.’ So, there’s a lot of different stuff going on. The minigames are basically sparring sessions which are short, bitesize fighting sessions, essentially.
Okay. And how do injuries play into it?
BH: They play into it a great deal. So, if you suffer an injury, they have real-time effects. So, you can suffer an injury in a sparring session, or in a fight. It’ll have an immediate impact by reducing a certain attribute. So, I could check a leg kick, or I could take a leg kick, and have an immediate decrease to my leg health attribute, which will carry on for the rest of that fight, and for the rest of my career. And like I said, I spend points to recover what I’ve lost due to injury. But then there’s also career mode trajectory ramifications, where if I suffer a significant injury late in a training camp, I can actually end up being forced to pull out of the fight, and sit on the sidelines till the next fight offer comes, and I recover from that injury as well.
So, they can have a pretty big impact, both in the short-term, a single fight that I’m having, and having to deal with the consequences there. But also to the medium-term, long-term trajectory of your career, if you suffer a bad one at the wrong time, and have to pull out of the fight.
So, is it a good idea, then, if you get a bad injury in a fight, to delay the next fight?
BH: That would be somewhat automated, in the sense that the system will take into account the amount of damage you took, etc., from the fight. But basically, you want to have the ability in your next training camp to spend evolution points you’ve earned towards recovering attributes that you’ve lost due to injury. So, that will prevent you from, let’s say, making significant progress from where you were, but you can generally always get back to where you were, and a little bit ahead, through a training camp of sufficient length.
Can you create your own movesets and specialised combos as well?
BH: In career mode, yes. Basically, through the ‘Invite a Fighter’ system, that’s how you determine, okay, what moves do I want to add to my arsenal? If I see that I can invite Anthony Pettis to my gym, and he’ll teach me this move, okay, I want to know how to do that move. I can bring him to my camp, learn the move, and then again, as I continue to use that move, I can level it up and make it faster, more powerful, etc.
So, it’s really up to you, based on what fighters you want to invite to your camp, whether or not you can afford to do so, whether or not you’ve reached the right status in your career to invite certain fighters to your camp. Because when you’re just a UFC rookie, let’s say, the champions might not necessarily be dying to come to your training camp to teach you stuff, etc. So, a lot of factors play into it, but basically, how you develop your move set is kind of up to you, based on two things. One, the initial archetype you choose to be as a creative fighter for career mode. But then, which fighters you invite to your training camps over the course of your career, and which moves you choose to unlock by training with them.
Throughout the course of EA’s creations, creating the UFC games, and the EA MMA game, you’ve experimented a lot with the ground game. I was wondering, have you changed how it works in this one to the last iteration?
BH: The fundamental architecture of the ground game remains very similar. What we’ve added is a new grapple assist control scheme. So, the previous two iterations of UFC have had the right-stick transition system for the ground game, and it’s a very robust, very deep system of transitioning to all these different positions on the ground. But certainly, it’s something that core fans appreciate and really get into, take the time to learn, etc. Then there’s a large number of people who are kind of like, ‘Ah, when the fight goes to ground, I get lost. I get frustrated. I don’t like when it goes there.’
So, the grapple assist system provides, on the left stick, just three consistent inputs all the time. Pushing up will try and make your fighter get up. Pushing to the left will try and make your fighter go for a submission. Pushing to the right will try and make them go for a postured-up ground and pound submission. Now, if you’re on the bottom, that means that they’ll start working towards either get-ups or reversals and sweeps, when you’re trying to go for a submission, etc. Or a ground pound position to get on top. Those left-stick inputs are always available, and they always do the same. Up is get up, left is go for a submission, right is go for ground pound. So, for the more casual, less experienced, or new players, that grapple assist control system is there to help them get their feet wet, and always have an escape hatch at the very least, in terms of, ‘I always know how to try and get out, and that’s by pushing up on the left stick when the fight goes to the ground.’
Now, defending transitions and all that sort of stuff remains the same, for the rest of the system. But the cool thing about it is that whether it’s online, offline, what have you, you can be playing with the grapple assist system up against somebody that’s playing with the latest system, and they work hand in hand, because under the hood, it’s driving the same animations and moves and all that sort of stuff. So, there’s no need to segment the player base based on what control scheme they’re using on the ground.
And what improvements have you made to the stand-up? Maybe on how heavy the hands feel and stuff. Because it felt a little bit floaty in the past, at times.
BH: One of the biggest things that we’ve changed in relation to stand-up is actually a change of the entire control scheme. So, we have dynamic striking inputs, now. For the most part, 80-85% of the core strikes, the meat and potatoes of what you use to fight on UFC 3, remain mostly the same. You know, your jabs, your hooks, your uppercuts, your light kicks, your front kicks, your roundhouses, and all that stuff. The dynamic striking inputs are basically introducing a tap versus hold mechanic. So, we used to have, because of the variety of strikes that you could throw in mixed martial arts, it started to get complicated. Like, ‘Okay, how many buttons do you hold down to throw that?’ So, with the tap versus hold mechanic, we’ve reduced or eliminated altogether the instances in our game where you have to hold down five and six buttons at the same time to just pull off one strike. And that was obviously very complicated, just ergonomically. It was like, ‘Let me hope I get this strike right,’ because if you mistime one of the buttons, you’re going to get something you weren’t intending.
But then, as we investigated trying to solve for that, we also updated the animation system so that there’s actually less input latency than we’ve had on previous games. So, every single strike in the game is actually – it’s either one or two frames more responsive than it used to be, because we used to have to wait to see, ‘Wait, how many buttons are you holding down?’ to make sure we tried to give you the strike you were looking for. And now, we have the system where a strike initiation starts happening immediately, but then, once we determine that you’re holding, not tapping, we branch into the appropriate animation to complete what you were asking for. So, the strikes are actually more responsive from an animation perspective, but ergonomically, less challenging on the hands from the controller.
But then, from the animation stand point, we’ve also added some variability to strike levels. So, again, there’s a whole lot of strikes in MMA, so we haven’t been able to expand it to every single strike that there is, but there are levels, as you level up a leg kick, or a head kick, or a straight punch. If you are a level one straight punch or leg kick, it looks technically challenged, let’s say. But if you’re level five, it starts to come out with some real snap, and nice turn of the hips, etc. So, added some elements like that to expand the striking game, as well. But mostly, the biggest difference is the controls have modified to make throwing a variety of strikes a little bit less ergonomically challenging, and everything should be a little bit more responsive as well.
Do physics still play into that system? So, leaning into a punch, and that sort of thing, when you’re trying to slip a punch.
BH: Yes. So, that’s always been a part of the gameplay system. Vulnerability, like, are you leaning into a punch? Are you leaning away from a punch? All those things factor in to how much damage a punch does. If I lean away from a punch that is coming, it’ll do less damage. If I lean into a punch, it’ll do more damage. If I’ve just thrown a punch and I’m wide open, my vulnerability is very high. So, all those kinds of things factor in to how much your opponent’s counter-strike, or well-timed intercepting strike, can do, for sure.