The business and art of video games are at war with one another. What is new and innovative is often difficult to market, and what sells well in the short term might be financially damaging in the long run. Developers dream big, but those dreams are narrowed down in a hurry when they’re pitted against a limited budget and a tight schedule.
Back in Fall 2014, 2K Games released WWE 2K15. It took a beating from both wrestling fans and critics, who used terms like “lazy” and “incomplete” to describe the latest iteration of their beloved franchise.
The smaller the development window, the more likely it is that an unfinished or buggy product will hit the shelves. Annual game franchises like NBA 2K, WWE 2K, and Madden suffer most from this quick turnaround time, and it sounds like that’s what happened to WWE 2K15.
“The largest challenge for games releasing annually is the hard deadline one year out,” WWE 2K executive producer Mark Little tells me. They spend much of the year working on extra downloadable content and patches for the current game, which leaves less time to develop each new version, he said.
But rather than being indignant about the criticism of 2K15, Little’s team was receptive, and they incorporated changes into the following year’s game. The result, WWE 2K16, was released this past October. All initial reports and reviews tell the same story: this edition is far improved over its predecessor. This whole mess, and its subsequent fix, is a great study in how to respond to negative feedback, adjust to fans’ wants, and respect them as potential customers. It’s a lesson that many developers and publishers could learn from, and ironically, it’s advice that the actual WWE could learn from as well.
A VICTIM OF CIRCUMSTANCE
In some ways, WWE 2K15 was a victim of circumstance. It was the second WWE game released by 2K Games. The first was 2K14, released in 2013. Response to 2K14 was positive; the prior publisher, THQ, had taken a “larger than life” approach to the WWE franchise, emphasizing some of the more cartoonish aspects of the professional wrestling world. 2K Games, on the other hand, appeared resolved to treat its subject matter soberly—as a real, competitive sport, rather than as outlandish “sports entertainment.” More competition, less carnival. More leveling-up, and fewer locker room feuds.
Fans praised 2K14’s grounded, technical approach. Finally professional wrestling was accorded a level of respect it had long been denied in games. And 2K14’s story-driven “Showcase” mode was a tribute to the glitz and glamour of Wrestlemania. Fans could relive epic match after epic match—going back three decades—and even try to beat the Undertaker’s famous undefeated streak.
So even before 2K15 started its development cycle, 2K Games had enormous shoes to fill. How, exactly, could they out-epic Wrestlemania? The truth, unfortunately, is that they couldn’t. And 2K15 also bore technical responsibilities that its predecessor did not.
“WWE 2K15 represented the first iteration of the WWE franchise on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One platforms, and we set out to create a solid foundation for us to build the game on for years to come,” Little says. “This meant we needed to start over on many areas of the game and build from scratch. For example, we rebuilt all the technology and art tools used for creating models and arenas. We also largely reworked portions of the gameplay engine.”
“Whenever you start over on a game engine or a portion of a game engine, there is an inherent risk that you are not going to get back all the features that have been added for the past several years, especially when you are working on an annual release,” Little explains. “We frequently have ideas that simply can’t be completed before the next game release because of time constraints. As a result, we create strategies to build technology and features over multiple game releases.”
But even so—even with the multi-year plan—the team fell behind schedule.
“It became evident that we would be unable to complete all the features for the release of WWE 2K15,” Little admitted. “The changes we took on were simply too much to complete in the one year. We were forced to make hard decisions about which features we were going to focus on to complete for launch and which features would need to be completed in the next release.”
Among the missing features were the customization options that had defined prior editions of WWE games. No “Create An Arena,” no “Create a Finisher,” no “Create a Title”—and, strangely enough, no “Create a Diva,” a feature that had actually existed since the Nintendo 64’s WWF No Mercy, released in 2000.
Some match modes that had once been staples in prior versions were missing. Ladder matches were available in one-on-one, but not in Triple Threat. Hell in a Cell was available in every format except a Fatal Four Way. Gimmick matches like Three Stages of Hell and Casket matches were missing (although, strangely enough, they were included in Universe Mode). There were no handicap matches.
But the most notable absence for fans was Tornado Tag. A traditional tag match only allows for one man per tag team to be in the ring at a single time. Thus, while one person is in the ring fighting, the other partner is waiting in the corner, bored, until he is tagged in. Tornado Tag allows for both players to jump in the ring, at the same time, for a two on two free-for-all. Everyone gets to fight, and no one has to wait. But in WWE 2K15 that was gone, and multiplayer players were left severely wanting
There were other problems—a limited roster, a counterintuitive matchmaking system—and when taken all together, they created the impression that 2K15 was half-done, and was relying on its current-gen graphics alone to make its sales marks.
“The main criticisms of WWE 2K15 rang through clearly to our team,” Little said. “It is hard to disagree with those criticisms since they were the reality of what we didn’t deliver for WWE 2K15. When we started WWE 2K15, our goal was to deliver these features, and unfortunately, we simply ran out of time.”
This year, in WWE 2K16, both Tornado Tag and Handicap matches are back, as well as most of the other match stipulations that were lacking in 2K15. Ladder Matches are available in all set-ups and permutations, as is Hell in a Cell. The fan experience, rather than the technical specs, appear to be front and center again.
The customization options that were so lacking in 2K15 make a welcome return in 2K16. You still can’t create a finisher, but you can create a Diva, a title belt and an arena again. There are additional design choices, such as hair dye, varied cloth material and better hair physics. And despite the fans’ vocal complaints last year, Little sees the benefits of waiting to add these features and to having a longer-range plan.
“If you take a quick look through our Community Creations servers that allow the community to share their created Superstars, Divas and more, you will see why taking the risk to rewrite the systems is paying off,” Little says. “The quality of the creations is amazing, and we know will only continue to improve.”
The most major change to result directly from fan feedback was an increased management of internal resources. Take reversals, for example. When a fist or boot heads towards you, you press the Reverse button at the exact right moment, and your wrestler will block the move, and then perform a counterattack of his or her own. In earlier games, this Reverse button could be used indefinitely, hundreds of times during a match. And thus, the entire match became a glorified game of ‘chicken,’ where passivity, rather than aggression, was rewarded. The winner would be the person who took the least risks, and waited for everyone else to make mistakes before capitalizing. Not very exciting.
So instead, on WWE 2K16, each wrestler starts with a set number of reversals on a bar, which depletes as the reversals are used. And once they are gone, a player has to earn them back over time. So now, you have to pick your spots and use reversals sparingly. Which of your opponents’ attacks can you weather? Which ones should you reverse to turn the match in your favor? You want your last reversal in your back pocket for when the Undertaker comes at you with a Tombstone Piledriver.
Stamina is another attribute that now requires more careful resource management. A good player will space his or her moves out to prevent fatigue, rather than slamming on all the buttons as quickly as possible. If you run too much or perform too many actions in a brief amount of time, your stamina will deplete, and your wrestler will start limping, staggering, and crawling, just as real wrestlers do at the end of long matches. The most sophisticated player will regularly lock in working holds (ie. rest holds) in order to drain the stamina of his opponent, while simultaneously increasing his own. All of this combines to create an experience that is slower-paced, less cartoon-like, and more realistic.
WWE 2K16 is one of the best WWE simulation games ever built; it’s definitive a high bar. And the irony in all of this is that it released at a time when the actual WWE is at an all-time low of popularity. The reason? It’s not a matter of talent (the roster is stuffed with it) or production values (Monday Night Raw looks slicker than ever). Rather, there’s a general perception, specifically from adult fans, that the WWE does not listen to its viewers—that unpopular, older wrestlers are pushed to the top, that the storylines don’t have enough drama and follow-through, and that the show’s format is too over-scripted. The ratings have reflected that too—recent weekly episodes have drawn some of the lowest TV ratings since the mid-’90s.
The WWE, however, seems to know that something is wrong. They’ve been sending out surveys to fans, asking for feedback and trying to get to the root of the problem. Hopefully, when they get those surveys back and compile the results, they’ll find out what’s wrong. And hopefully, like 2K Games, the WWE will know what to do with those findings.
Wing-Man has written about video games and popular culture since 2013, and has been published in multiple online and print publications. Follow him on Twitter to learn more.
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