EA Sports is soon revitalizing its NCAA Football, PGA Tour, and Skate franchises – Fight Night could be next. If Steel City Interactive wishes to survive as a studio, it must deliver a fundamentally sound fighter online and off. SCI can do so by developing its simulation boxing engine, animation libraries, and strong online play.
If Steel City Interactive wishes to thrive beyond the initial launch, SCI can leverage a trio of design elements. First, by implementing sports-science-inspired gameplay; Secondly, by developing team-based online game modes; and lastly, by building team achievement tracks and digital rewards.
Undisputed: Surviving a Fight Night Revival
1. Tune the Gameplay
Undisputed Beta Gameplay Impressions
The first step for SCI’s Undisputed to survive is to ensure it features sound gameplay.
Undisputed will be beautiful from the onset. The player models created by Ten24 Digital Capture are top-tier in sports gaming. But Undisputed will need to deliver on the gameplay. There’s no hiding from it.
Fortunately, the November open beta is an excellent playing boxing game. I was able to play close to ten rounds on day one. The Undisputed beta features controller-gripping moments and impressive locomotion for an indie-studio startup game. Fights are densely packed with screen-shaking strikes. The camera moves well with the fighters, like a drone is zooming around, optimizing shots.
The game easily compares with the classic Fight Night series, and it is only in beta. The expectations might be high, and Undisputed is unbelievably delivering on gameplay – the most important piece.
I thoroughly enjoyed connecting on a punch in the Undisputed beta. The jabs are snappy. The hooks and crosses are slower but satisfying on impact. And the fighting in the pocket is quick-hitting and fun. Conversely, Undisputed will need to work more on the footwork, especially in and out of the pocket. Fighters become heavy on their feet when throwing simple hooks and crosses. Further to the point, it is difficult to pivot and change direction on the lead foot. This may be achievable, depending on user skill (or lack thereof on my part). Time will tell.
Continuing, the servers are not ready. The game launched with many bugs, and it was patched by SCI three times on the first night. Glitches aside, Undisputed is an enjoyable, clean-landing gameplay experience.
“…Undisputed is an enjoyable, clean-landing gameplay experience.”
Next, if SCI needs to cut back on the punch offerings, it should. SCI should simplify the game if needed. Simplify the sport. Boil it down to the fundamentals, and make a less ambitious title if necessary so that the game can deliver and play well.
Fight Night never had anywhere close to the number of punch types Undisputed aims for when we include the varying animations. Multiply that by each fighter’s signature style, and the programming team will be underwater.
It is okay if SCI scales it back in its first studio release to create a balanced and enjoyable fight game experience. Doing so can alleviate clipping issues, where fighters’ varying arm angles warp through each other in odd ways. Moreover, many fight fans will be happy if Undisputed can land close to FN’s smooth gameplay – and it is on track to do so.
Instead, SCI can build depth around fighter match-ups. Undisputed is set to feature over 200 fighters. The roster alone, a strength of the title, will elevate the game’s strategy and depth. SCI must ensure that fighter strengths and weaknesses show, each with unique hit-boxes and player attributes. Undisputed can even borrow from the greats like WWE No Mercy and Day of Reckoning 2 and include emotional-based systems such as composure and momentum.
On that point, the Undisputed beta does not currently feature any momentum swings other than what occurs organically in the ring. Stamina does play a role, and a powershot can stun an opponent and swing the fight. It is on the user to turn the momentum with a strategically-timed punch.
But most of all, the physics and feel for each fighter must be distinct, which brings us to the science of player ratings.
Sports Science: Ratings-Driven Engines
Science is at the heart of every sport, including a simulation like Undisputed.
Developers can define player attributes with numerical values. Thus, player rating values can include fighter height, weight, speed, agility, and other traits, and each can be assigned a rating grade or number. The beauty of the science of player ratings is we can translate human motion into quantifiable terms. Theoretically, these number ratings drop neatly into Newtonian physics equations.
“The beauty to the science of player-ratings is we can translate human motion into quantifiable terms.”
The Undisputed beta showed off 27 data points that help build a fighter’s makeup. The categories are vitals, stamina, speed, strength, and defense. SCI grades each type on a scale of 100, similar to a Madden player rating. The level of detail given to player ratings will make all the difference. Undisputed’s rating details are an encouraging sign.
Locomotion is challenging to program – look at the EA Sports prototypes. Algorithm overload. Hence, I believe Undisputed is using Unreal Engine – Unreal should have physics baked into its code. SCI should be able to refine those systems as it incorporates its player ratings and attributes. It follows then that SCI’s programming team can leverage the player rating values with Unreal Engine to build realistic locomotion and physics to compete with EA, 2K, and whomever else in the genre.
Full circle, Newton’s laws of physics were born out of an epidemic in the 1600s. Interestingly, Undisputed is emerging out of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the power of modern graphics chips and Unreal Engine, SCI can deploy realistic physics-based code to flourish as a franchise.
2. Team-based Modes
SCI’s second area of focus can be to build competitive online experiences that can foster an eSports environment.
The Undisputed beta is off to a rough start online. The servers barely functioned. Irrespective of any patch, there is legitimate concern around an indie title deploying a global, online-competitive game. SCI will need some serious partners to help them plug into existing servers and frameworks. The game will only survive with rock-solid online play.
Online play is the lifeblood of any game that has longevity. It will be on SCI to develop teams, factions, or camps, and worthy rewards to pursue with friends. Without groups, player motivation is purely singular and intrinsic. No social factors come into play. Whereas if we build in team dynamics, the pursuits are collective, and motivation is both innate and socially driven.
Think of the games you’ve played with friends. The World of Chel 3v3 (an absolute blast on GamePass), Call of Duty, or NBA 2K pickup games. The collective goals keep you plugged into the ecosystem as you try to stack wins with friends. Now think about what we just saw in PGA Tour 2K23. There is zero interaction with other gamers. Boxing is a singular pursuit, so SCI will need to get creative. Online play is critical for the game to live beyond its initial couple of seasons. The Undisputed beta punctuates the need for improvement.
3. Achievement Tracks – Absent from Undisputed Beta
Lastly, achievement tracks are the third piece recommended for Undisputed’s longevity as a franchise.
Game design elements like achievements are increasingly becoming the center of a player’s game experience. Achievement tracks can motivate player competition, shape behaviors, and achievement hunting stacks well in a team context. An intrinsically competitive Undisputed is a game that will survive many years.
Badges can play a role in achievement tracks, fostering a competitive player base for a given title. They are dopamine in digital form; and, they tap into what sports gamers care about most — competition. And as I’ve written about before, the dual nature of badges as both feedback and reward can foster a state of psychological flow.
Moreover, rewards can come in many shapes – a digital animation trophy is one example—case and point: Sony’s launch of PlayStation Stars. Sony is launching digital collectibles to complement the achievement grades currently applied in Sony PlayStation Network player profiles. I think AAA publishers will begin to leverage digital artifacts similarly. Achievement motivation is fundamental. Undisputed should take note. A partnership with Sony PlayStation Stars could prove valuable.
Further, SCI’s graphic artists are top-tier in the industry. I have no doubt SCI’s artists can animate eye-catching digital trophies, belts, and various rewards that hold value in the beauty of their design.
Gameplay. Team-play. Team pursuits. And digital rewards. If Undisputed can deliver these elements, the revival of FN won’t matter. Indie developers have found success with the formula outlined herein. SCI can, too.
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