Depending who you ask, "Backbreaker" is either a "Madden" killer or just another unlicensed football video game destined to be crushed by the EA juggernaut. And while the truth probably lies somewhere in between, there's no denying the fact that "Backbreakers" groundbreaking physics engine showcases tackles that will leave gamers as breathless as the poor polygonal ball carrier who was just crushed on screen.
I recently had the chance to catch up with "Backbreaker's" associate producer, Rob Donald, to get his thoughts on the upcoming game, the impending battle against "Madden," and why he's introducing relegation to American football.
Jon Robinson: What differentiates "Backbreaker" from a game like "Madden?"
Rob Donald: We're really confident in saying that we're doing everything different. Not just from a structural point of view, like our different league setups and customization which I will get into later on, but just the fact that we've managed to produce a game that is completely live and completely emergent and is built fundamentally from not just any other football game, but any other sports game before. It's our Euphoria engine that is powering all of these live moments. Every tackle that you see is going to be completely different. You're not going to see the same tackle because it's totally random and every tackle is based on bone structure, the muscle structure, and the intelligence of the players who are performing those actions. It really goes a lot deeper than that, but Euphoria gives all of our players a level of awareness that is simply not there in any other sports title. The fact that you see players lifting their arms if they feel a threat coming in from the side so they can cushion blows, it really means that when you're running around the corner and defenders are rushing towards you, your player will start animating himself to deal with the threat. This just gives you the feeling of not only being in total control, but being right there and completely involved in the moment.
Jon Robinson: You mentioned some of the things that make Euphoria unique. How long has this engine been under development? It seems like I've been hearing about "Backbreaker" for years now.
Rob Donald: Euphoria has been a long time in development and we continue to develop it internally as we go along. If you've played "Grand Theft Auto IV" or "Star Wars: Force Unleashed," these are excellent examples of Euphoria in action, and you understand the importance of this physics engine when you read any preview or any review of these games and you see just how important the reviewers placed the engine in the grand scheme of things. This engine allows for the kind of interaction between characters that you never get in any other games, and even games that have come out since "GTA IV." These other games have used traditional motion-capture and animation blending, but they just don't have that kind of interactivity in characters and that lifelike behavior that Euphoria provides.
Jon Robinson: What's the coolest animation sequence that you've seen lately in playing "Backbreaker?"
Rob Donald: The one that stands out right now is a desperate pass I made to an outside receiver. He was in tight coverage, but he managed to catch the ball. As he turned to spin past the defender, the safety who was guarding him grabbed the receiver and held him up with one hand. He held him up just enough where the receiver was pumping his legs and trying to get away, but he just couldn't get going. The strength of the safety turned the receiver back towards the line of scrimmage where the other defenders were running from, and the receiver got absolutely pancaked by a guy running full speed from the other direction. This is one of those killer, game-defining moments.
Another play I love is when you're at the goal line and the running back takes the ball and does that high dive move into the end zone. To me, this is one of those iconic football moments that you see in TV ads and the climax of a movie when someone is one score down with seconds left on the clock. This is just one of those cinematic moments, and the great thing about Euphoria, is since this isn't motion-captured, since these aren't pre-canned animations, I can just charge my guy toward the line and hold up on the stick as he's about to get to the point where I want him to takeoff, and he'll launch himself over the top. You never know, and I guarantee you this, you never know what's going to happen. You could get hit by a defender coming full on, or maybe you get hit by two defenders sandwiching him from the side. You're going to see some amazing stuff.
Jon Robinson: The camera view has been changed from what football gamers are used to. Everyone is used to the "Madden" cam where you drop back and see the field. "Backbreaker's" camera brings you right down on the field so you can see the hits, but don't you think that makes the game more difficult to play? Why did you want to make that change?
Rob Donald: To me, it's not what people are used to in playing football games like "Madden" or the "2K" series, but in terms of getting you right down onto the field, this is as close to what we can do to make you feel like you're on the field. The goal from day one was to make something that benefited from Euphoria and making you really feel these hits, and there's no point in having these amazing hits if you're hovering in a blimp somewhere over the field. So everything we've done has been designed to bring you down onto the field. And it doesn't make it more difficult to play, it makes it more realistic, and I think that's an important distinction there. What you'll find if you're playing the sport for real, if you're a quarterback trying to find the open receiver, you're not going to be able to see the whole field at once. If your running back has broken free from the line, but you have defenders pursuing you from behind, maybe you won't be able to see him. You don't have eyes in the back in your head, you don't have the ability to see the whole field. We're making it more realistic to play, and if that makes the game harder, than that's just to give the people who play the game in real life the respect that they deserve. Finally people who are playing football from their sofas will appreciate what it means to be in that position.
Jon Robinson: What are the game modes we can expect to play?
Rob Donald: Obviously we have the normal Exhibition games, then we also have two season modes which are very different. The first one we just call Season mode, and it's pretty much what you'd expect from a standard season where you take a team and insert them into a custom 8, 16, or 32 team league. Then basically you play your way through the season, it's multiple seasons, so you draft new players and do everything that you'd expect from a Season mode. You can also fill the slots of those teams in Season mode with the teams that we ship with, and we're shipping with over 60 teams. You can also create your own teams and fill the Season mode up with them. You can create 32 teams and put them all in a league against each other, whatever you want to do.
The other season mode is the mode where I see a lot of people spending the majority of their time, and that's Road to Backbreaker. This one is designed around a real sense of originality, and you owning your team and actually progressing your team and taking that team as far as you can. In Road to Backbreaker, you always start with a custom team, so you can start completely from scratch or you can take one of the existing teams, change the name and play around with it. This gives you the ability to do as little or as much customization as you want to do. Then you take that team and you start off in a lowly eight team league. The idea is that if you finish in the top three, you get promoted into a 16 team league then you keep trying to work your way up. It's not what people normally play in a football game, and I think this brings extra value. We're pretty excited about doing something different. In fact, we were kind of worried at first about adding promotion and relegation to the game because that is not something that is featured very heavily in North American sports leagues, but being a U.K. developer, we see the kind of drama this adds year in and year out. From a basketball standpoint, I'm a huge Raptors fan, but I end up every year hoping we tank down the stretch so we get a better draft pick. This never happens in leagues with promotion and relegation. You always have something to fight for, and that's what we want to bring to "Backbreaker."
Jon Robinson: How customizable are the teams and rosters?
Rob Donald: We're shipping with 60 teams and they're completely different with all completely different colors and styles of uniforms. What we're giving you is a skeleton, and every team in the game has been designed by one of our in-house guys using the same customization tools that are provided to you in-game. So everything that we've done, you can do, and I expect in no time, that the gamers will be doing a whole lot better than what we've provided. We wanted to give people the most flexibility we could give them, so you can rename your players, you can design your team, so if you played high school football, you can try to design your uniforms with all the colors, and we have a fully encompassing color palate, so you can pick whatever color you want. The logo system is based on layers, and shapes, and cutting tools, and if you're familiar with the "Forza" games, we've gone through a similar approach to our logo system which means that you can create anything. We don't restrict people. You can create anything you want and we've proved that by the fact that all of our teams have been created with that kit. And if anyone wants to see how we did it, there are some handy tutorials that show how all of the layers go together.
Then once you have that logo, you can apply that logo to the side of the helmet or design a completely different style of helmet. You can design the end zone for your team and then as soon as you go out and play the game, you'll see that end zone as you run out onto the stadium. Then, of course, once you go online against your friends, they'll see your creations as well. So feel free to insult your friends with massive lettering in the end zone. [laughs]
Jon Robinson: What other modes can we expect in the game?
Rob Donald: We really wanted to concentrate on giving people a great head-to-head experience online. In terms of Exhibition mode, you can take on a friend or a stranger one-on-one online. Or if a friend comes over to your house, you can play split-screen co-op or split-screen one vs. one. Split-screen co-op works really well because you can play any position on the field. You simply pick which position you want to play any given play. So on one play you might play as a quarterback and your friend plays as a receiver and you try to get him the ball. On top of that, we have a mini-game called Tackle Alley which we released as an iPhone game. The iPhone game was based on the console version, and now we've developed the console version even more. Tackle Alley is this mini-game where you start off from one end of the field and you try to beat waves and waves of defenders. You get combo points by performing different skill moves and beating defenders. We have this split-screen as well where you might be running the same way down the field, so you try to draw defenders toward you, then when they launch themselves at you, you duck out of the way and they hit your friend instead. Other times you're running opposite ways down the field so you can try to interfere with each other on the way down. You can stiff arm your friend in the face as they run past you and aren't paying attention. It all gets really hectic.
I hope that people don't spend more time in Tackle Alley than they do in the full game, but I think there's a real danger in this happening. It's the sort of mode that anyone can pickup and play. We have really simplistic controls that have a layer of depth on top of it. Anybody can pickup the controller and push forward on the stick and do some moves. We're not using a load of buttons, and everyone gets the concept of running and trying not to get tackled. But even if you do get tackled, that's the one thing about this game, even when you don't actually succeed, you can really not succeed in a very spectacular fashion. I compare it to "Burnout." The idea is not to crash, but it's bloody cool when you do. We're taking the same approach. Yeah, the idea is not to get tackled and to get as many yards as you can, but if you do end up getting tackled on the way, whether you're playing Tackle Alley or the full game, you're always going to get a cool result out of it. You win either way.