Sports video games are big business. Whether its the Europe-conquering footie franchise FIFA or the US gaming behemoth that is the Madden series, these sporting sims are some of the biggest blockbusters you’ll find in any entertainment medium. Despite video games and sports enjoying a lucrative relationship, somehow, one of the world’s most popular competitive past=times hasn’t had a major gaming tie-in for over decade.
We are of course, talking about tennis. Despite the sport’s global popularity, there hasn’t been a game to capture the excitement surrounding Andy Murray’s Olympic gold medals, to celebrate the second ‘Serena Slam’, or even to chronicle the fall and rise of Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer respectively.
Don’t fret though racket-heads, because the developer behind the classic tennis series — Top Spin — is about to change that with the upcoming Tennis World Tour.
A Motion Capped Ace
Six years is a long time in the world of game development, and unsurprisingly, the way that games are made has drastically changed and evolved since the last Top Spin entry. For sports games, a feeling of authenticity is key — and thanks to some serious advance in Motion Capture tech, developer Breakpoint is hoping to bring a new level of realism to the tennis sim.
“We wanted to change one major aspect of the previous tennis games: the motion and swing choreography — which, of course, is very specific in real tennis.” Etienne Jacquemain, Creative Director at developer Breakpoint explains. ” In previous games, it was treated as separated sequences: a wait phase, a movement phase with the racket ready to shoot, and then a quick swing. But in real tennis, the preparation phase starts as soon as the player starts to move towards the ball.”
“Reproducing this was a pretty big challenge…the movement is different for every context, every distance, every ball altitude and every swing. [As] you can imagine, it took hundreds of animations to get the whole choreography right, and the result is a breakthrough compared to the past generations of tennis animations.”
It Takes A Pro To Fake It
“We asked two pro players to be our models: Maxime Teixera and Guillaume Ruffin, so we could record at least two different move sets,” Etienne said.
“At first, we tried to capture the movements in studio with a foam ball, but the timing and dynamic were not right — we could see that the guys were not really behaving naturally. So the next thing we did was to put them on a real court and ask them to play actual points with real balls. Capturing real tennis was the only way we could reproduce the true dynamism, power and inertia of all these moves.”
For tennis, perhaps even more than any other sport, you really want to capture a match between two players as a whole — so that’s exactly what developer Breakpoint did. This game wasn’t built with one guy at a time, miming in their funny looking mo-cap suit, but two players together, playing real tennis.
But you couldn’t possibly have Roger Federer or Gaël Monfils in your game without their particular quirks and shots to go with their looks. How do you get around that if you can’t call them up to visit your motion capture studio? Simple: you get pros like Maxime and Guillaume to mimic their play styles instead.
“You know, Federer is a very busy man!” Etienne laughed. “Having him just for a quick mo-cap session to do his serve and a couple of moves is practically impossible to achieve. If we’d done that for all the top players, it would have been a huge effort and cost a lot. We preferred to go that route, which is pretty convincing, and put the effort on the gameplay, the strategy, the richness of all the new stuff we’re providing to the game, and not so much on having the guy do his moves.”
Has Breakpoint Served up an Ace or a Fault?
Thankfully based on our time with it so far, the studio’s return to the genre looks like it’s paying off.
Breakpoint is really trying to innovate with how Tennis World Tour plays, and a big part of that is in the game trying to read the intent of the player. This manifests itself in game with the tennis stars on court constantly moving toward the ball if you push the analogue stick in roughly the right direction. The AI will even automatically try and take a shot when they get there, which is a nice touch. You do, of course, need to actually press the shot button at the right moment, or your avatar will just bin it unsuccessfully ( but enthusiastically) into the net.
“It’s not about the precision on the gamepad,” Etienne said. “It’s much more about the strategic choices you make in the preparation of your player, during the game with your placement on the playfield, and the risks you want to take. We want the player to make more interesting choices than just pressing the right button, because otherwise, once you get that you’re pretty much done with the game.”
While admirable, it still feels like the game has a way to go. At the moment, matches go a bit too over the top with its assistance mechanics and bit too lenient with the balls you’re able to return. More than a few balls were pinged back when they were really nowhere near the racquet, and the game likes to trigger certain animations a bit too frequently. It’s something we hope Breakpoint will tone down over the next few months for those that do enjoy the more technical side of things.
Aces on court, aces in the deck
Boosting the strategic side of things a bit more is the addition of equippable skill cards. Trying to capture the way that tennis matches can swing back and forth, they’re there as part game plan, part character customisation, letting you boost your player’s stats passively or in specific situations. Don’t worry, you’re not actively playing cards mid-match.
Going up against a big serving player, you could buff your service returns to give you a better chance, perhaps with a bit of break point specialism as well, or if your character is all about precision, you can take that even further.
Instead of having you trudge from one tournament to another, Breakpoint is adding more things to do between matches. You’re not just training up your custom player, but also choosing the racquet and other equipment that can suit their play style, as well as hiring a coach to unlock fresh skills, an agent to get you into more tournaments, and so on. You’ll also have to keep an eye on your fitness levels, trying not to overdo it with a packed schedule that has you spending more time in planes than on the court, so you’re in peak condition for the biggest tournaments and not carrying a niggling injury.
Etienne explained, “If you continue and are still playing with a light injury, it could become a bad injury and you have to rest for a longer time, so maybe you then miss the big tournaments that would have earned you a lot of points, which would be a bad choice.”
The game doesn’t really match up to big budget sports games like FIFA visually, but still looks pretty good in action, with bright arcade colours and some really distinct courts that feature blue clay and wooden floors. Compared to PlayStation 4, it almost feels most at home on the Nintendo Switch, where it’s already looking great and running at a smooth 60fps.
How’s Tennis World Tour Shaping Up?
There’s still more polish to come before it’s released later this year, but even in this early state, lots of interesting ideas seem to be coming together in Tennis World Tour. Breakpoint aren’t just making a new version of older tennis games, they’re trying to find a new middle ground where the game is both easy to pick up and play and has depth for those wanting to master it. It might once again have Roger Federer adorning the cover, but make no mistake — this is a whole new ball game.