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The Japanese studio is behind 20 years (and 70 million sales) of licensed wrestling games, but with increasing resource requirements and fan expectation putting more strain on its annual WWE releases, the studio has begun to feel some frustration, senior vice president and producer Hiromi Furuta told VGC.
The company has been using its experience gained making WWE to create the proprietary real-time motion capture technology ALiS Zero, which has allowed it to explore new areas of business such as live augmented reality (AR) performances in Japan, in which digital characters appear to perform live on stage with realistic lighting and shadows.
But it’s also established a new game team with the intention of creating internal competition for WWE 2K, which it hopes will in turn reinvigorate its staff.
Furuta hopes the two will one day combine to create AR esports performances and take the studio in a new and unique direction.
VGC recently met with Furuta at the Tokyo headquarters of Yuke’s to discuss ALiS Zero, WWE 2K and more.
Could you please start off by giving us a bit of background on yourself and Yuke’s?
I am the producer of the WWE series and have worked on more than 20 titles. Obviously I have a very good relationship with the WWE, but I also spent some time working in Hollywood which led to the creation of titles such as Real Steel. Three years ago, because I’ve been working with WWE for a long time, I decided to pass that over to a younger generation so that I could focus on creating new IP.
The thing that I’m focusing on right now involves AR performances at live events on stage and on TV shows.
When you attend a live event, you obviously expect to see real humans on stage. But what we do with AR performances is have digital characters, controlled via AR performers, dancing and singing songs. What the fans are seeing are 3D model characters of course, but each single performer is controlled simultaneously by a professional singer and a professional dancer. This data is merged and displayed in real time as it is being performed, resulting in an ideal performance taking place right before the audience’s eyes.
The characters can talk to fans interactively, allowing them to engage the audience in real time just like real-life performers do. They can even answer interview questions or play rock-paper-scissors with fans. As the audience watches the performance, they begin to see the characters not as AR, but as living performers, allowing them to form an emotional connection with them, which in turn makes fans want to support them.
At live events, the audience can join in on playing a rhythm game on their smartphones, which adds points to their favorite performer’s score. The highest scoring performer earns a chance to perform again at that show or, for instance, create a new song to perform at the next event.
This rhythm game itself is monetised, resulting in a new form of business model.
The real time motion capture required to make this work has been adapted from technology we created by creating animation and facial expressions for WWE. That know-how has evolved into this technology.
It seems that you’re a company with strong links to show business?
Yes, but we don’t want to do show business in the traditional context. Just like you can see with our 3D characters giving fans a performance, which again has come from our technology created in the gaming world.
My ambition is to create something similar to this in the wrestling world, putting on a real-time esports event where the game characters appear ‘live’ via AR. Then players could battle against each other ‘live’ via the AR space, with a real audience watching. I think this competitive element could be done with our technology and know-how.
How has your experience with WWE benefited this technology?
We’ve spent years analysing how the human body moves and how to animate it. So it’s no wonder that our research has evolved into the AR space. The other aspect is that the technology is able to load vast amounts of information in real-time, which is something we’ve learnt by having to render all the wrestlers fighting simultaneously with an audience in our games, versus other game developers who might be working on cut-scenes and such. We have the systems to be able to load a vast amount of objects and information all at the same time, so that’s our advantage.
What else do you think you’ll be able to use the system for?
The first thing is motion capture, which is not a very easy thing to do usually. Typically you need to shoot, capture all the data and edit. But what we’re doing cuts out all the processes required in the traditional capture system.
Could your ALiS Zero technology benefit game development in the future?
Absolutely. Developers can save tons of money required for renting a motion capture studio, hiring actors etc. From a production standpoint, this system can certainly save a lot of man-months.
For WWE, for example, motion capture is created by the wrestlers and/or actors, and then that data is cleaned up by a mocap studio before being sent to artists for further processing and fine-tuning. With ALiS Zero, the data is created on the spot, along with the motion capture, and submitted immediately. In addition, the director can check the outgoing data at the same time as mocap is being performed. This new system does not require anyone to edit or process the data. It immediately creates data that can be implemented directly into the game. So yes, it can save a lot of man-hours, and a lot of time overall. We are confident that this is a huge breakthrough.
Have your core WWE games benefited from AR Performer technology yet?
Not yet. Unfortunately, this specific technology hasn’t been adapted yet for WWE. Yuke’s ultimately defers to 2K, as they are the publisher and they have the final call. However, I believe it will drastically change the efficiency of development. We would like to use it.
But you’re not actively using it yet for WWE?
No. There are two ways to look at the potential of this technology. The first is purely as real-time rendering technology: if we focused on this area, then our business could grow. But is that what Yuke’s wants? The answer is no.
The second part is as an entertainment product. Yuke’s is a game creator and we’re super interested in how esports will grow, especially in the AR space. Right now we’re all staring at a screen and what’s going on inside it: the characters are fighting inside the screen and never coming out of it. But with AR, just like how the characters dance on stage in our live concerts, that could be done with the fighters in our games.
Imagine your favourite game characters are battling in real time, live on stage. That’s the direction we would like to go and I see much more potential in this entertainment area than simply as a technology.
It probably shouldn’t be limited to just wrestling games, but more toward fantasy worlds where you can create spells and such. That would probably work better when it comes to creating immersive moments.
How proprietary is the technology and how does it compare to similar tech on the market?
We don’t think anybody has ever done this before.
For a wrestling game, for example, this system has the potential to map out the complex movements of six or seven wrestlers at once to match the player’s input, all the while with things like lighting and any presentation on top of that.
We think it is the perfect time now to import this technology into the gaming world. Yuke’s has been creating wrestling games for over 25 years. Alongside that, discovering applications for the ALiS Zero technology is now a big focus area for us.
Yuke’s has been creating wrestling games for over 25 years. How have you maintained your success in the genre, where so many other developers have fallen away?
By being persistent and keeping a determined attitude. In truth, having to make WWE games every year has made us stronger, because we have no room to relax. In the early days we could achieve our goals simply by working hard, but now the games have become so gigantic that it’s essential we plan ahead. We typically plan ahead three years in advance and decide which specific content we want to implement across those years.
In addition to that, work ethic and mindset is an important reason for our success in the wrestling genre, and I believe we also have an advantage as a Japanese developer. In Japan, we tend to find a virtue in being super specialised in one field, spending 30 or 40 years working on a single project or career. For Yuke’s, our project is wrestling/fighting games. Whereas in America, people are more open to changing jobs and trying out lots of different fields.
“In Japan, we tend to find a virtue in being super specialized in one field, spending 30 or 40 years working on a single project or career. For Yuke’s, our project is wrestling/fighting games.”
How do you stay motivated now that you have effectively no competition in the genre?
Well I think having no competitor isn’t healthy at all. When we had competitors in the wrestling space, we were determined not to lose and that was a great motivator for creating something great. But right now, looking at the market demands, players are expecting something new every time we release a game and we feel like we haven’t achieved what we’ve really wanted to do. For example, in many cases we’re still using old assets and we’re not able to do some things in the way that we want to.
So we may find a way to do things in the way that we want, in terms of our existing relationship with our publisher. We will find a way!
WWE as a brand has become huge. Nobody can compete at the scale and quality that they do. However, Yuke’s as a developer is now asking, ‘What makes wrestling so unique? Why did we start in this genre?’ Our games are created by passionate developers, led by passionate fans. That is the very specific ecosystem that powers our games.
We are asking ourselves the very specific question: why did we start this company? What is our mission?
Are there any projects on the horizon other than WWE?
We are trying to launch a new wrestling game. Of course we will retain the WWE team, but we are also aware that our creators are beginning to lose sight of their passion and confidence, and becoming focused only on completing assigned tasks. That’s not the direction Yuke’s wants to go in.
So in order to compensate, we’re going to start a new wrestling project. It’s at a very early stage, but we have ideas for new game systems that we think will result in an interesting game.
WWE will continue: It is a project dear to our hearts, and has even become a part of some of the veteran creators’ lives. We have a huge history making these games and still have a good relationship with 2K. Anyhow, WWE would never allow us to stop making these games!
However, the new project we have in mind will be the internal competition for WWE.
What advantages does creating a new wrestling game without the WWE license give you? Are you thinking of something more fantastical perhaps?
That question is really difficult to answer without deciding who the target audience would be. If you’re targeting hardcore wrestling fans then you would probably make a very realistic game. However if we decided to target a wider audience, then we could add those fantasy elements and create more of a fighting game with a wrestling feel, or something like that.
However, we’re not chasing money or trends. We’ll go in whatever direction we feel is most interesting, combined with the passion of whoever leads the project. As long as whoever leads the project has enough passion, then I’m sure we will achieve our goals. Game development has so many hurdles, so it’s this passion of creators and teams that is really needed to be successful. The leader has to be obsessed with the project, thinking about it day and night. It’s that kind of driving passion that’s really important.
For example, Yuke’s worked on an Earth Defence Force game this year – a work for hire project for D3 Publisher. That was approved purely because we had a director who really, really wanted to do it. Similarly, in the PS2 days we had a producer who was so passionate about the manga BERSERK that he personally negotiated the license so that we could make the game.
We believe that kind of passion is required to make great games. In terms of our new wrestling project, there are many experienced creators here in this field so I’m confident it’s going to be an awesome game.