Why Do Developers Keep Getting Wrestling Video Games Wrong?
WWE-style "sports entertainment" continues to be a massive moneymaker—so why hasn't there been a video game that truly captures its spirit?
Take-Two Interactive's WWE 2K15 had everything going for it, except the wrestling. It boasted gorgeous graphics, a sizable roster of WWE superstars, various playable historical storylines, a career mode that allowed you to cut your teeth in the NXT, and plenty of match types. But it continued to perpetuate the silliest and basest of myths: That what mattered in all of this was overpowering your opponent, draining his energy, and then holding him down for a three-count victory.
In other words, WWE 2K15 refused to break "kayfabe," the age-old deception that the sport isn't fixed, even when some of its most successful superstars—CM Punk and "Loose Cannon" Brian Pillman, anyone?—have made names for themselves by doing just that. So what results is a game that, although somewhat distinct in its mechanics from the MMA and boxing games currently on the market, nevertheless operates on the same principle: You fight your opponent, batter him senseless, and advance in the rankings. WWE 2K16, the specifics of which remain mired in rumor and speculation, assuredly won't deviate from this time-tested approach.
You see, branded property has never broken kayfabe. All of the WWE games, which have varied widely in quality depending on which company developed them, have maintained these fictions. The WCW games, of which only the Nintendo Entertainment System's World Championship Wrestling (1990) and the Nintendo 64's WCW/nWo Revenge (1998) offered much in the way of replay value, did likewise. Even magnificent independent games like the Fire Pro Wrestling series, which offered the deepest move-sets and other character customization features, and Capcom's two installments of Saturday Night Slam Masters, arguably the most vivid and colorful in the genre, were premised on this winner-takes-all model.
But real wrestling, which is to say fake wrestling, doesn't follow this model. It is first and foremost a performance, a well-choreographed dance, between two athletic entertainers versed in the ritual moves and counter-moves that fit within various well-established frameworks: good guy versus bad guy, David versus Goliath, champion against challenger, brawler against technician, savage against blue-blood, and so forth. And second, as demonstrated by Dave Meltzer and other journalists who began reporting on backstage developments in the early 1980s, wrestling is a big business. WWE CEO Vince McMahon himself seized on these ideas in the late 1990s to remake his federation and eventually bankrupt the rival WCW, promoting himself as an unscrupulous, egomaniacal owner who sought to suppress the rising talents in his company.
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For most diehard fans, this conjunction of business and performance is where wrestling's true appeal lies. It's certainly not in the in-ring action, the actual winning and losing; McMahon himself seems determined to keep mentions of the word "wrestling" off broadcasts in lieu of his preferred term "sports entertainment," and talented wrestlers who can't speak or attract significant crowd support, such as the preternaturally gifted Cesaro, find themselves left out of the main event picture.
However, few video games have attempted to render this state of affairs with any degree of fidelity, and those that have were hamstrung by budgetary limitations and the resulting diminished production values. Developer Adam Ryland's text-based Total Extreme Wrestling series allows you to oversee all facets of a wrestling federation, but contains little in the way of graphical content and forces you to navigate numerous sub-menus as well as simulation times that, even in the game's 2013 iteration, remain nigh-interminable. His related Wrestling Spirit releases, which use the Total Extreme engine to allow you to manage the career of a single wrestler, suffer from similar limitations. Both series are deep and ambitious, but like Markus Heinsohn's extremely complex Out of the Park Baseball franchise, aren't for the weak of heart.
MDickie's Wrestling Revolution 3D for iOS and Android moves us a bit closer to the ideal. The game combines a minimalist franchise interface, which allows you to hire and interact with your wrestlers while competing against other promotions in a battle for television ratings and pay-per-view dollars. There's a lot to like here: The franchise management isn't the least bit taxing yet still contains a lot of depth, such as wrestlers who develop drug problems or exercise the creative control clauses in their contracts before make-or-break bouts. However, the actual in-game product, in which you compete against a computer opponent in the hopes of staging a five-star match (a nod to Dave Meltzer's match-rating system), plays like an early, untested version of Fire Pro Wrestling. It's clunky and repetitive, with much of the match quality derived from wrestler ratings and not the player's efforts. On top of that, though the game has a wide variety of historical wrestlers and regional promotions from which to choose, there's nothing as expansive or appealing as the "30 Years of WrestleMania" historical mode in WWE 2K14.
It seems that MDickie, having accomplished a great deal on a shoestring budget, has taken Wrestling Revolution as far as it can go. It has charted the way forward, but the next hundred or so miles will require far more time and money to traverse. Take-Two Interactive, which has incorporated incredibly sophisticated financial and player development models in its NBA 2K series (Bird rights, people! They've got Bird rights!), certainly has the wherewithal to accomplish this. But do they have the will? And, more importantly, what would such a game even look like?
In an ideal world, which isn't the one we live in, WWE 2K16 would fuse the NBA 2K management model with some sort of Dance Dance Revolution-type choreographic challenge. Backstage politics, online rumors, character development, and other role-playing elements would all inform the player's experience. The game would centre on the single most compelling aspect of the sport: somehow managing to become "the best" (to borrow a line from CM Punk's famous "worked shoot") even as one's ultimate fate rests in the hands of unpredictable co-workers and indifferent, bottom line-oriented executives.
The life of an itinerant wrestler, performing in spite of injuries and infidelities and outright inadequacies, might not be as enjoyable for long-time players of THQ and Take-Two wrestling games. But those games are more closely akin to WWE Immortals, a pure chop-socky fighter in the of Mortal Kombat, built around wins and losses and patterns of attacks that bear no aesthetic relationship to the activity supposedly being simulated. This alternative-world WWE 2K16 would surely have its demerits, but not being a wrestling game wouldn't be one of them.
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