On August 19, the Friday before SummerSlam, 2K Games gave Motherboard an exclusive peek at WWE 2K17. This latest, annual installment comes out on October 11, a little under a year after the release of WWE 2K16.
2K is hyping the more obvious additions—the ones that are easily expressed as bullet points in marketing materials. There are new faces such as Sasha Banks, the charismatic "Boss" of women's wrestling on Monday Night Raw. There's Shinsuke Nakamura, the "King of Strong Style" and the newly crowned NXT Champion. There's the returning, much-demanded Backstage Brawl mode that allows you to fight behind the curtain. There's a deeper, improved reversal system. There's a "Promo Engine," that lets you personalize your trash talk.
The visuals have improved. Randy Orton's lip curls with the right amount of disdain. But it's one thing to make Orton (below) look like himself in screenshots and promotional stills. It's quite another thing to make him wrestle and move like Orton, in a way that feels natural and unrehearsed.
The sheer labor that goes into programming a wrestler's natural movement is incalculable. Say, for instance, that you, the attacking wrestler, is standing. The opponent is lying on the mat, face-up. Depending on where you are in relation to the opponent—near his head, near his left arm, near his right leg—you're going to interact with him differently, and each scenario requires its own animation. If the opponent is lying face down, that's another set of animations.
Then, throw in mitigating factors like height differences, strength differences, and weight differences between the two wrestlers. And lastly, account for the length of the match itself; a person moves differently when he's tired than when he's fresh. It's less a question of 'how' to do it—the technology is definitely there—and more a question of 'how long' it will take to do it. It's a voluminous chore with slow, incremental benefits from one game to the next.
"Our game has thousands of moves in it, so it takes us years to go through the entire move library and update," WWE 2K17 Executive Producer Mark Little told Motherboard. "This year, we shot another couple thousand animations for the game. It's going to be a continual process."
Years ago, WWE games would have dodged these complications by creating pre-rendered, catch all sequences. If you wanted to perform the People's Elbow, you'd press a button, and no matter where The Rock and his opponent were, they would miraculously relocate to the center of the ring.
Little, who is receptive to fan feedback, seeks to eliminate those sort of immersion-breaking shortcuts.
"A lot of what we have done this year for WWE 2K17 is to smooth out the flow for transitions—where one move stops, another move begins, and how to get between them," says Little. "If they're not shot well, moves will start in one spot and end in a different spot."
2K markets its sports titles not as "video games," but as "simulators." In keeping with this philosophy, 2K built an authentic WWE ring in their studio. Then, they got real professional wrestlers to suit up and perform the various holds, throws, and strikes against one another. In past iterations, they've invited WWE Superstars like Cesaro and Finn Balor to perform their signature stunts.
"[For WWE 2K17], while we didn't have the opportunity to work with active WWE Superstars because of their crazy schedules, we did have the opportunity to work with a number of the very best talents in the industry," Little says. "Many of these guys were actually featured in the WWE Cruiserweight Classic, so we hope to one day see them in NXT or on the main roster."
Little is hesitant to name the specific wrestlers who do the motion capture, lest it breaks the immersion and fans' suspension of disbelief. But he singles out former WWE Superstar Mike "Mikey" Mondo for praise. Mondo, who was a former member of the infamous Spirit Squad stable, stands at 5'6. Thus, Mondo performed the motion capture for a lot of the smaller wrestlers on WWE's roster.
In the time I got to preview and play WWE 2K17, the new animations did not immediately stand out to me. Rather, they had an imperceptible, cumulative effect; I left the booth with an overall impression that things looked and moved more smoothly. The wrestlers also moved a bit slower; this was far removed from the button mashing, frenetic, "pick up and play" style. This was sports entertainment at a more thoughtful, deliberate pace. Strategy over flash. Realism over fantasy. It all fits perfectly into WWE's "New Era," which is less about the crazy gimmicks and more about the matches themselves, which must look real and competitive.
Natural motion is flawed motion; wrestlers bend their knees when they're lifting someone. They buckle when positioning their opponent on their shoulders. Accounting for every scenario is an endless, intimidating task. But 2K Games is doing what it can to animate as many of them as possible. Because it's these small touches—these minor, incidental subtleties—that make a simulation seamless and challenge our perception of real.