Tennis World Tour puts a top spin on the career mode
If you play Tennis World Tour’s career mode, be prepared to suffer from jet lag.
Career modes across every type of sport represented in a video game have all featured rest (MLB The Show, for pitchers) recovery (EA Sports UFC 3, between fights) or injury systems. But none have deliberately involved skipping an event as a strategic choice. Tennis World Tour, coming in May from Breakpoint Studios and Bigben Interactive, will make a player plan their schedule, just like a real world pro.
In sports video games, players usually bypass events because the season is very long (MLB The Show, at 162 games) or the opponent is uninteresting (the Sacramento Kings in December, NBA 2K18). In Tennis World Tour, the fatigue of travel, along with the endurance of a long schedule, will require the player to plan their tour events and strategically skip those that don’t suit them. Just like real life.
“Our goal for the career was for it not to be tournament-to-tournament, but to plan for the season ahead,” said Romain Ginocchio, Tennis World Tour’s producer. “We wanted the career mode to be the main mode and the strength of the game. Every time you participate in a tournament you lose physical form, and you’ll lose even more if you travel all the way around the world for a tournament. So you want to plan your tournament schedule correctly.”
It’s an unusual design choice but one that reflects reality. There are 73 events in 2018 that count toward a player’s tour ranking in the Association of Tennis Professionals; there are 61 on the Women’s Tennis Association’s tour schedule. There is no way any pro could participate in the entire series. More realistically, players plan and use smaller events to prepare for bigger ones — for example, the Italian Open to head into the French Open (both on clay surface) — and also choose or avoid surfaces according to their created pro’s attributes. Breakpoint consulted with Boris Vallejo, a French Tennis Federation coach, and three others to construct a realistic cadence and set of choices for the virtual professional in Tennis World Tour.
Carried off properly, it’ll be a nice distinction for a sport that hasn’t had a simulation quality game since 2011’s Top Spin 4. Neither in that series, nor in tour-based golf video games, has a player gotten any kind of a penalty for playing every event on the schedule, even though pros decline them all the time for legitimate reasons. Etienne Jacquemain, the creative director of Tennis World Tour, understood that the career mode will be the game’s most popular feature, and so he and his colleagues wanted to build a career that was more than just a one-by-one progression through events under different names.
“Some players will want to focus on indoor tournaments, for example, because they are a good server,” Ginocchio said. “And some will choose to avoid clay, because maybe they’re more like Fed [Roger Federer].”
Still, any career mode is going to depend on strong gameplay to remain compelling for a full tour season, even if players are picking, choosing and skipping its events. Breakpoint Studios has alumni from PAM Development and 2K Czech, who built the Top Spin series first for Microsoft and then 2K Sports. They’ve approached Tennis World Tour as a spiritual successor to that series — what they would have done if it wasn’t canceled.
This means Tennis World Tour will see a timing mechanism different from what Top Spin players encountered. Ordinarily, video game tennis can be very PONG-like, in that simply moving to the ball and returning it can be an effective play. The return was based on timing, which was inscrutable to some, but for those who could master it, it resulted in an overpowering shot for most returns. And super-shot options were also unbeatable, if the player likewise figured out their timing.
“In Top Spin 1 (by PAM Development, for Xbox in 2003)there was a critical shot,” said Ginocchio. “If a player very accurately hit the center of a slider, the shot was insanely powerful. What we wanted to do was exactly the opposite.”
Tennis World Tour, said Jacquemain, will soften the the difficulty curve for timing the shot — but it will place a greater priority on where the player is when they get to it, how strong their return should be, the player’s natural handedness, and other factors. On-screen indicators will designate the strength of a return so that a user knows whether they’ve played it too soft or too long.
It makes unforced errors more a part of the game, reasoned Jacquemain. Balls into the net and outside the line will be more a part of play. But, said Ginocchio, it also gives the strategic player time to prepare their shot before they get to the ball, as a professional would in a real match.
“Our goal was contrary,” said Ginocchio. “We moved the difficulty away from the moving segment of the game — going to the ball is easy. But positioning yourself is still important. We took the focus away from timing and put it toward choosing the right type of shot, the right area of the court to aim, the management of the charge behind the shot.”
Tennis World Tour’s animation library also strives to reflect reality more than its video game forebears. Tennis video games have seen a lot of animation pop as a player runs from sideline to sideline and then miraculously squares up for a forehand at full strength. Breakpoint started its motion capture sessions in a traditional studio, with pros wearing the black ping-pong ball suits, and asked them to perform discrete actions. They found that wasn’t going to work for a game promising to deliver simulation-quality action. There’s too much difference between a player running down a shot into the corner and getting to an easier one two feet closer.
“The guy starts running to the ball while he’s preparing his movement,” explained Jacquemain. “That’s what makes tennis choreography so specific, to the point we really had to think about how mo-cap should be redone.” Breakpoint called back their pros (Maxime Teixeira, active, and Guillaume Rufin, retired) and just had them play tennis, capturing their natural action for points in live progress, and working off that. Services, discrete pre-play movement and post-point reactions were filmed separately.
There will be more than 30 real-life professionals, women and men, licensed to appear in Tennis World Tour and in addition to their playing styles and strengths, many will display their recognizable on-court mannerisms. Teixeira and Rufin supplied capable impersonations, given how much players observe one another’s mannerisms and tendencies when they’re playing such a long schedule together.
Breakpoint even worked to deliver the crowd-pleasing shots, whether the desperation “tweener” from a player racing back to the baseline, or a funky, what-the-hell behind the back return at the net. They’re meant to be contextual moments of levity within the game, not trick moves that can be executed with a button press.
And, as the son of a tennis umpire, I was delighted to hear that they made sure the chair umpire and line officials behaved as authentically as the players. For example, the official calling the center service line will stand up and put their hands behind their back after a successful serve, because there’s no call for them to make for the rest of the point. “We worked hard to get the line judge choreography right,” said Jacquemain. Now, whether this means an entirely new lines crew rotates in after every hour, we’ll have to see.
Tennis World Tour will launch in May, but a date is not yet announced. It’s coming for PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One.