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‘Virtua Tennis 4′ moves into the next dimension

by Daniel Robson

Another motion controller, another sports game. It didn’t take game developers long to follow the lead set by Nintendo’s Wii and create games for the new PlayStation 3 Move and Xbox 360 Kinect add-ons that revolve around throwing, batting, putting or lobbing things. And yet somehow it’s still not hard to get excited by “Virtua Tennis 4.”

Due next spring on PlayStation 3, “Virtua Tennis 4″ is the latest in Sega’s highly regarded arcade and home- console series (known in Japan as “Power Smash”). The games have gone through many permutations since the first arcade version in 1999, with endorsements from dozens of professional tennis players, many of whom appear in the games.

But no permutation has taken as great a leap as this: Incorporating both motion control and stereoscopic 3-D, it finally justifies the “virtua” tag, embracing new levels of realism that, Sega hopes, will draw in a whole new audience of casual gamers. Move, a wireless control wand that is tracked by a special camera connected to the PS3, has sold 2.5 million units worldwide since its launch in late October — doubtless including plenty of first-time console owners.

“First of all, because it’s Move, we had to rethink how to present the game,” says Mie Kumagai, head of Sega’s AM3 development studio and the series’ original creator. “There are a lot of racket-based sports games coming out for Move, and all of them are in either first-person or third-person view. At first I thought we’d have to choose one or the other as well.”

This posed a problem for Kumagai and her team. The “Virtua Tennis” games have traditionally been presented in third-person, which means you can see the character on the court and use the controller to position him or her to return the ball. The added bonus is that a third-person view makes the most of those celebrity endorsements, with players such as Roger Federer and Andy Murray rendered in ever-more realistic detail.

But first-person is arguably more conducive to motion-control play: When all you can see is the racket in your outstretched arm, you can intuitively lunge for the ball as you would on a tennis court. In the end, Kumagai decided to implement both.

“We developed a method where the game switches between third- and first-person view as you play,” says Kumagai. “When you’re in the waiting position and up to when you hit the ball, it’s in first-person, and then it swings into third-person so that you can see your player’s back. That was the biggest challenge we faced.”

Kumagai joined Sega in 1993, transferring in 2000 to subsidiary AM3, which at the time was known as HitMaker. She became Sega’s first-ever female studio president when she took over AM3 in 2003 — no mean feat in an industry that is dominated by men, both globally and domestically.

Speaking with Kumagai at the Tokyo Game Show in September, there was no time to discuss the subject, but she was quoted in 2003 by website Video Games Daily as saying that only 10-15 percent of Sega’s staff at that time were female, and that “women need to be educated about the fun of games.” And while Japan is not the sort of country to readily proffer statistics on this sort of thing, let’s just say that out of the 11 game directors I interviewed at TGS, Kumagai was the only woman.

Gender has been no hindrance for Kumagai. Under her guidance, the “Virtua Tennis” series has become a critically acclaimed commercial success, along with other AM3 arcade titles such as “Virtual-On” and “Crazy Taxi.” Tennis may be the only game in the world where “love” means nothing at all, but Kumagai’s passion has helped make the franchise an ace.

“Virtua Tennis 4″ is not the first in the console series to feature motion control: That distinction goes to “Virtua Tennis 2009″ on Wii. But the controls were jittery, a result of the game being farmed out to British developer Sumo rather than developed in-house. This time, Kumagai is back on center court, heading the series’ original team, and an emphasis on accuracy has her highly strung.

“The Move controller can sense the angle at which you’re holding it, so it responds just like a real tennis racket,” she says. “So depending on how you hold it, you can slice, hit forehand, do a drop shot, step back for a lob or forward for a volley at the net, and if you get an overhead ball you can do a smash. You could say Move gives you more variation.”

In fact, the game is played entirely by swinging the controller, with no use of buttons whatsoever. It takes some getting used to, especially with the 3-D glasses weighing heavily on the bridge of your nose. The Move wand can be used to move in and out of the court (by stepping forward or back), but, at the moment (the game is still under development), left and right movement is controlled automatically. However, angling the racket does indeed open up driven forehands, sliced backhands, smashes and spin.

The 3-D is an acquired taste: Many people complain that 3-D games or films give them nasty eyestrain, and of course you will need an expensive 3-D TV to experience it in the first place. But it does create a natural sense of depth, and having the ball whiz past your ear is a subtle thrill.

But if it’s so realistic, and if you have to run around your living room to play it, why not simply go to a tennis court and play the real thing? Will “Virtua Tennis” be a victim of AM3′s very innovation? Kumagai insists that there is plenty to keep players hooked.

“You could be amazing at playing ‘Virtua Tennis,’ but that doesn’t mean you can replicate that skill on a real tennis court,” she says. “A lot of the things you can do in the game are impossible in real life, like super shots and huge smashes. The game should make players feel good, because they can do trick shots and other crazy moves that they could never pull off in real life.”

On the flip side, what if you are an experienced tennis player? Will that give you an advantage when playing the game?

“Yes, I really think an experienced tennis player will find the game easier,” says Kumagai. “In fact, professional tennis players, including Federer, have said our games are the best tennis sims around. Some players, when we go to visit them for face capture, they have an Xbox 360 and a PS3 in their waiting room so they can play our games before their matches!”

Anyway, it’s not all po-faced realism. “Virtua Tennis” titles have always been filled with fun mini-games, such as “Pin Crusher” (a tennis-bowling hybrid) and “Alien Attack” (“Space Invaders” across a net), and “Virtua Tennis 4″ will be no exception, though details are still tightly under wraps. And of course, multiplayer features will be abundant.

Kumagai says that the build on show at TGS revealed only 10 percent of the game’s features, most of which are still being implemented. That said, it already looks more polished than most of the motion-control sports games out there, with crisp HD graphics and branding from the likes of Nike. Perhaps AM3′s biggest challenge as it builds up to a tentative spring release date will be enticing players of previous “Virtua Tennis” entries to upgrade to this new Move-enabled reboot.

“There are certainly people who bought one of the previous games and, even if they enjoyed it, didn’t buy later ones in the series,” admits Kumagai. “So this time, the buzzword for our development team has been ‘innovation.’ We’ve worked hard from the start to throw as many new innovative features into this game as possible, whether it’s motion control or 3-D, and all the other little things that I can’t discuss yet. We’re really confident that the new game can reintroduce those kind of people to the series.”