Mario responds to our Rugby Challenge
Most of the games we play - let's be honest - are made on the other side of the planet, by teams of hundreds of people, with budgets that would make your eyes pop out of your head; the likes of Call of Duty (the biggest game around) and Assassin's Creed (part 4 allegedly has more than a thousand people working on it.)
You'd think that a smaller game, made locally, and based on a niche sport, would have no chance of capturing any real mind share in your average Kiwi gamer.
If you thought that, fair enough. It's a logical conclusion to draw. You would, however, be wrong; very, very wrong.
One of the most looked-forward to games downunder, you see, is the latest iteration of Rugby Challenge (called All Blacks Rugby Challenge in New Zealand) - made in Wellington, by New Zealand's premier game developer, Sidhe.
The first game, released in 2011, marked the returning home of the nation's number one sport; the first console game based on the oval-ball game to actually be made in New Zealand, a place where the code has been embraced like no other. Generally accepted to be better than it had any right to be (based on its budget alone, which is sure to be a tiny fraction of the kind of money EA throw around), it was consumed voracious Rugby gamers everywhere.
Two years on, it's time for a sequel. Announced just last month, already excitement is at a fever pitch - particularly in the Northern Hemisphere, thanks to a new focus on that part of the world.
But what's it all about? Why should gamers lace up their boots and jump in for round two? Speaking of round two, what about round one? How was that received, inside and outside of the studio?
To find answers to these questions and more, we went straight to the top. Mario Wynands, founder and managing director of Sidhe, was more than happy to oblige...
Now that the dust has settled, tell us about Rugby Challenge; the game that exists on the shelf today. Are you happy with it?
Releasing any game comes with a mix of emotions including relief, pride, concern, joy, and anticipation. We were ultimately pleased with the game, and happy with both the commercial and critical reception. We achieved much of what we set out to do at the start of development, which was very ambitious, and were satisfied with the result.
A couple of years on, having actively now developed a sequel, the first Rugby Challenge is much harder to go back to and play. There are so many changes, improvements, and additions in Rugby Challenge 2 that the shortcomings of the first game really stand out.
That doesn’t diminish the sense of accomplishment we still feel with respect to what Rugby Challenge achieved, but it does make it harder to feel happy with the game having moved on to the next level.
Did any of the feedback from fans surprise you?
I don’t think there was anything that truly surprised us in terms of feedback. When you have been making sports games for over a decade like we have, you start getting a feel for how the audience will respond to each new game. Certainly, we were nervous given there were high expectations, a competing product, and this was a sport we had never tackled before (and the national sport during a locally hosted World Cup at that.)
In terms of what we personally were shooting for, we wanted to deliver something that hit the high points that best in class titles like those from EA Sports such as FIFA and Madden hit. That’s a big ask when we were restricted to a fraction of the budget of those titles, but we felt we had the team, the experience, and the technology to have that as a realistic goal.
Ultimately, I think we delivered a game which did manage to hit those high points, but one which couldn’t keep it consistently at that level throughout the experience. Fan feedback was in line with that assessment.
Certainly it has been great get so much feedback from fans, even if sometimes that feedback is only confirming our own analysis, but often there are new ideas and considerations that get thrown into the mix. We pride ourselves on our ability to engage with the community, and the dialogue created before, during, and after the release of Rugby Challenge was very important in helping us firm up our plans for what to prioritise in the sequel.
Now that Rugby Challenge 2 has been unveiled, what should gamers expect from your second crack at the national game?
We have approached the sequel by building on the foundation we established with the first title, with a primary goal of lifting those lower quality aspects of the title to deliver a consistently high quality experience throughout.
This approach has meant that some areas where we felt we hit that bar we needed to the first time around such as graphics, presentation, and customisation have achieved less attention than other areas such as Career Mode, motion, and the “missing” components of the game of rugby.
That isn’t to say areas like graphics are unchanged, as we’ve included framerate, and player lighting and shadow improvements, but they weren’t areas of focus. So while all areas of the game have been “touched” in some way, there are some things that will seem the same or very similar on a first play through while other areas have changed more drastically.
Indeed, with so many changes that were “under the hood”, subtle in their nature, or gradual in their improvement, we ourselves had to go back to the first game many times to ensure what we were developing was meaningfully better. Once you hold it up against the previous iteration, it is much easier to see the differences, and in that context we feel fans will be happy with the improvements we have made, especially those flourishes that that only discover over time.
Rugby Challenge 2 overall is a much better, deeper package, and we are again looking forward to the release so fans can explore the improvements we’ve made.
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