Interview: Backbreaker's Matt Sherman

NaturalMotion, makers of the Euphoria motion engine being used in LucasArts' upcoming Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, recently unveiled its first original game. Dubbed Backbreaker, the football title for unannounced "next-gen" consoles will make use of the studio's in-house motion engine to make tackles ultra-realistic.

A preview trailer released with the announcement showed off some really impressive procedurally generated movements and character interaction, and NaturalMotion assured me it was all captured in real-time from a preview build. The company's Morpheme animation engine is also being used in the project.

With the game about a year into development and slated for a 2008 release, I sat down with Backbreaker associate producer Matt Sherman to learn about what we can expect from the title, other than wrecktacular tackles.

Shack: First of all, why a football game?

Matt Sherman: When they first came out with some of the technology demos for the Euphoria engine, they used some football tackles. And once they created those tackles they thought, oh my god, that's the most realistic thing. We don't have anything like that out in any of the current football titles, and it kind of snowballed from there.

The biggest complaint on football games--looking at current next-gen football games--is the tackle situation still hasn't really evolved that much. It still lacks, and it doesn't look real. Even with the blending of canned animations, its not authentic. It's not real football. There's not gang-tackles. We thought there was a real opportunity to fill that void if we create a football title with that type of technology.

Shack: This is NaturalMotion's first game, though I know NaturalMotion's engine developers actually collaborate fairly closely with developers on Euphoria-enhanced titles. How are you handling the development internally?

Matt Sherman: We've hired on a bunch of developers. There's a big team, and it kind of varies how many people are working on it at any given point in time. It could range from five to 40. Everyone has a role really.

Shack: How do you think you can compete with developers like EA Tiburon and Visual Concepts that have years of experience tweaking a very specific type of game?

Matt Sherman: We don't feel like we're trying to make the same type of game as a Madden or 2K Sports game. It is going to be a sim game, but we want to change some aspects of the football game. So far every game--you can trace this back to Sega '94 Madden--it's all been kind of the same camera angle, slightly tweaked. We want to offer a different type of gameplay experience that's more on the field, more emotional.

It's definitely not going to be a first-person, 2K5 disaster, but it's going to be more of a third-person experience. We want you to feel the pressures of being on the field. So the gameplay is going to be different, and the look is going to be different. The defensive experience is going to improve dramatically. You're going to have a role, you're going to be involved in tackles, you're going to be involved in all kinds of aspects, and that's something that lacks.

We certainly don't expect to take away EA's marketshare. We think of this as something to complement it in a different type of football game.

Shack: You did mention that it will be a sim game, so in a broad sense, it's going to be more of a Madden-styled game than an arcade, Blitz-type game?

Matt Sherman: I'd say it's going to be somewhere in between sim and arcade, but it'll be more on the sim side. It's not going to look like a Blitz, that's for sure. But I wouldn't say it's going to be an absolutely pure sim game.

Go to page 2 for the details on licensing, injuries, weather effects, play modes, and online games.

_PAGE_BREAK_ Shack: Most Shacknews readers aren't exactly the Madden-playing bro-gamer. Will this be a game that's accessible to the non-die-hard football fans?

Matt Sherman: We're going to have a new control system, so that's probably going to be the biggest thing. We're not tied to generations of games where we have to stick with a control system. So we want to make it far more accessible in that sense. I can't really go into the specifics of how the controls are going to work. We're not really discussing the details of it. But it certainly won't be 64 different buttons for each different control. It'll be more simplified than that, so in that sense it'll be far more accessible.

In terms of the actual gameplay aspects itself, we want it to be more on-field, more visceral experience, more feel to the game. Like you're throwing the pass or you're catching the pass or you're making the tackle.

The engine allows that because in current football titles with canned animation, when "tackle 46A" starts, if you're standing right next to the guy being tackled, you can't engage that tackle as well. You can't be the second, third, or fourth guy in. Now they have some blending stuff where there can be one guy goes low, and he gets dragged forward three yards, but you really don't have an authentic gang-tackle experience.

Euphoria's going to change that because it's going to happen as it would in the game. It's going to take two, three, four guys to get a ball carrier down, and that third or fourth guy could make a dramatic impact.

Shack: You obviously can't use the NFL or NFL Player's Association licenses, but will the game have any licensed players, like legacy players?

Matt Sherman: We're not looking at going down that road, the legends road. How we're trying to handle that right now--I will say we're looking to have extensive customization. I can't really give you the details on that.

Shack: How representative of the game was the preview trailer you guys put out, as far of the visuals?

Matt Sherman: The looks are definitely representative of the game. It's going to be slightly futuristic. Not 2050 but maybe 2015. In terms of what you see in the demo, we simplified it, and we just wanted to focus on the tackles. This is a preview, so the character modeling isn't done yet. The emphasis of this trailer is to look at the engine.

Shack: Are you going to be pursuing the same level of realism with the tackles as in other areas of play? Can you break backs? In general, will players sustain injuries appropriate to the force of a tackle, rather than randomly?

Matt Sherman: As of now, we're not looking to actually even have injuries in the game, but that's something that's open to change, it's not set in stone. It's interesting, with the technology you can actually have injuries occur as they would--the body gets contorted as it would, and the injury might happen.

Shack: What about things like weather effects?

Matt Sherman: Weather effects will come into play. This engine takes everything into account running live. When you have a tackle situation, our relative speeds are into account, our height, our weight, our body posture, the velocity of our limbs, how firm the ground is versus how wet the ground is comes into play. So everything comes into play. The short answer is yes, that will come into play. The really cool answer is, it'll come into play on synthesized tackles when Euphoria is running.

Shack: What kind of online support do you intend to include?

Matt Sherman: We're not really ready to talk about that yet, although I will say that we definitely recognize that online gaming is the future. We're going to put together some cool features, but we can't really talk specifics.

Shack: What type of offline gameplay modes will be included? Any nonstandard mini-game type modes like we see in NFL Street?

Matt Sherman: We intend to have definitely a variety of modes and different features. We also want to put a lot of different types of mini-games where we emphasize the contact situations and some cool things that haven't been done before. There's definitely some things in the works.

Shack: What options are you looking at for a publisher?

Matt Sherman: We haven't announced our publishing plans yet.

Shack: You have a publisher though?

Matt Sherman: We haven't announced our publishing plans yet. [Laughs]

Shack: If a competitor like EA Sports or Visual Concepts were to come to NaturalMotion and want to use the euphoria engine in their football or sports title, how would you feel as an associate producer on Backbreaker?

Matt Sherman: I don't have feelings about that. [Laughs] I will say that we're excited about providing this technology complemented by a new type of gameplay experience.

I'd agree that this kind of technology would be fantastic to complement those games, but we're trying to create a gameplay experience that really fits well with this engine.

Shack: Thanks for the interview.

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