Rockstar make a ping pong game
Earlier this week I spoke with Rockstar's COO Terry Donovan about Rockstar Games' newest endeavor. He had hinted earlier in the summer that Rockstar was working on something new and that I wouldn't believe it when I heard it. Knowing the guys at Rockstar I asked if they were taking Grand Theft Auto online and I rattled off some classic action movies. They just shook their heads. No. The look on Donovan's face was priceless. He had some gem of a game in the works, and that's all I was going to get, this little hint. But I'm a patient man, and Rockstar rarely, if ever, under-delivers.
I got a surprise phone call Wednesday. Rockstar was ready to present, and they wanted to work with IGN on the story. Donovan and I talked about the game. With the passion and focus and that has become Rockstar's trademark, he explained to me that the new title was Table Tennis. I think there was a silence on the phone for a few seconds. Rockstar Games, the innovator of urban cool in videogames, the guys who changed the face of this console generation and who made it OK for adults to play games without shame, was making a Ping Pong game. I really didn't know what to say. Table Tennis is a hugely popular sport, one of the most played casual games on Earth. Everybody at one time or another has played it. Walk into IGN's common room, the kitchen, and you'll see a doubles game at any time during the day.
But no guns, no violence, no cars, no gangs? I was honestly shocked. Not because I didn't think they could do it -- if anybody can make it happen, it's Rockstar -- but I never thought that was even a consideration. Look at their games so far: Grand Theft Auto III, Grand Theft Auto Vice City, Grand Theft Auto San Andreas, Smuggler's Run 1 and 2, Midnight Club 1, 2, and 3, Manhunt, Red Dead Revolver, and The Warriors. Do you see a progression leading up to table tennis?
Speed, intensity, and focus, that's the game.
More than a year ago Rockstar San Diego commenced on a game that would take advantage of the Xbox 360's graphic power and capture the intensity, speed and excitement of Table Tennis. No doubt, there is a certain level of anticipation on Rockstar's part about the world's reaction to this slight change of focus. Yet, in the discussion I had with Donovan and from the intense and edgy tone of Rockstar's Executive Producer and President Sam Houser, I found nothing but purity. These guys mean business. They love the sport, they love the intensity, and they want to make great games. I really do think they want to surprise people, to shock them a little with their direction, their focus, and to cut against the grain of common perceptions. No doubt, with this new game, Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis, they have done all these things.
IGN: Our jaws are a-drop. Rockstar has become the center for urban cool in videogames over the last five years with games such as GTA, Manhunt, and Midnight Club. Why on Earth would you go and make a game based on table tennis? (And more importantly can you switch the way you hold the racquet from Western to Eastern styles?)
Sam Houser: Mainly because we absolutely love table tennis and wanted to try and make something that could show the audience what could be possible -- on a relatively focused level -- in the next generation of videogames. Our mission brief at Rockstar has been clear to us from when we founded the company -- to make titles with innovative game play about subject matters we were interested in. We have always been a company that likes to take risks, and do things differently from everyone else. For us this does not just mean gangster films, or car chases or westerns (much as we still love them), but anything that we think is interesting and has not been successfully handled elsewhere in a videogame. From our perspective, table tennis fitted the bill perfectly -- especially as games with a very strong two-player component are very fun to make -- and play! Above all, Table Tennis allows us to showcase what we believe the key characteristics of the high definition era of console gaming will be. These are not just higher resolution graphics, but using higher resolution graphics and hugely advanced animation systems to impart physical and emotional information to the player, so that the control and tactics of the game are more real and more diverse than on current-generation titles. To put it another way -- improved animation and higher resolution graphics on their own are not enough -- but when the can directly improve the quality of gameplay and experience, then they become very interesting. We were keen to test out these theories on a smaller scale, and Table Tennis felt like the perfect fit. And, yes, you will be able to hold the racquet in both styles.
IGN: What makes this game so damn Rockstar-ish?
Sam Houser: We wanted to create a sports game with the intensity of a fighting game and the sense of speed and control that would make playing it a more intense and more visceral experience than has previously been possible with sports games. It's not just about looking better, feeling better or animating better but about using the power of the hardware to make a game that engages with you on a different physical and emotional level. Table tennis was the perfect sport because it is so fast moving that it has never successfully been made into a game before -- you have to hit the ball far more frequently than in tennis -- but we felt we could make something both very fast, but in which the player had unprecedented amounts of control. To us, this is a gameplay model that has not been explored that effectively up to now -- very fast, but very fluid control -- and something we feel will be vital if the new consoles are going to take off, as it is a key area new games should be able to distinguish themselves from current-gen ones. Unless new games try to do something fundamentally beyond the scope of current games at a level beyond merely providing prettier versions of a current-generation game design, consumers will not feel compelled to buy new hardware.
IGN: Who's developing it, and why are they so fascinated with table tennis?
Sam Houser: It's being developed by Rockstar San Diego. The fascination is really with purity, on concentrating the entire power of the hardware on one activity to create a game that is precisely addictive in its focused simplicity. It's an obsession with detail and with creating a more immediate, more physical, more emotional experience. Rockstar San Diego is known for being able to create engines to push hardware further than anyone else, particularly at the beginning of its lifecycle -- if you remember Midnight Club was the first (and still is the only true) open city racing game that allows you to go anywhere you want in an entire city, and Smugglers Run was a huge open environment that stretched with incredible draw distances as far as the eye could see and allowed you to go absolutely anywhere. These were also the only two original titles for PS2 launch. Although Table Tennis has been created focusing on detail, concentrating the hardware's entire power on one activity, rather than on size, the same principles apply.
Not your regular Rockstar game.
IGN: What are the online aspects like? Can you play doubles online? Will there be tournaments? Rankings?
Sam Houser: We can't talk about details of the online aspects just yet.
IGN: Why an exclusive Xbox 360 game?
Sam Houser: The power of the new hardware and the higher resolution of new televisions really allow us to give the game an immediacy and physicality that wasn't possible on current-gen hardware. Rudimentary ball and racket physics would have been possible but we wanted to wait for the 360 because it allowed us to bring a completely different level of production and technology to the game.
IGN: Why the $39.99 price-point? Most games have gone up in price. Is that an indication that it's not a full-priced game, or is it something different?
Sam Houser: Rockstar's relationship with people who play our games is something we value and treasure greatly. We believe that Table Tennis is as pure, polished, intense and fun a game as the other games we have created, but it would be na´ve of us not to recognize that this is a different sort of game to Grand Theft Auto, for example. In terms of value for money we think the hundreds of hours of gameplay of Grand Theft Auto is probably worth more than the $50 price tag, but rather than pushing to increase the price of games, we'd rather keep on over-delivering on value.
IGN: What are the graphics and sound like?
Sam Houser: These are unlike anything I've seen anywhere else but not only does it look and sound incredible but its more than that, it feels better and is more responsive than any other game I've ever played. You can start to see from the screenshots what the graphics will be like and the insane level of detail, but hopefully we will come and visit you soon and let you feel and experience what I'm talking about for yourself.
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