Interview: Making UFC 4 a more responsive, more rewarding & more customisable fighting game

EA Sports have revealed that UFC 4, their next fighting game is coming out in just over a month on 14th August, releasing for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

With changes to the control scheme, from Real Player Motion coming to the grappling, new minigames for the ground game, and changes to player progression through the career, there’s a lot for UFC fans to look forward to. Not least because you can now take your custom fighter into every game mode, using archetypes for multiplayer modes, and kit them out in all sorts of flamboyant custom gear.

We spoke to Creative Director Brian Hayes and Producer Nate McDonald to dive into how they’ve made the game more responsive, more rewarding and more customisable than ever before. Not only that, but we dug into where Ultimate Team has gone and asked if and how EA plan to support the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X.


TSA: Fascinating thing about UFC series is the constant revision of controls, much more than we see with other EA Sports games (well, outside of taking penalties in FIFA, maybe). Is there a barrier that you consider in terms oft he amount of change you’re prepared to make in each successive game?

Brian Hayes:Yeah, definitely. You don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak.

For example, one of the reasons why we were happy making the updates to the striking system with the dynamic striking controls is that fundamentally most of the basic strikes – throwing a jab, a straight, an upper cut, a roundhouse to the head, etc. – those controls are exactly the same as in the previous iteration of the game. What becomes easier is throwing things like a two touch jumping spinning body head kick, that Mark Takesi kick you can do in the game. Previously that required really good digital coordination, multiple button inputs at the same time to pull off that one move, but now it’s a little less ergonomically challenging.

Fundamentally, doing the meat and potatoes of 80-90% of a competitive fight in EA Sports UFC stays totally the same. It’s not throwing too many curveballs at you or throwing out anything that was working really well.

TSA: One big change is tap and hold inputs. How is the responsiveness of these vs. the button combos of before? Have you managed to keep the down to the millisecond responsiveness for the people that did master that?

Brian: No, we didn’t manage to keep the responsiveness, because we actually managed to improve it! As part of the exploration of looking into a new control scheme and working out how to make that work, our team figured out that if we fired off the animations this new way, we would actually lose, depending on the strike, 1 to 2 frames of input latency across the board.

I guess that’s a bit underrated, that I buried the lead talking about just the control scheme, but every strike in the game is actually a bit more responsive than it ever has been.

Now, for a lot of players, one frame or two frames is actually pretty much imperceptible, but for those higher level players that can really key in on responsiveness, every strike in the game is better than it ever has been.

TSA: That’s great to hear, even if it’s way beyond my skills with fighting… well, games in general!

I think it’s also interesting from the point of accessibility. Going to a single button instead of two or three opens the door to people with disabilities. Was that something that was actively considered, and do you go even further with game options?

Brian: That’s not only something we consider on UFC, it’s becoming more and more important across all EA games. How can we make them more accessible with as many different options as possible?

I think we’re very rarely able to do everything that we would like to when it comes to the variety of accessibility options that we could conceive of, and a lot of that is partially because of dealing with legacy code and the things that we’re building off from five, six, seven years ago. Taking a new, much more inclusive and accessible approach requires overhauling things to a much larger degree, but it’s definitely something that all EA Sports and all EA games are taking into consideration, how we can make sure that people with ability challenges can still enjoy and play our games.

Nate McDonald: Yeah, I don’t have anything to really add to that, but to echo Brian’s point there, it’s definitely something that we are very conscious of. It’s not just us on UFC 4, but EA as a whole that is very conscious of accessibility related things, to make sure we’re doing the best we can for everyone, and we’ll continue to do that going forward.

TSA: Yeah, especially with the fantastic work that games like The Last of Us Part II have featured, that’s good to hear.

TSA: One interesting shift across the game is with the 12 fighter archetypes for custom fighters. How does this mesh with going through the career and making incremental improvements?

Brian: So, those two thing are separate. The create a fighter archetypes are used outside of the career, so that’s if I’m going into Fight Now and playing Nate on the couch, I can choose my create a fighter and choose to be a Jujitsu Vanguard or a Boxing Sniper, and that’s the fighting style I’m going to play with.

When I go into career mode, that’s when I still have the ability to choose… to choose a base style, but not one of the career types, because I’m starting at a lower level of attributes and building things up. I have more ability to mix and match things as I want, based on the cost of upgrading certain attributes and the decisions I make in terms of what moves I use, etc.

Career mode is the space where you’re not beholden to staying in one of those fighter archetypes, but once you step outside of that, because we’re thinking of the fairness and level playing field in the online space, that’s where you’ll use the archetypes and you have the twelve to give some really good variety and strategic differentiation, so you can mix things up as opposed to being stuck with while creating your fighter.

TSA: Oh, I see. I think I slightly misunderstood that through the presentation!

You do have the inclusion of some boxers, Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury right out the box. Will they be at any kind of disadvantage due to lack of submission and ground & pound skills? Not the first time you’ve had a boxer in the game, but the game’s pretty different now!

Brian: Yeah, I mean we’re definitely not going to give Anthony Joshua or Tyson Fury some Demian Maia level of submissions! That’s a given, so when it comes to the ground game, submissions, etc. they are going to be limited, but generally when we put a boxer in the game like that, we say they’re going to have really good striking, we’ll give them some functional kicks, and then really good takedown defence and possibly ability to get back up.

Suffice to say, don’t spend a lot of time on the ground if you’re Anthony Joshua or Tyson Fury!

TSA: [laughs] Well, we don’t really know what they’re like when punching downward, do we? Boxing’s usually quite straight forward like that.

Brian: I mean, I know that I don’t want either of them…

Nate: Punching you in that position?

Brian: Regardless of how much experience they have doing it, it doesn’t matter. It’s going to hurt!

TSA: [Laughs] With the career mode, it kicks off with Coach Davis and some flashbacks to your character’s days as an amateur, but is the overall structure after that largely the same as in UFC 3, or have you gone and injected more narrative touches to it similar to Madden NFL and FIFA a few years ago?

Brian: There’s definitely not as much story as The Journey or Longshot. We really use the Coach Davis character and the cinematics in career mode to get things off on a solid footing through the onboarding phase and introducing players to the different facets of MMA.

He’s still along for the ride through social media, messaging and other cinematics as you reach different milestones throughout the career, but we’re not injecting narratives about any broader personal themes. Any personal stories will be create a and fostered by your decisions through the interactive social media. You talk a lot of smack to Dustin Poirier, then there’ll be a lot of hype for that fight and you’ll reap the benefits should you win it. But yeah, there’s not a heavy story element.

TSA: Another thing you said was that the custom character was the most popular fighter through UFC 3. Was that the driving factor behind having so many, almost Wrestling-style customisation options?

Brian: Yeah, and this was taking career mode out of the equation, because if you include career, the fight usage for create a fighters is through the roof compared to every fightern previous iterations of UFC. We also put limitations on where you could use create a fighters, so you couldn’t use them in online ranked championships. We could see they were really tremendously popular in terms of usage, and then we could see that players really liked doing zany stuff with the tattoo editor, hairstyles etc.

We realised there was an opportunity to make create a fighter more accessible across the game, focussing on the concerns the broader community have about balance – so that’s where the archetypes come into play – and then the vanity thing is that clearly there’s a large number of users where their biggest concern is not “I want to be wearing the UFC fight kit.” They’re not worried that, they’re doing crazy stuff in the create a fighter toolset.

So providing assets that make it easier to make an interesting looking create a character and you can express yourself and be your own unique persona. That’s also then an opportunity to then have all this content in the game that we can reward you with by playing the game.

That comes into the connected fighter profile. No matter what mode I’m playing in the game, I’m going to be levelling up my profile, I’m going to be unlocking stuff that I can apply to my create a fighter, or just to my profile if I want to have a fighter that looks authentic to the UFC.

TSA: It seems that Ultimate Team is no more in UFC 4. What led to its removal from the series?

Brian: That’s an astute observation; it is no more. That’s largely come down to looking at the data we have of people playing the game.

It was never really the best conceptual fit for a 1v1 fighting game and we always struggled to find ways to make it make sense the same way it makes sense in team-based sports games. It’s called Ultimate Team because it works really well with team sports! So in comparison to the other games where Ultimate Team is really strong, the engagement on UFC was in no way comparable.

So we took the approach, instead of trying to bang our heads against this wall and make something that doesn’t seem to quite fit, we took those resources and tried to create something with the connected fighter profile, the vanity system and the global connected fighter profile, and things like that that rewards every single player with a sense of progression and reward and customisation that doesn’t affect gameplay, that’s just vanity based.

TSA: Finally, we come to platforms. The game is out really soon! Middle of August so obviously no next-gen shenanigans at launch, but are there thoughts or plans leading up to PS5 and Xbox Series X later this year?

Nate: Yeah, we’ve been developing UFC 4 for over two years and during that time we’ve really been committed to nailing what we’re doing for PS4 and Xbox One. So while that’s been the focus, we are exploring potential support for PS5 and Xbox Series X and trying to figure out how we can continue to optimise that.

As far as any more to share right now, there’s really nothing more to share on that.

Thanks to Brian and Nate for chatting to us about UFC 4. The game is out for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on 14th August.

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