A closer look at Tiger Woods '12: The Masters
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
ORLANDO, Fla. – It’s mid-afternoon at the Electronic Arts Tiburon building, and the lights are off, the blinds drawn. In front of four computer monitors, a handful of employees are clicking and scanning and designing and modeling, in the dark, making Tiger Woods come to life. The release date is now a week away, so the mood is cheerful. The disks are being pressed in some far-off location, and the 75 in-house workers who helped create “Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12: The Masters” – the first video game to include Augusta National – have more crucial matters to address. Such as, what to do with these inflatable swords for “Dragon Age II,” which just arrived in the mail? “Sword fight?” one of them asks playfully.
EA Sports is no typical workplace. This is gamer-heaven, a high-tech sanctuary for former jocks and computer nerds alike. One of the boardrooms features a ball pit, like you’d find at Chuck E. Cheese’s. Employees wear jeans and T-shirts, hooded sweatshirts and high-top shoes. Artwork, posters and signed jerseys adorn the walls. Scribbled on white grease boards are flow charts and T-shirt sketches and facial structures. There is a live studio, and a gaming center with leather recliners, and tucked-away capture caves, in which employees are expected to play video games all . . . day . . . long.
For “Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12,” however, that proved a most arduous task. A spokesman for EA Sports says more than 200,000 man-hours were committed to this project – everyone from direct development to marketing and PR to sales and financing. That’s the equivalent of 23 people working 24/7 for a entire year. “It’s something that you really need to be passionate about,” says Nick Wlodyka, executive producer of Tiger Woods 12. “The pride that goes into this game, even though this is something we develop every year, it seems like we’re always starting from scratch.”
In many ways, this year’s game represents a new chapter for the Tiger Woods PGA Tour franchise. Yes, it’s the second consecutive year that Woods himself isn’t featured prominently on the cover. (Instead, it’s one of the signature yellow flags from the Masters, with Woods teeing off on the par-3 12th in the background.) But the 2011 title also offers a new gameplay experience. It’s the first time EA Sports has used laser-scanning technology, allowing developers an unprecedented level of access and detail. It’s the first time that a second character is present on the screen, this year in the form of a caddie. And it’s the first time there is 3D grass, and a career mode that better mimics life on Tour, and the lone opportunity to play one of the most famous courses in the world, albeit virtually.
“It’s not often you get a peek behind the curtain of what goes on there,” Wlodyka (VLAH-duh-kuh) said. “This is the closest we could possibly bring people to Augusta.”
Developers say the purpose of including Augusta National was not only to be able to play the course, but to learn the history of the Masters as well. And no Masters experience is complete, of course, without the dulcet tones of Jim Nantz, who is part of the broadcasting team along with CBS funnyman David Feherty. When players first boot up the game – on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 or Wii consoles – they’re thrust into every golfer’s childhood dream: Tied for the lead at the Masters, one hole to play, and it’s the par-4 18th hole at Augusta. In one mode, called Masters Moments, users are tasked with re-creating some of the indelible shots in tournament lore: Larry Mize’s walk-off chip in 1987, Tiger’s “in-your-life!” chip-in on 16, Mickelson’s slash-through-the-trees 6-iron on 13. And in another mode, called Tiger at the Masters, players can relive each of Woods’ four Masters titles by attempting to equal or beat his scores while playing against the field in real time.
“This is something the golf community has been screaming for for 20-plus years,” says Craig Evans, director of marketing at EA Tiburon. “People have wanted to play Augusta National since the dawn of golf gaming.”
They just didn’t know it’d take 200,000 man-hours to accomplish.
Indeed, such a breakthrough wouldn’t have been possible without the expertise of Jeff Martin, who has been on the Tiger staff since the 2008 title. The lead environmental artist, Martin oversaw the team that scanned every inch of Augusta National and spearheaded its re-creation. His workspace is cluttered, with controllers and various consoles strewn about, figurines of South Park characters, Buzz Lightyear and Bart Simpson on a mantle above his desk. Today, he’s building the terrain on one of Augusta’s signature holes. With one click of the mouse, he’s able to shift a tree or sharpen the edge of a bunker. Those subtle changes then appear on a different monitor within moments.
Last August, Shannon Yates, the lead scanning technician for EA Tiburon, traveled to Augusta, Ga., for 10 days to gather scan data and photo records. On each hole, Yates and his assistant set up three survey tripods and used a laser scanner to capture a 360-degree view that allowed the course to be re-created with an accuracy of 6 millimeters, or about a quarter of an inch. Having begun the project last May, Martin went to Augusta a few months later to make notes on any last-minute adjustments. “Having built the game, and then actually walking the course, it was like I’d already been there,” he said. “I knew where everything was.”
About 50 feet away, in another cubicle, works John Grebas, one of the character modelers. Above his desk, on a white board, are sketches of smiles and noses and eyes and fingers and various expressions: clenched teeth, disappointment, screams. Minor details that humanize the gameplay experience. His work helps explain how it’s possible to create two different players – say, Tiger Woods and Rickie Fowler – starting with the teeth, then the hair, then the nose, and eventually such subtle differences as the curvature of their hat brims. Depending on revisions, Grebas says it takes about 40-50 hours to create a player’s head. The images are then sent to the golfer for final approval. “We’ve got to get Tiger’s likeness head-on,” he said.
Much attention also was paid to the depth of crowds and, of all things, grass. For the first time, EA Sports has implemented 3D grass, so players now can feel the difference as the club passes through the primary or secondary cut of rough, all while about 10 times more patrons – now closer to 100-150 – watch the action. “It’s a fresh experience,” Wlodyka said.
Bill Williams, a software engineer, is swinging a motion controller in his corner cubicle. And look on the TV: He is hitting balls on the range, virtually. To prepare for his next virtual round, he’s in club-tuning mode, during which he can alter the club’s specifications and track trajectory, ball flight and deviation from the center line. The controller can detect the angle of the clubface (open or closed), speed of swing (fast or slow) and path to the ball (inside or outside). Using the motion controller, Williams says, “you’re much more aware of the club” and able to manipulate the clubface at impact. It’s little wonder, then, that he’s dropped his handicap from 25 to 16 since working on the Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12 project. “It just keeps going down,” he said, smiling.
Results may vary, of course, but this year’s version of the Tiger Woods PGA Tour franchise undoubtedly is the most realistic gameplay experience. Wlodyka, the executive producer, said after spending time in community forums, developers were intent on making the game feel more like a broadcast. So they altered the presentation (leaderboards) and character models (likeness and equipment deals) and added new layers of details (laser-scanning technology).
Players also are more engaged through the expansion of the career mode. Similar to how it’s played between the ropes, there is a steady progression in Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12: Start as an amateur, work through the Nationwide circuit and, based on performance, compete on the PGA Tour and in major championships. The process is made easier with the addition of the caddie, who, like an actual looper, checks the wind and lie and offers a recommended club. “For us,” Wlodyka said, “this is a gameplay-changer. To have that new character” – who is modeled after one of the EA software developers, Jeremy Frederick – “who is with you the entire way, that’s huge.”
The game hits stores in the U.S. on March 29, and the celebration will be sweet and swift. In a few months, the brass at EA Sports again will brainstorm how to improve the No. 1-selling golf game on the market. Will Tiger Woods appear prominently on the cover again? Will other exclusive courses open their clubhouse doors? Will players be able to control the iconic swings of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer or Gary Player?
Those are questions for another day, it seems, for there is work to be done elsewhere. Wlodyka, dressed in a zippered sweatshirt and dark charcoal jeans, is in the midst of an important three-day summit, and he’s already running late. And upstairs, before the sword fight broke out, an eyebrow needed trimming, a fairway tightening, a trophy polishing. After all, the clock is ticking on those 200,000 man-hours.