It’s ironic to me just how bad most wrestling video games are. Professional wrestling and video games have so much in common that you’d think merging the two would be an easy recipe for success. Certainly, the titles are met with financial success, but even the people who buy them admit that they’re not very good video games. There is, still, benefit to be had from video games and wrestling crossing over- they have lessons to teach each other, in what they do well, and what they do poorly.
On the best of days, wrestling is a pretty janky form of entertainment, but video games are rarely the most smoothly presented products either. I dare to say that video games could teach the WWE a few things, if its executives were to pay attention. But failing that, let’s go for the reverse: here’s five lessons that the video game industry could learn from World Wrestling Entertainment, Incorporated.
1) Keep people who can’t talk off the mic.
There are two main qualities that make a good wrestler- public speaking and physical performance. During a match, there will of course be wrestling happening, and the wrestler needs to be both strong and skilled enough to put on a convincing display of martial prowess. But it’s also key that they sell their character and motivations during the story segments. When you hand them a microphone, they need to sell their schtick, and keep the crowd engaged. Charisma is a plus, but not always necessary- there are plenty of wrestlers who are good at their jobs because they are unlikeable. The ultimate danger, though, is leaving people indifferent. Wrestling is all about enthusiasm- if the crowd is on their feet, roaring their approval, that’s one form of success. If they’re shouting jeers and booing until hoarse, that’s a sign of excitement as well. But if the audience just sits and stares, quietly waiting for things to move along, then the WWE has failed.
Similarly, not every character in your game can be a wisecracking Mr. Suave. Even if your writers and voice actors are up to the challenge, making everyone charismatic is a waste of their appeal- no one appreciates charm unless they have to do without it at times. Characters that aren’t brilliant masters of conversation are necessary to move the game along, and act as a foil to any wordsmiths you do have.
But for all their narrative necessity, lingering on these talentless mic workers for too long is still a bad idea. The superb Final Fantasy VI makes very limited use of the mercenary Shadow for a reason- the lack of attention lends him an air of mystery. The backstory of the game from supplemental materials makes it clear that if you hung out with him for any longer, the mystique around him would clear, and you’d realize he’s just another generic ninja. Hanging out with the painfully uninspired Zeke in inFamous 1 is not a good time for anybody. Though he’s essential in moving the plot along and giving context to our hero Cole, his bro-ish mannerisms and attempts to be “hip” inspire nothing but irritation in extended exposure. We get it, these guys are needed. And if used sparingly, we’ll even like them! But don’t give them too much screen time, or it’s impossible to focus on anything but how shallow they are.
2) Don’t get so attached to your plan that you can’t capitalize on what works.
Everyone has a plan when game development starts. The team is going to build this game, the story will be like this, the characters, the mechanics, it’s all in their heads. They know what this game is going to be. The reality of the matter is, some of the stuff that seems like a great idea is just not going to work. When people get their hands on a game, unexpected elements shine, and the features that were so sure to blow minds are received with a simple “meh.”
This happens in wrestling all the time. Storylines are planned, characters are pushed to the forefront, only to be greeted by a tremendous boo from the audience. Wrestlers who are only there to take a beating (“jobbers,” in industry slang- “just doing their job”) like Daniel Bryan, capture the crowd’s heart and win the support of the fanbase. The WWE isn’t always as quick to respond as they should be, but they ultimately bow to the will of the masses, because that’s what keeps them in business. There’s room for vision and grander plans- after all, the creators know what’s coming next, and the crowd doesn’t. But it’s an awful gamble to try to swim against popular opinion on a bet that the audience will be won over by the end, and it’s usually better to go with the flow.
So don’t compromise your game by any means, but don’t be stiff and unyielding when it comes to tester feedback. If they say they like something unexpected, there’s probably a good reason, and it’s worth looking into. In the end it will just make the game better.
3) Everybody loves a theme song
The video game industry used to understand full well the value of character theme music, but the rise of Western game development has come a cavalcade of creators who don’t appreciate a good character theme. Japanese titles fight to keep the dream alive, but as Western-made games dominate the market more and more (at least outside of Japan), it gets harder to remember the glory days. The Turks Theme announcing the arrival of Reno, Rude, and Elena in FFVII. The whistling Old West theme of Yasha in Asura’s Wrath as he slashes through countless minions. It’s a great cue for a scene, it’s an awesome way to get hyped, and it’s sorely missed by those of us who recall its heyday.
The WWE has single-handedly kept the character theme alive in the West since 1952. Every wrestler stepping on stage is announced by his or her theme music blasting out of those massive arena speakers. The crowd gets on their feet and starts to shout- they’ve even been known to sing along. Nothing gets a crowd booing as fast as hearing the first line of heel Randy Orton’s “I Hear Voices” starts to play, and the level of hype doesn’t get any higher than when “Flight of the Valkyries” announces Daniel Bryan’s arrival. In a business where excitement is everything, theme music is an invaluable tool to have in your arsenal.
Contrast this with the Hans Zimmer-style movie music that triple A studios are so fond of, which blends together and all sounds the same. Video games have very different uses and needs for music than film does, and trying to shoehorn a movie composer into an interactive experience makes for a compelling bullet point, but a lousy play experience. I could not identify a single song from any Call of Duty soundtrack, even though I’ve played nearly all of them- it’s all a generic blur. But if you ask me to hum you a character theme from Final Fantasy, I’m willing and able to give you my tone-deaf best. That’s the kind of reaction you want- pieces that set the tone, suit the characters, and stick in the minds of listeners for years to come.
4) You gotta sell it to sell it.
Now we come to an issue near and dear to my heart, though no less important to game development for its personal significance. My passion for wrestling primarily lies in the story, the characters, and the gimmicks, but in the WWE it all eventually comes down to… well, the wrestling. And in the art of two musclebound men throwing each other around, you have to sell the hits. When the other guy suplexes you as gently as he can into the padded, spring-supported ring floor, you have to act like he just rocked your world. The attacker’s job is to make it look good without causing your coworker genuine pain, and the defender’s job is to act like it was unbelievably devastating.
Naturally, having both in harmony looks best, but if for some reason something’s gotta give, nailing the impact is more important. There’s no shortage of examples from the WWE- the Big Show, a massive seven foot, four hundred pound wrestler, is a super fun and charming guy on the mic, but he’s just not incredible at the wrestling. When’s he’s on the offensive, that’s generally fine: his Knockout Punch may not look especially potent, but the way his victim acts like they’ve been hit by a train is fun every time. When the Big Show’s getting hit, though, and he barely flinches, it just looks bad. He’s hardly unique in this, either- the Great Khali was once a titan of the field, but his age has now gotten the better of him, and he’s almost painful to watch in the ring. Kofi Kingston is incredibly talented, acrobatic and strong, but for some reason none of his opponents sell his hits. When he does a leaping, flipping kick, they barely react, and it makes him look far weaker than he is. A wrestler who can’t sell the fight is dull to watch.
With a lack of actual actors in video games, the focus instead becomes the virtual actors. Underestimate the value of quality animations at your own peril. Animators breathe life into the models that make up the game, and they should be a high priority for any project. Make hits look good, make walks expressive- just invest in making the way your characters move as smooth and natural as your sweet graphics. After clipping issues, bad animations are the most jarring to a player immersed in your game. Invest the effort in nailing them.
5) Sixty dollars is too much to ask for a few fights and a bad story.
It has taken wrestling a long time to realize the flaws in their system, but finally the WWE has decided to change its payment model. The Pay-Per-View model- selling a few hours of fights without much story, for as much as sixty dollars- is no longer sustainable, and they will soon be switching to a completely different model. That archaic setup just doesn’t satisfy the consumer- many people pass because it’s too expensive, and those who don’t are often dissatisfied with what they got for the money. It’s a lesson that the gaming industry needs to learn too.
Obviously, this is only a problem for triple A gaming these days- indies got the message, loud and clear. But games like Call of Duty: Ghosts and Need for Speed Rivals still sell for sixty dollars. I’m not trying to argue that no games should sell for that much, but you have to ask, what is being offered for this price tag? Is it really worth that money? Is a five hour linear campaign with no replay value and crummy writing reasonable for sixty dollars?
Yes, it’s possible to get people to pay that amount. And yes, you can make a decent sum of money doing so. But just imagine how much more profitable it would be if prices were lowered so that people were not resentful of them! Goodwill does translate into sales- a customer that thinks poorly of a company is less likely to buy from them, regardless of the product’s quality. So let’s take another look at what pricing makes sense for triple A games.
Both the WWE and the video game industry are at a crucial juncture. Just as triple A development is growing too big and dangerous to remain feasible in games, the cable contract and Pay-Per-View system in wrestling is beginning to crumble under its own weight. The WWE has managed to find its footing with a dramatic solution- the WWE Network, a streaming service ala Hulu that has its fanbase extremely excited. Assuming it proves financially viable once it debuts, the service is set to fix the vast majority of the WWE’s woes.
What solution exists for the collapse of triple A? I’ve a handful of suggestions here as to how things will improve, but none of these fix the fundamental problem of insanely high budgets that bet the farm on overwhelming success. For games like Tomb Raider to sell 3.4 million copies and still not turn a profit, for gems like DmC to be considered an abject failure by their publishers… there’s a huge problem, and it’s bigger than any ideas we can draw from wrestling. I pray that the triple A publishers can figure this mess out before it all goes south… and hell, I believe it’s doable. It’s just the kind of comeback story that would make for a great wrestling plot.