Beyond The Mat: How To Fix Wrestling Games

2K have finally released all of the DLC for WWE 2K15. Why do I care, you might be wondering, given that I gave the game a bit of a kicking in my review. Primarily, I care because I am too stubborn to stop playing, even though I can’t possibly recommend the game to anyone else. I love wrestling and even though 2K15 doesn’t do most of the interesting things that a wrestling game COULD do, I’m having fun poking around in the Universe mode, pretending to be a booker, organising almighty feuds and pushing my favourite characters to the stars.

Once again, I’ve been thinking about why I want to see wrestling translated into game form successfully. Even if you don’t know WCW from ECW or Goldust from Goldberg, you might be entertained and, hey, maybe you’ll realise there’s something behind all of the babyoil and biceps.

I was watching the Elimination Chamber event last night. If you don’t follow wrestling, or the WWE in particular, that might sound like a particularly horrible killing floor, or like something out of one of the Saw films. In reality it’s one of the daftest match concepts in the almost entirely daft world of professional wrestling.

Wikipedia explains how it all works:

“It features a large chain-linked circular steel structure or “chamber” which encloses the ring. The chamber’s floor is platformed over the ringside area which elevates it to ring level and within the chamber are four inner enclosures outside each ring corner. While similar in profile and nature to WWE’s original large scale steel-structured match, Hell in a Cell, the Elimination Chamber match is strictly a six participant match wherein two participants begin the bout in the ring as the remaining four are held within each inner enclosure and are released into the match at five minute intervals. The objective is to eliminate each opponent from the match via pinfall or submission.“

The “inner enclosures” are called “pods”. Large men, trapped in pods, waiting to be released into a cage so that they can suplex one another into oblivion. This year’s event, which took place on May 31st, revived the concept, which seemed to have been dropped due to what the WWE reckoned was a shortage of venues that could handle the mighty power of the chamber. That may be true but keep in mind that this is the same company that claims the steps that lead to the ring are made of a material so dense that it must be forged in the heart of a blackhole.

That’s because they want you to wince when a large man lobs them at someone.

Watching a wrestling match, you’re supposed to believe (or at least pretend that you believe) that the entire event isn’t scripted. In fairness, that’s probably true. Even the most carefully choreographed match involves a great deal of improvisation and communication between participants (referee included) once the action begins. Spots (moves or chained sequences of moves) will be planned in advance but the structure has to be flexible, to account for unexpected physical twinges or injuries, poor placement and countless other minor elements that can throw off a plan, often by making it unsafe.

Essentially, wrestling is rehearsed but it is still physical performance, with all the unpredictability, mistakes and unexpected brilliance that you might expect when human beings put their bodies on the line in an attempt to entertain. The script might build up to the moment the mic drops and the fists start to fly, but then there are a couple of blank pages with loose notes before the ending, which almost always plays out exactly as planned.

A good wrestling game should be about those blank pages, which WWE 2K15 is, but it should also be about the script around them and the notes that guide the action.

A strange thing happened at last week’s Elimination Chamber. During what ranks as one of the top five matches I’ve ever seen, the crowd acted like they were at a wake. To be fair, I’d have been pissed off it was my wake because they were chanting and occasionally applauding, but they should have been blowing the roof off with sheer unbridled joy.

Perhaps someone had left the sensitivity controls on their mic all wrong or perhaps John Cena was communicating more clearly and slightly louder than usual because he was in the ring with a man he’s never fought live before, but I found myself mesmerised by the sound of him calling spots before they happened. The match took on a completely different flow as rest holds and even occasional meetings in the middle of the ring at pace became obvious meeting points for the exchange of information and ideas. Recognising the speed with which the two men were directing their own performance made the match even more impressive.

And so we come back to games. I want to be the guy calling those spots in the ring, or having an opponent mutter them to me as I hold him down in an armbar. A career mode in which you’re told how the match is going to go (win/lose/disqualification) and left to figure out an entertaining routine with the other competitors.

There could be certain spots you have to include, from tables and ladders to a brand new finisher that you need to sell to the fans. There could be occasions when you’re in the ring with someone you don’t entirely trust and you’ll have to make tough choices on the fly – do you override some of the wilder suggestions coming your way or do you go with them and risk screwing up the flow or, worse, injuring yourself or somebody else.

All of this goes back to the proposition in the opening paragraphs of my WWE 2K15 review – I want a wrestling game that is about being a wrestler rather than the pretend version of a wrestler who is actually involved in real fights. There is so much drama packed in a career that involves negotiating backstage relationships as well as fan support, while also attempting to build a technical repertoire and character skills. Instead, we have a very basic beat ’em up with occasional scripted story sequences.

Our recent article about a fantasy football league with actual fantasy (and sci-fi) characters reminded me of VGCW, an entire wrestling franchise that operates through an old version of the WWE game. The character creation suite allows for fairly accurate recreations of characters from all manner of games and it’s the only place you can see Phoenix Wright beating up on Mario. It’s fun and many of you would probably enjoy it.

There are alternate wrestling games as well. Grey Dog Software’s text sims cover wrestling in two formats – a single wrestler career mode or a promoter simulation that plays out as a management game. I love the idea but have always struggled to care about the fictional world presented. There are mods to bring in real world companies and their personnel but I’ve never pushed past the interface hard enough to really get involved.

Finally, there’s Mdickie. If you’ve never heard of the developer of Jesus Christ simulation The You Testament and many fine wrestling games, you’re in for a treat. Mdickie’s games are among the strangest, jankiest and yet most compelling I’ve ever played. In the chaotic simulation of his worlds (everything on-screen seems to be interactive and the AI blunders around using all of it), wrestling is a perfect fit. There are hair vs hair matches, flaming table matches…I’ve seen characters pick up guns and shoot at one another in the middle of a tag team competition.

The WWE, when it was still the WWF, used to brag that “anything can happen” while two men in tights lumbered around a ring while the crowd waited for SOMETHING to happen. In Mdickie’s games, the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink attitude and wonkiness of the engines becomes a source of delight, as even the strangest events can be made to fit into wrestling storylines.

After all, whatever Mdickie’s games might accidentally simulate, it won’t be as weird, wonderful or downright terrible as half of the ideas that sprang fully formed from Vince Russo’s mind. For that, we should be entirely grateful.

27 Comments

  1. draglikepull says:

    I think the problem with wrestling games is that they don’t break kayfabe. They buy into the fiction that wrestling matches are real fights. But in reality, wrestling is more like live theatre if theatre was dominated by action movies rather than historical dramas. To a large degree what matters in wrestling isn’t who wins or loses, but how well the story is told along the way. A good wrestling game should focus on that story-telling.

    Part of the problem is that in the single-player versions of wrestling games, there’s not motivation for anything to ever happen except the player dominating their opponent. But that actually lacks drama and makes for boring matches. What would be more interesting was a game in which you had to manage the flow of the action and hit the right spots in order to get the crowd really into it; a game where a wrestler could lose a match but still gain in stature because the performance was so good; a game that focused less on beating up your opponent to get a pin and more on telling a dynamic story.

    • ikazrima says:

      The Wrestlemania X7/X8 games for the GBA have that gimmick to entertain the crowd, as in you can’t spam the same move and you can’t dominate the match. Eric Bischoff would then appear on screen and rate your performance, e.g “That was a one sided match! Fight again!” or some sort.

      I don’t particularly like the gimmick, but my brother does. :|

  2. Jim Rossignol says:

    I’d rather a good boxing game.

    Sorry.

  3. Zankman says:

    What we need – and what you somehow totally neglected – is a modern, updated and “Westernized” (without silly Japanese game modes and obtuse menus) Fire Pro Wrestling.

    Still the best gameplay in a wrestling game; best puroresu wrestling game and puroresu wrestling simulation. Very good wrestling game & simulation otherwise.

    If only it had a modern incarnation…

    • Premium User Badge

      Adam Smith says:

      I love Fire Pro Wrestling, aye. That’d be grand.

    • noodlecake says:

      It had a lot of good things going for it, but it feels very dated now. Having to line your guys up horizontally, having to stand the right distance away to land strikes. It feels way more gamey than WWE 2k15. As a wrestling simulator I think the last handful of WWE games (minus weird spin offs like All Stars which are abysmal) beat everything. I haven’t played the Japan only Wrestle Kingdom games though. I would love to try them out.

      • Zankman says:

        Well, although there could be some changes to the gameplay (like natural chain wrestling and reversals, more logical/fluid/realistic/ & less game-y rope-break mechanics, more variants for each move and separate, context-specific animations for various moves…) the way that the grappling and striking itself works is, IMO, totally fine.

        Game-y, hm, yes, in a way.

        I still love to play it vs AI and vs Human Players, as well as to watch AI vs AI…

        But it so desperately needs Online Modes, better Single Player Modes as well as a modern Creation Suite.

  4. Jerppa says:

    I loved WWE All Stars. Shame it never got a sequel.

  5. SpaceVelociraptor says:

    I actually really like Grey Dog’s Total Extreme Wrestling, the game in which you play a booker. Even as someone who wasn’t a fan of wrestling, the interesting management game aspects of it got me hooked. Recently the publisher added the second most recent version of the game to steam, hopefully he will add the newest releases to steam, and perhaps let people transfer their activations to steam.

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      Syt says:

      I like wrestling (watched a lot in the 90s, tuning in an out these days), and yes, TEW is the best management sim. It’s come a long way since Adam Ryland’s freeware games. I’ve never played the fictional universe, but the real life mods are awesome (I mostly play the Monday Night Wars Era). And I salute the guys who spend so much time and effort creating those mods.

      And while the games have improved in recent years, I really wish he’d modernize the interface.

      The new Wrestling Spirit game was a bit of a disappointment, because, like the WWE games, it pretends matches are real without determined outcome, and unfortunately very slow and repetitive (this coming from someone who has no problem with text based sims, like OOTP). Also, because of the detail required for the wrestlers, there’s only one real life mod.

      I’m really hoping he re-does Comic Book Hero, though. Fun game if you like superhero fights, but it lacked any chance to add a proper narrative: no idea why he didn’t include the angle/feud concepts from TEW which would have been a perfect fit for a game about maximizing your comic readership.

  6. Jake says:

    The THQ wrestling games on the N64 were the best

    • zarthrag says:

      Played a lot of Attitude/No Mercy growing up, and on campus. Got a few hours to burn w/3 buddies? It’s Royal Rumble time! Although it seems whomever got Kane/Undertaker/Mankind late-game was quite likely to win. Especially Undertaker… Rolling him was just cause for the other 3 players to team-up for (quite) awhile.

      Personally, I never bothered with any of the other game modes, except to practice for the next rumble…

  7. Skeletor68 says:

    My favourite wrestling game was Smackdown 2 on the PS. Being able to run a co-op campaign with procedurally generated storylines made for some fantastic fun. I do definitely have a soft spot for the arcade madness of this type of wrestling game, but a full on simulator sounds bloody amazing!

    Imagine being able to do multiplayer where one person is a booker other players have to perform and hit their mark and people spectating online can rate the matches, dynamically altering crowd feedback!

  8. Little_Crow says:

    This article is nothing without input from RPS’ very own pro wrestler – Rab ‘The Glasgae Grappler’ Florence.

  9. Baines says:

    First issue… You are starting with a game that even WWE wrestling game fans found to be a disappointment, which doesn’t even get into the number of wrestling game fans who find the majority of WWE wrestling games as a whole to be disappointments. 2K15 not only doesn’t do the interesting things that a wrestling game could do, it doesn’t do many of the interesting things that other wrestling games have previously done.

    Second issue… The article is filed under a misleading headline. It isn’t about how to “fix” wrestling games, it is about desiring a wrestling management sim.

    Wrestling games could benefit from more sim aspects, but many people like the action power fantasy. You only have to look at years of CAW creations to see a fairly large number are made with maxed stats, because people either just didn’t want to bother with trying to figure out accurate stats or because they just don’t like characters to not be maxed.

    • briktal says:

      It doesn’t need the management part. Think of it like racing games. If the current wrestling games are like Mario Kart or Burnout, then what this article is about would be more like Forza.

  10. Ufofighter says:

    In my opinion the only problem with wrestling games is that we are grown men with many games on our memory and we can’t ignore their flaws.

    According to my experience today’s kids have a blast with the WWE games, and probably is because they don’t care about anything but (virtually) punch their friends face while yelling like berserkers.

  11. Kollega says:

    I was never particularly a fan of pro-wrestling (hell, I only found out that pro-wrestling is A Thing and that it’s more of a theatric show than a sports event about four years ago), but in my mind, an indie wrestling simulator where you control both the bookers and the wrestlers, and have to come up with colorful moves and bombastic characterizations, and then keep the crowd entertained and gradually build your own storylines… that sort of game could go a long way.

    • Zankman says:

      Well, if you can get over the fact that they are incredibly complex and convoluted… The Total Extreme Wrestling games by Grey Dog Software are exactly that.

      There are demos (for the latest version, 2013 I think), 2005 is completely free and the series’ predecessor, Extreme Warfare Revenge, has EWR 4.0 for free…

      Amusingly, that game simply lacks complexity and depth, so although it is much easier to play than TEW… It is also far less satisfying.

  12. Oasx says:

    I think the problem are the controls, more than any other game i can think of, pro wrestling games lacks fluidity. The difference between a real wrestling match, and one played in a video game is huge, it just looks and plays so awkward.

    • Sin Vega says:

      This matches the experience of the few wrestling games I’ve played. Joystick wiggling in the 90s, mindless button hammering in the 00s. Utterly hateful, to the extent that winning or losing didn’t matter, either way I was just relieved it was over.

      I think embracing the pantomime of it is key. Make it about the theatrics, not the “fighting”.

  13. Jalan says:

    Dear god… that Brock Lesnar model is nightmarish. I want to read the article but I keep scrolling back up to it and getting the heebie-jeebies (damn face scan tech – I wonder how far off they are from just distilling bits of the souls of wrestlers into these games). Gotta block the image, for sake of sanity I guess.

  14. lutjasuki says:

    There is so much that could be done with wrestling games – but a lot of those things are contradictory. Its a pity that there are not a variety of different genres of wwe games being released. Sticking with (pretend realism) a full action-rpg approach (with all the rpg trimmings) could be great fun. As could a full blown wwe manager simulation game. And honestly the regular beat-em-up approach can be fun as well. Trying to combine all these contradictory elements to produce a masterpiece game is preposterously difficult – the results so far are the wwe2k* games that are always fun but never as good as you wish they could be.

  15. Kerr Avon says:

    Endless annual simulations of fake dumbed-down sports for dummies. Lovely. The same thing, year after year. What’s so obviously missing from arena fighting sports videogames today is a different game with the same level of detail and customisation as this (or any recent mixed martial arts or boxing sim) but instead set in ancient Rome. Can anyone explain to me why there hasn’t been another historically accurate Gladiatorial combat simulation similar to the old PS2 game Colosseum: Road to Freedom? One might even say we’ve NEVER had such a historical sports sim like it on PC, ever (not including old PS2 emulated games). The same could be said of other samey “sports” like today’s flaccid Formula One, couldn’t it? F1 2010, F1 2011, F1 2012… WTF?! Come on Codemasters (or anybody?), where’s our historically accurate Circus Maximus racing sim a la Ben Hur?! What happened to the passion and vision in videogame design? Why is there endless yearly versions of existing boring sports (like Le Tour de France?!) when we could have just ONE different NEW style of sports videogame set in a different time-period of history that we can’t actually participate or spectate in real life today? Oh wait, I think I might have answered my own question… because it would be a one off and couldn’t be repeated next year and the year after? So that’s it? Seriously? Or is someone afraid of a little blood?

    • Kerr Avon says:

      And it doesn’t even have to be ancient history. Future Sports? Speedball 2 Brutal Deluxe comes to mind but surely there’s room for a new “Rollerball: the movie” sports sim? Just me? Jonathan… Jonathan…