We recently had a chance to interview Joe Nickolls, Producer of NHL Slapshot.
Operation Sports: Given the Wii's stigma of a "casual" sports gaming console, what was the draw to develop what appears to be a very deep and engaging hockey game for the hardcore sports gamer on Nintendo's console?
Joe Nickolls: Without a doubt, the most common question I get outside of work is “when are you going to do NHL on the Wii?" There are millions of families that have Wii consoles that have wanted to play hockey, but either didn’t have a PS3 or X360. And there’s no shortage of “compilation sports” packages on the market for the Wii – so it was really a no-brainer to make a hockey game that could appeal to both the casual gamer and the hockey fan. I consider myself a pretty hardcore gamer, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like playing games on the Wii. Grand Slam Tennis for example is a great game made even better by playing on the Wii. There are also a lot of gamers that are hardcore hockey fans but aren’t necessarily hardcore gamers -- so we’ve tried to make a game that appeals to everyone. We don’t expect people to stop playing NHL 11 on the next gen consoles, this is a different experience for sure, but for many gamers, the Wii is their console of choice, and we shouldn’t keep them from playing a great hockey game because they chose to go with a Wii.
OS: What lessons did you learn from other sports franchises (EA, and non EA) that have attempted to secure a footing on the Wii? How have you adapted to the console's processing limitations while still pushing the hockey gaming genre foward? How do you avoid criticism of motion control as being gimmicky?
JN: We wanted to wait until we could really make a game designed specifically for the Wii. In the early days of the Wii, many sports games were ported down from the other consoles. That doesn’t really take advantage of the uniqueness of the system. The Wii is actually, in many ways, a powerful console to play with. Graphics limitations aside, some of the greatest games in the world are for the Nintendo Wii. We’ve now been making games for the Wii for a while and like always, once you get used to how to program for the system you learn tricks and techniques to get the most out of it. Think of how much better games looked at the end of the lifecycle of the PS2 compared to when it first came out. As for motion control being a gimmick, I think it’s more of a natural progression. Both Microsoft and Sony have their own motion controls coming to market this year, the iPad and iPhone have utilized motion right from the start. The same could be said for 3-D technology. It starts out as a new “gimmick” but becomes a standard as time goes by. I’m telling you – playing NHL SLAPSHOT with the stick is THE way to play a hockey game on the Wii. It feels natural, it’s fun and best of all, immerses you into the experience like nothing else. The big lesson we learned was -- if you’re going to make a sports game on the Wii, make it specifically for that console. A port down is not acceptable.
OS: Taking a look at the enormous success of the NHL franchise on the HD consoles, what is it specifically about NHL Slapshot (other than motion controls) that is going to differentiate it from its big brothers? Who is the core gaming demographic you are targeting with this game -- those who are already playing the NHL series on 360/PS3, or hockey noobies?
JN: Other than motion control the big news is we let you play as a Peewee all the way to the NHL Pros. In our career mode “Peewee to Pro” (which is very much like the “Be a Pro” feature in the NG consoles), you start out as a kid playing 3 on 3 in an outdoor neighborhood rink. Lots of goals, no rules and an emphasis on learning how to play. But your journey goes from there to Bantam, to playing with CHL, AHL and NHL teams. It’s a nice career mode to play with all the features you’d expect from EA SPORTS. Getting drafted, trades, etc. It’s all there -- but in a very accessible manner. Our research has shown that the game seems to appeal to kids, adults and families for sure. But we’ve also got a big interest from college students and people that want a party game to play with their friends. Getting that hockey stick in your hand and playing with friends is one of the most fun things you can do on the Wii. Noobs love the game because it’s easy to get into, but seasoned players will find playing at Pro level with full rules and NHL teams a real challenge. It really is a game that everyone seems to love for different reasons. Trust me, I’ve been playing video game hockey for over 15 years and although I love the realism of PS3 and X360 -- the Wii experience is a total gas and not a goofy cartoony experience whatsoever.
OS: Was the hockey-stick peripheral always the plan with Slapshot, or did you guys start to create a game and decide that the stick just made sense to include?
JN: Our creative director David Littman always had the idea of having a hockey stick to play with in a Wii game. And as he’s a retired NHL hockey player, he knows what matters in hockey. We took a composite stick and sawed it to pieces, duct taped a Wii remote to it and said “this is pretty cool.” So it was always the plan to do a game for the Wii -- and when the hockey stick came together we knew we were on to something.
OS: When I played the game at E3, I couldn't imagine myself playing it while sitting down. This was partly because I'm not sure I would be able to handle the hockey stick the right way from a sitting position, but the other reason is because it just felt right to play the game while standing and gesturing. Do you think this is a game you can play sitting down? And are you concerned people might see it as a game you can't really play in a "relaxed" way?
JN: Good question. I agree -- I can’t imagine playing it sitting down. It just immerses you a lot deeper into the game when you are on your feet. BUT, if you really need to sit down and play, you can play it without the hockey stick by using just the Wii remote and the Nunchuk. And if that’s too much, you can play with just the Wii remote and we’ll take care of all the skating for you. All you need to do is pass and shoot! We think families will play it like this with a couple of people standing up with sticks and perhaps mom and dad on the couch with the Wii remote!
OS: I was very impressed by the five-on-five play in the demo I played at E3. Can you talk a bit about what you took from the regular EA NHL series for the five-on-five play? Is it mostly the same engine under the hood? Personally, I thought it felt like a mix of some 3-on-3 Arcade mixed with EA NHL.
JN: The gang from NHL 11 sit right across from us, and in fact our gameplay guy came from both NHL 10 and NHL Arcade. We wanted to have a nice blend between hardcore realism and arcade action. I often say we made NHL SLAPSHOT customizable to your level of experience. If you are a total noob coming to play, you can have a great time playing Peewee 3 on 3 games until you’re more comfortable to move up to more difficulty levels. It uses a lot of the A.I. and animations from the NHL next gen consoles, but we’ve adapted it for use in the Wii. Our 5 on 5 gameplay uses the same logic as our brothers on NHL 10/11 -- so you’re definitely getting a real hockey experience. We’ve thrown in big hits, some shock-wave effects on body checks and slapshots to make it “jump out” as well. Sometimes you feel like a T-bone steak and sometimes you feel like a cheeseburger! Both cuts of meat but a different experience!