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Interview with Douglas Tronsgard

Ben Hopper's picture
Black Box Games' NHL2K

Sega Sports NHL2K is the first hockey simulation for the next generation of game consoles and is the first release from Canadian developer, Black Box Games. Producer Douglas Tronsgard generously took some time out of his busy schedule to discuss the game and the development process with us, among other things. Doug had previously helped us out with an Ask GameCritics.com question (posted on our old web site) about NHL2K1, and later gave me his comments on my review of the game. So he's been very cool about making himself available to our Web site. GameCritics.com would like to thank him and Black Box Games for the following exclusive interview.

As the first next-generation hockey game, how do you feel NHL2K has been received?

We are pleased with the response to NHL2K. It has been especially well received by the hardcore hockey fans who wanted more of a "sim" game. It will certainly push other developers to improve their hockey titles, and this can only lead to good things for hockey fans.

The guys from the NHL2K team must be big hockey fans. I thought it showed through in the game. After all, it was made in Canada, right? Any Buffalo Sabres fans in there? I'm from Buffalo you know.

We are huge hockey fans. In fact, most of us play hockey regularly. Since we couldn't make it into the NHL, we had to do the next best thing and create hockey games. Only one Buffalo fan however...sorry (doh!).

NHL Powerplay '96 Screenshot
NHL Powerplay '96 Screenshot

As producer, what were your responsibilities in the development of NHL2K?

My job was to stay out of the way and buy the coffee.

Several members of your team came from Radical Entertainment—the developers of NHL Powerplay '96 for Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation. That was a game that helped shape the way we look at sports games today. How valuable was their experience during the development of NHL2K?

Their experience was instrumental in getting NHL2K out in time and pushing the boundaries of what has been done before. It's always easier to do something the second time, and for some of these guys, it was the sixth time making a hockey game!

 

 

 

Didn't they also do Sega Sports' NHL All-Star Hockey 98 for Saturn as well? Was that beneficial in any way in terms of establishing a working relationship with Sega as a publisher?

Yes. Sega was familiar with our programmers/artist's track records and experience. This gave them the comfort they needed that we could get the job done, even as a new company.

NHL Action

Other companies like 989 Sports like to brag about the high-profile talent they bring in for motion capture, but you guys were able to achieve better results without the big-name athletes. Could you elaborate on how you handled the motion capture process and what it means for a sports game today to excel in that department?

For our motion capture, we used professional motion capture athletes. These guys are not afraid of getting rough and taking some hits. In fact, our goalie suffered a concussion from our session (oops!). Famous NHL players like to save this kind of rough stuff for the ice, and you won't get as good motion capture if your actors don't give it their all.

Since you guys are stationed in Vancouver, was anyone within the Canucks organization willing to lend a helping hand during development, or were they too busy with the ongoing NHL season?

We had some support from Orca Bay. We were very pleased to be able to do some sound recording in GM Place and are thankful for that.

NHL2K is the first hockey game (for consoles at least) in which the players actually look like their real-life counterparts. This must have been a priority going into development. How much of a difference does it make it your mind when you're playing a sports game and all the players don't look the same?

NHL 2K Screenshot

NHL 2K Screenshot

Unlike other genres of video games, which are based on fantasy settings, sports titles are based on real-life events. Thus, authenticity is extremely important. Games are coming closer and closer to the real thing, and having visually accurate representations of the players is part of that evolution.

Unlike most hockey simulations, the fighting in NHL2K is really well done. What approach did you take to make the fights fun and true to the sport? Was it a focus from the very beginning?

Right from the design, we knew we didn't want to have a fighting system that was a straight "button mashing" contest. We wanted something with some strategy that was close to real hockey fights. We got our resident goon (Jason Carr) to help with the design. It turned out well, but we really didn't get to polish it as much as we would have liked (see the next question).

 

I want to talk a little about the limited options and features in the game, because I think this was a point many game publications and Web sites touched on (including GameCritics.com). For instance, injuries—a common occurrence in the NHL—were left out of NHL2K. I felt this was a big loss considering the punishing body checks in the game and the amount of reserve players available to each team. Considering the game shipped ahead of schedule, could you comment on the things that didn't make it into the game?

First of all, I'll explain what happened with the ship date. We were originally talking to Sega about shipping the game in March 2000, but that date was moved to February to coincide with the All-Star Game. Thus, it was shipped ahead of the original schedule.

However, this reduced our production time by one month in an already tight schedule, and some features we just did not have time to implement. We had to concentrate on areas which were the most important—primarily gameplay issues. We think you'll agree that sacrificing gameplay to put in a "career" option or even injuries is a bad decision. The most important thing is to make the game fun—that's what we focused on and what we accomplished. I wish we had time, but we didn't.

NHL 2K Screenshot

Visual Concepts had more time and money for their Dreamcast sports games. Do you think Black Box got a raw deal by Sega as far as development time and budget for NHL2K? Or was this expected since hockey generally falls below football and basketball in terms of popularity here in the States?

We are thankful to Sega for our deal. By developing NHL2K in half the time of Visual Concept's NFL2K, it puts the question into people's minds "I wonder what those guys at Black Box could have done with the same development time as Visual Concepts had?" It's made us a very popular company.

You are correct that Sega concentrated on the larger NFL and NBA markets first. Thus, NHL took longer to get signed and the development time was reduced.

NHL 2K Screenshot

NHL 2K Screenshot

I noticed in the credits for NHL2K, "special thanks" is given to Visual Concepts. In what capacity where they involved in the game? Were they there for support only or did they contribute to a greater extent?

Visual Concepts provided support at various stages in the project. We decided to incorporate their crowds into our game and a couple of the guys over there went out of their way to make it very a painless process. They were great to work with.

The financial problems of the Canadian hockey clubs really came to a head this NHL season. Do Canadian game developers face similar problems due to higher taxes and the weak dollar?

There are certainly some similarities. We have to provide our employees with a better work environment than what they would find in the States because it is difficult to match the salaries they could earn there. I'm sure other Canadian developers face similar problems. Luckily, Vancouver is such a beautiful city and Black Box offers a uniquely positive work environment, so we do have a lot to offer. We like it here.

Did Sega make any announcements at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) regarding NHL2K1?

No.

What can you tell us about NHL2K1 other than the fact that it will have an online mode?

Nothing, sorry.

NHL 2K Screenshot

What can we expect next from Black Box Games? Any projects under way that you'd like to mention? Any special plans for PlayStation 2?

Black Box will be releasing NASCAR 2001, published by EA, later this summer for the PlayStation. I can't make any comments about the PS2.

In conclusion, is there anything else you'd like to share with our readers regarding NHL2K?

I'd like to personally thank everyone involved in making the game. You guys (and gals!) rock! And thanks to those of you who bought the game. I hope you enjoy it!

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