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Interview with 5 Star Wrestling's Dan Hinkles

Much like the real-life product it represents, professional wrestling in video games has been monopolised by industry heavyweight WWE for a number of years.

However, as seems to be the case with many other yearly sports franchises, long-time developer Yuke’s and publisher 2K Games have been accused of falling into the trap of peddling a repackaged, recycled and regurgitated annual product that adds little more to the genre besides roster updates and extra shine.

You only have to spend a couple of minutes perusing social media and the game’s online forums to realise that there is clearly a consumer demand for a pro wrestling game that offers a fresh take on the art of sports entertainment. If there’s one thing wrestling fans definitely are, it’s vocal.

And while 2K might not have been listening to players’ criticism and suggestions, an independent British studio made up of hardcore grappling fans definitely has been, and hopes to soon – to steal a phrase – become the voice of the voiceless.

5 Star Wrestling has been a long time coming. In the same vein as an actual independent grappler, it has spent years in development, being constantly iterated and finely tuned, and is now finally ready to make its way onto the main stage. With its PlayStation Network release now only a day away, we had the chance to sit down with main man Dan Hinkles to find out exactly how his company plans to carve out their own niche in the market.

“Let me tell you, it’s been a hell of a couple of weeks,” says Dan, referring to the game’s hectic pre-launch schedule, which has seen his studio Serious Parody feature at both GDC and PAX East in quick succession, before returning to their home base in Dundee to fulfil countless media obligations. For the Bradford-born developer, it’s the culmination of a journey that began much earlier than 2013, when 5 Star Wrestling was originally announced.

“I was on the forums for years, saying I want this feature and that feature… I was on there day in and day out,” explains Dan, who has conceptualised ways to create and improve on wrestling games since a young age; he first turned his hand at creating a management sim when he was around 12 years old.

His initial participation in the online discussion boards was all about trying to become involved, at least in some small way, with contributing to the WWE games franchise. He says: “My whole goal, ultimately, was to get a job with THQ. So I went back to school, I got myself my degrees, and I came out with some kick-arse ideas and plans.”

While the fledgling developer was actually successful in applying for a job at the company, his dreams of having a hands-on role in helping to revitalise the WWE series were quickly shot down. He was told that he would have to start out in THQ’s British studio, working on a racing title, with no prospect of transferring to the US for at least three years – and even then, it wouldn’t be a certainty.

“I was like, ‘I’m a hardcore wrestling guy, what do I know about driving games?’,” says Dan, who at that point came to the tough realisation that he’d be better off going it alone if he ever wanted to work on a pro wrestling title. “So with that, I was like, if that’s the case and I’ve spent all these years working towards what I’m doing here, I’m going to have to start my own company.”

And he did exactly that. Rather than using Kickstarter as a crutch to raise essential capital, Serious Parody have stood firmly on their own two feet right from the beginning. “I managed to find a very good business partner very early on, who invested significantly in the ideas and concepts, and we built it together,” says Dan.

“Then we managed to raise a little bit of government funding to help get settled and all the rest of it, and Wrestling Manager [an iOS management sim] was out, and that did okay. We’ve managed to fight our way here, and we got here.”

With that, the focus of our chat turns to 5 Star Wrestling itself, which Dan has booted up on his PS3. The first thing that strikes me is the character glaring at me through the screen; as a wrestling fan myself, I’m sure he looks more than a little familiar. I soon come to learn that the game’s eight-man roster is made up of characters that parody certain real-life wrestlers, and quickly press Dan as to why exactly the company took such a decision. “Because we’re big fans of wrestling,” he says. “I just wanted to work with wrestlers that people will be familiar with using. When you look at say, Dave Horn’s Action Arcade Wrestling – which is a fantastic game – you don’t know what to expect out of the characters whatsoever; you don’t have that kind of thing. I thought we could have a bit of humour with the parody, too.

“There’s never going to be a WWE vs. TNA game; it just doesn’t happen. We wanted WWE vs. WCW forever, right? We can’t get that, either, but what we can do is we can parody, and have a little fun with that. We are Serious Parody, after all, and that’s kinda what we do!”

Dan starts up a match via 5 Star’s useful quick play option – Curtis Angel vs. Ragnabrok the Conqueror (no resemblances there…) – and the action begins right away. No overcomplicated WWE 2K chain grapples, paper-scissors-stone manoeuvres or the like here. Just straight up wrasslin’.

For a long-time WWE series player such as myself, this is all a refreshing change. Dan admits that he too finds the 2K-produced games increasingly cumbersome, with his frustrations serving as a major source of inspiration for 5 Star Wrestling’s core gameplay. He adds: “The thing for me is, I liked the Smackdown games a lot up until about 2007, and then after that it feels like there’s been something else where you’re like, ‘why have you done that?'”

For the team at Serious Parody, an essential part of the development process has been to return to what made wrestling games great in the past, and look at ways of refreshing and modifying them for today’s audience. For many hardcore wrestling fans, AKI’s N64 games were the pinnacle of video game sports entertainment. Dan seems to share the same view, as he shows off 5 Star’s delightfully simple control scheme: “We just wanted to go back to the No Mercy kind-of style. You flick the right stick up once; it’ll do a move. Flick it down; it’ll do a move. Flick it left and right; it’ll do other moves… We really tried to get it down from a reversal fest into a good flowing game.”

That’s not to say that 5 Star Wrestling is lacking in the manoeuvres it offers, though, with the game boasting more moves per wrestler than any other game. The shoulder buttons are used as modifiers to a grappler’s standard moves, which is where the title’s limb damage system can also come into play.

By using a character who specialises in submissions, such as Curtis Angel or Dynamite Pegasus, players are able to target certain body parts, in anticipation for setting up their finisher. Although WWE’s games include a similar feature, it’s much more expanded upon in 5 Star, with leg damage often rendering grapplers unable to lift their opponent and perform certain moves.

According to Dan, it’s an effective way of creating cool moments and dramatic matches. “It’s just that case of like, ‘holy shit, his knee’s going to blow out at any given point’,” he says, evoking memories of some of the psychology associated with the all-time classic wrestling matches.

Incorporating authentic ring psychology whilst retaining a fast-paced, arcade-style feel has been extremely important to Serious Parody. They’ve had help from the professionals in learning how to structure wrestling matches – be it from local indie promotions, or former A-list wrestling superstars. “DDP [former WCW champion Diamond Dallas Page] came by, which was fantastic,” enthuses Dan. “I got to sit down with him and have a proper chat about psychology and what got the moves over. You need that kind of support from someone who’s been at the very top of the game.”

An important part of wrestling psychology is drawing a distinction between the good guys (‘faces’) and the bad guys (‘heels’). Sports entertainment fans will be used to witnessing all manner of dirty, illegal tactics from heels, but wrestling games, so far, haven’t been very successful in effectively pulling them off. Serious Parody hope to change that, with R3 being reserved for such shenanigans.

“That’s because Ragnabrok’s done a dirty move on me,” says Dan, gesturing to a referee icon that has appeared on-screen after a particularly nasty groin shot by his opponent. “If he does too many of those, he’ll get disqualified. But we also tried to make it so they’re powerful in our game. So if you do a low blow, you should go for a pin afterwards, because you just might get it.”

In terms of core gameplay, 5 Star Wrestling offers several other features that set itself apart from its more established rivals. Dan demonstrates the game’s fully customisable AI and difficulty, which allows players to have fun and experiment with what works best for them. Preset modes include standard, aggressive, stubborn, efficient, and unpredictable. “Unpredictable is literally unpredictable,” clarifies Dan. “Even as the developer, I couldn’t tell you what the AI is going to do. It’ll change its patterns for how fast it grapples. You might be thinking, right, I better press R2 to reverse something here, and the guy’s just going to like, stand on the top rope! He’s going to mess with your head a little.”

Not only that, but the game also incorporates a number of different finishing move variations, a staple of any wrestling match. For example, with Curtis Angel, whilst he’s fresh in the match, he might apply his patented ankle lock standing up. If he’s been through a war, however, he might kneel or even grapevine his opponent’s leg, then struggle to regain his feet afterwards. “You’ve got that feeling of progression; even just on your normal finishing moves,” says Dan. “If you compare that to the WWE games; how often do you see the same animation for a finishing move – it just becomes boring and repetitive sometimes.”

One thing 5 Star Wrestling’s manoeuvres are not is boring. Featuring finisher-to-finisher reversals, situational variations and more; every single move has been meticulously hand animated by the game’s developers, explains Dan. “We would’ve loved to have done mo-cap and stuff, but that’s very expensive – especially for a small studio,” he adds. “So we had guys in here animating, and some of the results have been fantastic… You can just put a little extra character into some of the animations, and that helps.”

Demonstrating the various game modes on offer, Dan walks me through 5 Star Wrestling’s various match types: standard; pinfall only; submission match; 2-out-of-3 falls; no holds barred; first blood, falls count anywhere and last man standing. He hopes to expand on this number, as well as the game’s roster, through future DLC updates that the company have already planned for.

Dave Meltzer fans will be pleased to learn that each match in 5 Star Wrestling is graded – appropriately – based on a five-star rating system, which takes into accounts the many facets of a real-life pro wrestling contest. Dan tells me that when some of the wrestlers from a local promotion tried out the game, they were able to predict the rating in nine out of ten matches. “That was really rewarding for me; I loved seeing that,” he says. “I felt like we’d nailed some of stuff.”

This rating system also comes into play in 5 Star’s main Challenge Mode, which offers players up to a 40-hour campaign in which they can earn coins in order to unlock alternate attires and new arenas. This involves playing through a number of matches and scenarios, where they must complete a number of set objectives – as well as earn a 5-star rating – in order to receive the most amount of money. “It’s incredibly hard in some scenarios – it’s not impossible, but it’s damn hard,” says Dan, who explains that although the developers don’t expect all players to complete every single challenge and receive a 5-star rating on every match, they wanted to make it especially challenging so that both casual and hardcore players get a sense of increasing difficulty.

For an independent team that has averaged around 15 members at any one time during the three years of the game’s development, Serious Parody are rightfully proud of what they’ve managed to achieve – and Dan can’t wait for players to finally get their hands on 5 Star Wrestling. “I just love all of the different ideas that we managed to get in,” he says. “Other wrestling games haven’t got this stuff. I know we’ve only got a small roster, but we did that on purpose; we could’ve had a 200-man roster if we didn’t want all of this, you know? But we wanted to have all of the good wrestling; there’s no point in having 200 guys that have only got five moves.

“So yes, it does only have eight guys on the roster, but it’s just got so much more, man. So much more.”

5 Star Wrestling releases exclusively for PS3 tomorrow (March 17) in North America, and Wednesday in Europe and Australasia, priced at $24.99/€24.99 (UK RRP has yet to be announced). Our full review of the game will be available later in the week.

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  • rob ♣

    Can’t wait for this to drop on Steam.