It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a new edition of the Ultimate Fighting Championship in video game form, but that will be changing in the not-too-distant future, as the UFC has struck a deal with video game publisher THQ.
In a story first reported by entertainment trade journal Variety, THQ has signed a five-year contract with Zuffa to be the exclusive publisher of UFC video games through the end of 2011 for “all console and portable platforms, as well as wireless devices.”
While no specific game platforms have been announced for the first UFC game from THQ, the primary platforms for UFC games in the future would seem likely to be the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, though modified versions of UFC games could also be released for the less powerful and younger-skewing Nintendo Wii.
Drastically altered versions of the games could also be released for portable systems such as the Nintendo DS or Sony PSP in order to maximize revenue and help offset the higher development costs of Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 games.
THQ is not a company that develops video games itself; THQ is a game publisher that hires game developers to create games. THQ funds and supervises the development of these games, and THQ is then responsible for marketing the finished products.
The quality of future UFC video games will be heavily dependent on which developer(s) THQ has contracted to develop the games. In an interview with IGN, THQ executive Kelly Flock refused to answer when he was asked to name the developer of the game.
THQ is also the publisher of WWE video games, and the fact that WWE and UFC games will now be released by the same game publisher has upset the management of WWE, which has seen its domestic pay-per-view buyrates collapse in the same year that the UFC’s PPV buyrates skyrocketed.
In early 2005, the UFC started airing on the same cable network as WWE (Spike TV), and when WWE’s contract with Spike TV came up for renewal later in 2005, Spike TV made the choice to break off all renewal negotiations with WWE, which then returned to USA Network for significantly lower rights fees than it had been receiving from Spike TV.
THQ’s Flock said in an interview with Variety, “We see WWE as an entertainment brand, while UFC is a true sports brand.” The WWE games that have been published by THQ had been fairly well received from a critical standpoint for years, but have received decidedly mixed reviews over the past few years.
THQ previously published “Pride FC” for the PlayStation 2, a game that is widely regarded as the best MMA game to date. As for UFC-branded video games, the first effort on the Sega Dreamcast was well-received, but the last several UFC games from publishers such as Crave Entertainment, TDK Mediactive, and Global Star Software (a brand of Take-Two Interactive) were almost universally panned by critics.
Video games based on MMA are inherently difficult to create due to the complexity of the sport and the fact that fights can end in any number of different ways, which makes it hard for developers to create an entertaining, but still true-to-life gameplay experience.
When asked by IGN about the degree of difficulty in such a project, Flock acknowledged, “We’re well aware of this difficulty to made this game work out, especially the mechanics, and Zuffa, LLC was also aware of this when they picked us to publish their game.”
THQ has been mum on the details regarding its first UFC game. The Variety and IGN articles said that the game would include online multi-player functionality (which is a given for any sports game) and would feature “current and former UFC fighters.”
The specific fighter line-up could be a key factor, as previous UFC games were missing some notable fighters who wanted to be paid fees or royalties for their video game appearances in the same way that athletes in any other sport are paid when they appear in video games. In football, basketball, baseball, hockey, and other sports, this is handled through the Player’s Association of each respective sport.
THQ’s Flock also said that he envisions new releases once per year after the first UFC game has been released, as he said to IGN, “UFC lends itself to an annual update, so we expect to have annual iterations of the game with new features, updated and upgraded graphics and gameplay, the whole deal.”
No titles or release dates have been announced, though the Variety article said that the first game would likely be released in late 2007 or in 2008.
However, given the fact that the deal between Zuffa and THQ was just signed in late 2006 and that a new gameplay engine is presumably being created for the game, a late 2007 release date would seem to be very unlikely. A one-year development cycle would be unusually short and seemingly rushed for the first generation of a new game franchise running on a new gameplay engine.
Beyond the core gameplay itself and the features that are standard for any sports or fighting game, fans of previous MMA video games will also be interested to know what innovations the game will offer in its “Season” or “Career” modes, how deep the simulation aspects of the game will be, and how many fighters the game will include. It’s conceivable that the game could feature dozens of fighters, given the massive size of the UFC’s real-life roster.
THQ’s biggest motivation for signing a deal with the UFC is obvious. A top-selling video game can generate tens of millions of dollars in revenue or more, and the UFC’s popularity has exploded over the past two years.
THQ’s Flock said to IGN, “The popularity of the UFC has really kicked into gear. It’s amazingly popular right now. We saw the numbers, how it was taking off, how our demographic was interested, and we felt like it was time to bring it back to the interactive arena. The response from people [who] know about it all think this is a great move.”