Recently, Puck Daddy visited the production facilities of 2K Sports in Novato, Calif., as the video game company continues work on its latest hockey title, NHL 2K9. Yesterday, we presented our exclusive sit-down with cover athlete Rick Nash of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Today it's onto the production process (with many Nash-related laughs), and Wednesday we'll go inside the 2K Sports motion-capture studios.
"It's like 'Grandma's Boy' in here," said Rick Nash as he entered the sprawling, labyrinthine production offices of 2K Games in Novato, Calif.
For the uninitiated, the Columbus Blue Jackets star was referencing a 2006 Happy Madison comedy that's based partly around the world of video game testing. While for many its notoriety may end with having won "Best Pot Scene in a Movie" at High Times magazine's 2006 Stony Awards, the film has attainted a certain cult status on DVD and cable. Country club drones have "Caddyshack"; chain restaurant workers have "Waiting ..."; and, judging from the reaction that Nash's comparison received, video game companies have "Grandma's Boy."
2K's headquarters are actually more "Billy Madison" than anything else: An adult playground of offices cluttered with officially licensed schwag; lounges with coin-op video games and pool tables; and vending machines with free soft and energy drinks, all of it tucked inside what resembles a giant airplane hanger from the exterior.
Nash was there to help develop 2K Sports' NHL 2K9, for which he is not only the cover athlete but a contributor to its production process. Mike Rhinehart, senior product manager for 2K Sports, said previous cover athletes like Marty Turco and Joe Thornton have been active participants on different features in their games; in Thornton's case, that meant helping to revamp the way face-offs are depicted and executed.
"To see these guys behind the scenes making it happen, it's pretty interesting," said Nash. "It's something I grew up with as a hobby."
It's still a hobby for millions of gamers. But it's also big business, and Nash is helping to create what could the most important hockey game 2K Sports has ever released -- thanks to a rather popular title called "EA Sports NHL 08."
IT'S IN THE GAME
"For years, 2K's brand of hockey was a step above EA as a true simulation of the sport," wrote Hilary Goldstein of IGN.com in his review of the top-selling NHL 08, "but give credit where it is due: EA finally chucked its desire to marry arcade fun with its simulation and finally got hockey right."
Bill Barnwell, Sports Editor for IGN Entertainment, said EA's NHL 08 shifted the paradigm for video game hockey. "The thing that really struck me about NHL 08 was that it felt like you were playing hockey when you were playing the game," he said. "If you're a hockey fan, you'll notice little things. Like on the power play, the players move in a realistic manner; if the defense is playing a box or a diamond, they'll move accordingly."
NHL 2K8 was no slouch. IGN gave it an 8.5 to NHL 08's 8.6, although the review cited some user-unfriendliness issues: "It sucks that the interface is clunky and brings about memories of spreadsheets and that people are going to scoff at the new system, but if you play hockey games for how real they feel, you've found a winner."
Barnwell -- who said there's a 30-40 percent chance that EA may actually acquire 2K, but "the odds on it happening seem to change on a weekly basis" -- sees nagging differences between the two series. "There certainly things about 2K games that are more realistic than NHL 08, but there are certainly things that are less realistic. Not necessarily in the game itself, in the other features," he said.
For example, simulating a season on NHL 2K8 where Joni Pitkanen scored 80 goals. "It's not like he's the second coming of Paul Coffey. That's a major, major flaw in the AI," he said.
2K Games, a video game publishing subsidiary of Take-Two Interactive (the "Grand Theft Auto" geniuses), decided the best solution was to take total production control of their hockey title. Visual Concepts has been tasked with rebuilding the experience from the ground up to make NHL 2K9 more gamer-friendly.
"We've taken a little bit of a different approach, with a new development team. We're trying to make the game more fun, more approachable," said Ben Bishop, one of the game's producers. "In the end, it's still a simulation of a sport at heart. But we want to bring it back to the days when you could just pick it up and play it. When you get used to it, then you can get more complicated."
He said the production team is cognizant of their fans' gripes -- some of them even coming from NHL players themselves -- and they're listening. "There are always things that you in the media or on the online forums say; about what you wish we could have done better."
So 2KFAN08 on the IGN boards actually has some sway over the development process?
"Oh yeah," Bishop said, "but we don't try and take one guy's opinion. If there's something we see on different forums, then we take it under consideration."
Or if it comes from an NHL All-Star like Rick Nash.
THE GEEK GRILLING
The walls of the conference room were barren, save for a white board. The blinds were drawn. It was an empty canvas, save for the menagerie of casually dressed people seated around a long slab in the middle of the room. Different ages, different ethnicities; fashion choices ranging from basketball shorts to a red Blackhawks jersey to a neon-green T-shirt with an image of a classic NES cartridge located above the words "blow me."
Nash sat down, dressed every bit as casually as his hosts in blue jeans, a T-shirt and a ball cap. The introductions were made by Rhinehart: Rick Nash, meet the people behind the pixels, and vice versa. The production team was there to mine Nash for bits of information, trivia and nuance that could improve the NHL 2K9 gaming experience.
The questions began.
Bishop noted that the goal for this title was to increase the fun factor and the user-friendliness. So he asked Nash what makes video game hockey fun for him.
"I would say the goal-scoring. The more you make the dekes, or the plays between the legs, the special moves that you can do ... everyone plays the games to score those highlight reel goals," he told a captivated audience.
"Like that goal against Phoenix?" Bishop asked, referencing Nash's now-legendary goal from last season.
"Yeah," said Nash, "I just blacked out and the puck is in the net."
Having the guy who scored one of YouTube's greatest goal-scoring hits in front of a gaggle of Web savvy fans was like having Sam Raimi speak to a room of aspiring low-budget horror directors -- they wanted to know the magician's tricks.
"I watch it, and I still can't believe it's me," said Nash.
But he's watched it, analyzed it, even tried to recreate it for CBC Sports since then. "It's actually a pretty simple move. I just did the same move twice.
"If we could turn the cameras off ..." he said, drawing laughter.
To protect the mystery of his classic goal, a brief summary: A little toe drag, a little shielding the puck with his leg and three Coyotes defensive players biting on all of it.
Someone asked about the trick-shot competition introduced at the NHL All-Star Game last season, and whether inventive goal-scorers like Nash could compete with the wizardry of Alexander Ovechkin's attempt. "Other guys can do what Ovechkin did. I just think a lot of guys were nervous," said Nash.
The questions continued.
Toughest goalie he's faced: Roberto Luongo. What's it like to play with Nikolai Zherdev? Fun, but they're not the best line combo considering how much they both enjoy carrying the puck. How did the Blue Jackets play so well against the Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings this season? "That was our coach's claim to fame, beating Detroit," said Nash. "We just pounded them. We didn't try and make plays. Their 'D' are all all-stars."
What's your fighting record?
Nash said he got one bomb in during the brawl; Vandermeer later confided in Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock that he believed Nash might have broken his jaw.
"It went OK," Nash said, acknowledging the hell he caught from his general manager for dropping the gloves. "Everything happens so fast. Trust me, I wouldn't call him out on my own."
Another question: "Have you ever been involved in any locker room pranks?"
Nash looked down for a moment to allow the memories to flood back ... or at least the ones he could share. "Yeah, there are always pranks going on."
Missing socks, missing belts, toes cut out of dress shoes, laces cut on skates. Two years ago, he said, the Blue Jackets called up a player from Syracuse, who showed up with a brand new business suit and an unbridled enthusiasm for being in the NHL. As he participated in the pregame skate, a couple of the Jackets went to the locker room, found the suit, and cut all of his pockets out. The kid comes back in later, gets dressed, goes to place his belongs back in his suit, and then spare change travels through the vandalized pocket down to the floor like a slot machine just paid out.
Ray Whitney had a great prank, he said. "His sister was a cop, and I guess there's some sort of powder that makes you turn purple. [A teammate] was going to world championships, and Whitney put the powder on all his [gear]. When you sweat, your skin literally goes purple, like Barney or something. So his whole arm was purple, his body ... he didn't know what was going on. It was classic."
His hosts asked him about playing for Hitchcock, about his diet, using iPods for breaking down opponents. Did it have anything to do with the making of NHL 2K9? Didn't matter: It was damn good conversation.
Finally, the conversation turned back to game. Nash wants to see more scoring. "It can't be too flashy. You can't have a guy flipping the puck up while he's skating down the ice, doing things you wouldn't see in a real game," he said, hoping for more realistic one-on-one play between defensemen and forwards in the next edition.
One of the developers asked if there was one tendency Nash wanted changed in his own personal player ratings for the game.
"What's my speed at right now?" asked Nash.
"12," was the answer, to laughter around the room.
"Maybe puck possession then," said Nash.
One of Nash's final stops on Day One of his 2K Sports duty was in a professional sound studio, where the production team captured audio from him for use in NHL 2K9.
"We have contextual on-ice player chatter that you'll hear in certain situations while playing the game. Whenever we have a hockey player come to our offices, we ask them to come into the audio room so we can add new player chatter," said Rhinehart.
So Nash got his voiceover on, yelling into the microphone such well-worn hockey phrases as:
• "I'm open!"
• "High slot!"
• "Clear the puck!"
• "Watch the middle!"
• And, because you always need a little trash-talk, "How'd that feel?"
Nash sold every line like a pro. "He's a gamer. He thinks it's an honor, it's a cool thing," said Joseph Resnick, his agent. "He grew up playing games, he still plays them and he loves them."
The next morning, he would literally go inside the game: Donning the black motion-capture body suit, covered in tiny reflectors, resembling an cast-off from a low-budget space adventure you might see at two in the morning on the Sci-Fi Channel.