- The Washington Times - Monday, September 8, 2003

NEW YORK — It looks like Anna Kournikova. From the sinfully short skirt to the dangling knots of her signature ponytail, the computer-generated image on the screen is a near-perfect ringer for the face that launched a thousand downloads.

In fact, there’s only one way to distinguish the real Kournikova from her virtual counterpart.

The digital Anna is always agreeable.

“Anna was a little difficult to work with,” said Microsoft software producer Matthew Seymour, laughing as he recalled an awkward motion-capture session with the pouty-lipped Russian tennis star. “She was just in a foul mood that day. To her credit, though, she’s been great since.”

Indeed. The simulated Kournikova, blonde locks and all, appears alongside Pete Sampras, Lleyton Hewitt and 13 other tennis pros in the upcoming Microsoft video game Topspin.

As for the actual Kournikova, the one who gave Seymour a hard time and missed the U.S. Open with a back injury? She was all smiles two weeks ago, holding a control pad and perkily promoting the game during an afternoon appearance at a Manhattan software store.

Set to release this October for the XBox game console, Topspin is in part an attempt to do for tennis what the well-known John Madden football series has done for the NFL: Create a video game that both enhances and capitalizes on the popularity of its real-world inspiration.

“We had a studio that was really motivated by the fact that if a tennis game came out well, it could do very well in the market, be a big hit,” said Ben Arndt, the game’s product manager.

Easier said than done. While sports simulations account for one third of the $9billion-a-year video game market, software sales charts are dominated by football and basketball games.

To wit: EA Sports’ Madden NFL game was the top-selling sports game and the second-best selling game overall two years ago, popular enough to make EA Sports the NFL’s No.2 licensee, behind footwear and apparel manufacturer Reebok.

Still, Microsoft believes the time is right for virtual tennis, even in an era of stagnant television ratings and financial uncertainty for the actual sport.

“People understand tennis,” Arndt said. “It has the fast-action fun that makes a great video game. At its root, it’s a simple concept: Our game is a super-glorified and thousand times more expensive Pong.”

With more than two years of development time and a production budget exceeding $2million, the makers of Topspin aren’t playing around — despite giving game players an opportunity to toy with a virtual Kournikova. The goal? Create a fun-yet-realistic game that captures the nuances of the sport.

For Seymour, who played tennis for San Diego State in the 1980s, that meant a trip to Park City, Utah, where he hooked up with Warren Pretorius, a South African tennis coach and former ATP pro.

“When I got this gig, Warren actually had to retrain me so I could learn a lot of the new open chest power shots that all the boys and girls do these days,” Seymour said. “He actually ended up being one of my main motion-capture guys.”

Seymour also persuaded eight of the pro players in the game — including Sampras, Hewitt, Kournikova, Martina Hingis and Jan-Michael Gambill — to participate in motion-capture, a process that records an athlete’s movements and translates them into digital form.

During the motion-capture sessions, held in Miami just before last year’s Nasdaq-100 Open, Seymour asked Kournikova and Co. to don dark, formfitting body suits, replete with dozens of sensors. The players then performed tennis moves — such as hitting a serve — on an indoor court, where specialized cameras recorded their movements to within five millimeters.

“Every time we brought someone onto the stage, they all kind of balked,” Seymour said with a laugh. “We had all these cameras, scaffolding, all these people. It was tough. They’re athletes, not actors. When you put them in an action situation, everybody tenses up. And that’s exactly what you don’t want to happen.”

With only a few hours to record each player, Seymour focused on capturing their signature moves, such as Sampras’ overhead smash. In the game, the results look eerily like the real thing.

Hewitt leaps into his shots. Gambill hits his unorthodox two-handed forehand. Kournikova dumps 60mph second serves into her own service box (just kidding).

“Hewitt was sort of a natural,” Seymour said. “Pete was just kind of cool, like, ‘whatever.’ When you’re as good as Pete, you tend to be cool. And Jan-Michael is a huge gamer, so he was all over it.”

Though Topspin is mercifully free of video-game staples such as flaming balls — and players — some aspects of real-world tennis were lost in the digital translation. A subtle “magnetic” effect between the virtual ball and racket makes mis-hits and whiffs unlikely.

Likewise, ball height isn’t a major factor in the game, even though taking the ball on the rise is a big part of the modern power baseline game.

“We fudged that a little bit,” Seymour said. “Though if you catch the ball high and in the right spot, you can still do more with it.”

More fudging: With the press of a button, gamers can make the virtual players display positive or negative “attitude” after each point, such as a fist pump or an angry gripe at the chair umpire. The game’s producers took photos of Kournikova and Co. making various faces — happy, sad and everything in between — in order to accurately depict their emotions.

Though on-court ‘tude is certainly a part of pro tennis — cover boy Hewitt is a prime example — the game’s attitude button sometimes produces unintentionally amusing results. For example: Hingis gives Kournikova a congratulatory pat on the rear with her racket, while Sampras wags his index finger at his opponents and slams his racquet in frustration.

“Pete probably wouldn’t do that in real life,” Arndt admits.

Originally, the game’s producers wanted to include the Grand Slams and the sport’s biggest stages — like the U.S. Open’s cavernous Arthur Ashe Stadium and the red clay of Roland Garros — in the game. After seeing the licensing fees for doing so, however, they balked.

Instead, the game’s artists took field trips to various stadiums and arenas, using digital cameras to snap thousands of reference photos. The result? A stadium in the game that looks almost exactly like Wimbledon’s famed Centre Court — even though it has a different name.

“As a tennis fan, that was important to me,” Seymour said. “But when you talk to kids, they can’t name the stadiums and tournaments. I did a focus group test in Phoenix. We asked them, ‘where’s Roland Garros?’ Nobody had a clue. We asked people where Wimbledon was. Half of them said, ‘Czechoslovakia.’”

For Topspin to be a smashing — pun intended — success, Seymour knows the game will have to overcome similar disinterest. Which, come to think of it, is the same issue facing the real-world sport.

Never mind Kournikova. That’s realism.

“Tennis is a great game,” Seymour said. “It doesn’t take a lot to be a fan. This game is so immersive, so easy to pick up and play, so lifelike that I think even someone who isn’t into tennis will go, ‘damn, this is fun.’ They’ll learn the game through osmosis, and acquire a greater appreciation for it.”



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