Rugby has had an uneasy relationship with videogames. It’s certainly not for lack of compatibility. In many ways, rugby should make an easier transition to videogames than other sports that have seen much more success in the medium. At its most transcendent, rugby flows for phase after phase without interruption or input from the sidelines.

It’s tactical enough to be stimulating without losing its rhythm or becoming pedantic. It’s not a game about coaches or managers, or about whimpering after a tap on the shins. It’s not about protective padding; it’s not tiddlywinks. It’s about crushing physicality up front and blistering pace out wide. In short, rugby’s capacity for emergent gameplay means it should have made the comfortable adaptation to videogames many times over.

And yet it hasn’t. It’s not for lack of trying on the part of publishers. The biggest player in sports gaming, EA Sports, has made five attempts with – at best – middling success. When it comes down to it, only one title has truly captured the imagination of the rugby gaming public, Codemasters’ 1997 Jonah Lomu Rugby.

Wellington-based developer Sidhe is all too aware of this, and its imminent entry into the category, Rugby Challenge, hopes to redress that deficiency.

The Tongan elephant in the room

Jonah Lomu Rugby is still referred to by sports gamers in tones close to reverence. “The name that kept coming up again and again was Jonah Lomu Rugby,” says Mario Wynands, Managing Director at Sidhe. “When we first revealed Rugby Challenge a lot of people came on the forums and said, ‘Oh, great! Make it just like Jonah Lomu Rugby and you’ll be fine.’”

Of course making your game identical to a 14-year-old title is a shortcut to failure, but beneath the nostalgia is an important insight. EA Sports has tried many times over to translate rugby. With Jonah Lomu Rugby, Codemasters distilled it.

“We want to go past and beyond a lot of sports games that come across as very sterile and try to recreate the TV experience,” continued Wynands. “I think [that’s] great for attaining a certain level of entertainment but we wanted to get at what it’s like to play.

“We really wanted to connect the player with those onscreen characters in the way they connected with Jonah Lomu virtually when they were running over the English players. It was a game that was able to capture that in a way that [has been] lost over the years as the focus moved towards, ‘here are your players with all their likeness and their stats, and here’s your team’s stats. Now you’re going to play and your stats are going to go against the other person’s stats.’ There's a sterility that has crept into sports gaming that we hope we’ve overcome.”

A game of three halves

Acknowledging Codemasters’ efforts goes beyond selecting the same legendary ambassador. Rugby Challenge is replete with what associate producer Luke Percy calls “Lomu-isms”, bonuses and Easter eggs that pay tribute to Jonah Lomu Rugby. Team Sidhe will correspond to Team Codemasters, and already the users on Sidhe’s forums are providing their attributes for a community-based team. Then, of course, there’s Team Jonah, an unlockable fifteen Jonahs with maximised statistics, and should players run down a full-back as Jonah, they'll achieve The Catt Memorial Service trophy.

Moreover, Sidhe has set down three design tenets against which all developmental decisions are measured in order to create a powerful experience, says Percy.

The first is capturing the excitement of the rugby world championship, which begins in a month. That means creating a game experience that complements the hype and anticipation of a fervent global rugby public.

Next is creating meaningful moments, continues Percy. Visually, this means a slightly more saturated colour palette, lighting occlusion and the inclusion of such features as a “glory cam” that becomes dynamically available for players to use when they’ve broken the opposition line and are streaking towards the try zone. Elsewhere, cut-scenes show player emotion as they react to the game.

Most importantly, Rugby Challenge has set out to highlight the personalities of players, teams and stadiums. This is the keystone philosophy that influences both of the above items. The crowds in each world cup stadium are rendered individually, and their composure is based on whether it’s a home, away or neutral match. Smaller fixtures will be held in emptier stadiums. Similarly, how meaningful a moment is depends on both the player and the state of the game. For example, running in a try with Sivivatu in the opening minutes of a game against Romania will not elicit the same jubilation as touching down for a match-winner in the closing minutes of a contest against South Africa.

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