AFL Evolution 2 Interview: Gameplay Improvements, Release Dates And The Challenges Of Developing An AFL Game

We’ve just ticked over into March, and being based in Melbourne that means that the AFL season is mere weeks away and nothing else matters until your team is mathematically out of finals contention – which hopefully as a Carlton supporter isn’t as early in the season as history suggests. I’ve been holding out for round one for months, and last week’s State of Origin (All-Star) match further fuelled my excitement for the coming season.

But that’s not the only footy-related thing I am excited for this year. After hanging up the boots a couple of years ago, the only way I can indulge myself in football glory these days (let’s be honest: Carlton has had more than few leans years of late) is by dominating the digital football field in AFL Evolution. The game may have had its fair share of issues, but it was still an AFL game for current console generations, and one AFL game is better than no AFL game.

However, AFL Evolution was released in 2017, and much like the Bryce Gibbs to Adelaide trade in the same year it hasn’t aged well. But in a somewhat surprising move a little under 18 months after AFL Evolution’s release, developer Wicked Witch and publisher Tru Blu Entertainment announced AFL Evolution 2 with a 2019 release window. Unfortunately, due to a number of reasons – including a change of game engines – the game was delayed to late 2019 and then later to 2020, causing much frustration among the passionate fans holding out for the game.

But it’s now the eve of the 2020 AFL season and there are no more excuses for the game not to release at some stage during the season. Recently I was able to speak with Adrian Harrison, AFL Evolution 2’s director in a fairly candid interview that discussed the challenges the studio has faced with AFL Evolution 2, the change of engines, new features and when footy fans can get their hands on the game.

Nothing better than footy under lights

WellPlayed: One of the biggest criticisms surrounding the game’s development is the perceived lack of communication and gameplay footage. Is this something you’re aware of and hopefully looking to address? Or is the lack of updates due to contractual restrictions?

Adrian Harrison: We wish we could do more in this area. We do have contractual restrictions in this regard, so please understand that it can be just as frustrating for us as it is for fans when we can’t answer questions or provide insight into the development process. Released images or footage have to go through an approval process with both the AFL and our publisher. We provide requested images or footage but ultimately we don’t handle the day-to-day marketing of the game. We do actively lookout for feedback, so even when we aren’t speaking we are listening closely.

All that said, regarding early release of footage and features, this is always a tricky balance. We can certainly understand trying to be careful not to talk about things that might end up being significantly different or even cut from the final product due to time or technical reasons as this can be interpreted as a ‘promise’ being broken to fans. In the past when we’ve publicly shown content that’s in-development we’ve also had backlash from fans over it being unfinished and in-progress. While this is a fair criticism, it leads to concerns over the perceived quality of the final game. This is particularly true when it comes to gameplay footage as it changes significantly over the course of development, so from that standpoint we can understand wanting the final product to be judged on its most polished state.

WP: What influenced the decision to change engines midway through development and what benefits does Unreal Engine 4 provide?

AH: One of the key influences for switching to Unreal Engine 4 is thinking about the future of AFL titles. We’re hopeful that as the next generation of consoles is released we’ll be ready for them. We can take full advantage of the power of the Unreal Engine to have a real step-up in graphical quality from our previous game. Additionally, Unreal’s art pipeline allows us to speed up our development time. It also enables us to free up resources to concentrate on areas that fans care about.

WP: How much involvement does the AFL have in the game’s development, whether it’s marketing, producing or design decisions? What is it like working with such a huge organisation?

AH: The AFL has been a great partner to work with. They lend marketing support, handle approval of content, approval of team line-ups and player ratings, and they’ve been very involved in testing the gameplay and offering suggestions and recommendations to make sure the game is both true to the real game and fun to play.

WP: Delaying the game to the end of 2019, well after the season finished, didn’t make sense to a lot of fans. Was the decision to further postpone the game’s launch to 2020 simply to align it with the 2020 season or did the game’s scope widen with the new engine?

AH: Both of these reasons. Fans clearly wanted the game during the 2020 season rather than at the end of 2019, and it also gave us additional time to polish the end product. There were also 2 additional ‘features’ that were added during this time period that otherwise would not have been included.

Kick it to Toby

WP: I know we likely can’t get a release date out of you, but can you at least tell us if you’re aiming to have the game released before (or at) the start of the 2020 season?

AH: Our goal as developers is to have the game ready as early before the start of the 2020 season as possible. The obvious factor influencing this is dev time and we’re happy to say we have met our development goals for the start of 2020. Getting the game out for the start of the season is very tight schedule-wise due to the long lead time from less obvious factors such as licensing approvals, marketing asset production, marketing scheduling with the AFL season, manufacturing time and distribution. Based on manufacturing time we can already say it will not be out by Round 1. We’ll have more news about the release date in the near future.

WP: It’s fair to say that AFL Evolution had a mixed reception. What are the key areas you wanted to improve on this time around? What’s something you’re most proud of about AFL Evo 2?

AH: One of the key areas that we’ve focused on for this game is the gameplay and AI behaviour. Our goal is to create a game that’s both realistic and fun to play. There are elements of the way Evo 1 played that we wanted to keep, areas that we wanted to tweak and some elements that have been redone completely. The AI and formations have also had a big upgrade for this game. We’re excited to see what you think of the new gameplay and looking forward to launch.

We’re very proud of the scope of the game. AFL Evo 2 includes the leagues that were added in the DLC for Evo 1 and we’re very happy that players can play not just the AFL, but the AFLW, VFL, SANFL, WAFL, NEAFL, U18 Championships, U18 League, International and more. The game’s graphical quality is another element we’re proud of. This is something we take to heart, because part of having a great realistic AFL game is having it look realistic. This is something we’ve heard and received fan criticism on for AFL Evo 1 so we’ve focused on improving this and if you view Evo 1 and Evo 2 side by side we’re very happy with the clear visual upgrades.

WP: One feature I’d love to see is a proper training mode (similar to FIFA), where players could learn the controls and how to time them correctly. Is this something you’ve considered adding?

AH: This is something we actively considered for this game. Ultimately we decided to allocate the resources to other areas of the game and go a different direction by instead having extensive text help and video tutorials available in the game. The video tutorials also allow us to post them online allowing users the ability to consult them on their phone at any time while playing the game.

WP: Are you able to confirm whether the 2019 draft class was scanned for the game?

AH: Yes, they were scanned; we endeavour to get all players we possibly can scanned for the game, but players have differing amounts of time spent on matching their likeness. We have multiple categories that determine how much time is spent on getting each players likeness as close to real-life as possible. The high end of this is the star veteran players that everyone knows and recognises.

WP: How have you determined player ratings for AFL Evo 2? Have you considered partnering with Champion Data for that part?

AH: Player ratings have been determined based on a variety of factors, the largest of which is past and current form. In AFL Evo 2 an individual players rating will vary based on which position they choose to play in. The skills required for a ruckman may vary significantly from those required for say a general forward and their rating in that position will reflect that. The AFL has also been active in monitoring the player ratings and we’re grateful for their support. We’re continuing to examine our options going forwards regarding taking data from external sources.

WP: AFL Evolution featured a rather robust set of creation tools, however Create A Team lacked a little depth. Is this something you’ve fleshed out in AFL Evo 2?

AH: This is a little hard to answer without knowing more specifically what you’re interested in so I’ll just mention some general things. Your team’s guernsey numbers and tactics will be able to be fully customised and we have an additional feature which I’m not allowed to discuss yet, to add additional options for customising your teams.

WP: While on the topic of deeper features, will AFL Evo 2 have a deeper Career Mode/Coach Mode, expanding on things like recruiting and list management?

AH: Yes, I can confirm that there have been expansions to Coach Mode in Evo 2. Sadly I can’t really go into more specifics at this stage, but we’re excited to see what fans think of the changes.

WP: One of AFL’s greatest appeals is the unique combination of elements (kicking, handballing, marking etc.). It’s a lot more complex than other popular sports with video games, such as soccer (football). Just how hard is it to transform the sport of AFL and its variables into a video game?

AH: Yes, this is one of the biggest challenges with making an AFL game. There are a huge array of actions that players can take which changes vastly depending on the situation and context. This means a large number of animations need to be created to cover the various possibilities. It can be also tough to find a good balance between how much direct control the player should have and how many actions they can perform. This can even be problematic with finding available controller button combinations to allow more actions.

To call out some other areas that are also problematic compared to other sports: The number of players and umpires is much higher than many other popular sports, making it tougher to optimise. The shape of the ball leads to its behaviour being quite different compared to a standard round ball and additional time has to be spent on this to get this working just right. A much less obvious issue is that some of the rules also try to take into account the ‘intent’ of the player, which as you can imagine can be difficult for an AI to determine.

WP: What sort of post-launch support and content are you planning for? Do you have any plans for next-gen consoles and AFL Evolution 2?

AH: We’re still in discussion with the publisher as to what shape post-launch plans will take. They’re the best people to ask this question to after the game launches. We’re positioned well to transition to next-gen console development thanks to our usage of Unreal. But we are also interested to see how extensive the backwards compatibility of the next generation consoles is and how this affects the lifespan of AFL Evolution 2.

Now that’s a good looking deck

WP: Thank you for your time and good luck with the rest of game’s development, we can’t wait to play it. Go Blues!

AH: Thanks for your support! We hope you and other fans enjoy the game we’ve spent so long working on.

AFL Evolution 2 will release in 2020 on PS4, Xbox One and PC.

Co-Founder & Managing Editor of WellPlayed. Sometimes a musician, lover of bad video games and living proof that Australians drink Foster's. Coach of Supercoach powerhouse the BarnesStreet Bois. Carlton, Burnley FC & SJ Sharks fan Get around him on Twitter @tightinthejorts