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Interview: Making AO Tennis 2 a Grand Slam winner

We speak to Big Ant Studios about the development of AO Tennis 2 and the pressure to improve on last year’s instalment.

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Big Ant Studios

AO Tennis 2 is the second officially licensed Australian Open video game from Big Ant Studios. We talk to CEO Ross Symons about its development and the pressure to improve on last year’s instalment.

AO Tennis 2 – which is developed in partnership with Tennis Australia – is billed as a significant upgrade on its predecessor and includes a plethora of new features and gameplay improvements.

The headline addition is a revamped and narrative-focused career mode, similar in structure to Codemasters’ impressive F1 campaigns and FIFA’s The Journey. The studio’s full-featured content editor also returns, giving players the tools to create everything from venues and players to car parks and uniforms. It also helps players fill the gaps that the game’s licence doesn’t cover to create a comprehensive simulation of the sport.

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We spoke to Big Ant Studios CEO Ross Symons on the eve of the 2020 Australian Open to find out more about this year’s game.

Thumbsticks: AO Tennis 2 includes a new, narrative-driven career mode. Why did you decide to take this approach?

Ross Symons: One of the things that people love about tennis is the personalities that are involved; people have their favourite players, and watch their careers, with the highs and lows that it entails. When looking at AO Tennis 2, we wanted to find a way of reflecting that – tennis is as much about what happens off the court than on, so giving players a chance to engage with that side of the sport was important.

What is the most challenging aspect of adding narrative elements to the game?

We had to build a lot for the narrative career mode – we needed to build the manager’s rooms and the press conferences for the cut scenes, for example. We also needed to find a way of balancing what occurred through those scenes, and making sure they had some impact on the development of the player’s career.

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To do that we needed to introduce new systems (such as the reputation system) and new mechanics to go with that. It was a lot of work. We think that the results have been more than worthwhile, though, and a lot of fans have come up to us to say they appreciate what we’ve done there.

AO Tennis 2 screenshot

The first AO Tennis game had a slightly rocky launch, but it was much improved by a series of patches and updates. Did you take anything from that experience and apply it to the development of AO Tennis 2?

We always take fan feedback on board at Big Ant Studios. It’s a core principle that drives our team and we use that feedback to help inform our development. AO Tennis’ improvements came thanks to the excellent feedback and support of a truly passionate community of fans, and AO Tennis 2 is the next stage in that ongoing evolution.

Speaking of that community, Big Ant’s content editor has a devoted user base. How important is the editor to AO Tennis 2, and do you see it as a key component of the studio’s future games?

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Our content creation suite has been a point of pride in our games for a very long time now, and we continue to build on it as we can. Whether it’s Tennis, Cricket, Rugby League, or another property that we’ve worked on, we’ve always wanted to provide that sandbox experience that allows players to take the game, and make it their own in every way.

Being able to share content online also means that we’re able to give our players an endless well of new experiences to enjoy. You’re right that we’ve got an enormously devoted community – AO Tennis 2 has over 20,000 players available to download already! It adds great value to the game for everyone.

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AO Tennis 2 screenshot

AO Tennis 2 stars some of the sport’s biggest players, including Rafael Nadal, Ash Barty, and Angélique Kerber. How do you approach bringing such distinctive athletes into the game and representing them accurately in-game?

With a lot of research. We make sure we take the highest quality photogrammetry of each player that we can – and we personally take control of the photography to ensure that it’s of a universally high standard. Then we sit down and watch hours of videos to understand how each player moves and behaves on the court.

We’re lucky that we’ve got a lot of passionate tennis fans at Big Ant, who have a great eye for the subtleties of the sport, and a great respect for how individual the game really is.

As a Melbourne-based studio, do you feel a sense of responsibility in developing the official game of the Australian Grand Slam? 

It’s not just that we’re Melbourne-based – we’re just a couple of minutes walk from the tennis precinct itself! Yes, we do feel a great deal of responsibility for making sure that our game reflects the energy and excitement of the biggest tennis event in the southern hemisphere.

Luckily we’ve been able to work very closely with Tennis Australia themselves, who are very much fans of video games and want to give tennis fans the complete experience – watch the games at the venue, and then come home and recreate your favourite moments on your gaming console.

Are they any aspects of the Australian Open that give the tournament a specific flavour that you try to capture?

Melbourne Park is such an iconic venue. It’s not just a court where people play tennis. It’s a space that, after many years now, has a heritage and history that deserves respect. We’ve gone to great lengths (and worked closely with Tennis Australia) to make sure that we’ve got the small details of this venue down right for the game.

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Generally speaking, the Australian Open is well-regarded as “the happy slam,” so we also wanted to make sure that AO Tennis 2 reflects that positive celebration of the sport that the crowds that come to the event have come to love.

AO Tennis 2 screenshot

Big Ant Studios produce games across a range of platforms, from iOS and Android to Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. How do you work to scale your games across platforms of such varying capabilities?

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We develop our own engines and technology at Big Ant, and having that extra level of control over the engine allows us to be more flexible and creative with it. As a result, we’re able to work rapidly to bring our games to new platforms.

AO Tennis 2 feels like a significant step up from the first game. Do you plan to continue your partnership with the Australian Open, and what else can we look forward to from Big Ant in 2020?

While we can’t discuss future development plans in any detail, we can say that we remain committed to our existing properties, and we’re always on the lookout for new opportunities. It’s going to be an exciting couple of years for sports fans, so stay tuned!

AO Tennis 2 is available worldwide on PC. The Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One versions are out now in Europe and Australia, and will come to North America on February 11, 2020.

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Thumbsticks editor and connoisseur of Belgian buns. Currently playing: Paper Mario: The Origami King, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and Pikmin 3 Deluxe.