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Some see PGA Tour 2K21 as a return of license golf to gaming. But really, it hadn’t disappeared. Since EA stopped its PGA series in 2015, HB Studios has published and been running The Golf Club and its sequel for PC and consoles. And when 2K acquired the pro golf license, it did a version of The Golf Club for 2K Sports.
But this year, HB Studios was back launching a game with “PGA” in the name. PGA Tour 2K21 hit PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Switch in August. It impressed me not just with its simulation of golf but also with how well it does teaching you its systems — something past golf games have struggled with. My kids were able to pick it up fairly quickly.
But it hit me on an emotional level as well. My dad, brother, and I used to golf together, but after his death in 2012, I’ve barely played. I miss it. After spending some time with PGA Tour 2K21, I got the ol’ sticks out and took some swings, and I’ve looked into finding an instructor to teach me how to swing without my old 300-pound fat-guy gut in the way for when I feel it’s safe after the pandemic. I also hope to get my kids into the game.
In October, I talked to HB Studios senior producer Shaun West. We talked about how having a big sports publisher like 2K onboard helps the company make a better game, about golf and the pandemic, and about folks using the digital version to get back into the sport (as I have).
This is an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: This is the first time you’ve made this game for 2K. How is it different from what you’ve done before?
Shaun West: Topgolf in 2019 was published by 2K, but that relationship started very late. They came in and we started working with them on how we could release the game and publish it under their brand. But yeah, this release, 2K21, was the first whole development cycle working with them. It’s been an amazing process and opportunity for me personally. Being able to work with such a professional company, and the amount of reach that they have to help us add more content through licensing, that helped us elevate this product to what it is now. We were already partnered with PGA Tour, so we had that going for us. We were already in there working in the career mode and building up that experience.
But 2K helped bring in more brands for the customization side, working with people like Adidas and Ralph Lauren on clothing, or Taylor Made and Callaway on the club side. Finding ways to create compelling features around that type of content was fun. Being part of that process was a great experience. And then obviously on the marketing side, the amount of visibility that they’re able to bring through the launch of the game, putting together trailers and different materials, posting on social media and really driving people to this product at the launch and afterward, going on a month and a half now, it’s been a huge difference having them fully integrated into the team and helping push the franchise forward. I’m excited to be a part of it.
GamesBeat: When you note that they’re able to help you with getting more sponsorships, is that just because they have more people, more relationships to handle that?
West: That definitely helps. But I think at the same time, in the past, when we were an indie developer and reaching out to some of these people as just HB Studios, they don’t know who we are or what product we’re bringing to the table. 2K has a good track record. They’re well known around the world. They bring a bit of leverage to those conversations and help bring the initial introductions to the table. We’ve worked from the HB side with a lot of these brands, but having 2K facilitate those introductions and bring those opportunities to the table has been a huge help.
GamesBeat: What about on the technical side? Was 2K able to provide anything that helped you, or was it more of a case of, you have the technical side down, and it’s more support on biz dev?
West: It’s mostly focused on the business side, through publishing and licensing. They did help support us through outsourcing things like motion capture. We worked with 2K on that. But generally we at HB have the development team, and we focus on all of the actual game integration side of things.
Getting back into golf
GamesBeat: One thing I was interested in when I started playing — I’m a long-time golfer. I started golfing when I was 10. When I was a sportswriter, I wrote about golf. And then when my father died a few years ago, I let it go. Playing this has gotten me wanting to get back into it. I’ve taken some swings. I’m looking for a swing coach. I’m looking for a place to get my kids lessons to get into the game.
Do you hear stories like that, before or after you came to 2K, about people who got interested in golf through this game?
West: Yeah, absolutely, and I love to hear about that experience for you, knowing that we’ve been able to deliver a product that represents the sport in a way you felt compelled to be pulled back into it, make that investment. Golf isn’t the easiest thing to pick up for some people. Having that to ignite your interest and go back into it is exciting to hear. It’s something we hear about off and on. People picking up the game for the first time, maybe not even realizing — they know what golf is, but they’ve never picked up a club. Playing through this experience has made them want to go to a driving range or a Topgolf or a Mini Putt to play the sport and pick it up. It’s interesting to see how that plays into the opinions of people and what they think about golf and whether they want to be involved in it.
On the other side, too, we see comments where some people are not capable of playing golf anymore, whether because of age or disability or anything on those lines. They’ve been able to pick up our game and get that fix that they’re not able to get out in the public, playing through our game. It’s great to see both sides of it, seeing people drive out to the real experience through our game and also be able to recreate that authentic experience and feeling they’ve had through our game while they can’t go and realize it themselves anymore.
GamesBeat: When you’re building this, do you build it with a sense of, maybe we’ll work on this or that component because it helps people who used to play golf or want to play golf again? Or is that just a by-product?
West: I think it’s kind of a by-product, but at the root of everything we do, starting from the first iteration of the golf club — we continue to keep this as one of the core pillars of what we push forward in every iteration. That’s recreating the authenticity of the game. Not only through the environments and courses we’re trying to put in the product, but also the physics simulation, how the ball reacts on the terrain, and from the club face. Continuing to expand on that experience this year, we put in club attributes and other varying effects there. It’s balanced across the board so there’s not one club set that’s better than another. But depending on how you build out your bag, you can have very different experiences on the course. We put a lot of effort into understanding the physics of what a real golf ball does on the course in different conditions, on different types of terrain, and try to make that an authentic experience. I think that’s why some people, especially those who have a lot of experience playing golf, appreciate what we’ve been able to put into the gameplay side of things.
GamesBeat: What about those who’ve never played before? Do you look at this as you’re not just teaching them to play the game, you’re teaching them to play golf?
West: Absolutely. This year, too, we put a very large focus on trying to improve that kind of barrier to entry. In the past, we’ve had what could be considered a hardcore experience. It’s very brutal, like the real game can be if you’re not at the top level. We’ve introduced difficulty levels that allow you to add various visual aids or assists to different aspects of the swing to help you be more accurate and be successful at shooting lower scores, if that’s what you’re interested in doing. And also, at the top end, you can make it as realistic as you want. I could play on the hardest level and shoot worse than I do in real life. There’s a very wide range that we’ve introduced to the game as far as how you can customize and control that experience to what you want to see. But we’ve definitely focused on those players with little experience with golf, trying to make that initial experience a pleasant one, and not extremely punishing.
GamesBeat: I was surprised by the tutorial on how to shape shots. That’s a challenging concept for a casual golfer to get and understand. I felt it was easier to do it in the game than it has been in games in the past. So much so that my children could understand it. How hard was that to nail down?
West: That’s great to hear. The tutorials are very difficult. Golf is a complicated sport. There are so many nuances that go into every little piece of it. Trying to recreate a draw or fade on a real course can be a pain on the worst of days. Trying to create controls that allowed you to do that, and also make them easily understandable, is definitely a difficult process. We went through a lot of testing and had people internally going through the flow, people who weren’t necessarily the most adept at golf. We did user tests, focus tests around it to nail down that flow and make sure that people coming in for the first time had a positive experience at the end of it, and they had a solid understanding of how to play the game.
GamesBeat: When you look at the effect your series has, before or after 2K, do you make these games with a sense that it will help other courses and get more people on a course, in addition to people playing the game? Or is that something that isn’t really part of your purview, or just a by-product of what you do?
West: It’s definitely not at the forefront, but I think there’s an interest from us, again, to be able to recreate an authentic experience that compels people to go and try the real thing. We’ve put a lot of effort, especially in the licensed courses, to go out to them, scan them, get them in the product, replicate the events that are held there as close to 1:1 as possible. Some of those are public courses that people can go and play locally. The amount of detail that we track can help draw people to that experience, and hopefully, they can benefit from that.
GamesBeat: Have you noticed that because some people are still not going out to courses, even though many have reopened, they’re creating their home tracks in the course creator?
West: The course editor is an awesome tool. People have been creating a lot of great content with it. I haven’t been keeping a close eye on what kind of courses have been created personally, but I know there’s a lot of great ones out there. I’ve been keeping my plays on my licensed courses, working my way through career mode now that we’ve launched.
GamesBeat: During this time of COVID-19, are you hoping that PGA Tour is able to help courses stay afloat and get people back on the course?
West: You know, I think — I appreciate that some people definitely can’t, or have decided not to, go to a course because of the restrictions around COVID-19 or because they’re being cautious about these conditions. But I think golf has been one of the sports in general that has been able to cope in the COVID-19 condition. My local course where I’m a member did a great job this year. We’re coming to the end of our season up in Nova Scotia because of the cold weather, but they were very pleased with what they were able to accomplish, given the circumstances. With social distancing and the things that have been done around the cups, courses have done a great job at remaking themselves. I hope that we’re not in this situation much longer and things can go back to normal, but at the same time, being able to prove that they have what it takes to adapt to the times and be able to maintain the sport in these conditions has been great.
GamesBeat: When it comes to the additional support you’re getting from 2K, have you seen that reflected in sales or player numbers compared to last year?
West: There’s definitely been a benefit to it. The game’s been doing really well. There’s a lot of comments on social media and through our forums as well. There’s a lot of activity. We’ve definitely seen the benefit from what the team here has been able to do as far as 2K bringing it to market. They’ve given us a great opportunity here, and people seem to love what we’ve put out there.
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