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How Rugby 24 is the start of Nacon’s “new cycle” in a World Cup year

Nacon's product manager Clément Nicolin tells The Loadout all about the upcoming Rugby 24 title and how Big Ant Studios is looking to change the game.

Rugby 24 interview: A player in a red kit kicks a conversion at dusk in Rugby 22

Rugby fans haven’t exactly been spoiled for choice with games over the years, but Nacon is looking to change that. While the Rugby series has had mixed success, the French publisher is hoping a new developer – and a new licence – is going to change its fortunes.

And that’s because this year, Rugby 24, is being handled by Big Ant Studios, an Australian developer, which has, over the last ten years, made a name for itself in the sporting market, making games such as Cricket 22, Tennis World Tour 2, Rugby League Live 4, and more.

Now, armed with the licence for this year’s Rugby World Cup and plenty of “fresh” ideas, Big Ant Studios is ready to put its spin on Rugby Union. To find out more about the process and understand what both Nacon and Big Ant are cooking up ahead of the Rugby 24 release date, we spoke to Nacon product manager, Clément Nicolin.

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The Loadout: Could you talk us through the development of Rugby 24 and explain why it’s changing hands this year?

Clément Nicolin: Nacon has a long history of rugby games. We started with Rugby 15 for the World Cup at the time, then it was Rugby 18, Rugby 20, Rugby 22, and now Rugby 24. Eko Software, a Parisian studio, was developing the former rugby rugby games for us, but now Big Ant Studios is taking over the development. For us, it’s the chance to start a new cycle.

The idea with Big Ant Studios was to acquire an expert in sports and that’s really their specialty. They did rugby games in the past, so for us it was natural to give them this project as they have some fresh ideas.

Big Ant has been hinting about a Rugby World Cup game for a while. I can remember tweets from early last year where the CEO was talking about talking to licensing teams. Was that a factor for you in switching developers – the fact that they had that Rugby World Cup licence?

Here at Nacon we have a licensing team who is working with Big Ant on licences and the World Cup was actually one of joint negotiations we had. So it’s not like they had the licence and we wanted to work with them. They already knew that they were going to work on a rugby game with Nacon, and for us, having the Rugby World Cup licence was a priority since the competition is in France.

It made a lot of sense to push for that and being able to secure it was big for everybody. It wasn’t easy and it’s been a lot of hard work, but it’s been amazing.

Will all the World Cup teams be fully licensed and will they have photogrammetry?

There are still a few details to manage on that. We will soon be able to announce the full roster of competition and teams we have in the game. We’re not yet ready to make it public, but what I can already say is that the roster will be bigger than ever and have the highest quality we’ve ever had in a rugby game as well.

130 teams was the number being banded about, right? 

Yes, that’s just the number for the national teams and we have all the licences.

Rugby 24 interview: Antoine Dupont takes the ball out the back of a scrum in Rugby 22

Big Ant is known for its customization offerings. What will Rugby 24 bring to the table?

Yes, Big Ant is known for that and we will continue moving this direction. So the user generated content system they have will be part of the next Rugby game. On where we want to go forward with that, it’s giving the players more options in terms of body type, the shape of the face of the player they’re creating, and so on.

Is there something in particular as someone that’s worked on previous games that you’re super excited to get into the hands of players for Rugby 24?

There are a lot of things I can’t say right now, even if I want to! But I think one of the elements is definitely being able to play the World Cup because it’s the big party for rugby worldwide.

And then, in terms of pure gameplay, Big Ant has really come in with fresh ideas. Making a rugby game is challenging in terms of game design with a lot of particular phases like the lineout, the rucks, the mauls, etc. That’s hard to translate into code and ensure that the player will have fun playing. But they have really nice ideas about that and we can’t wait to be able to show it to the community.

The last one Rugby World Cup game was in 2015 and it didn’t have the best of receptions. How are Nacon and Big Ant looking to avoid the pitfalls of what previous World Cup games have suffered?

The strategy here at Nacon is to start doing games in one of the fields and then learning and improving game after game. And for the rugby games, it’s the same right? We’ve had several games out and we’ve had lots of feedback from the community and now we understand the will of the community and the will of the licence holders as well.

So knowing all of that, plus having the freshness and expertise of Big Ant will help us to make sure we meet expectations.

The rugby community look to two games in particular, Rugby 08 and Jonah Lomu Rugby as the go to rugby games. Are you looking at those games and trying to dissect what made them so good in order to put some of that into 24?

Yeah, it’s important. As you say a lot of people are still looking at the former Electronic Arts rugby games. And for us, it’s more to analyse why they are remembered as good games and knowing what kind of feeling it could evoke.

It’s not that we want to do the same game. It is, after all, an old game, and if we released that today, it wouldn’t work – even though it is remembered as a good game. So it’s really analysing what made it successful, why its gameplay worked, and making sure we can translate that to today.

Last year, the development team told me that they had worked with coaches and referees on the game for laws and tactics. Is that something you’re doing for Rugby 24?

The studio is definitely working with experts of rugby; with referees when it comes to the rules making sure that every particular situation is faithfully reproduced, and with coaches for tactics.

Rugby 24 interview: Italy and Wales players run out of the tunnel and onto the pitch in Rugby 20

There have been quite a few law changes in recent years, especially when looking at the height of the tackle to reduce head injuries. Is this something you have considered including in Rugby 24?

Some of the rule changes are obvious to make in the game. On this type of rule, we need to understand what it means for the games, because, well, when you press tackle, what happens? If you’re a bit late, could it be high? And if you’re too late, is it so high that the referee gives you a penalty? That’s definitely something the team is taking into account.

Ultimately it’s more game design work because when we implement new rules, does it prevent the game from being fun? We don’t want this kind of element to interfere with the pace of the game. So Big Ant is definitely looking into that.

It doesn’t necessarily mean that all the details will be totally faithful, because what we want is [for the game] to remain fun.

Concussion is the biggest problem facing contact sports right now. Since games have the opportunity to educate players, have you ever considered adding HIA protocols?

That’s a good point actually. I don’t have the exact information on that but I will definitely synchronise with Big Ant to know if there is something with that but my feeling is probably not at the moment because they are really focused on preparing the game. But that’s actually something that will be important later on when we have a partnership with organisations such as World Rugby for the World Cup and so on.

That’s a big topic for them, right? So using the game to raise awareness is usually a way for them to redistribute to a younger audience or something like that. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a particular feature in the game, but the game is usually used to illustrate or to show some situations.

[Nacon clarified after the interview that HIA protocols are not planned for Rugby 24 “at the moment” as the studio is “focusing on the core of the game first”.]

Agustin Pichot made a bid for the President of World Rugby a few years ago and one of the things he wanted to do was create a licensed rugby game to bring more awareness to the masses. With Rugby 24’s licences this year, do you think you can help plug that gap?

Well, we hope so. I think for a lot of sports organisations it’s logical to licence sports games, because the younger audience will get interested in the sport or will see contents of the game on social media and get interested in learning the rules etc.

We think that having the true licences in the game also helps in that regard. Because players might start playing as one team, fall in love with them, and then start following them in real life.

So in that regard, I think I think we’re helping.

I’ve noticed there’s a real change in sports games at the moment, particularly under the EA banner, to lean in on women’s sports. Is that something you’ve ever considered bringing to the rugby series?

It’s natural to do so. To be transparent, for the first Big Ant Game, that will not be the case. Changing studios and changing engines is already a lot of work and it’s not something we’re able to do at the moment, but it’s definitely something we want to do in the future.

In our tennis game, the WTA is just as important as the ATP for us and doing so in the rugby games in the future is the way to go, definitely. We strongly believe that.