Interview With . . . Justin Leeper

Justin Leeper thumb

Road To WrestleMania is undoubtedly one of the most beloved game modes in WWE games history. Its intricate details, true to life writing and realistic motion capture all blended together to create narratives that, minus the obvious graphic differences, could have easily been mistaken for real WWE storylines! What makes this all the more impressive, however, is that it was all the brainchild of just one man: Director, writer and designer Justin Leeper!

Inside The Ropes‘ own Innes McVey recently sat down with Justin – who produced Road To WrestleMania for WWE SmackDown Vs. RAW 2009, ’10 and ’11 – to discuss coming up with the mode, working with Cesaro and Natalya in motion capture, being interviewed by Stephanie McMahon for a WWE creative role, what went wrong with WWE 2K20 and where he’d like to see wrestling video games go in the future!

One of the main ways people will know you is through being the brains behind Road To WrestleMania. How did that all come about? I know you were wrestling beforehand, but how did you make the transition from being a pro wrestler to developing an entire game mode in a WWE game?

So while I was studying and performing pro wrestling, I was also a game journalist. So I actually spent eight years as a game journalist which is longer than I spent as a wrestler. I started at Game Informer Magazine which grew, while I was there, into the biggest video game magazine in the world. So I was an editor there and then I moved to LA to be a freelance journalist and try some other stuff, mostly stunts and acting.

THQ used to send a bunch of journalists to every WrestleMania to see the new game and you know ‘Here’s what real wrestling looks like’. So I would obviously be the one to go for Game Informer – and then later as a freelancer, various companies would send me – so I got to know Bryan Williams and Corey Ledesma, kind of the two keys of the THQ design group for the WWE games. I forget who reached out to who but I had been trying to get into game development, but I got kinda sick of reviewing games and I wanted to make stuff. They reached out to me I think for a normal design job and I started… I wanna say like September of 2007 so they were just wrapping up on SmackDown Vs. RAW 2008. I did a little bit of scriptwriting: Just like emails and story mode or whatever, the basic stuff, and looked over the commentary lines and whatever.

Then Corey and I started talking and because I was a wrestler and a writer and had some acting experience in storytelling, we decided to go forward with a new story mode because they weren’t super happy with the way that the previous one was going and it was nice to have somebody in-house. So he and I talked about it and our idea… I’m not sure if it was just my idea or he echoed that but it’s cool that you could pick anybody and go through the previous story mode but concessions need to be made. You have to have very generic dialogue like ‘Oh, The Superstar’ or, recently we’ve seen in 2K’s games, giving them fake names because you have to adjust for whatever superstar is made.

I wanted to highlight the personalities of existing superstars and really expand on that, really pay homage to those characters. I thought the Road To WrestleMania was a good way to take a bunch of well-known characters and then give them well-known foils and go through three months from pre-Royal Rumble to WrestleMania and have that be the culmination of each story. Yeah, I’m pretty happy with how it turned out.

You were doing that for about three years and produced 17 different Road To WrestleMania stories. Is there any story in particular that you’re really proud of or have a certain soft spot for?

Yeah, they’re all my kids in a way so I’m very proud of all of them. I would say that in the first game… In game development, we have something called a vertical slice and it’s kind of the first thing that you do that’s supposed to be representative of what the entire vision is going to be. So for us, it was the Chris Jericho storyline. He gets attacked by a masked man using the kind of code system that he came back to in WWE programming, so I did a storyline with that and I wanted to have a masked man character.

Originally it was gonna be Bobby Lashley because we had a military background in mind, Bobby Lashley was military. Randy Orton and Mr Kennedy were both military-experienced. Then we found out Jericho was coming back and we fine-tuned it to work with Jericho and I think it worked really well with him so I was very happy about that. It was a very ambitious first story to the first time of that mode.

SvR ’10, I really loved what we did with HBK Vs. JBL. That story got approved and then I think WWE, not too long after that, started their own JBL/HBK storyline which I kinda hated. So me, I got some pride in saying ‘You Pepsi-challenged my JBL/HBK and programming’s JBL/HBK and I think ours is far superior with the retirement angle’. Something I got to do, which was a little bit Metal Gear-inspired, was have Yuke’s take old footage to encompass the career of HBK when he was retiring. I think that went over really well, even though Yuke’s was not really sure like ‘You want us to capture footage of PS1 and long ago?’ Yes! That’s the point. I wanna show the progression and how the game progressed like how HBK’s career’s progressed. So I really liked that one.

Recently, people have been talking to me about the Mickie James story. Now when we made a female-centric story, it wasn’t a very popular decision. It was the Divas era and they weren’t popular so I didn’t think it would be that loved and I think our metrics showed it was the least played of those. But even now a lot of women, a lot of people on the LGBT spectrum talk to me and they say ‘This was awesome that you gave a spotlight to the women’ and ‘We love Mickie’ or ‘We love Natalya’ and ‘bringing back Trish’ and ‘having a women’s Royal Rumble’ and all those things.

So that was a slow burn one, man, because I kinda thought that most people viewed it as a throwaway, but little did I know because we didn’t a line of communication between us and the gamers so much at that point. This was 2008-2009, there was Facebook just starting and maybe message boards, but we’re so busy making a game every 11 months we didn’t have a line of communication with the gamers so I didn’t know that people were into it.

Then of course in SvR 2011, we bumped up the scope even more. I had full trust from WWE to, for example, turn Rey Mysterio heel. I really liked the stuff we did with Undertaker which I took inspiration from survival horror games. Bringing back Edge & Christian and getting to do all kinds of fun stuff with them as a team was a real joy. Especially because, especially in hindsight, WWE never really brought them back and I thought everyone wanted to see that so it was a little cathartic that you could play our game and see them wearing the funny sunglasses and see them doing five-second poses and all that stuff.

One kinda neat thing was that Edge’s mocap was done by Cesaro. I had always brought in some pretty big name indie wrestling talent that I knew and I knew could act. So he and many others – Colt Cabana, Austin Aries, Chris Hero – have done all donned the suit of balls for me.

I saw on your Road To WrestleMania Director’s Commentary series that Bobby Lashley was originally meant to have a Road To WrestleMania and you obviously mentioned it there. Was there any other ideas that you came up with that had to end up on the cutting room floor?

You know I’ve been asked that before and I’ve racked my brain trying to think of it. Unfortunately, with me living in Japan and all my scripts being in my mom’s basement so to speak in the US, I don’t have a clear line to those things – but the thing was, we made those games so fast. I was always on a timeline.

I had to come up with these outlines, get them approved by WWE, get them approved by Corey & THQ, get them approved by Yuke’s, then I would write the scripts or somebody else would write individual scripts when I ended up needing a team. So I, unfortunately, don’t really remember some stuff that was cut because, man, once it fell off we had to keep driving forward, you know what I mean? We couldn’t really stop to see what luggage we left behind because we had a deadline to make.

I saw on Twitter recently that you talked about the story pitches you sent into WWE, after you left THQ, when you applied for creative there – which ended up getting you an interview with Stephanie McMahon. What was that whole process like? Were you nervous at all about being interviewed by Stephanie in particular?

No, I think at that point I’d met famous people and the people that maybe I’d mark out for are people that regular people don’t mark out for. So Stephanie McMahon was just a potential boss to me.

While I was making these games, we obviously had some liaisons at WWE – people who would run our stuff up the flagpole and get it approved and figure out what kinda changes we need to make. I reached out to them maybe a couple of months after I’d quit THQ and said ‘Hey, I’m kinda interested in this. What can we do?’ and they put me in touch with recruiting who put me in touch with members of the writing staff and just started that whole long process. It was probably a six-to-eight month process of meeting them when they were in LA, they had a little satellite office, meeting some of the writing staff there and sending more samples.

They flew me out to New York from LA and went to WWE HQ for the first time, met Stephanie. Met Triple H because Stephanie was actually too busy and they were like ‘Hey, you wanna meet Paul for a while?’ Yeah of course I do! Chatted with him a while. So yeah it was a big deal, I knew how big of a deal it was but I’m not really somebody who gets super nervous about that.

Now when she kinda came at me with ‘You know you’re not as good as you think you are’, that was a surprise. I’m not used to that kind of combativeness in a job interview but it is WWE. I don’t know if that was a test, if I was supposed to defend myself, and which way the right way was but for me it’s to be as respectful as possible to a potential employer. And hey, ‘You must have liked my stuff to bring me out here but yes, you know more about this business than I do. You are involved in this business. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and work hard to prove you wrong.’

Back to Road To WrestleMania for a second, you worked with – I imagine – a good chunk of the WWE roster with writing and directing the mode. Is there anyone in particular who stands out in your mind from working with who was really memorable?

Well unfortunately I didn’t work directly with too many people. They’re on the road all the time so we had a team that would go there and have a mobile voiceover booth, mobile recording studio, that would try and usher them in and get them to record the lines whenever they could.

There were some people who weren’t too happy with the lines, I remember hearing that JBL didn’t like a lot of the stuff that we wrote for him but that HBK/JBL storyline, I think he did awesome. I had him singing the Sexy Boy theme song and he nailed it so I can’t complain about that! Rey Mysterio was a little rough getting the voiceover, he’s not the best voice actor but he was a big part of many stories. Guys like Punk, guys like Mr Kennedy, guys that I knew from my wrestling background were pretty easy to write for and they nailed it all the time.

People ask me why I made Natalya this high-energy, kinda ditsy character when she was sort of an a**-kicking machine at the time. She was at motion capture one year because before I have my team of wrestlers, WWE would send developmental guys or Performance Center people up to do a day or two of heavy wrestling scene mocap. She was there one time and you could see her enthusiasm and love for wrestling, she was like ‘You love Japanese wrestling? I love Japanese wrestling! Wow, wow!’, you know? Just that bubbly personality and I was like ‘That’s what I want! For somebody to kind of ‘Mickie James’ Mickie James in her own story’. I think a lot of people were a little bit confused by that but WWE approved it and she gave the performance that I hoped to do.

Mickie was great, Trish was great coming in in a cameo role. I was quite happy with everyone that put their stuff in. We got to work with a young Sheamus and Heath Slater and some of those guys who got to come in to do motion capture. Evan Bourne came in, got to chat with him a bit. Cesaro could do anything on motion capture just like he can in the wrestling ring so no matter what we needed to do, you know, he was doing Jack Swagger’s Gutwrench Powerbomb to a big Aaron Aguilera, who was Jesus with Carlito back in the day, who’s legit 6’9 and 300 something pounds and he picked him up like nothing. He was doing Punk’s springboard clothesline like it was nothing, that guy’s such a talent so I’m really glad we got him to do it.

Having Colt Cabana as Triple H and Austin Aries as Chris Jericho in their feud in SvR 2011 was awesome, just seeing those two playing off each other. Not that Colt is used to being a Terminator-style babyface but, of course, Aries is used to being the chickens**t heel so that worked pretty well as him doing Jericho’s spot. I picked who I picked because I thought that they would be good and I was rarely disappointed. I tried to write in respect to them and cast those motion capture roles for people who I knew could do a really good job and everybody did right by the opportunities I gave them for sure.

You did a lot of other work once you left THQ but I think the biggest thing wrestling fans’ll know you for is your YouTube channel, which really kicked off when you did a video on the issues with WWE 2K20 after it launched. We’re now a year and a bit on from its release, what in hindsight are the main things that really went wrong with that game?

Well, it was a very difficult situation because whoever you believe on the timeline, Yuke’s was no longer on the project for 2K20 and they were always on the project for 20 years. They built the car that was pulling the game to stores every year and when you don’t have the driver and the mechanic there and you try and put someone else in the driving seat, it’s always going to be difficult and especially with such a time crunch.

Something that I think a lot of gamers don’t really realise is how difficult it is to make a game and how difficult it is to make it any good. When we’re ‘in the trenches’, we don’t know how good it’s gonna be and we just kind of ‘Okay, we had this vision and we believed it was good back then. Now we have these kinks to iron out and is it going to be good? Do we have the time and the budget to make it good? We’re not sure.’

Yuke’s had flaws but what they did was they always worked super hard. I would go and visit them in January, in Yokohama, and there was people sleeping under their desks then. It’s heartbreaking to see how hard they had to work but also, they had to work that hard to get that kind of production to make those kinds of games. Say what you will about the breadth of the series, what’s good, what’s bad and what feels cookie cutter or whatever – making a game in 11 months is very hard. Yuke’s bore the brunt of that pressure and they did it well and were always kind and always humble and always good to work with.

Weren’t always able to do what I asked them to do but… back to 2K19/2K20, when you get rid of those people you have to fill them you have to replace them with somebody. Visual Concepts was just not equipped to do the kinda production and make the kinda sacrifices I think that Yuke’s did to get these games out. Along with Yuke’s there were people on the publisher side, that I know personally, who were pulling a lot of weight themselves whether it was producer roles or localisation because they’re shipping in multiple countries, languages, SKUs, multiple platforms. I mean this isn’t just a game releasing on PS4, this is on everything. When I was there, they were doing a PSP version that looked pretty damn good and a Wii version that performing pretty well with some exclusive stuff.

It’s such a tough thing for them to do that got taken for granted and I think when we saw that they weren’t there… and it’s their engine! They built it, whether there are rusty bolts and duct tape holding things together, they put it together and they knew it better than everyone. So for a company in California to sit there and try to take the helm, that’s a losing prospect but they had to put something out. I don’t excuse the game for coming out in the situation but I know what goes into making games, and those games in particular, and just how valuable Yuke’s was.

Were similar issues the cause behind the problems with the Nintendo Switch version of 2K19? 2K19 was obviously very well recieved generally, but the Switch version was ladened with framerate drops, crashes and whatnot.

That was 2K18, right?

Yeah, it was! 2K18 on Switch.

I heard a lot of hearsay about that. Switch is such a unique platform that you can’t easily port things over to it. I’ve learned about the hardware and software limitations of Switch and Nintendo does a lot of things good, they are not so great with third-party publishers. They never have been since back in the NES days where you basically had exclusivity if you were making games for Nintendo. You couldn’t make games for anybody else.

The thing with those SD cards and the memory limitations on them and the cost associated with them was difficult, you can’t easily pair down an PS4/Xbox One game onto Switch and expect it to work. I mean yeah, people kinda forget how terrible 2K18 was on Switch and it never got fixed! That’s the crazy thing, it’s still on the storefront as bad now as it ever was…

And Nintendo won’t give refunds for it either!

Yeah, that’s true. Nintendo makes Mario, make Zelda, they make great games but they’re also a little selfish, they’re also not so good with publishers, they’re also not too great to gamers sometimes. When we play a game years after it’s released… I expect that when I finally get around to Cyberpunk 2077, it’ll be a good game. I expect that because that’s just the way it goes. Fallout: New Vegas – when that came out, it was a mess. Now it’s one of people’s favourite Fallout games ever.

So we expect things to get fixed in the interim between when they release and when we pick them up and finally play them and, of course, with updates and everything it makes it that much easier. But for that game to never get fixed is amazing. Everybody kinda let it slide and I’m not so sure why. The Metacritic score showed, you know, people talk about 2K20 being what it is and their complaints are definitely justified – and I’ve heard lots and lots of them and I empathize – but 2K18 on Switch shouldn’t have been released either really.

You mentioned Yuke’s there and obviously, they’re now working on the upcoming AEW console game. One of the big features they’re trying to push is that it’s gonna be similar in style to older WWE games, particularly No Mercy by having that game’s director involved. Do you think it’s wise for them to try and emulate No Mercy’s style, with it being over two decades old now, or would they be better suited trying to find their own style?

Part of it is that AEW’s staff wants what they want and they’re the boss at this point. When Kenny Omega says ‘We want to be like No Mercy’, well Yuke’s is working for them so they have to try and appease that while also, hopefully, the AEW guys defer to Yuke’s on some things. Kenny Omega for example, I’m not picking on him but he’s the face of the presentation for that and everything, he’s a wrestling genius – definitely. We all know that: He knows so much about wrestling, he knows a lot about Japanese culture, he knows a lot about video games but making wrestling video games is not making wrestling matches.

You have to make it interactive, you have to make it fun and that’s why he wants to bring in that No Mercy-style, that fun style, which personally that’s my favourite game as well. My favourite wrestling game ever: No Mercy and then Virtual Pro Wrestling 2. Something that life-long wrestling game fans and die-hard wrestling game fans don’t realise is that if you put a controller into a newbie’s hands, they don’t know what to do. We’ve grown up with that, we’ve seen the evolutions of it but something like No Mercy is just so intuitive. ‘Oh, I tap it and it does one thing. I hold the button and it does another thing’ and it’s intuitive and fun and pretty approachable. They need that approachability because if you only cater to hardcores, you’re not gonna get that far. Right now, video games cost so much time and money to make that you need to go outside the hardcore base.

So I get them wanting to bring in people who’ve maybe not played a game since WCW nWo Revenge on N64 and want to be able to pick that up and enjoy it right away because if it’s not fun in the first five minutes, you’re probably never going to play it again. They’re a slave to two masters obviously because Yuke’s knows what they want to do, they know what AEW wants. Hopefully, both sides are copacetic, getting along and are ebbing and flowing together so that they can make something that makes both companies happy because those are two powerful companies.

I love that AEW’s guys are so involved and so passionate about it and I love that Yuke’s now has a little bit of time to make the game that they want because they were so ‘head-down in the trenches’ for so many years. I think they can do wonderful things, I just hope that there’s a good bridge in-between the two companies that’s allowing both sides to understand where the other is coming from because without that, it’s gonna be a real uphill battle.

Going back to WWE and 2K for a second, they most recently released 2K Battlegrounds which took the series in almost a similar direction to WWE All-Stars. Do you think that arcadey style should be the sort of direction they should be going after 2K20? If not, which should they be doing to get back on track?

No, to me… As I reported long ago, kinda broke that story with VikingSizedGamer, it was a stopgap. If Battlegrounds was the cost to get WWE 2K to be approved as waiting one year and taking that year off, then to me it was worth it. Now I didn’t spend 40-50 bucks and be very disappointed in it, like some people I’ve talked to have, but Battlegrounds is not for the 2K player you know what I mean? It’s not for the simulation player. I think WWE should stay a sim, I think Visual Concepts is best at sims.

I mean, basketball’s my favourite team sports and I’ve always been a big fan, since the Dreamcast, of what NBA 2K can do. So when I heard 2K and Visual Concepts was gonna take on the WWE license, I had high hopes. It hasn’t happened the way I, or many others, probably hoped it would but I still think there’s validity in sticking to the sim aspect because that’s kinda what Visual Concepts is known for and I think that they can achieve that.

Just to cap us off, I think it’s pretty safe to say there’s more choice in wrestling games now more than ever. You have the WWE games, you’ve got AEW and you’ve got indie games like Fire Pro Wrestling World and The Wrestling Code. As both a fan and a former developer, where do you wanna see the wrestling games industry go this year and beyond?

First off, I want gamers to be patient. We’re probably only gonna get WWE 2K22 this year. I’m fairly certain that’s all we’re gonna get and it’s not gonna be next-gen and, even though they’ve had an extra year, it’s probably not going to be the reinvention that maybe some people expect. So temper your expectations, be a little patient, wait for The Wrestling Code – those guys are just getting started on motion capture. They’ve got some good passionate guys behind it, I’ve talked to them quite a bit and given my input to them. Yuke’s and AEW are working hard but there’s no huge rush for them either.

But I love that we have options! Fire Pro Wrestling is amazing I think! It traces back to Pro Wrestling on the NES so I think that, even though it’s got a learning curve, if you’re a wrestling fan it’s worth looking into. I think it’s on sale most of the time for about 20 bucks on PS4 and whatnot so that’s really worth picking up. MDickie made a game that’s coming out for Switch, Wrestling Evolution is that what it’s called?

Yeah, Wrestling Empire or something I believe!

It’s a wacky, zany, kooky, beautiful mess of a game where you can have 30 people in the ring at one time, plus a bunch of weapons and it’s worth looking at. The demo’s free on the Switch eShop so maybe that’ll scratch an itch for you.

But yeah, I hope people are patient, the gamers are patient and they temper their expectations. I know we wanna get our money’s worth when we pay 60 bucks or whatever for a game and I’ve always said my allegiance has always been to the gamer – whether I was writing reviews or designing games – it was very important for me to put the player first. But as a player, you also need to cut a little bit of slack. I think The Wrestling Code is a very good dark horse as the ECW of wrestling games at this point and I think that Yuke’s has always shown a lot of skill and AEW is hands-on, so I think that could be awesome if they get their chemistry right.

But where I want to see wrestling games going? Okay, I want to see a live-service dynamic instilled. I don’t want to pay 60 bucks to get a new Randy Orton model every year. I think it’s ludicrous. I think as soon as those games come out, they’re usually outdated. So if we could have a game every two years, every three years, and have it be heavily updated – whether that requires a membership-type subscription model, whatever it is. We wanna get something that’s updated frequently with new moves that come out, new arenas, new attires, new superstars when they come out. We wanna see those things updated as often as possible and I think fans are ready to pay for that.

Now luckily, we have such an amazing creation community. You know, people who make create-a-superstars or movesets or all those things, I see them on Twitter and I’m constantly amazed by what they do, it’s awesome. So we have people that are kind of taking over for that updating when the publishers are not but I’d really love to see games come out with an infrastructure to be updated constantly. Whether it’s monthly or weekly, whether it’s free or paid, something so that we always have an updated game so that people can put it on, they get the downloads so it’s ‘Okay, here’s who we just saw on TV last week, here’s the arena for the next pay-per-view – we’re set. We’ve got all that stuff. We’re up-to-date.’ That’s what I wanna see.

Big thank you to Justin for taking the time out to speak to us! Check out his YouTube channel, which hosts his Road To WrestleMania Director’s Commentary series, as well as his blog and IMDb page!