The State of Sports Games

Imagine the following:

Your friend tells you about this movie he is really excited about and he convinces you to buy a ticket and see it with him. The theater is mostly empty when you sit down, except for a few kids in the front row holding those big foam #1 fingers. Before the previews start, your friend tells you it his ninth time seeing the movie. It starts and immediately you find it incomprehensible. There are dozens of characters whose origins and motives aren’t explained, you have a rough understanding of the plot, but the movie seems distracted with minor plot points and half the movie seems to be overwrought establishing shots.

When the credits roll, your friend applauds but you sit there confused. He nudges you and tells you, “Don’t worry. I didn’t start really “getting it” until the fifth time I saw it. Hang in there!” You are a bit dumbstruck: “Five times? I’m not wasting my time and paying to see that mess again!”. Your friend then gets angry with you: “Whatever. You just don’t want to put in the time to struggle for something sophisticated.”

That’s basically the game industry’s sports genre.

This is exactly what I mean. Here you have a prominent blogger (Luke Plunkett) that was sent a copy of NBA 2k8 and found it unplayable because it was too complicated for someone who hasn’t played for(i=2007;i>1996;i–) {NBA i}. (Is it bad that I thought of the string of past ten NBA games in that way?) And I totally agree with Plunkett in this case. You can have a deep experience without requiring a master’s degree in the sport for entry.

Yet what do the fanboys do? They lampoon the original poster for not being 1337 enough to understand the game. Plunkett gave it five days without having any degree of mastery. I’m sure he could pass and shoot and do the basics, but I’m also sure the game requires more.

And this is what modern sports games are reduced to because of the following reasons:

1) Marketing departments read the message boards and assume the lunatic fringe that wants to have to press forty-seven buttons to drive to the hoop because it would be ‘realistic’ and ‘deep’ is a representative sample of the audience. Actually, there is some truth to this, because modern sports games have alienated all but the lunatic fringe, so they really are are representative sample of the audience. But they sure as hell are not a representative sample of the potential audience. How many more people would pick up and play Madden if they didn’t need to know what a formation was?

2) There is self-selection when it comes to sports game designers. There is a push every year to add new features to gameplay, which to most designers means: “Complicate this for reasons of depth”. So the designers that are most fervent and stick with the franchises year after year are the kind that don’t mind that it is ridiculously complicated because a) they designed it and they have ego issues and b) they’ve played this game almost every day for X years so they have forgotten what it is like to be overwhelmed. The designers that care about simplicity and elegance move on because how are you going to have simplicity and elegance when the crowd (other designers and fanboys) are demanding more pre-snap options? How many people out there watch and enjoy football without having a Knute Rockney level of understanding? The answer is: more than the games industry is hitting right now.

3) You can’t capture simplicity and elegance in a screenshot or back-of-the-box bullet point as easily as you can a new extended “depth” feature. Since we are lazy extremely busy trying to cram everything in under a ten month deadline, we take the easy (read: most feasible) route out.

There has to be room for something in between Wii Sports abstraction and Football Manager esotericism. And there is: see NBA Street, NFL Street, The Bigs. But these “action sports” games decide that since they aren’t being “hardcore” that they also cannot be realistic.

A coworker told me that MLB Power Pros is fantastic and has a ton of depth while still being realistic and approachable. I plan on picking it up and seeing. I imagine the lunatics haven’t gotten a hold of it because it looks “kiddy” and anything that isn’t 100% hardcore serious is kryptonite to them. Call me Lex Luthor.

Update for GSW linkers: I picked up Power Pros and it didn’t do it for me.

6 thoughts on “The State of Sports Games

  1. How many more people would pick up and play Madden if they didn’t need to know what a formation was?

    My guess is not many?

    You’ve got a ton of good points here, as I agree that sports games can get too complicated very quickly. But if you don’t care to know what a formation is, I strongly doubt you’ll have much interest in playing Madden, no matter how simple it is.

    Otherwise, very good points.

  2. After playing the latest demos of FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer over Live, I came to a similar realization. I have played soccer all of my life, I love to watch it on TV, and I used to love playing the games as well. I haven’t bought a FIFA game since ’04 and haven’t really enjoyed one since ’01. All these years they stripped out the things that weren’t “true” to the sport and continued to add complexity to the controls (much the way they have tooled Madden over the years) in an attempt to “catch up” to PES in terms of realism. Doing so eliminated the high scoring debauchery of simple through passes leading to one on one’s with the goalie and swinging in crosses for near automatic scoring. It may not have been real, but they lost one thing that set it apart from the sim-like qualities of it’s competition: fun.

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