Shooting for the Bronze

I’m troubled by these Beijing 2008 game trailers.

I think anyone old enough to have enjoyed NES remembers Track and Field fondly. Sure, you do. It didn’t matter that the mechanics were stupid – essentially all button-mashing and press-timing minigames because we didn’t know any better. Olympic sports were supposed to be boring tests of genetic superiority anyway. They weren’t supposed to be interesting in and of themselves, right? That’s about all we could handle from a design point of view back then. We were still a few years from Tecmo Bowl and John Madden Football and Baseball Stars. And even those in their first iterations were baby steps forward.

But here we are in 2008 and we are looking at an Olympics game with 2008-era modeling, textures, environments, interface, sound, commentary, online functionality and 1984-era game design. Why?

The Olympic Games are so interesting. There’s the fantasy of being an Olympian that is completely missed: the training, the techniques, the relationships, the travel, the trials, the pressure, the exhilaration of record-breaking. Where is any of that? There’s the aspect of fighting for your country. Is that handled via anything more than a graphic on-screen?

I don’t watch the swimming events because I give a damn about swimming – I can’t swim. I watch because I want to see these people for whom swimming is a full-time job apply their trade. It’s a fantasy game. I want to live the life of an Olympian like I can live the life of an NFL team in Madden‘s Superstar mode or a player in MLB The Show. It’s more than stringing events together.

And I also watch because of national pride. I want to see the Americans win. How does the game handle that? Does it? Beyond playing the national anthem every other minute when you win the minigame?

I’d love to blame the possible lack of design innovation on a short development cycle, but look how pretty everything looks in the trailers! Obviously they had manpower. They just decided to devote said manpower to art. Why are we stuck with just button-mashing and timing minigames?

My guess is that it was designed mechanics-first without any regard to the desired emotional response of the whole product. I imagine the lead producer said: “We need the following bullet points on the back of the box: Thirty-eight events. Bunch of models. Bunch of countries. Online play. You guys figure it out.” And the designers went off and did their tasks in isolation and the collected whole is uninspiring.

Now I could be very wrong. The game could be gangbusters. But Torino wasn’t. And Athens wasn’t. And they haven’t shown anything that is much different from what we’ve seen gameplay-wise in the past. So either design/production has failed or marketing has failed.

I’m sure Sega is filled with very smart designers. I like to give the benefit of the doubt. But use your hype period. Inspire me. Make scary, risky decisions. Otherwise you rest on your license and must be content with mediocre reviews, mediocre sales and the inevitability that your game is forgotten after the closing ceremonies.

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