Saturday, July 19, 2008

Sports game mentality and a review of NCAA 09

I can’t help but get a feeling of déjà vu when I’m playing NCAA 09. No, not just because I’ve played the demo that was released on Xbox Live ahead of the game’s launch; it’s because there’s so much the same as last year’s version, and the year before that’s version, and on and on.

NCAA 09: different covers for each version. Xbox 360 gamers get former Arkansas running back and Heisman Trophy finalist Darren McFadden.

Sports gamers are really good at buying and playing the same game over and over. However, this becomes problematic when applied too liberally to the process of creating a sports video game. Tweak a few things, add some new features that can be slapped on the back box (or, gratingly, add back features that were taken away a year or two ago), update the rosters and uniforms and boom! Quicker than John Madden on a turducken, you’ve got yourself a yearly sports update.

Take, for instance, the home-field advantage system being advertised in NCAA 09. This was originally introduced in NCAA 06, and in the Xbox version of the game you could cause some serious havoc in multiplayer by jamming on the white button (I think it was L1 for the PS2). Controllers vibrate, stadiums shake, all well and good. After a two-year hiatus it’s back for 09 – and causes just as many problems. However, it’s being advertised as another new addition to the series for 09, when in reality it’s adding in a feature that was cut for the first two next-gen versions.

Further proof that more and more insidious people are working in PR, I suppose.

A sort of perfectionist streak regarding gameplay makes sense – sports are all about perfecting technique of a set game. Unlike going from the ice level to the forest level to the cave level in a platformer or RPG, the game stays the same in sports. It’s just the nature of the beast; therefore, an inherent part of sports gaming is the pursuit of perfection, of getting better, upping the difficulty, adapting, and growing.

But, unfortunately, that doesn’t necessarily sell units on a yearly basis.

If the sports game market were to go the way some consumers and fans suggest – offer yearly roster updates for a small cost (as that’s really about 50% of the reason to buy a new yearly sports game) and patch in some extra features – companies like EA Sports would go bankrupt in a heartbeat. You’d buy a product once and it’d last the life-cycle of a system; that doesn’t pay the bills.

Who is #30 for Oregon? It can change from year to year, and that is a high priority to sports gamers.

However, the current system of roster updates, graphic spit-shine, a few new features and a new package for $60 is really a horrible thing for consumers. Yet, if you look at your Xbox Live friends list or on a thread on a forum where a bunch of your sports-fan friends are buying the latest and greatest, what are you gong to do? Stick to the older copy that nobody plays? Buy last year’s version for all of $15 from EB or GameStop as opposed to the new one for four times the price?

And this isn’t just limited to NCAA Football, either; since EA Sports bought the NFL license exclusively a few years ago, Madden NFL has fallen under harsh criticism, and despite competition, many sports games – including soccer, basketball, hockey, baseball, and golf – make minor updates to the existing game in their yearly iterations. Besides obligatory graphics updates and new rosters, there isn’t too much happening in many of these games – sometimes there’s a meaningful update, but it’s rare. Maybe two games last year – NHL 08 and FIFA 08 – made real strides to advance, improve upon and make revolutionary steps in their gameplay.

Why is it that sports gamers accept this? I have my theories on this. One, sports gamers are very often sports fans first, hardcore gamers second. I’ve got a whole other post’s worth of thoughts on why this separation exists, but that’s for another time. Two, because of this difference, the value systems of what is looked for in a new version of a game are completely different. Fans of all genres of games love “more of the same, but improved,” and that runs the gamut from Metal Gear to Halo to everything else. However, what falls under that “improved” tag for sports games is usually led by rosters.

Rosters are a huge matter to sports fans, because it affects so much of the game – balance, accuracy, etc. If your team in NCAA Football is missing it’s stud recruit, then you’re missing out on a player who’ll make an impact for four years. When I fire up my old copy of Winning Eleven 9 and see the default rosters for Arsenal, now four seasons out-of-date, I see very few players who are on the current team – and none of the ones who are still there are at an “accurate” place in their careers right now.

Without going into too much of a tangent, that’s why having roster updates mid-season is such a big deal for sports games – take Madden for instance. Last year, the Cleveland Browns and their starting quarterback, Derek Anderson, became one of the hottest teams in the league. Based on pre-season ratings, in Madden they sucked, especially Anderson, a journeyman backup quarterback who played college ball at Oregon State. Anderson got a huge bump in ratings, as did other Browns, and it reflected real life.

If NCAA had roster updates last year, the Ducks would have gone from average in the pre-season to an absolutely monstrous team – Dennis Dixon had one hand on the Heisman Trophy until he blew out his knee against Arizona State and was gone for good in the Arizona game. But, in the ‘basic’ roster, he’s rated only an 85 or 88 – far from the best player in the Pacific-10 Conference, let alone the country.

Maybe I’m thinking too hard about this whole issue, but from one point of view I see “horses for courses” – different types of gamers expect different things from their games – whereas, on the other hand, I see a line of sports-crazy sheep buying the product for minimal improvement and simply feeding the machine. But one thing’s for certain: until there’s a major change in the sports games business, companies like EA Sports and 2K Sports are going to keep riding the cash cow until the money runs out.


Sparky Duck said...

They suck people in year after year, so really why change. I am still slogging through last years versions of both NCAA and Madden, so i do not see the need to upgrade.

Kirra said...

This is great info to know.

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