Saturday, 14 November 2009

Unsporting Conduct

This post was originally written (by me) on December 23, 2007. The original is no longer available.

I think sports games tend to get too readily dismissed by most people who talk about game design. The attitude seems to be that these games get churned out on a yearly basis, and sell copies to the "Madden crowd." Yup, that's true. Of course they sell copies every year, year after year, and the audience is wider than you might think. I hail from Australia, and despite constant claims that we're being Americanised (not Americanized, you'll note), the NFL has little to no following. Most of the people I know who buy Madden every year have little or no interest in the NFL, and had absolutely no interest before they started playing Madden. These games are based off well-tested and refined formal rules sets (the sports in question) and the controls have undergone a degree of refinement that any game that hasn't been in development for double digit years is going to struggle to match. If you're willing to overcome whatever prejudice you may have towards sports, the big name sports franchises for the most part offer high quality gameplay.

That said, the superstar mode in this year's Madden was deeply disappointing. This is of particular interest to me because I find the idea of a sports RPG appealing, and there are no real alternatives. If you're not interested in games based on sports, imagine that I'm complaining about the warrior class in a fantasy RPG or something similar, the problems are with the design of the rules governing the mode, not the dressing. The first problem occurs at the point of character creation. You pick your player's position, archetype, personal history and looks, and then get asked to confirm it all. This process takes somewhere around five minutes, which is a fairly long lead time on character creation.

Next up you go through a series of minigames that are common to all player types, and then a specific one based on your chosen position (note that the chosen archetype is irrelevant, thus if you have chosen a scrambling quarterback you are still forced to complete passes from the pocket. Put another way, even if you chose a dagger-wielding rogue, you still get forced to do the archery training). Your superstar is then assigned stats based on your performance in these minigames, with better performance granting commensurately better stats. The common minigames are fine because they don't rely on ability with the actual game controls, but are instead totally self-contained button-mashing or timing games. Also, they are straightforward and not too difficult to get a good score in. The position specific mini-games are, however, a completely different story. These minigames are presented as practice drills, and boil down to a simplified version of match-time game mechanics. The problem with this may not be immediately apparent, but it is fundamental. If you do badly at these drills, your superstar gets a low score in the key stats for his position. Still not clear what's wrong with this? If you as a player are not very good at the game, the game compounds the problem by making your on-screen avatar intrinsically worse. Oddly enough this is a problem that rarely comes up in traditional RPGs because there is normally no relation between the skills required by a player and the skills represented by the avatar, but that's a tale for another time.

I'll return to this in a moment, but want to quickly mention a bad interface decision. You're not allowed to retry the minigames that decide your superstar's abilities, and if you don't like them your only option is to go back to the very beginning of the process and spend another five minutes filling in all your character information before you can have another attempt at the minigames. Given how profound the impact of your superstar's starting stats are on the course of the game, not being able to simply retry the minigames once viewing your stats is a very poor design choice.

Back to the character creation process. Once you've created a superstar you get drafted (although you get no say whatsoever in where you get drafted to. While players normally don't have a say, they will normally at least be approached a club before the draft to signal interest). In previous years of superstar mode, the interface for your superstar was presented as his bedroom with various objects representing menu options (computer for a lot of it, playbook for load and save options, mirror for altering personal appearance, and so on). As you progressed through your career this room would grow in size and opulence, representing your rise through the ranks of the NFL. Essentially your room fulfilled a lot of the roles of loot in any normal RPG. In Madden 08, the room is gone, replaced by the same plain menus used in every other game mode. I can only assume this was a question of time constraints rather than a conscious decision, because besides removing the visual rewards, it also diminishes the sense that your superstar is a person who plays sport, rather than #7 on the field.

Over the course of your career, you can change agents, talk smack about your coaches and teammates, and generally do a lot of the things you'd hope for in a sports RPG, albeit in a barebones kind of way. One of the options you have is to go to the Performance Institute between games, or practice between seasons, to hopefully improve your stats. This uses the same minigames as the character creation process, with the added problem that if you perform badly your statistics will get slowly worse. In the end this means if you choose to play quarterback and are mediocre at it, there is no way to improve your superstar to compensate for your personal inabilities. In addition, you always perform the same practice drill minigame. So even if you achieve the on field persona of Receiving Running Back you can never run the wide receiver drill, you must always run the running back drill.

I think the thing that I found so disappointing about these flaws in the game design is that they become so apparent so quickly. If there are balance issues that arise after ten seasons or similar, then it's excusable when the game also offers a plethora of other game types and is created on a very tight schedule. But when you're essentially looking at an RPG in which you are not only unable to improve your character, but any attempt to do so results in your character getting worse, something needs to be fixed.

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