Friday, January 20, 2006

NBA2K6 and Team Sports Games

Over the last few weeks, I've managed to spend another 15-20 hours with the Xbox 360 version of NBA2K6, which has been both exhilarating and discouraging. Exhilarating because the on-court action, at least for the 360 version in high-definition, is just spectacular beyond all words. Add on top of that, it features the best commentary that I have ever heard in a sports game. Right now, in terms of the total package, it is leagues ahead of any other sports game with the exception of the Winning Eleven series.

Off the court, it's not as stellar. The menu design is clunky, it's not as easy to find important information as it should be, and some cool design features (like in-season mini-game drills that can improve a selected player's ratings) are very unbalanced.

All in all? Great game. Absolutely a great game. And it seems, for the most part, to have avoided the curse.

That's the curse of the "big" sports game--there are so many features that a game never really get finished and balanced. When you combine the annual, closely defined release window with the endless addition of features, there's no way these games can get finished

It would be far, far better in terms of quality if team sports games were released every other year, with a full roster update and bug fixes released in-between as a $19.99 expansion pack. That would enable significant changes to game engines without totally disrupting the existing product. What seems to be happening now, though, especially with EA games, is that they wind up being six or seven years of code (or more) all mashed together with new features cobbled on at random. That's no way to build a house, and it's no way to build a game, either.

I've seen gaming "journalist" after journalist use the phrase "new from the ground up" for the 360 version of Madden. Bullshit. It is incredibly easy to see that a huge number of assets in Madden 360 are reused from earlier generations. It's not that there isn't new stuff--there certainly is (and the new playcalling interface, in particular, is terrifically designed)--but it's also totally obvious that much of it isn't new at all. I think when you keep re-using the same engine again and again over time, the feature set gets wider every year (to sell more units) but the actual experience gets progressively more narrow over time. What you've already done with the existing features progressively limits what you can change, with the result that gameplay often gets worse over time instead of better. Most of the development gets spent on adding features instead of refining what's already there.

The Winning Eleven series seems to be different, and it's easy to see why. Instead of adding giant new features each year (which would never get finished and balanced), they make incremental improvements in their already excellent gameplay. They finish their games and they balance them precisely. Wow. Talk about revolutionary.

They also have a very interesting animation system. I was talking to someone last week who works in the sports game industry and he made an interesting comment. He said that the animation in the Winning Eleven series is so spectacular because it chains many small animations into movements instead of using longer animations like most American team sports games do. It also eliminates the frustration of feeling like you're not actually controlling your player while he's in the middle of a canned animation.

Believe it or not, the sports game I have the highest hopes for this year (unless 2KSports releases an unlicensed pro football game) is NFL Head Coach. I know, it's an EA game, but it should be absolutely new, and maybe working from a blank sheet will produce a different and more entertaining design.

The next truly great, legendary sports game is going to have to have a far greater element of user modding than is now possible. Until the developers open up their games and let users perfect things like play selection, trade valuations, player progression, etc., what we'll be left with are games with hundreds of features, most of which are, unfortunately, incomplete.

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