Monday, April 30, 2007

The Quality Curse: Sports Games and the Yearly Release Cycle

All-Pro Football 2K8 has at least one thing going for it: 2K Sports doesn't have to release it every year.

Every producer of a team sports game with an annual release schedule talks like a heart surgeon whose patient just died on the table. "Well, we did what we could," they whisper, "but we just ran out of time."

Can we just cut straight through the bullshit on this one?

Gamers aren't the ones who demanded that sports games get released every year. Of course, it's not about us. What it's about is milking a sports franchise year after year after year, and whatever mountain of problems the game might have, it's all okay, because we'll fix it next year.
We never told them to ship builds instead of games.

Sports game publishers place the highest priority on shipping games and the lowest priority on fixing those games. MLB2K7 is the best example this year--it shipped six weeks before the baseball season started, it's been over two months, and has there been a patch to fix any of the issues that render franchise mode unplayable?


Has there been any communication from Take-Two as to the status of the patch, it's expected release date, or what it will fix? Or if there will even be a patch at all?


Accountability for the product that we payed sixty dollars for? Zero.

Do you know what EA's single highest quality sports franchise is? It's NBA Street. I didn't like the design choices made in Homecourt, but the game dripped quality. Look at the release history (for its primary platform):
2001--NBA Street
2003--NBA Street Vol. 2
2005--NBA Street V3
2007--NBA Street Homecourt

Do you think it's just coincidental that the game has been released every two years?

I was reminded of this because I saw an interview over at IGN about NCAA Football 2008 late last week. For my money, NCAA is consistently EA's best team sports franchise. Even with its problems, the game is usually worth the money, and I can't say that consistently about any other sports game EA makes.

Let's look at some excerpts from the IGN article, which you can read here. Also, please note that the game is getting shipped on July 17--just two and a half months from now, which means the game goes gold in less than two months.

NCAA 08 is still relatively early in development, somewhere in mid-Alpha, EA says.

In mid-alpha, eight weeks from going gold.

On the field, the snow had turned the turf a uniform white -- although the sidelines remained red as if now hadn't landed there at all, a problem in last year's game on the 360.

Gameplay producer Ian Cummings stands right next to us and winces, his favorite phrase of the night being, "That will be fixed." True, there are a lot of early issues that EA promises will be cleaned up, like an excess of dropped passes, sacks and fumbles.

"Early issues"? "That will be fixed" is the favorite phrase of the night? This game goes gold in eight weeks!

It's difficult to gauge NCAA 08 because there is still so much work to be done. This is apparent as J-Rob won the game 12-6 which would never have happened if my receivers caught more balls with their hands instead of their faces. Or that's what I tell myself so I can sleep at night. But if the problems we pointed out are fixed (and EA says they will be), we think NCAA 08 is going to shoot right to the top of our draft board.

Incredible. And we wonder each year why there are so many problems with these games? There's zero time to polish anything.

Here's how crazy it is to release a college teams sports game every year: EA can't even use the names of the real players. They're fictional players in an annual release cycle!

There are definitely some positives in the article--in particular, the claim that the game is running at 60 frames per second. An EA Sports game hasn't run at 60 fps since--ever. So if they really pull that off, it's going to greatly improve the game. And like I said, this is EA's strongest team sports franchise--but what a development schedule.

Will we get more than one camera angle? I don't know, but I'm sure they'll do what they can.

They might just run out of time.

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