Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Head Coach: the Return of the Notebook Game (part one)

Head Coach is so full of interesting design choices and innovation, so thoughtful and full of life, that it's easy to forgive its flaws. It is, by far, the best football game Tiburon has ever developed, and I only hope that he gets the support that it deserves.

How good is Head Coach? Even in its current, unpatched form, it's one of the most interesting sports simulations I've ever played. It has two incredibly important features that both the NCAA and Madden series are missing: great design and attention to detail. It's incredibly absorbing, so much so that I often finish playing an hour (or two) later than I planned. At this point, I've easily logged 10+ hours already, and I would be very surprised if I don't eventually spend 100 more.

And in a curious twist, it's a notebook game.

In the "old days," most of the great games were notebook games. They were so full of detail that taking notes was the only way to master them--there was absolutely no way to keep everything sorted out in your head. Gaming notebooks were full of intricate and arcane knowledge, and the process of writing down what you were learning was an integral part of the game itself.

I haven't played a notebook game in years, but Head Coach is a notebook game, and I mean that in the best possible way. The first time I started to play, I wasn't keeping notes, and after going through the off-season and completing my first draft, I realize that my team wasn't going to succeed because I hadn't been prepared.

This was a wonderful discovery, to find out that a sports game wanted me to think more, not less. So I happily scrapped at least five hours of play and started over--this time, with my brain fully engaged. Analyzing. Taking notes. Thinking.

Let me explain how Head Coach works, and at what level of detail, to give you a better flavor for the game.

I've written several columns in the past about text sims and why they don't work as well as they should, and those concepts are useful here, because Head Coach is essentially a text sim with a graphics engine (Madden 08) for games. During games, you call plays, not control individual players, so Head Coach really is, at its core, a text sim.

One of my fundamental complaints about text sims is that they overload a player with detail, but make that detail difficult or obscure to access. They force the player to "pull" information instead of having it "pushed" to them. This makes many text sims entirely impenetrable--the game world might be dynamic, it might even be brilliant, but we'll never find out, because we'll never master the interface.

Head Coach crushes all those complaints.

Most importantly, Head Coach uses a push interface that is the single best interface I've ever seen in a sports game. The the central feature of the hub is a "clipboard" that presents you with all necessary tasks at the appropriate time. It works brilliantly, and it does so because it doesn't dumb down the game in the least--it merely functions as a scheduler, and you select tasks as they pop up to drill down into the detail.

The hub also allows you to navigate to every area of the game, and it's the first console game I've ever played that is not only usable, but enjoyable, with a console controller. That speaks to the excellence of the design, and lead designer Josh Loomis is to be congratulated. I've only rarely played games that combine huge amounts of detail with excellent tools to drill into that detail, but I'm happy to say that Head Coach does both extremely well.

How much detail is in this game? Let's look at what I did when I started my career in the off-season. Wait, let's just start with the draft, because it's a good sample:
--picked players to scout at the Senior Bowl
-- picked which "Pro Days" I wanted to attend (in the real world, universities usually have a pro day to spotlight their NFL prospects for pro scouts).
-- picked which players to interview at the NFL Combine.
-- picked which players I wanted to bring in for individual workouts.

In every case, I was forced to balance unlimited desires for information with limited resources to gather that information. Not every player plays in the Senior Bowl (and I can't scout everyone who does attend), more than one school holds its Pro Day on the same date (only one can be chosen per day), not all players are invited to the NFL Combine (and I can't interview all of them), and I have a limited number of individual workouts.

Each time I scout a player, I obtain more information, but I have to choose between extreme detail on a few players through repeated scouting versus a less detailed view of many more players. I have to make decisions, and the decisions are meaningful.

What I don't want to make all these decisions? I can delegate just about any decision in the game to my coaching and scouting staff, and I can make that determination on an individual task basis. It's an extremely flexible design in terms of what you want to take on and what you want to delegate.

I have a mock draft board that I can review at any time, which gives me a general idea of which teams are looking at which players, although it's far from exact. I also have my own draft board, which will help me stay organized in the real-time pressure cooker of the draft.

Real time? Yes, and it's the best draft presentation I've ever seen a sports game. Before each pick, the team that's currently on the clock will have a full screen of information about their draft needs as well as plenty of other details (and what categories of information are displayed will rotate, which keeps it fresh). There are even "instant fan polls" after draft picks that let you know what the fan base thought of that particular pick.

Fantastic? Oh, hell yes-- it's nothing short of spectacular. Add to that teams trying to trade up or down, the timer counting down on each draft pick, your own efforts to manage your draft board and make your selections--in real-time--and it's nothing short of brilliant. It's mind-blowingly good.

This is already running quite long, so I'm stopping for now, but there's more to come. Tomorrow: free agency and team management.

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