Monday, August 04, 2008

A Simple Process

Even though I've been writing about sports games for seven years, I don't think I've ever discussed how I evaluate them. Yes, I've mentioned bits and pieces, but I've never written about it in an organized fashion, and I think it's time to do that now.

Here's a very simple explanation for what is really a very simple process: I want a sports game to look like what I see on t.v. When I say "look," though, I don't mean camera angles. I want to see players moving at the same speed, doing the same things, and generating the same kind of excitement that I see when I watch games on television.

When I see something in a game that looks wrong, that's when I start analyzing, because I want to know if what I think I'm seeing is correct. When I saw players in NCAA Football 09 running like two-hundred pound eight-year olds in a Pop Warner league, that's when I started timing them in the forty, because I wanted to find out if what I though I saw was objectively supported by data. It was easy to establish by measurement that NCAA, in a speed sense, was completely broken, but I only did those measurements because it looked completely broken.

The same thing happened with NHL 07, because when I perceived that the CPU had no real offensive scheme other than get inside the blue line and shoot (occasionally making one pass), I wanted to objectively measure whether I was correct. As it turned out, what I thought I was seeing was exactly what was happening.

In both cases, though, I started measuring after I saw something that I thought looked wrong, not before. So I use analysis to confirm what I see, which seems like a natural process to me (your mileage may vary).

There's no question that I'm more exacting in terms of evaluating a sports game than I am with other genres. In particular, I've been watching football for forty-two years.

Man, it was scary to even type that.

So after watching well over five thousand college and pro games on television, it's not rocket science for me to quickly see when something is wrong. And when I see that something is wrong, I know which other games got it wrong in the past.

I also know when other games got it right, though, and that's important. There are plenty of things wrong in NCAA (and Madden, based on Bill Abner's impressions) that Front Page Sports Football got right--in 1993.

Let's put that in perspective. Front Page Sports Pro, in 1993, came on four 720k diskettes. Just over three megs total, if I remember correctly. So NCAA and Madden are over a THOUSAND times larger than Front Page Sports Football Pro, but the A.I., in many ways, is much worse.

It's incomprehensible how that could happen, and I'm not going to make excuses for them. I'm never going to spend $60 on a game, find out it's a fried turd on a stick, and tell you it's shrimp.

When I do find an outstanding sports game, I'll praise it highly. MLB 08: The Show is, by far, the greatest baseball game ever made. I've played every one that's come out since 1985, and not only is it the greatest, nothing else is even close.

Games like The Show are incredibly, rare, though. That's frustrating, and not just to me. The questions I get asked most often about sports games via e-mail is this: why are these games so bad so often? Why aren't they getting better?

I've been thinking about that question for several years, mostly because of EA's football games, and I think I have a reasonable explanation. Since Tiburon is the prime offender, let's discuss them, and here's your answer: Tiburon doesn't design football games. they design dresses.

Stay with me on this for a minute. Fashion designers, when coming up with their annual line, don't think along the lines of "good" or "bad" compared to last year--they only think in terms of "new" or "old." They're not trying to improve their product--they're just trying to substantially change it each year.

That's an exact description of Tiburon, based on how their games play. I wrote last week that they couldn't distinguish what was good from what was bad, and that's why their games weren't improving, but I think that was inaccurate. I think it would be more accurate to say that, in evaluating previous versions, good or bad is irrelevant, because it's not an interative design process where the goal is improvement.

It's dress design.

In that light, it's easy to understand why these annual sports games don't make what should be steady improvement. How could they?

One of the fundamental design principles of releasing an annual sports game is that, every year, it should look and play more like the real thing. If you sat in on the design process these games go through, I promise you that there would be plenty of franchises where this wouldn't even get mentioned. It's not a consideration.

To us, that's fundamental. Of course, we're not dress designers.

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