Wednesday, July 22, 2009

NCAA, Madden, And A Puzzling Non-Story From ESPN

This post is going to be all over "the place," so please be forewarned. We start off with some wonk talk about player progression, progress to a discussion of marketing decisions and the Madden demo, and finally talk about ESPN and their curious non-coverage of a recent event.

First, here's a thoughtful e-mail I received from John Brown in reference to my post about player progression in NCAA:
While I agree that player progression ratings should be stable, the overall composition of the players shouldn’t stay static. If you want realistic player progression and defining player progression to encompass new players, the way the game can and should change. To stick with the football example, maybe one year there's lots of good wideouts and the passing game is king; then a few years down the road, there's fewer wideouts and more running backs and the running game is king. I don't really want a consistent experience, I want something that ebbs and flows.

My feelings about this is that individual player progression ratings should probably vary around an average. One freshman class might have several centers who are complete studs…the next might also have several good centers. Eventually, the law of averages should kick in, and we should have a class where there’s only a couple studs. Maybe one year the entire freshman class has several noteworthy players and hopefully sometime down the road, we’ve got a freshman class that has fewer noteworthy players. Now apply this to the entire system that handles new players and player progression. Oh, and you need to take into account current ratings.

I also think 5 years is probably too short a time frame to find this kind of stability. 10+ years might be a better gauge, but I’d take the samples every year and then look at the running average. Over the long term, I'd hope to see something along the lines of a sine wave centered around the average.

That's all true, but doing that properly involves much more than just having an effective player progression system (and even doing that qualifies as post-graduate work when the current system can't even earn a GED). Most importantly, if skill levels at various positions cycle over time (much like real life), and if teams change their styles of play over time (also much like real life), then there are going to need to be many, many playbooks in addition to the defaults.

Let's say, that for example, the power running game comes back into vogue ten seasons from now (which is entirely possible). Less than 15% of the teams in the game (I'm guessing, but I think that's probably close to correct, or maybe even lower) have power running as their predominant offensive strategy. That means there are very few playbooks that feature those types of plays. So there would have to be dozens of additional playbooks created for future use when certain strategies came in and out of style.

The play selection probabilities would also have to be adjusted, which is an additional level of complexity.

The most difficult task, though, would be to limit the degree to which this cycling happens--in effect, to choke off the variance when it gets too high. Cycling of team strategies over time is interesting, but having 95% of teams use a power running attack is not. So even if you could get the cycling to work over time, high-low limits would have to be imposed at the team strategy level.

In other words, it would be damned tough to pull off. That's why I would be very happy to just have a solid, stable progression system in place.

I've been watching CPU vs. CPU games today (finally, that feature is back in), and I do see some improvements. Quarterbacks actually miss open receivers at times, which is nothing short of a freaking miracle if you know the history of this series. The sliders do seem to work (post-patch), and with CPU vs. CPU games, it should be possible to develop sliders that are reasonably balanced. So it's not hopeless, but it's a very sloppy game, and sloppy games usually have backbreakers.

Okay, let's move on to the Madden demo, which has WTF written all over it. I don't mean WTF from the design and dev teams, because it seems like they've done just about everything they could do to make this game actually seem more like real football.

So the game (allegedly) has been substantially improved. And it would seem obvious that the best strategy, when you have an improved and worthy product, is to let people see the game in some depth before it's released.

So what does EA marketing do? Sign an exclusive agreement with Gamestop (I thought they were the devil or something?) for people who preorder the game to have access to a demo with five minute quarters.

That's a decently beefy demo.

If you didn't preorder from Gamestop, though, you get a tiny little turd in a sack--a demo with one-minute quarters. What is that--TWELVE PLAYS?

That's so stupid that "stupid" isn't even an adequate word to describe it. We need a whole new word that represents 300% of average stupid.

Look, marketing tools. This is the signature game of your sports line, and it's apparently greatly improved from last year. The way to maximize sales is to expose as many people to the "improved" gameplay as possible, not try to blackmail them into preordering.

Good grief.

Lastly, there's been a very interesting story developing about ESPN in the last few days. I don't take ESPN seriously in a journalism sense any more, because their coverage is so slanted toward self-promotion, but man, I think they've hit a new low.

Here are a few details.

A woman filed a civil lawsuit against Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, claiming that he raped her. The filing of this lawsuit was covered by the Associated Press, Reuters, MSNBC, the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, CBS Sportsline, Yahoo Sports--everyone, essentially.

Except ESPN.

Even has reported on this story, but ESPN won't touch it. They're apparently claiming that they don't report on civil lawsuits when there is no accompanying criminal lawsuit, which is complete bullshit, because they've done it multiple times in the past. They've essentially made up a policy on the spot to protect a marqee player.

It's all quite bizarre, and it's becoming quite embarrassing for ESPN, which gets embarrassed on a regular basis already.

Oh, and please don't infer from this that I believe the woman is telling the truth. I have no idea whether what she claims actually happened or not. It is a legitimate news story, though, and ESPN is refusing to report it.

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