Wednesday, March 01, 2006


Designstipation: a condition where developers force players to experience a game in a narrow way, instead of allowing the user more options to define their own experience.

Well, I've put in about ten more hours into Fight Night, giving me about fifteen total, I believe.

I know--there's probably some way to look in the 360 dashboard and see the exact length of time I've played the game, but I'm too stupid to know how and too lazy to care.

Flab McCanvas, a heavyweight, just won the title. He was 30-3 before he got a title shot. And what I've learned on his endless journey is a very good demonstration of the inherent and structural weaknesses of EA Sports.

Put it this way: we're Charlie Brown. EA Sports is Lucy. Sports games are the football. Cue animation sequence. "ARGGHHH!"

Here's the basic premise: EA Sports has some of the most talented sports developers in the world, and if all of their games have the same basic weaknesses, then the structure itself is broken.

Badly broken.

Fight Night Round 3 is a microcosm of EA Sports in general, and the more you dig, the more worms you find. Which is too bad, because large parts of the game are absolutely phenomenal. Career mode, unfortunately, is butchered. I didn't feel that way fifteen fights ago, but it's become more and more apparent, and here we are.

Here's a round-by-round rating for my interest in the game.

That's what happens in career mode--it starts out fantastic, and you can live with the limitations, but then it gets sloppier and sloppier and sloppier. And every EA Sports game is like this (although the PC version of Tiger Woods clearly stands out as best of the lot, by a wide margin).

Here are the symptoms:
1. Very poor attention to detail; rushed, unfinished feel
2. Inbred perspective on how the game should be experienced

Here are a few of the "rushed, unfinished feel" problems:
--when the fight is stopped due to cuts, there's a freeze frame and then they show one boxer looking mad in the ring. No referee, no reference by the announcer, no text box on the screen.
--the announcer makes references in almost every fight to the referee warning one of the fighters about a possible stoppage, but we never see a referee do anything. No cut scene, no audio, nothing. It's just an announcer's commment, floating in from Mars.
--the much-touted "rival" feature is absolute crap. You know what my rival does that distinguishes him as a bad guy? He tries to head butt me. Even though I knocked his weak ass out twice, he somehow won the title and he's who I fought for the championship.
--the rest of the division is an absolute vacuum. Since there's no ranking system, there's absolutely no way to know where anyone is ranked, including my fighter. I get a few fights to pick from, and they make my "popularity meter" go up, but that's it. I'm not sure if that's unfinished or just shitty design, but it's got to be one or the other.
--I was one fight away from fighting for the title, and I fought in a gym with an audience of about thirty people. Uh, what?
--THIRTY-THREE fights to get a shot at the championship? What is this--1920?
--Do you know how I found out I was fighting for the championship? One incredibly vague reference from the announcer. That was it. My popularity meter was "the next champ" and it was full, but the fight wasn't labeled, my opponent didn't come in carrying the championship belt, and there were no other indications that it was a championship fight.
--I won the heavyweight championship, and guess what happened? Not a damn thing. No belt to hold over my head. No announcer comments (that I can remember--if there were some, they were so uninspiring that I've forgotten them in the intervening twenty minutes). No in-ring celebration.

Oh yeah--I got a text box. "You have won the heavyweight title belt," I think it said. It had a yellow border. I think it might have had an exclamation point, but I'm not sure. I was too buy screaming "TEXT BOX! MAN, THIS IS THE GREATEST GAME EVER!"

--Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier are both in the game. So is Roy Jones, Jr. So after I win the title, even though I fought all of these guys on the way up, I'm expecting to see one of them in my first title defense. Nope. Guess who I can fight? James Toney!

There's plenty more than that, but there's a sampling. And then there are more serious problems that also make the game feel rushed:
--the mini-games are incredibly repetitive and incredibly easy.
--after about fifteen fights, career mode begins to unravel. Every fight usually consists of you winning every round, then eventually punishing the opponent enough that you can knock him out in the later rounds. Over and over again. And since the rounds are three minutes long in career (and can't be changed), it makes for long, long, repetitive fights.

Now that might not happen if you use auto-train and skip the mini-games entirely. Maybe the fights are more balanced. But it's too sloppy to make me want to start from scratch again.

Here's the "inbred" information:
--no one with a brain outside of EA could have possibly thought that replacing the ranking system with a meter based "popularity" system was a good idea. Actually, it's much worse than just not a good idea--it's a complete disaster. But inside a company that is so weakly influenced by its customers, you can prove that the sun is the moon. Besides, the popularity meter is DIFFERENT, and EA seems to believe that "different" is often more important than "better."
--many of the problems in career mode would be lessened or even eliminated if we had the option to choose round length. In career mode, round length is fixed at three minutes. That makes a twelve-round fight last over forty minutes (including time between rounds). When you have to fight thirty-plus fights to get to the championship, that fight length is just too long. And the problems with stamina for the CPU fighters is really highlighted with the long rounds. EA's needed to let us select round length in career mode since, um, the first Fight Night. But when it comes to player options, EA Sports has what I call "designstipation"--they have a set of user options when they first make a game, and no matter how badly they need to expand them, it's generally a lost cause. They have a rigid notion of how the game should be experienced, and damn it, that's how you're going to experience it.

All the EA Sports games are like that. NCAA has forced you to zoom out the camera on pass plays for years, even though it makes the players look like ants. Even Tiger Woods, which has been a terrific series since Headgate took over, has this problem. For years, people have complained that the slope and wind effects are too weak. And there's going to be a wide variability in terms of what each person feels is ideal. So the incredibly easy option is to include sliders for slope and wind effects. I mean, who the hell cares, right? I should be able to set the influence of slope and wind to any degree I like when I'm playing offline, right?

Forget it. I think it's been four years now. That's such an easy, logical feature, but not when you have designstipation. And EA's rigid concept of sports games doesn't include huge numbers of user options.

That's one thing I will say for 2KSports. They include a huge number of options for turning features on and off and customizing them. They have their own issues, but they don't have designstipation. And it's saved their ass a few times. When NFL2K5 came out, there were problems with trades. Turning off in-week prep and exhibition games solved it.

NFL2K5 turned out to be the best football game I've ever played, but if I couldn't have resolved the trading problem, it would have been a deal-breaker. And given that no on except Konami EVER finishes a sports game these days, including as many options as possible for the user increases the chances that we'll be able to work around whatever's screwed up.

Because something will be.

I had one great fight. Roy Jones, Jr., was my opponent, and he was brilliant--his A.I. was aggressive, he was fast and powerful, and the fight was just fantastic. After I finished that fight, I thought about how brilliant this game could potentially be if even a quarter of the fights were that good.

Oh, well. Maybe the Winning Eleven team will make a boxing game someday.

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