Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Athlete

I've been thinking about a game I'd like to see, and while it's a sports game, some of the concepts apply to other genres as well.

It's called The Athlete.

It's a sports game, but it's also a role-playing game.

To begin The Athlete, you create a character. That character has skill attributes across various ratings categories. In that respect, it's not unlike the "create a player" feature offered in many other sports games, with one significant exception: your character (let's call him Glen) is six years old.

That's right. Glen is xix years old. Welcome to the first grade.

In your childhood, you'll get to play in as many youth leagues as you want: soccer, baseball, football, basketball, or hockey. The graphics style would be 2D and very simple--something in the style of the Backyards Sports series. And the games themselves would be simplified versions of the real thing--in football and soccer, it would be seven-on-seven, while basketball and hockey would be three-on-three (plus the goalie in hockey).

Glen would have a league try-out for each sport, participating in a series of simple mini-games. The league schedules would be abbreviated, but there would be standings and championships and all-star teams.

Each game would be abbreviated, too, something that could be played in no more than five minutes. With a league schedule of six games, a season in one sport could be played in thirty minutes (and games could be simmed if desired).

Glen's ratings for that particular sport would improve based on how he performed, and he would also have practice time (simple mini-games) that he could devote to a particular sport, or he could opt for "general" practice (which would improve ratings in all sports, but more slowly than sport-specific practice).

As Glen aged, he would be given a few skill points each year that could be allocated in an RPG-like style. And if you decided that Glen was better off focusing on a single sport, he could enter a second league for baseball, for example, when he dropped his basketball league.

That sounds like an easy decision to make, but not so fast. Not only are ratings seperate for each sport, but potential is as well. So maybe Glen is a better basketball player right now, but he actually has much higher potential in football. That has to be weighed against his current skill level.

Different sports would also be introduced at different ages. Soccer, for instance, would be available the earliest. Football would be last for the team sports, but the number of sports could be expanded to include single-player sports like golf and tennis.

The mini-games would have a different graphical look beginning with high school--something along the lines of the old Front Page Sports series. Still 2D, not whiz-bang but decent, and the concept would be that Glen would participate in 12-15 plays per game.

Beginning with high school, Glen would be playing on school teams for all his sports, and he'd be recruited by college programs. This could get sticky, particularly if his potential is much higher in one sport, but his current skill level is higher than another. Does he want to go to Alabama to play football (with not much further potential), or try to walk on as a basketball player at Vanderbilt (with very high potential)?

Maybe Glen could try to play two sports in college, but that would be rare. In most cases, he'd need to focus on one sport. And he'd also need to decide whether he wanted to focus on a team-based sport (football, basketball, baseball, hockey, soccer) or an individual one (golf, tennis).

Now you couldn't have "real" colleges in the game, because of NCAA licensing issues, but you could allow importation of team names and conferences, so somone could just create a text file to specifications and you'd have real teams, plus they could import a team rating and an offensive/defensive style as well.

Even better, this could be done for high schools as well. So you could import every high school football team in Ohio, for example, with their correct league structures. And you could assign team ratings and styles.

In other words, you'd allow the players of this game to enrich the game world to a degree far beyond any sports game world ever created. You could even import the actual team names for your son's youth football league and let him play on the same team and league as he does in the real world.

One Glen finished college, he goes to the pros. If he makes it, that is, because not all college players do. Maybe he'll wind up in a second-level professional league, and he can work his way into the pros. He could be a Hall of Famer, or he could be a scrub. What makes this game different is that you don't start out in the pros--you might never play one down in the NFL or have a single at bat in the Major Leagues.

So let's say Glen gets drafted by an NFL team, but gets cut. He bounces around the Arena Football League for a few years, and just never never makes it to the NFL. He's twenty-six and his athletic career is over. What does he do now if he doesn't want to end his career in sports?

Well, he does the obvious thing: he becomes a coach.

Glen can start in high school as an assistant somewhere and work his way back up. Maybe he'll make it to the NFL after all, just as a coach instead of a player. The coaching mini-games would involve calling plays and making decisions at critical moments of the game, and would take about the same length of time as the mini-games when Glen's actually a player in the game. And there would be some developmental mini-games as well, because coaching is also about teaching.

Don't forget the recruiting mini-game if he's a college coach.

Maybe Glen's tired of coaching by the time he's forty-five. He used to be a pretty good golfer, though, and he starts playing seriously--and tries to qualify for the Champions Tour when he's fifty.

What I like about this game concept are two things: the number of strategic decisions that need to be made in the course of a career, and the mini-games. And if it's made so that players of the game can contribute data (team names, league structures, etc.), the entire league structure of the sports world could be created. Plus the game would be flexible for the user--if player A wants fifteen situations in each game, he can have them, while player B could have only five. Player C could just sim through the games.

Tarn Adams is the reason I started thinking about this concept, because Dwarf Fortress is just unimaginably rich in terms of depth. So it made me start thinking about what a sports game with the depth of Dwarf Fortress would be like.

When your athlete finally retired from from the game, a biography of his sports career would be created, and that could be uploaded to the game's website in a "Your Career" forum. That's where you could brag, or (more likely) commiserate about your promised but failed career, because this game wouldn't be easy. Even if you excelled at the mini-games, you could only (at best) reach Glen's potential, and he might only have Hall of Fame potential one time in twenty.

Which would keep you playing, as long as the game was fun.

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