Of the independent games available on Xbox Live, a sports title is currently the No. 1 downloaded title and another is the No. 2-rated game, across all offerings. But sports is far from the service's dominant genre.
The action and adventure, puzzle and trivia, and shooter categories all have more than 100 listings. Sports, just 25. And this is just one measure. On the whole, sports are not a particularly fertile subject for indie developers, especially if one considers racing games a genre outside of sports.
Where do sports stand on the indie landscape? Does this indicate an opportunity for a developer? Or a strict barrier to his participation?
Moreso than other genres, "You're gonna get compared to the big boys," Matt Davis of Houston-based BarkersCrest Studios, says of the biggest drawback. Davis' Avatar Golf is the leading download (and Stick Jockey's independent sports game of the year) on Xbox Live, and he followed it up last month with the one-dollar, one-button controlled Home Run Challenge that's done well since its release.
"These are games that have been accepted really well, but I surf the net, and every once in a while I see people who say [about Avatar Golf] ‘This isn't Tiger Woods; this isn't Hot Shots Golf,'" Davis said. "You will still get compared to the elite developers and their games."
Elite developers not only have tremendous resources and manpower, they also have the means to strike licensing arrangements with leagues and sports personalities to drive a product's realism and appeal. An indie sports developer then is really pursuing niches within a niche of video games, trying to find the aspects of a sports game that can still have appeal without a big budget to deliver them.
Avatar Golf and Home Run Challenge are about getting players Xbox Live avatars' involved in the games themselves - a feature with unique and obvious appeal. Inside Lacrosse College Lacrosse 2010 tapped the passion of a vastly underserved, highly motivated fan base with no major sports game to call its own.
But in the end, they're still dealing with front-loaded player expectations in ways that wholly invented games are not.
"I think doing a sports game is a little harder than a 2D platformer or a shooter," said Jonathan "Fritz" Ackerley of Dundee, Scotland-based Triple B Games, which developed the lacrosse title, plus a soccer game called Fitba. "Doing a really good platformer or shooter is hard as well. But to get a sports game to a level where it's recognizable as a simulation is a lot of effort. Perhaps it is a higher barrier to entry for that reason. People know what to expect from a game of football, they know there's 11 on each side, they want to select their teams, check their formations, they know the rules of the game. Whereas doing a 2D platformer, you can make it up as you go along and introduce the rules that you want to give to player."
On the other hand, that 2D platformer is still a game built out of thin air. However it is constructed, the rules and gameplay of something like basketball have been around for more than a century. It's not just that they're familiar to gamers, a game's established rules and norms also provide a benchmark to a developer for determining if his game is balanced properly.
"Sports has a huge advantage because explaining 80 percent of the game is already done; people already play sports," Davis said. "You don't have to do too much of an elaborate tutorial. One of the limitations of being an indie developer is that you're so small, you can only do so much. So any time you spend on building something so gamers can learn to play the game is time taken from something else. But people understand sports. They know the rules. It's really just a question of what buttons do what."
And that preloaded understanding of a game helps in another way. "The player, the consumer, the purchaser knows what they're getting without looking at the back of the box," Acklerley said. "Football's about football; tennis is about knocking a ball back and forth across the net."
That helps in another way: Rising out of the crowd. As mentioned before, there are more than 100 titles in the more familiar genres of core gaming on Xbox Live. The service features ratings and free demos, but a developer still has a short window in which to explain his game and make a player want to buy it. While some sports are uninteresting to some players, they're very interesting to their devotees.
And further, Davis explains, is getting rated and then cleared for release on the Indie Games channel. Games are evaluated by the development community, so clearing that barrier is the first priority. "The more interesting a game is, the quicker it's going to go through review," Davis said. "Sports games, you don't have to beat one the way you do a platformer. The main thing holding games back in review is not being interesting. A lot of games aren't fun to review. It has to be interesting enough for people to go out of their way to review it for you."
It's still a mixed bag. For an indie dev to take on a familiar sports game, he's going to have to do it differently, or reduce it to its most fun parts - penalty kicks, a field goal contest or a game of HORSE a fun diversion for fans of football, U.S. football, and basketball. Or it needs to be something relatively exotic like lacrosse, or hurling. I recall playing baseball's 1840s ancestor, Town Ball when I lived in Cooperstown, N.Y. a decade ago, and I think it'd be perfect as an indie video game. With no foul balls, runners traveling the stakes (bases) out of order, and fielders making putouts by throwing the ball at them, it's an action-oriented derivative of baseball with a definite appeal to a fan base mindful of the game's history. Plus, it's one of the major U.S. sports, but there's no league-licensed title towering over it.
With so many sports fans expressing frustration that big budget titles with exclusive licensing offer a paucity of alternatives, one would have to think sports, despite the structural or market limitations, present opportunities for indie devs that reduce the risk of pouring work into a completely unknown game.
But the indie market is also motivated by making games the developers themselves want to to play.
"It's an open area that not a lot of people have chosen to explore," Davis said. "People tend to make games that they like themselves, and a lot of people who are developers are hardcore video game guys, not necessarily in sports. But Madden sells off the charts, and there's a reason for that. People like sports."
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays at 10 a.m. U.S. Mountain time.