Opening Day Means More Skepticism than Celebration in Sports Video Games

I play sports video games for a living and publishers send them to me for free. The reality of a $60 purchase—what it actually buys, what else it could buy—is something I respect but it's not a decision I really face. I'm probably the last guy who can advise anyone on whether a sports video game is worth buying on the day it's released, but I will anyway: Don't.

Don't even buy a sports game in the first week of release, which is how long we now wait before publishing a review, and it wasn't long enough to catch all of the bugs and flaws in an otherwise excellent NCAA Football 12, including a staggering glitch that erodes the game's most valuable commodity, customized rosters.

Discovered last week by Operation Sports, the glitch rebalances a player's tendency—a "hard-hitter" defensive back becomes a "coverage" specialist, for example. Good players get weaker and vice versa. It's triggered by renaming the roster file. Diehard users typically wait until the first named rosters are shared before starting their career modes, and many found out several games in what kind of damage had been done. The only solution is to delete the named roster file and use the default one.

Until a patch is released, of course. Then the game will be fine. But the fact disc-based console games can get a patch after release doesn't excuse the glitch necessitating one. And release after release, and not solely with EA Sports games, but across all publishers, we see it. Typically, the problems are in online multiplayer, either in matchmaking or other glitches. But MLB The Show, one of the most widely respected sports titles, shipped with a bug in its logic that saw many big-name players lingering unsigned in free agency. It was nearly identical to a bug requiring a patch in MLB 10 The Show and it took a couple of weeks to fix.

Operation Sports, in its excellent coverage of the NCAA 12 calamity (EA Sports developers checked into its forums to confirm the error and gather information to help with a fix) declared that the last straw had been laid. OS's Chris Sanner called on serious sports gamers to stop buying games on day one, acknowledging that such a movement is probably so small that it will have no effect.

I'm still happy to back his cause here. Sports gamers are disproportionately, and unacceptably, subjected to publish-and-patch practices that seem to prize hitting a release date above delivering full quality on it.

These problems are uniquely magnified for this genre for a couple of reasons. The biggest is the annual development cycle, which is never going to change because a release every year is required contractually by licensing behind these games and, functionally, by the millions publishers pay for it.

Only if a game is comprehensively broken—think NBA Elite 11—will it not go out the door and even then, I think EA Sports was ready to publish-and-patch with that until YouTube exploded with a series of humiliating glitch videos. It had actually shipped retail copies, which is how the game is now available on eBay. Its predecessor, NBA Live 10, arrived with a major day-of-release patch that rival developers alleged was built after the game went to gold master, with full knowledge the on-disc code needed repair. (The NBA Live team, for its part, said the patch came from what was observed during the game's free demo period.)

Backbreaker, which entered the marketplace with tremendous benefit of the doubt for daring to challenge Madden, received a huge title update three months after release that completely changed the game. While I praise NaturalMotion Games for delivering that kind of post-release support—it's better than doing nothing—it's not as good as if the game hadn't been broken in the first place.

Sports publishers seem to be aware of the diminishing appetite for day-of-release sales. Yes, they offer special editions and pre-order DLC to lock up early commitments, but NCAA Football 12 also saw discounts and store credits offered as well, effectively bringing the title's price down to $40, the figure some gamers are willing to wait two months to see. Promotional discounts and credits may be one reason the game shipped more than 700,000 copies to retailers, about 100,000 ahead of where NCAA 11 was at the same point last year. EA Sports isn't oblivious; they know that if people aren't waiting for the price to come down, then they're waiting for the first custom roster files to hit. A $40 purchase price says "Why wait?"

Well, I suggest sports gamers wait until it can be confirmed that the game is truly finished. That's not something I look forward to evaluating, to be honest, as some glitches are so specifically triggered you may not see them until after the review publishes. In NCAA 12 I'm in an Online Dynasty with two guys from OS—and a producer from EA Sports—and we're still discovering bugs, from the loss of saved highlights to the complete disappearance of a ballcarrier, requiring the restart of a game.

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Next up on the calendar is Madden NFL 12, a game that, through its outsize reputation and market presence, pays for all of the sins of sports gaming, not just its own. Gamer wariness of publish-and-patch practices may now come home to roost with it, too. The roster code on the Madden 12 disc will already be outdated when it arrives, although to be fair, this is not a performance issue and it's due to something entirely beyond EA Sports' control: the NFL lockout.

Still, on the day of release, we'll see a mammoth roster update accounting for the whirlwind of free agent transactions delayed by the labor disruption. The Philadelphia Eagles, on the disc, are a contender; but following yesterday's signing of Nnamdi Asomugha, among others, they could be one of the greatest video game teams of all time, in any sport. And there's no reason, given the breakneck pace of sports development against a one-year deadline, to think Madden 12 won't need a patch to fix something other than performance tuning. If there's any good news, it's in the game's record of post-release support, probably the best in annual sports gaming.

But Madden too, is seeing a $20 pre-order credit on Amazon to get you to buy now. And if any game's day of release is a holiday, it's Madden's. The inclination to buy it that day is no less than a habit for millions, and it may be yours, too. Just realize you may not get the game you really want until a few weeks later.

Opening Day Means More Skepticism than Celebration in Sports Video Games
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays.

You can contact Owen Good, the author of this post, at owen@kotaku.com. You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook, and lurking around our #tips page.