Damned If You Demo, Damned If You Don't

As of this writing, there are at least seven YouTube videos, all with more than 100,000 views, tracking pratfalls and slapstick glitches found in FIFA 12—the latest entry in the most acclaimed and respected sports video game series of the past three years. All of these come from regular users playing a demo version that released two weeks ago.

This had to have brought back some bad memories in Burnaby, British Columbia, where FIFA is made and where NBA Elite 11 was made. Elite released its demo version this time last year. That title was utterly derailed by an infamous glitch video that pulled maybe half of the views of this FIFA 12 compilation.

NBA Elite's blooper reel saw Andrew Bynum standing at midcourt in a T-pose. FIFA 12's has Lionel Messi hopping on one foot with a grotesquely twisted left leg, an egregious four-player dive sequence embarrassing even to Italians, and two guys who can't even get the kick off right.

Now, let's be real. As ridiculous as all that is, FIFA was never remotely in danger of the same fate as NBA Elite. FIFA is the dominant product in its class, the top-selling sports game globally, and holds a vast reservoir of trust with gamers and critics alike. IGN just rated the game a 9.5. Some people might have had a miserable week when management asked what the hell this video was all about, but that title's still going to kick ass galore.

Still, for FIFA or any other game, demo versions of a sports title are one of the worst cattle calls in video gaming. There's no place to go but down, especially in games with a free-flowing, continually contested objective (hockey, soccer, basketball) where anything can happen. That's why we see this sort of thing around this time of year. A game that's largely driven by set pieces (American football, baseball) or restricted player areas (tennis) has an easier time managing the action, with fewer variables.

Demo versions of a sports title are one of the worst cattle calls in video gaming. There's no place to go but down.

It also doesn't help that sports video games, and their demos, are judged by an outside standard other genres don't face: They're attempting to simulate something normal people encounter every day, whether in person at a stadium or on their television set. There's also an enormous sample size of prior experience informing the public's opinion of what looks credible and what doesn't. Space marines chainsawing aliens is a different story. Demos of other games may be evaluated for the fairness and balance of their gameplay or the responsiveness of their controls and animations, but the "this kind of thing never happens" complaint, which sports games battle constantly, is largely irrelevant unless their gameplay is really broken.

And yet, against this stacked deck, publishers still must run out an incomplete version of their game, oftentimes one that is a month older than the code shipping on the disc in a couple of weeks. While demonstration versions are expected now for nearly every genre, none get the kind of advance scrutiny that the sports titles do. Enthusiast sites routinely post detailed impressions of sports game demos. The evaluation is very gameplay-driven, very focused on refinements or fixes made to the previous version, less so on new features, as usually the demo is simply a match from the basic play-now mode. In console gaming, the most common analogue I can find in other genres is when a first-person shooter is in its multiplayer beta. PC games generally have more robust beta releases that give a bigger picture of the game, of course.

To not release a demo version would be worse than releasing anything but an obviously broken one. It would be seized upon as a statement of zero confidence in one's own product, and with multimillion-dollar licenses riding on the outcome, it's almost suicidal.

It's not to say demos have no usefulness. Even if, at best, they deliver an underwhelmed reaction or heavily nitpicked feedback, they can function as a kind of short-term beta period, especially given sports' publishers' tendency to release a game and then patch its problems. Indeed, NBA Live 10, the predecessor of NBA Elite 11, returned solid review scores, and was helped further by a patch one month later that developers said drew on feedback and telemetry from the game's demo. Funny enough, invited FPS multiplayer betas, ostensibly meant to balance and troubleshoot a work in progress, are often slagged for being glorified demos with a velvet rope out front; a sports title's demo, advertised and acknowledged as such, is likewise slagged for being a beta on-the-cheap.

***

Play a sports demo and ask yourself if you had fun with it, big picture. On the finer points, take it with a grain of salt, because you are not getting everything. It may seem like sports demos should be more representative of the final product than a shooter that offers maybe one chapter out of its campaign mode, or a tutorial from an action RPG. They aren't. They're outdated by almost a month, and they're also not in a controlled environment like a single level of scripted encounters.

It also makes sense that, in a title downloaded by the millions and played millions more times, all with unique outcomes, even a small percentage of errors encountered by a small percentage of those with the wherewithal to capture them will seem quite large in whole numbers and YouTube views. Especially as comment culture fixates on the negative almost to the exclusion of the positive.

That doesn't excuse an error or a defect, but these things don't vanish into the ether, either. Someone's assigned to the problem, assuming it hasn't been corrected in the revisions between the demo's release and the final gold master copy. People will drive themselves crazy trying to replicate it. Any visual information is scoured and reported. I've seen this, in my own home. I got a pre-alpha demonstration of NBA 2K12 a month ago, and when a glitch appeared—a warping player who blocked a shot, nothing egregious—we paused and replayed it a few times, and the producer tapped out a message on his BlackBerry and sent it.

"I know how to fix that," he said.

He wasn't happy to see it, but he was glad he did. So was I.

Damned If You Demo, Damned If You Don't
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays.