The Rookie Mistake Most Video Games Make

Whether they won the club championship or they're the sixth man on their Y league team, most recreational athletes would accept that they are, by definition and by depth of skill, amateurs. It's not a bad word. But it sure feels like it in a video game.

"Amateur," "Rookie," "Freshman," "Beginner." These are all the descriptors of the lowest difficulty settings in sports video game simulations. It takes some real humility to pick that when you bring home the disc for which you just paid $60.

In the real world, where you either contribute to a team effort, or are seeded in a tournament, you're probably going to rate your talents reasonably. Your own enjoyment, and others' too, depends greatly upon your honesty and self-awareness in answering the challenge.

Sports video games are fundamentally about the fantasy of competing beyond our real-world physical talents. Not being an 'amateur.'

But in a video game, a sports experience typically played alone, I don't know anyone who's ever popped a disc in and said "Yep, I'm a a rookie." Fight Night? Yeah, hold on, I'm totally an amateur. NCAA Football? I'm just on the varsity. Sports video games are fundamentally about the fantasy of competing beyond our real-world physical talents. Why the hell would we appraise ourselves in an ordinary way?

And yet, because sports video games depend so heavily on external knowledge of the sport—from its basic rules to their fundamental application and familiarity with the top performers and their tendencies—it is arguably the least accessible genre to newcomers. This is a legitimate concern because the sports leagues who license simulation games understand the evangelizing influence video games have in creating new fans, particularly younger ones. Yet an American intrigued by soccer, let's say, who gets killed on FIFA 12's "Professional" setting, either isn't aware there's a more enjoyable experience two notches down in difficulty, or would dismiss it as hand-holding or patronizing.

I thought about this when UFC Undisputed 3 released two weeks ago, bringing with it a new set of controls for the ground and clinch game of mixed martial arts. Although MMA is most definitely a mainstream sport, it's still new in the sense people haven't been watching it on television as long as they have boxing, golf or any of the major team sports. So knowing how to fight in the clinch or on the mat isn't as instinctive to the eyes of an average sports fan, and one of the big components of those forms is the transition—how a fighter gets into a superior position.

Yuke's Future Media Creators, the developer of UFC Undisputed, understood that, and rather than fill up a newcomer's RAM with an explanation of four different major transitions and minor transitions and how to execute either, they included a simplified control set that reduced it to two flicks on a joystick, up or down. Defending against your opponent's transitions also was simplified to a single gesture. When you're actually watching your foe and can time your movements, even a complete novice begins to understand the fundamentals and how to act on them. Given an easier difficulty setting, you can learn without being punished.

And then Yuke's called this the amateur control set. This in a game with no amateur participants, which has a career mode that begins with you as a professional. The label is basically a pejorative. And I don't mean to single out UFC Undisputed 3—an excellent sports simulation. Other titles do it, too. Here are the difficulty ranks for some currently published simulation sports:

NHL: Rookie, Pro, All-Star, Superstar
Tiger Woods PGA Tour: Amateur, Pro, Tour Pro, Tournament
FIFA: Amateur, Semi-Pro, Professional, World Class, Legendary
NBA 2K: Rookie, Pro, All-Star, Superstar, Hall of Fame
NCAA: Freshman, Varsity, All-American, Heisman
Grand Slam Tennis 2: Rookie, Amateur, Pro, Superstar
Madden NFL: Rookie, Pro, All-Pro, All-Madden
MLB 2K: Rookie, Pro, All-Star, Legend
Fight Night: Amateur, Pro, Champion, Greatest of All Time
MLB The Show: Rookie, Veteran, All-Star, Hall-of-Famer, Legend
UFC Undisputed: Beginner, Experienced, Advanced, Expert, Ultimate
NASCAR the Game: Rookie, Racer, Veteran, Pro, Legend
Top Spin: Very Easy, Easy, Normal, Hard, Very Hard

Only Top Spin—2K Sports' tennis simulation, of all titles—actually describes its difficulty settings in mostly objective, commonly understood terms that, further, don't communicate some appraisal of the player's actual skill or knowledge. While there's still a judgmental label in "very easy," at least you know the top level is indeed "very hard," not "Heisman," the name of a goal you can still achieve at the "freshman" level of NCAA Football.

Really, what am I to assume the difference is between "Tour Pro" and "Tournament" in Tiger Woods? I can play a tournament with hackers out at the country club; by name alone, I'd expect "Tour Pro" to be the top setting. But "Tournament," in which you have practically no visual aids and must play by feel, I found demanding to the point of impossible. NBA 2K is one of seven games with a five-rank scale of difficulty, and its midpoint is "all-star." And NBA 2K is one of the best games for teaching its sport to beginners, especially in the floor diagramming—if you know to turn it on—that shows how to run plays in a free-flowing sport with constantly contested possession.

I've talked to producers who insist, earnestly, that players should dial back the difficulty on their settings. They describe it as sucking it up, knowing your limitations, being realistic. Then, these producers say, you start to see the enjoyment and entertainment they games really offer. And that's true. I got a hell of a lot more out of UFC Undisputed and NHL when I accepted that no matter how much I thought I knew about those sports, I really had no idea how to play them.

Why, then, do they give their own games the training-wheels labels? Why do they start things off at "veteran" difficulty? Nobody wants to pay $60 for a video game and admit they don't know how to play it—that's why so many begin with tutorials.

Why not start every game with its easiest control set at its easiest difficulty? Let those who have played the series for years, or who truly do know the sport, move the difficulty up, rather than force aspiring participants to dial it back. Instead of cute names for the difficulty levels, why not just describe them on a scale of 1 to 5?

This is a segment of video games development that loves to yack about accessibility and reaching and appealing to new audiences. It could do itself a lot of favors not by adding gimmicky tutorials or adulterated control sets, but simply by picking up each year where most of us already are: At the beginning.

The Rookie Mistake Most Video Games Make
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays.