Army, Navy, Air Force, I haven't played with or against a service academy in years in NCAA Football. This year, the game added parachutists to deliver the ball to the 50-yard line at Michie Stadium—and I'm told play-by-play man Brad Nessler now pronounces Michie Stadium correctly (it's MIKE-ey, not "Mitchie"). All positive steps forward, fine.
But I wouldn't have known that the game still doesn't feature The Long Gray Line—that is, the uniformed student body in the crowd—had I not chatted up a West Point graduate and NCAA Football diehard a couple of weeks ago. "The cadets still aren't in uniform?" I asked. "No, sir," he said, "civilians wearing the standard polo shirts and hats and hoodies and jerseys."
Years back, on the standard-definition version of the game, crowd cutscenes at West Point showed cadets in Dress Gray, even with the overcoat in bad weather, if I'm not mistaken. Air Force cadets and Navy midshipmen also were properly attired. But when the game transitioned to high definition consoles, all of its cutscenes had to be reshot. These never were.
"Don't hold your breath on that," I said, when he asked if EA Sports would bring back uniformed cadets in the crowd. "Maybe next console generation."
"Maybe next console generation" is getting to be a mantra with sports video games. And we are nearing the end of the current one, even if it's unlikely we'll see the next PlayStation or the Xbox 360's successor in 2013. (Yes, there's the Wii U. Considering the damage the Wii did to simulation sports gaming's reputation on Nintendo platforms, I don't think anyone is looking to the Wii U to lead the next generation of changes in sports gaming.)
When WWE '13 releases Nov. 6, we'll be done with the simulation sports releases for 2012, and this is a time when people start compiling their laundry lists of what they want to see in 2013. People will still want the means to import their careers from one version to the next—especially considering the juggling act Madden was able to pull off with its "Connected Careers" mode.
It's still a shame we don't have mid-game saves, which would be a godsend with a starting pitcher in MLB The Show, or if you're playing full-length quarters in NBA 2K. And except for NBA 2K, nearly every game needs a complete commentary overhaul, or significant dialogue additions for their new booth crew.
Sports video game developers will be consumed with not repeating the embarrassments of 2005 and 2006.
But I'm not optimistic any of that gets done, hence the "next console generation" response every time sports gamers try to forecast what's on the way. I think it's more likely that we would see high-definition re-shoots of old cutscenes, like cadets in the stands, because from here until the day Sony's "Orbis" and Microsoft's "Durango" hit shelves, sports video game developers will be consumed with not repeating the embarrassments of 2005 and 2006, the last time they were confronted with a hardware upgrade, and failed terribly.
Nearly every major series slipped its traction seven years ago, coming at the end of very strong runs on standard definition consoles. For two, the aftermath would prove fatal. NHL 2K had been neck-and-neck with its EA Sports rival coming into the shift change. Both stumbled in their first two offerings on the current generation, but NHL 2K never found its way and ceased publishing on HD consoles after 2009.
NBA Live and NBA 2K also were evenly matched coming into 2005, when Live laid an egg on both the Xbox and Xbox 360 and 2K Sports turned in a surprisingly strong NBA 2K6 across the board. Everyone knows what has happened since, and the generation change played an enormous role in defining one as dominant and the other as a straggler. NBA Live was canceled again this year, badly damaging its only real hope: Hang around, and hope to catch 2K Sports flatfooted, again, in the next console generation.
FIFA's comeback against Pro Evolution Soccer occurred later, but it also has origins in the console change as Konami stumbled in its first high definition offerings and only this year appeared to regain ground. But even series with no competitors suffered embarrassing setbacks in the generation change.
NCAA 07 had "Campus Legend," the second edition of the game's big-man-on-campus fantasy. The Xbox 360 version did not have it. I recall that a friend in Eugene, Ore. purchased a 360 specifically to play this game, then returned both when he found out he couldn't play Campus Legend. I played original Xbox NCAA Football 06 on emulation—with atrocious lag—just because I couldn't create a school with the Xbox 360 version.
Madden NFL 06 still is a grimace-inducing embarrassment to EA Sports. Remember its generic "EA Sports Radio" announcer? Granted, some contractual issues may have fouled that up, when booth partners Al Michaels and John Madden departed ESPN/ABC for NBC. But many other basic features in Madden NFL 06's standard-definition version were not present in the 360 version. The series began life on this generation with rudderless journey that only now seems to have straightened out, thanks to the inclusion of two bedrock features, real-time physics and an integrated career mode.
The stakes are higher now, with less competition, greater development costs, and higher licensing fees. For the next year or two, priority one will be in making sure that any new feature introduced can survive the transition to the next console generation. With short yardage to the next marker, I don't think many publishers are willing to go for it.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears weekends.