It really doesn't matter how many times My Player is an NBA All-Star, nor how durable he is on the Road to the Show, or to Glory, or to the Masters. Every one of them will suffer a career-ending injury: The release of next year's game.
More than five years into its modern concept, the singleplayer career mode of all sports games is held back by the inability to transfer your progress from one game's edition to the next. It weighed on me earlier this week as my golfer in Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12: The Masters finally won the game's namesake tournament. In that world, Owen Good has now maximized every attribute, earned silver master level on 19 courses, won every major, and peaked at No. 2 in the world.
And when next year's game comes out, I'll have to go through it all again, just like my pitcher with the San Diego Padres this year, or the Phillies last year, or the Nationals the year before that, in MLB The Show. Another developmental tour. Another "you've arrived" moment, progressively diminished by all the times I've reached it.
For a long-time sports gamer the lack of transferability feels like a pointless disincentive toward buying the current game. But, of course, by staying a year behind because you're nine seasons into a 20-year baseball career, you'll miss out on any new features of the current game, you'll find fewer opponents should you go online, and your post-release support is done.
It isn't just a disappointment to singleplayer career gamers; franchise modes, by far the highest-participated mode of play in console simulation sports, must also restart year-to-year. While virtual GMs indeed lose all of that development, at least they can pick up the next year with a fully constituted franchise. Singleplayer careers always start from scratch.
There are signs of change. I was shocked at how postive the response was to rumors that EA Sports will create a paid subscription service that, among other things, stores all of that progress in a persistent online identity. EA Sports is beaten up any time it charges for anything beyond a $59.99 retail release. The fact this idea was not instantly shredded by knee-jerk complaints of nickel-and-diming speaks to how much the feature is in demand.
"I've pretty much maxed out my Pro on 10 and 11," Kotaku reader Matieo10 wrote in a comment on that news. "A few months ago I told myself, if they make me do that shit a third time over, I'm not buying FIFA 12. This is good news really."
I feel the same way, even though the cynic in me would say EA Sports waited until it could make an extra buck off the idea. But it's also not as simple as flicking a switch to allow one game to import another's save file.
The biggest barrier to a persistent career is reconciling the rest of the roster in the universe from which he comes with the one in the latest edition. New players come to the league, and high profile rookies-especially in the NFL and NBA- would be expected to have starting jobs even if, in your continuity, their real-life teams wouldn't have had the need to even draft them.
Other bot players in the imported career must be accommodated, sometimes into starting lineups. In longer careers, they become all-stars. Then, how do you judge how much longer a real player lasts? If you import a 10-year pitcher on the Baltimore Orioles from MLB 2K11 to MLB 2K12 is he still facing Robinson Cano in the Yankees' batting order in the year 2021 of that game? (And where in the order is he hitting?) In games with player progression, how well or how poorly they perform in the imported career can be markedly different from how they are rated in the beginning of the next year's game, especially if they are more than one season ahead.
It sounds like a mammoth headache. Designers at Sony's San Diego Studio, which makes MLB The Show, told me last year that transferring Road to the Show progress was something they'd started looking into. Obviously, we didn't see that capability this year, which hints at the mushrooming complexities posed by such a design choice.
In singleplayer careers, we may see at first is something akin to what was introduced in Tiger Woods PGA Tour this year. For the first time, the series allowed players to import the experience points their golfer had earned from a gamesave in the preceding year. It was not a 1:1 match; you got a block of XP based on the amount acquired in Tiger Woods 11. So there still was some development necessary, and indeed, the golfer had to go through the game's Amateur, Nationwide Tour, and Qualifying School phases to reach the PGA Tour.
That kind of credit system seems to make the most sense, for now. That way, you preserve all the hard work your virtual athlete has done and you assign it to him, so you pick up where you left off with the same attributes. However, he leaves behind the continuity established in the preceding game and, for most purposes, starts fresh in the new one.
For franchise modes, I don't see how it can be done without sacrificing the inclusion of the next year's new players, and the movement of existing players. That will be fine for many. In a game such as NCAA Football, which has complete roster turnover every five seasons, it would barely even be noticed.
I don't know what importable careers and franchises would do for a game's sales, ultimately the reason anything is done in games development. It's a feature that would be marketed more through stories in the enthusiast press than on the back of a box or in a TV ad. And it appeals to people who are already buying and playing the game, likely already doing so each year.
EA Sports won't deliver this before the end of the year, but its movement on the issue should force others' hands. Some, such as 2K, which reliably sells everything on a single disc with no DLC, may try to integrate this concept for free. Of all games, it should be a priority for MLB The Show, as hall-of-fame baseball players have careers nearing 20 seasons. No one is going to play that much in a single year.
This is the next big expectation of sports gaming's core, one that will shape the entire genre when it is at last introduced.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays.