Usually, if someone wants to convince you that the video game they're making is going to be great, they tell you what they're putting in it. But what if they made nearly the same game a year ago? They have to take a different approach.
This is the plight of the people who make big-time sports video games. Their job is to both make a better game than the one they made last year and to convince you that it's worth buying the new one, even though they were selling you nearly the same thing last year.
Sports gaming fans know what sports games creators—and sports games marketers—do to try to solve this problem: to a degree unseen in any other area of gaming, sports games creators knock their own work. They often do this publicly, in trailers for the new games that show what was actually wrong with the games that came out the year before.
If you're a fan of Call of Duty, Super Mario games or really any other non-sports game, a bit of official EA Sports video like the one below, taken from an official trailer for this year's NHL 14, might shock you. They're showing, quite clearly, that last year's game had some flaws:
Sports gamers are used to this kind of thing, but even those fans are probably unaware of just how frank some of the developers of these games are to the press. In 2013, they'll freely knock the 2012 editions of games that, just a year ago were supposedly the pinnacle football, hockey and soccer experiences on a PlayStation or Xbox. Some might say that that makes them the most honest game creators around. Or the best salesmen. Or both?
For two years, I've been privy to a pair of semi-public teardowns of the previous year's EA Sports games. They've happened each of the last two springs as part of a press preview of the fall's big games from EA. Since we're in the midst of EA Sports' big 2013 sports releases—NCAA Football 14 and Madden 25 have now been released; NHL 14 and FIFA 14 are still forthcoming—I thought it'd be a good time to tell you about what I've come to look forward to as two of the weirdest hours of my year as a video game reporter.
I leave these two-hour sessions amused, impressed and a bit bewildered. It's commendable that game developers are iterating on the finest details of their games, spotting old flaws and fixing them. But it's weird, right? It's weird that this happens—that the same game has to be monkeyed with year after year to... make it better? Make it different enough to sell again?
Sports games are at the nexus of corporate gaming's sometimes competing, sometimes complementary capacities for creation and commerce.
Of all the kinds of games out there, they are the ones most guaranteed to get sequels and to get better all the time because of it. (Remember that games are not movies and that they often get better when they're sequelized, since so much of what makes a game good involves mechanics, technology and design.)
Sports games are also among the least likely games to get ample time to have a good sequel made from them. A new one gets made every season. By their nature as games that are designed to replicate a relatively unchanging human activity, sports games are also the games that should be most eligible to being perfected, to having an ultimate version crafted that needs no improvements ever.
These swirling factors are almost a fight for the soul of a video game, a tug of war between what must be done, what can be done, what should be sold, what can be played. All of that is evident in these two-hour sessions I'm writing about today that both hilariously and fascinatingly turn into two hours of EA Sports' video game producers showing how last year's games weren't as wonderful as they made them seem last year.
Sure enough, next year, they'll come clean about how this year's games aren't as good as the ones coming out in 2014.
It works like this: in May, a handful of games reporters, generally one per major gaming or mainstream outlet, meet with a variety of game publishers in Santa Monica to see some of the games that will be shown at the big gaming show E3 in June. The reporters are also considered to be judges and will vote on Best of Show awards at E3. Throughout most of the week, reps for games from Sega, Konami, Ubisoft, Activision and most other big publishers do their best to show how great their games are. They'll often let the press play the games.
There are usually about six or seven EA meetings, each running a half an hour. The meetings happen in small groups, rotating a handful of games reporters in and out of a bunch of rooms. Four of the meetings are for sports games: the newest NCAA, Madden, NHL and FIFA releases. Those are the weird ones, because those are the ones where a lot of time is spent knocking last year's games.
Walk into one and you might be shocked. Walk out of one and you might be thinking: hey, that new game seemed so much better than last year's.
Of course, I recently described these meetings to a colleague who just dismissed all of this as "sports games marketing bullshit."
Maybe. Maybe not.
I'll take you back to the meeting for NHL 14 first. The man giving the presentation was producer Sean Ramjagsingh. It took all of a minute for him to start pointing out what was wrong with NHL 13:
"We talk about what makes a great hockey game," he said, referring to his development team's ruminations. "We talk about our hockey trifecta, and that's the perfect balance of speed, skill and aggression. For us to really replicate what you see on TV and bring that into our game, you have to have all three of these things in perfect balance. Some people would say last year that our aggression wasn't quite in balance [with] the efforts we had in speed and skill. There's a lot of tuning of our aggression features last year that we're addressing this year. To have a fun gameplay experience, we need to have all three of these things in balance."
If you take that literally, it sure sounds like he's saying they screwed up last year. How could they? Was it really that bad? Well, it's prelude to selling the new features of '14.
To improve the aggression in their series, the developers brought in a new collision engine from FIFA. They took some fighting tech from EA's boxing series, Fight Night, too.
Hockey is a contact sport, so Ramjagsingh talked about getting good hits in the game and, with the game running on a big TV behind him, showed that you get them by figuring out how to line players up for hits. A new physics system was supposed to help with that, making it so that wherever your player hits another player, that's where the impact between the two players is registered.
"Last year, a lot of people thought they lined a guy up perfectly and they wouldn't get the hit they wanted," he said. "This is helping with that."
He showed a clip about how the new game now tracks over 250 points of impact on each player. That sure sounds like progress. Eventually, that bit of footage would be shown to the public in a trailer for the game. Here's an excerpt:
Once you see that, how could you want to go back to last year's game?
Were the developers just holding back last year? Or were they not able to develop this system? Let's assume it's the latter. It's possible, of course, that subtle changes like this can't be made all at once, that these are the kinds of advances that will stack up incrementally. It's more of a case of recognizing a way to improve realism than it is of scrubbing away a bad design choice.
Technology breeds improvements. But sometimes the problem just might be a bad design choice. That brings us to the game's fighting and suddenly our NHL producer sounded like a slightly disgruntled fan.
"Has anybody seen the fighting system in our old games?" he asked. "What happened, was you started a fight on the ice somewhere. Once we flipped the switch and said a fight was going to happen now, we'd lose all the players on the ice except those in the fight, we'd go into a first-person camera view, the secondary characters on the bench would disappear, and then we'd have this one-off mini-game that was really confusing and took you out of the experience you were in. And then we shrunk all the players to the same height, so you could never have a tall guy fighting a short guy. We'd make them all the same height…. It didn't feel like a cohesive part of the gameplay experience."
That's slightly pretty language for saying: the old way we did it last year sucked.
The new way: "For us, this year, we wanted to focus on a couple of things. We wanted the fight to feel like it was part of the moment, we wanted to capture [the idea that] the action was the result of something happens on the ice. We wanted to capture why fights happen in real life and bring that into our game… And we wanted to leverage Fight Night's technology to have a lot more fighting and strategy."
Again, this became a marketing point shown to the public in a trailer. Here's an excerpt:
The trailers that come out of these things are interesting. They regularly show the old games, but just to make sure that you are aware that last year's games were deficient, they desaturate the colors. Look at that old thing. Why would you still play that?
Back to the demo… there were more things about last year's game to put down.
"The new skating system last year was good," Ramjagsingh said, "but we got the feedback from the fans and the consensus we came to was that it was really a feature that benefitted the offense more than the defense. We felt that we gave the offense all these tools to use and we didn't balance it very well. For the offense, first, the feedback we got is that when you got to top speed and tried to turn, we tried to capture the momentum of not being able to turn on a dime, [but] people felt like we went too far with it. The comment I heard was that it felt like turning the Titanic a little bit. I don't know if it was that bad, but that's what they said. We worked on that so that it feels a little more realistic, but the main point for this year was just giving the defense the tools that we gave the offense last year."
This trailer shows a lot of what they showed us:
The trailer also shows that game's new one-touch dekes control option. The controls for the dekes, which are essentially evasive moves by an advancing player, weren't intuitive, Ramjagsingh told us. "The majority of our consumers couldn't string them together," he said. "Probably only 10 or 15% of them could use them in our game."
At this point, you might be thinking NHL 13 was garbage. But let me tell you: last year, during a similar meeting, NHL 13 sounded awesome. NHL 12 was the one that sounded like junk.
The half hour of NHL 14 wrapped up and we moved on to the NCAA Football meeting. The presentation was short, but there was enough time to acknowledge a flaw in a 2012 game. Here's one of the game's producers: "First things first, we're bringing over the Infinity Engine 2 from Madden, the physics engine. [There are] a lot of improvements, another year of really fixing bugs and post-play and a lot of the wonkiness you saw in last year's Madden game we've been able to tune and fix."
The producer said his team was going to put more big hits in this year's game. Cool. He described some other new features. But was there anything wrong with last year's game? The in-game recruiting system, apparently.
"For us, in the past, recruiting kind of became a little tedious," he said. "We had a phone call mechanic, We had to call prospects every week. It could stretch out and take forever and fans kind of got tired doing that. So what we did was we cut the middleman out. The phone call is gone. It's now more of a race-horse-management mechanic where you've got a lump of points at the beginning of the week, you determine what you want to spend on each guy… We kept a lot of the depth, so if you want to spend an hour going through all the tools for recruiting, it's right there, but if you want to do a quick five-minute experience and feel like you're doing things that impact your team and having a great recruiting experience, you've got that as well."
The NCAA guys gave Madden's old physics engine some lumps, but what lumps could the Madden guys give last year's Madden? Not many.
Here's the game's producer, Thomas Singleton: "For defense, we've taken a look at our angles of pursuit and made them much more authentic than ever before. The defenders, as they're chasing ball carriers will pursue properly according to the rules of football and how they cut off players, i.e. going to the front of the player vs. the backside and will break down, like you will in real football, to gain control and then make the tackle."
Catch that? On the 25th anniversary of the making of annual Madden games, the developers were going to make sure that their game's defenders behaved like real football players. The cynic will wonder what took them so long. The optimist will recognize that artificial intelligence isn't easy to program.
The NCAA and Madden producers were more gentle with their previous games than the NHL producer had been. None of them, however, poked last year's release with as much criticism as Aaron McHardy, senior gameplay producer for this year's FIFA. Bear in mind that FIFA games are generally regarded as being pretty good. Apparently, if you look closely enough, they are chock full of flaws that need to be fixed a year later.
McHardy's FIFA presentation was the most fascinating one. It was essentially one constant comparison between last year's game and this year's. It got to apparently fundamental flaws with FIFA games.
"When you look at the way people play FIFA over the years, there's a lot of emphasis on getting the ball wide to somebody who's really fast, jamming down the sprint button, running down the sideline, then whipping in your cross—and finding somebody on the other end and scoring," he said.
"That's kind of the way 60% of the people who play the game—that's all they do, which is not really the way the sport is played... We wanted to focus in our game on why running down the sideline, sprinting with the ball is so much easier [in the older games] than it is in the real world. When you think of players like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, these guys do that to the best of their ability and that's what separates them from the rest of professional footballers out there as being so great. We wanted to get that full spectrum into the game with what we've been doing with dribbling in the game. We've added new sprint dribble turns, we've added variable triple touches.
"We've done a lot of work in our marking system," he continued. "While, on one hand, you're running down the field, on the other hand , if the defense makes mistakes and leaves people open in the box, you get cheap chances. We don't want that to be an encouraging way to play the game. We want you to earn your chances, so you feel the reward when you actually get to score the goal. So we need to remove all of the easy ones that shouldn't really be there just because there's a mistake in the game [giving] you that opportunity."
I shared some of this with a FIFA fan and he was rolling his eyes. He wasn't buying that this augured meaningful changes. I was unsure as well, because McHardy talked about abstract goals and then offered what almost seemed to be peculiarly specific ways of achieving them.
"We want to make the moment when you score the goal exhilarating."
That sounds good.
How to do that?
"There's a lot of times in FIFA where we kind of rip you out of the moment at the pinnacle of the match. We have a term in FIFA-land called phase. And it's the number we use to describe the orientation of the player's feet. If you're standing like this it might be one phase," he said, standing in a medium stride. "If you stand like this," he said, shifting one foot forward a little, "that would be another number, like one. And that helps us understand, when [the virtual athlete] is in a run cycle, where his feet are. You can imagine how important that is, when you have to kick a ball, to understand the orientation of your feet. Up until now in FIFA, we've completely ignored that number when we're kicking the ball, in shooting situations, in passing situations. And this year we've developed a feature called Pure Shot that fixes some of the problems with ignoring that number so we keep you in the moment at the most exhilarating point of the match as well as create a little bit of a gameplay mechanic around that that."
The GIF at the top of this article shows how FIFA 14 makes the change that McHardy described. You might have to stare at it to spot the difference. Notice how the player always kicks with their right foot but how, in last year's game, they sort of have to skate and stutter-step to get into that position. In this year's game, the computer is smart enough to detect what's happening and make the player vary their stride.
Valuable game improvement?
Watch this trailer and McHardy will walk you through the change himself.
The weirdest moment of the McHardy presentation was his confession that some of FIFA's been suffering from... a math error. This is the point where it seems crazy that these games are allowed to ship in the state they're in. Here's how it went:
"The last thing we did was we re-worked our ball physics. Our projectile physics in FIFA is a mammoth bit of code. It's very complex. And it's grounded in physics. But we weren't getting the right effect, so we took a second look at it. We did a lot of research and we found a problem in something called the drag coefficient, which is a function that describes how the ball slows as it travels through the air dependent on the speed that it's moving. We had it wrong. Flat-out…And that's why we couldn't achieve some of the nice trajectories that we wanted to see in the game. We fixed that this year through a lot of research and an audit of the projectile physics code bed and the results are quite pleasing. "
They had it wrong. Their math was off. Incredible? Understandable? I'm going with Refreshingly Honest. And also: Wow.
More comparisons followed during McHardy's presentation, each time using FIFA 14 to show progress from FIFA 13. He showed us some dribbling examples, showing footage of each game on a TV behind him.
"What you're going to see first is a FIFA 13 example of dribbling the ball while holding the sprint button. You can see right off the bat when he takes 180-degree turn, all of his momentum is lost, he hits a brick wall and goes in the other direction. Now when he's asking for 90-degree turns or 22-and-a-half degree turns you're sort of getting training wheels to help you go fast. These are why it's easy for you to sprint down the sidelines, because we're assisting you so much.
"This year, we're changing the game so we respect momentum every time you turn and we actually allow you to move in the direction that you're requesting when you're sprinting, which means you can get up to speed and request a 90-degree turn and you actually move past the ball, so you actually have to be conscious of that when you're dribbling around the pitch at what pace you're moving. This is very realistic to the real world, because players often don't move at top sprint because they want to keep the ball close and in control.
"You can see... that the FIFA 13 touch is very consistent every single time. And the 14 touch is variable. You can see that sometimes [the virtual athlete] touches it long and sometimes he touches it short. You can imagine [that] if you know with certainty that every time you press the sprint button it's going to be a consistent touch, it's very easy for you to not care about [when] you press that sprint button… because you know when you'll always be able to cross it. In the real world of football when your'e running down the line, you sacrifice control for speed and sometimes the touch gets away from you, which is why players don't often do that and why players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi are so good because they can do that all the time and they can keep the ball close. So we wanted to get that full spectrum into the game to be able to have that play out in the real world."
These comparisons kept going for defensive markings… for the changing of running lines… for protecting the ball…. "the visual quality of these animations isn't very good," he's saying of FIFA 13, "So we've added a whole slew of animations."… for stride adjustments, comparing awkward strides in FIFA 13 and dynamic, smoothly-animating ones in '14… ball trajectories… "rising shots is something we've been wanting in our game for years and our fans have been asking for. But we would have had to kick the ball at 150 miles an hour to...hit the net still rising in FIFA 13. Now with the new ball physics in FIFA 14, as you can see, with a little bit of backspin it's rising the whole way as it gets to the back of the net."...
By the end of my annual two hours with EA Sports, I was of two minds.
I like when game creators are truthful, so I like hearing them talk freely about all of the things in their old games that they'd like to do better. I like seeing proof that those old flaws have indeed been fixed.
But I'm also left to wonder about what this all adds up to. Do improved running strides make a FIFA game measurably better? Did this year's improvement to skating in NHL throw something else out of balance?
More fundamentally: Are sports games forever flawed because the people making them will forever discover ways to improve them? Or are they forever flawed, because you can't sell the sequel to a perfect video game and so the machinery around them won't allow perfection to ever be achieved?
Probably a bit of both. That said, there might be a flaw in my conclusion. If there is, I'll let you know next year.