On The End Of A Quill

On The End Of A Quill

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Death of the Sports Game

The latest generation of games consoles are upon us, and this Christmas will surely be the last hurrah for people still playing with a PS3, an Xbox, or a Wii. But as we march on towards an era of better graphics, better sound, better downloadable content! It is perhaps the right time to look at what we are leaving behind. You can pack those HD DVDs off to the attic; BluRay came out on top in the format wars. It doesn’t look like the WiiU will bring the potential of your Balance Board out, and it will continue to gather dust. While it also looks like the memory card is going the way of the Dodo. And don’t even get me started on the waste of money those Xbox360 face plates were!

FIFA 14, the intros get better every year!
Video games make more money than ever, they have budgets that would put some Hollywood blockbusters to shame, and between the three main regions there seems to be games that can cater to every taste. Nowadays you have KickStarter and can put some of your money behind any game you like the look of and would want to play. It gives power to the consumer like never before. But a quick search of the KickStarter video game section will show you that there are little or no sports games on the site? So perhaps head over to Steam, one of the internet’s biggest game distribution services, with over 3,000 games available, and see what sports games they offer. A quick search of ‘sports’ will give you a choice of only 75 games, a miniscule amount. Plus, if you take out all the racing games from that list, you are left with only 43 games. If there are over three thousand Steam games, this adds up to a little over 1% Sports games, and a big chunk of those are made-up future sports, Blood Bowl, Beast Boxing, Steel Storm etc.
PES 14, the screenshots get better every year!
I guess we will have to stick to the good old consoles if we want to play some sports games. Football is the biggest sport in the world, there is bound to be loads of football games on…say the Xbox360. The 360 has been around since 2005. Eight years of game releases will surely have thrown up a load of football games to choose from. So let’s have a look. 25 Football games!  Unfortunately 12 of them are FIFA games and 8 are Pro Evo. You have two FIFA Street games (thankfully they stopped making those!), a Champions League game which is FIFA in all but name, an arcade soccer game, and poor man’s FIFA Street, called Pure Football from UbiSoft, and last but not least, a Japan only release from Bandai called Love Football? So in reality, we don’t have much of a choice at all. We basically have a choice of 2, FIFA or PES, and neither of those has changed much in their yearly updates. And if we are being really harsh, neither game is too dissimilar from the other, the mapping of the shoot button is different, and that’s about it!

NBA Live is back on Next Gen
NBA Ballers: Chosen One: Only One
Perhaps football is a bad example? The next biggest sport in the world is probably basketball. So how many of those have we been served up in the last eight years? 21 games seems like a healthy number. But again it gets boiled down to only two franchises. The NBA Live series from EA Sports and the NBA 2K series from 2K Sports, and the Live series has been missing in action since 2010, leaving 2K Sports a clear run of the field. Midway did release NBA Ballers, but it was basically a sequel to arcade game NBA Jam. While NBA Jam itself was released by EA Sports in 2010, but again, it’s more of an arcade game than a true simulation of the sport. EA also released the college basketball NCAA games up until 2010, but these were more or less NBA Lives.

Professional Baseball Spirits
It’s the same story with Ice Hockey games. 2K Sports and EA Sports battle for dominance. But on the flip-side, Its EA Sports who have been the only team to hit the ice since 2010. But at least there are two developers in Ice Hockey and Basketball games (kind of). If you want to play American Football there is only one game in town. EA Sport’s Madden. Yes there are college football games, but they are basically the same game with different rosters! Atari did have Backyard Football and 2K did have one attempt at football in 2010, but Madden conquered all. But while EA Sports rules the roost in NFL, 2K Sports is the place to go for your Baseball action. Their Major League Baseball series is your only option. Your only option that is, unless you have a Sony machine. Sony’s San Diego Studio releases MLB: The Show every season, so at least PS3 owners get some sort of a choice. In Japan, where baseball is a massive sport, Konami release their own take on the sport with Professional Baseball Spirits. Three different games released on the same sport in one year, it’s almost too much to take! That’s not really true though, the Konami game doesn’t make it outside Japan, and if you live in Europe you’d be lucky to see even one game released. American PS3 owners do get a choice of 2. But again, is that really a choice? There was more baseball games released on the SNES in 1994 than have come out on the PS3 in the last five years!

I remember when the Golden Bear had his own game
What if you’re not into these team games, and prefer a more solitary pursuit, like golf, or tennis even? Heading out onto the virtual links your best option are the Tiger Woods games from EA Sports. Nintendo has its Mario Golf and Sony releases Everybody’s Golf every now and then, but these are obviously more cartoony representations of the sport. Serious golf games seemed to have petered out after Microsoft finished with the Links series of games in 2004 on the original Xbox. Since then Tiger Woods has pretty much had his way with things.
The two main names in Tennis are TopSpin by 2K Sports and the Virtua Tennis games by SEGA. Although EA Sports have been trying to muscle in with their Grand Slam Tennis games of late. So if you are a tennis nut, there are some great choices there, as well as some of the usual wacky tennis games, like Mario Tennis, SEGA SuperStar Tennis, and the like. It seems to me that tennis games offer the best choice if you are a fan of the sport. But in saying that, have tennis games changed a hell of a lot in the last twenty years? You still play up and down the court, so that seems to be the default camera angle. But that is pretty much how you watch it on TV. It would take something radical to make a predominantly side-on or top-down viewed tennis game now wouldn’t it?
Ice Hockey at that angle! Are you insane Brett Hull?
Other sports have settled into default views also. Basketball and Football are side-on. Ice Hockey you play up and down. Cricket games tend to switch between behind the batter and behind the bowler views, which is exciting no? Though there are not a lot of cricket games nowadays. Ashes 2013 has just been cancelled, but Don Bradman Cricket 14 should be coming out soon, it’s a whole new game, how intriguing is that! It also does away with the need for licences and real names and stuff, as you have a player editor that sorts that out. But it seems you need the real names, real jerseys, real stadiums in a game or it won’t be taken seriously. Gone are the days when you could just list a load of countries or cities and have people make do with them. 
Is FIFA 95 the best FIFA?
But also gone are the innovations, the new approaches, the risk taking. It is almost too much to ask for a differing button layout these days. Let’s return to football. You have two choices, the FIFA game, or the, let’s be honest, very similar PES game (I’m talking camera, commentary, options, etc. the gameplay is slightly different….). Plus they have been releasing pretty much the same games year after year for over a decade now. Yes it looks better, but it doesn’t play a better game of football. It is as realistic/unrealistic as it has ever been. EA Sports and Konami are just too afraid to make that much of a change to a formula that works. Remember when FIFA tinkered with the corners? Uproar!! And this race for sales over gameplay is stifling sports videogames. The consumer is left with a shallow choice of games, in what turns out to be really no choice at all. 
For me the Dreamcast was the last system that offered a choice of Football games. And this was a system that didn’t have the two big hitters from Konami or EA being released on it. SEGA had two games from their WorldWide Soccer series by Silicon Dreams, who also did 2 UEFA games for Infogrames in Europe. SEGA brought out the arcade conversion of Virtua Striker on the system. Smilebit and UEP Systems released football games in Japan. 90 Minutes was a Smilebit game released in Europe by SEGA. It even had a football management game, Giant Killers! It also had those Let’s Make a Football Team games, which was only converted to English when released on PS2 (much later in 2006), and it tied in with the Virtua Pro Football game from SEGA. Smilebit who made those games, and are now known as SEGA Sports Japan, only seem to make Mario and Sonic at the Olympics games these days.

There can only be one!
Go back a little futher, to the generation of the MegaDrive. That system had more football games than you could shake a stick at! It had the best of the console and computer football games. It was perhaps the last generation where huge differences could be seen in the games. Compare Italia’90 with FIFA’98? Or Sensible Soccer with International SuperStar Soccer? If you put a screen shot of FIFA up beside PES these days, you can barely tell the difference.

Italia'90, and the crowd goes wild!
It is harder to get excited by a new iteration of the same game year after year. I honestly prefer a game of Tecmo Bowl or Joe Montana than the latest Madden game. Companies trot out developers to make videos every year explaining how this year is such an improvement, the ball physics have been altered, blah blah blah. It’s the same game to me! Show me some real improvements. Fix the game. Make it a better representation of the sport (are you listening FIFA? PES?), and not just a better representation, of the representation of the sport.
Konami Hyper Soccer on the NES
Soon there will be only one big name game for each sport. Is that what we really want? For sports games to go the way of the text adventure? Surely there is a market for a developer to make a go at some sports? If I was a racing fan, or a first person shooter fan, I would be surrounded by choice.  But this upcoming generation of systems doesn’t hold much hope for the sports fan. Just the same games getting a little bit prettier. I think I’ll have to return to the 8 and 16-bit systems to get my sport playing fix.

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