What I want in a sports game
by Joe Santulli

Speaking of sequels, allow me to appeal not just to the sports game fan but also to any game designers who happen to be reading along. There should be a template of "givens" by now that anyone planning on releasing a sports game should follow. Miss any of these, and some committee ought to come down from the heavens and ZAP said game from the face of this gaming earth. There should be some way to prevent these lackluster sports games from being released if they fail to hit certain minimum requirements. We’re all looking for that ultimate sports game, and there have been plenty of satisfying releases, but it’s a real nuisance when a successful concept that’s been done by a game last year ISN’T being done by everyone a year later. Example: "icon passing". Sony developed this, it allows you to choose who you pass to, rather than having to face that player when passing. It was a great concept, and mostly everyone has made it part of the template. MOSTLY everyone. And there’s no good reason why anyone would leave it out.

In 1994, Sega released their first World Series Baseball line of games for the Genesis. It was a milestone for console baseball games, including three great innovations: an extremely up close perspective on the batter/pitcher screen; a contact zone for the hitter to swing through a selected section of the strike zone; and a fantasy baseball mode that lets you draft teams from scratch. The first two have been instituted by many games since, but I have yet to see a fantasy mode in a baseball game since. In fact, only the recent crop of 1998 football games have included a draft mode, which is at least close. Why not have a draft mode in EVERY baseball game? Fantasy baseball is SO popular! It really makes the game much deeper to be able to play general manager against the computer.

Ages ago I remember playing a hockey game on my Commodore 64 that was unremarkable in its gameplay but outstanding in terms of general manager features. Although there were no real players, when a season ended your players aged a year, their skills changed as a result, and you were posed with trade issues the following season. Further, rookies would join the league, older players would retire, and you could train your existing team to improve their skills in selected areas. What a brilliant idea. Ten years old (at least), and I haven’t seen it since! It looks like EA Sports may work at least some of this concept in their 1998 NCAA Basketball title. I can only hope.

The "create a player" option was added to the sports game template several years ago but hasn’t developed much since. I really can’t understand why the player design program only allows you to select from a dozen or so different heads and three or four body sizes. Why not open up the entire library of existing players and choose their heads? NBA Live ‘98 has fairly accurate NBA player portrayals - but it doesn’t let me select from any of them. Rather, I have to try to get as close as I can using what really just seems to be a collection of hairstyles. None of those generic hairstyles match mine (uh oh, is this telling me something?). That means I’ll either have to cut my hair differently or have my onscreen counterparts’ hair look like Samuel L Jackson’s. You know what? Just put a face editor in next year’s version (even a basic one like Coolboarders 2’s board editor). Think of the possibilities!

Statistics. I really enjoy games that have vast stat-tracking abilities. I like to be able to measure my numbers against a friend, or my team against the computer’s guys. Every year, however, there seems to be a problem with this. It almost seems as if the computer player stats are tracked against "what would normally happen in the NBA", given your game-length options, but not at all "what would normally happen" in the video game itself. For example, if I set the quarter length of NBA Live ‘98 to regulation, I’m scoring 180 points a game. OK, the AI isn’t very good with "real" time and I can forgive that. So I set the quarter length of the game down to about 5 or 6 minutes, and now I’m getting fairly realistic scores. Play in season mode with that setting, however, and the stats get very ugly. My guys are scoring what I would expect: 15-20 points per game, but the computer "leaders", are getting 8-10. Forget about steals and blocks, they’re not even in the same neighborhood! The season stats also don’t take into account what happens when an important trade occurs: if I move a high scoring "bench player" onto a team that would use him as their go-to guy, the stats don’t reflect it. He’s still getting about 6 points per game, despite the fact that he’s the starting forward with a high shot percentage. It’s weird enough that it throws off the "simulation" feel that it’s supposed to be creating. Designers should seriously look into this.

One last thing. I really miss the old "what’s going on around the league" feature. For some reason, this has been dropped from both the Madden and NHL series by EA and hasn’t been picked up by anyone else since! Do you remember how cool it used to be to get to watch game-ending plays from close games around the league when you were in Madden’s (or NHL’s) season mode? It added to the realism for me and that’s what I thought season play was all about.

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Last updated Tuesday, February 13, 2007 06:01 PM