Patching and fixing games are not new concepts, nor are they exclusive to sports games. But sports gamers are increasingly calling for a do-over, and studios are responding.
Three huge developments over the past two weeks, all coming in football titles, show that sports communities have pull far beyond suggesting some player's ratings get a bump or an AI get tuned up or down.
For starters, EA Sports Tiburon swallowed its pride and told hardcore fans that, by the first week of the NFL season, Madden NFL diehards will get their old pre-snap command set back. The devs tried simplifying its three different keys - triangle/Y and the two bumpers - by moving them to the directional pad. But from the day they first tried it on the demo, Madden fans heaped complaints, abuse and even an ergonomic analysis onto the new controls.
A bit more subtle, but no less profound of an effect, are the new live tuning packages just delivered to NCAA Football 11, more than a month after it launched. This allows EA Sports to adjust "thousands of key parameters" in the game and the certification that attends to a patch put out on Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network.
Finally, and most dramatically, is the "Greathouse #3" patch to Backbreaker, a magnum opus of an update taking its name from the game's most dedicated forum participant. In addition to fixing aggravating rule inconsistencies and tuning artificial intelligence to make the passing game easier, Greathouse introduced entirely new gameplay features, such as some pre-snap commands and a new "focus mode" for defenders.
Making games better and responding to customers' wishes are fundamentally good things. But it also raises the question: Just what are we playing in that first month of release?
"Until we have the capability to do an actual beta, it's gonna be really hard for us to get feedback on that kind of a volume before the game releases," Madden NFL 11 senior producer Phil Frazier told me on Kotaku Talk Radio this week. "And that's ultimately what it takes to make the perfect football game."
Given the hypothetical choice between "the best Madden ever" out of the box, but no means to patch it, or a pretty good game with full post-release support, Frazier unhesitatingly chose the latter. "The fact we can get all that feedback and actually address that in some fashion, I think it's really the future for us," he said. "We enjoy having a live team. We enjoy the fact that we have the capability to go out there and make the game better for our fans. "
Frazier's mention of betas raises an interesting point. Triple-A releases often get betas - from Halo: Reach's multiplayer to Medal of Honor's, to a slew of titles on PC and even LittleBigPlanet 2 - many of the year's biggest releases often get a rehearsal dinner. Not sports, though a game's demo sometimes serves the same purpose, as it did for NBA Live 10 and, of course, Madden 11.
So it's curious that sports would not have a traditional beta, as multiplayer is no less of an expectation than it is in a shooter. And shooters aren't held to the same standards of authenticity that sports games are.
"Sports games are incredibly detailed replications of very familiar events," says Rob Donald of NaturalMotion Games, the studio that made Backbreaker. "When things are wrong, they feel wrong. However, one could argue that there is less need to support these games post release because gamers have become so used to putting up with mistakes and waiting for next year's version."
Perhaps they aren't anymore. In the instant aftermath of Strategy Pad's first big test, EA Sports' reaction was, on the whole, that gamers would ultimately adapt to the change, and the biggest complaints were coming from a few loud voices. But the community continued to argue and justify its rejection of Strategy Pad, and less than a week after the demo's release, Madden's team relented.
Backbreaker inspired a lot of hope in gamers because it represented a challenge to Madden's authority as the only NFL-licensed game. So the disappointment in what the game got wrong at release was a bit more palpable. Donald admits the NaturalMotion team was, at first, defensive about the reaction to Backbreaker.
"It is a bloody ambitious game that initially tripped over some – since fixed – shortcomings," Donald said. "But we are honestly really proud that we managed to realise the game we had in mind. And we didn't mind the community beef; they were out there playing the game a lot, and giving us very precise feedback and giving us valid reaction."
That said, "We never thought we would do something as big and game-changing as Greathouse," Donald added. "There were of course fixes in there, but it became very clear that this was more than just a patch. Adding the replay camera system, we feel, gives the users something special to play with. We improved controls, AI, animations. It felt good to be able to offer so much, in really what was quite a short time after release."
Gamers rightly expect consistency in persistent modes like NCAA Football 11's Dynasty or Backbreaker's Road to Backbreaker. Given updates midstream that change the tone of a game, make it easier or more functional, some may wonder why they put so much time in prior to the arrival of "the real game".
Personally, I enjoy Madden, but I can't wait for the old snap commands to return. That anticipation makes me wonder a little why I'm playing the game now. I'm certainly not inclined to start a Franchise until the change arrives.
"I'm sure that sentiment may exist in some people, but the large majority of feedback is positive," Donald said, speaking for Backbreaker as an example. "Those who bought the game pre-patch benefited from having their feedback listened to, and I know from direct communication that a lot of people appreciated that."
In the end, this is, as Frazier said, a better problem to have than the alternative - a game whose changes can't be undone, whose flaws can't be repaired, and whose community isn't involved and invested today, with its input acknowledged more immediately than next year's game.
What does this do to sports gamers' expectations, though? If the ability to tune, fix or thoroughly remake a game is on the table, thanks to consoles' online services, will they stop adopting early?
Most licensed games precede the start of their sport's regular season by a month. Does this make that first month a pre-season for the sports game, too? And will we start paying attention only when it's time to play for keeps?
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears every weekend.