The Rookie Mistake Most Video Games Make

Whether they won the club championship or they're the sixth man on their Y league team, most recreational athletes would accept that they are, by definition and by depth of skill, amateurs. It's not a bad word. But it sure feels like it in a video game.

"Amateur", "Rookie", "Freshman", "Beginner". These are all the descriptors of the lowest difficulty settings in sports video game simulations. It takes some real humility to pick that when you bring home the disc you just paid $US60 for.

In the real world, where you either contribute to a team effort, or are seeded in a tournament, you're probably going to rate your talents reasonably. Your own enjoyment, and others' too, depends greatly upon how you can answer the challenge.

But in a video game, I don't know anyone who's ever popped a disc in and said "Yep, I'm a a rookie." Fight Night? Yeah, hold on, I'm totally an amateur. NCAA Football? I'm just on the varsity. Sports video games are fundamentally about the fantasy of competing beyond our real-world physical talents. Why the hell would we appraise ourselves in an ordinary way?

And yet, because sports video games depend so heavily on external knowledge of the sport -- from its basic rules to their fundamental application and familiarity with the top performers and their tendencies -- it is arguably the least accessible genre to newcomers. This is a legitimate concern because the sports leagues who licence simulation games understand the evangelizing quality of a video game. Yet an American intrigued by soccer, let's say, who gets killed on FIFA 12's "Professional" setting, either isn't aware there's a more enjoyable experience two notches down in difficulty, or would dismiss it as hand-holding or patronising.

I thought about this when UFC Undisputed 3 released two weeks ago, bringing with it a new set of controls for the ground and clinch game of mixed martial arts. Although MMA is most definitely a mainstream sport, it's still new in the sense people haven't been watching it on television as long as they have boxing, golf or any of the major team sports. So knowing how to fight in the clinch or on the mat isn't as instinctive to the eyes of an average sports fan, and one of the big components of those forms is the transition -- how a fighter gets into a superior position.

Yuke's Future Media Creators, the developer of UFC Undisputed, understood that and rather than fill up a newcomer's RAM with an explanation of four different major transitions and minor transitions and how to execute either, they included a simplified control set that reduced it to two flicks on a joystick, up or down. Defending against your opponent's transitions also was simplified to a single gesture. When you're actually watching your foe and can time your movements, even a complete novice begins to understand the fundamentals and how to act on them. Given an easier difficulty setting, you can learn without being punished.

And then tYuke's called this the amateur control set. This in a game with no amateur participants, which has a career mode that begins with you as a professional. The label is basically a pejorative. And I don't mean to single out UFC Undisputed 3 -- an excellent sports simulation. Other titles do it, too. Here are the difficulty ranks for all the simulation sports currently published:

NHL: Rookie, Pro, All-Star, Superstar

Tiger Woods PGA Tour: Amateur, Pro, Tour Pro, Tournament

FIFA; Amateur, Semi-Pro, Professional, World Class, Legendary

NBA 2K: Rookie, Pro, All-Star, Superstar, Hall of Fame

NCAA: Freshman, Varsity, All-American, Heisman

Grand Slam Tennis 2: Rookie, Amateur, Pro, Superstar

Madden NFL: Rookie, Pro, All-Pro, All-Madden

MLB 2K: Rookie, Pro, All-Star, Legend

Fight Night: Amateur, Pro, Champion, Greatest of All Time

MLB The Show: Rookie, Veteran, All-Star, Hall-of-Famer, Legend

UFC: Beginner, Experienced, Advanced, Expert, Ultimate

UFC Undisputed 3: Amateur Control; Pro Control

NASCAR the Game: Rookie, Racer, Veteran, Pro, Legend

Top Spin, Very Easy, Easy, Normal, Hard, Very Hard

Only Top Spin -- 2K Sports' tennis simulation, of all titles -- actually describes its difficulty settings in objective, commonly understood terms that, further, don't communicate some appraisal of the player's actual skill or knowledge. While there's still a judgmental label in "very easy", at least you know the top level is indeed "very hard", not "Heisman", the name of a goal you can still achieve at the "freshman" level of NCAA Football.

Really, what am I to assume the difference is between "Tour Pro" and "Tournament" in Tiger Woods? I can play a tournament with hackers out at the country club; by name alone, I'd expect "Tour Pro" to be the top setting. But "Tournament", in which you have practically no visual aids and must play by feel, I found demanding to the point of impossible. NBA 2K is one of seven games with a five-rank scale of difficulty, and its midpoint is "all-star". And NBA 2K is one of the best games for teaching its sport to beginners, especially in the floor diagramming -- if you know to turn it on -- that shows how to run plays in a free-flowing sport with constantly contested possession.

I've talked to producers who themselves say that players should dial back the difficulty on their settings. They describe it as sucking it up, knowing your limitations, being realistic. Then, these producers say, you start to see the enjoyment and entertainment they games really offer. And that's true. I got a hell of a lot more out of UFC Undisputed and NHL when I accepted that no matter how much I thought I knew about those sports, I really had no idea how to play them.

Why, then, the training-wheels labels? Why start things off at "veteran" difficulty? Nobody wants to pay $US60 for a video game and admit they don't know how to play it -- that's why so many begin with tutorials.

Why not start every game with its easiest control set at its easiest difficulty? Let those who have played the series for years, or who truly do know the sport, move the difficulty up, rather than force aspiring participants to dial it back. Instead of cute names for the difficulty levels, why not just describe them on a scale of one to five?

This is a segment of video games development that loves to yack about accessibility and reaching and appealing to new audiences. It could do itself a lot of favours not by adding gimmicky tutorials or adulterated control sets, but simply by picking up each year where most of us already are: At the beginning.

Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Sundays.


Comments

    What is it with Americans and being surprised when they find out they're not awesome?

      They find out? From playing Moba I assumed they were in a constant state of denial and pushing the blame for their failings onto others.

    Why is the last paragraph entirely bold again?

      You mean the last 6?

      looks like its a missing closed bold tag.. lol

    And so by MOST games you mean just sports games... Hmmm.

      Came here to say the same thing :(

      "Stick Jockey is Kotaku’s column on sports video games."

        The way many people interpret the term 'video games' gives the comment some validity. Within a gaming circle/website/whatever use of 'video' before 'games' is fairly often, if not exclusively used to broaden the context. In my experience gamers generally just refer to their hobby as 'games,' and the altering that to 'video games' is done specifcally to generalise to the entire medium.

        Or maybe they just missed the sports tag. Meh, either way it's a slightly misleading title.

    who assumes they'll be good at something they haven't even tried?
    no wonder games are getting easier. If you don't make the player feel powerful from the beginning they'll want their money back.

    There's another mistake a lot of developers keep making. Leaving out Local Only search functions for thier multiplayer game.
    (server selection missing is also a problem)

      Wouldn't support for local multiplayer undermine Project Ten Dollars?

    Why is picking a lower difficulty a bad thing? Ignore the name, if a higher difficulty is too hard, don't play it yet...

    Its certainly true a lot of games are made easier these days to when we were kids. But one fact that rarely gets mentioned in that debate is many of us have now been gaming for 30+ years and it is second nature to us. Id need a Demon Souls to TRULY feel the heat these days, but new gamers may fall in a heap trying to clear Mario Galaxy. Something to consider.

    loving that you left the bold tag open D;

    I felt this way just the other day, I downloaded the demo of the game "Wanted". Terrible idea, by the way.

    The intro tole me that I was a fat guy sitting in front of a computer, unlike the awesome dude I had the privilege of playing as, and when asked to choose a difficulty setting, the only one I could select was "Pussy".

    What is this? Did I just download this demo to get insulted or something? :P

    This is why I like Bioware games. I'm not ashamed to say that I play Mass Effect on Casual- the lowest difficulty. There's Casual, Normal and Veteran (and then Nightmare) Non of these are demeaning.

    For Dragon Age I play Nightmare.

    Kind of weird. It's not like I play DA more than ME. I probably just really suck at shooters.

    Oh lord. Sports game are now hard are they? The constant bar lowering is why developers continue to cater to the casuals with vapid dumbed down games with a ton of dlc. Now video games are 'cool' every simple derp with disposable income chimes up and screans ZOMIG THIS PILE OF SHIT IS TEH BEST THING EVAR!!!! TAEKS MAH MONIEZ!!! and the they listen because its profitable.

    Need some golf excitement? Did you watch rookie John Huh win at the Mayakoba Golf Classic to beat out Australian Robert Allenby in an 8-hole playoff? Get caught up: http://bit.ly/zQksoQ

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