Career modes in sports video games do a superb job of helping you create the story of a single team or a player. Where even the best ones fall short is in making you feel part of something larger. Players are forced to hunt through menus for results and standings, and even then, it's hard to tell who is overachieving and who is having a disappointing year.
This problem is especially keen in NCAA Football, whose Dynasty Mode, because of its intensive player management, requires players to spend a lot of time in menus as it is. To better deliver the story of the season you're in, NCAA Football 13's designers have decided to take a risk on interrupting your game with from-the-studio announcements of other results or games in progress. Not only are the designers hoping gamers won't mind the intrusion, they're hoping they'll enjoy it.
"The information was all sort of reactive and hidden," in previous versions, said designer Christian McLeod. "What we wanted to do was bring that to the surface, because the story of college football is much more than the story of a single team."
To tell the story, EA Sports brought in Rece Davis of ESPN, a widely liked studio host at a network where everyone gets nitpicked by the public. Davis will not appear on-screen, but his voice will play over a scoreboard fully rendered in ESPN's visual style. He'll introduce the result, comment on the outcome and hand the broadcast back to play-by-play man Brad Nessler, who has also recorded new audio so that he can react to what Davis is saying.
These studio updates will occur at natural points in the game. In a game I was playing, a Stanford-Notre Dame matchup that started at 4 p.m. Eastern, right after I kicked the extra point on my first touchdown Nessler turned it over to Davis, who informed us that Virginia Tech had survived an upset scare from Duke to stay on top of the ACC's Coastal Division.
"We wanted people to have the feeling that they were watching a day of college football," said McLeod. And that is indeed one of my favourite activities. But this design choice also appears to be a shrewd one because it serves you the story of the larger season when you're basically a captive audience. The game doesn't require you to find it for yourself after a game, solely reading through the standings, polls and story blurbs -- which typically dealt first with the game you already played.
Each game played in Dynasty mode can have up to 10 studio updates, McLeod said. They will not break in at critical moments of the game -- if you're in the hurry-up offence, for example. They'll typically come as they do in real life. On changes of possession, clock stoppages or other pauses in the on-field action. The studio updates will be supported by another ESPN staple, the Bottom Line score crawl. This will be more than just the scores of completed games. You'll get the notorious "Upset Alert" when the network wants to call your attention to shocker in progress that it's not televising. The notice flashes, the linescore comes up, and then numbers roll over showing that a top 10 team is in trouble against a cupcake or conference doormat.
"I took a delay of game penalty on the first upset alert I saw," joked producer Ben Haumiller. And it's amusing, but it does show the hazard of this particular design choice. As has been written before, when gamers wonder why a sports developer doesn't add in more cut scenes or other visual components, their own habits are usually the reason why. We're not just watching a game, we're playing it, and truth be told, I button through a lot of stuff without giving it a second thought. Developers know this and they have a disc space budget, too.
While the studio updates can be dismissed by a button press, McLeod said a short delay before recognising that command will cut down on inadvertent dismissals. The design team is confident most college football fans will want to stay with them, as it adds to the feel of immersion, and because Davis will bring his recognisable style to the update.
Davis, who used to work in Flint, Mich., will always make a reference to "the banks of the Red Cedar," a line from Michigan State's fight song, whenever updating folks on the action there. Rival Michigan always gets pronounced with a caricatured Upper Peninsula accent -- "Meeshegan." One thing we're unlikely to hear, however, is Davis calling a high-scoring Alamo Bowl the "Tecmo Bowl," as he did (hilariously and on purpose) in a broadcast this past December.
"He said his kid is a hardcore player of [NCAA Football], so he understands it, and its appeal." said McLeod, who wrote some of Davis' dialogue, with a lot of the recording improvised. "He totally got it, right away."
What I saw and heard looked very polished, but again, this was in a conference room in Florida, not on my couch. The key will be in thwarting repetitive dialogue. McLeod said the game's commentary engine will feature multiple introduction points that can branch to different details of the game and then on to the context surrounding the result.
There seemed to be about six different groupings of phrases, from Nessler's throw to getting the broadcast back from Davis, forming each update. Details like BCS or poll positioning, rivalries and upcoming games, and individual performances are all part of the mix.
It really places a premium on keeping things fresh. But in concept, it's a good start. Bringing in a familiar voice, a guy who'll wait until I score that touchdown to tap me on the shoulder and tell me what else is going on in this sports fantasy I'm living out is a simple way to deepen the experience.