Going on about five years now, EA Sports' FIFA and NHL series have been reliably acclaimed, strong-selling titles, a remarkable run for a video game genre and publisher so henpecked by hardcore gamer criticism. Both games have smart, motivated, multinational communities that greatly value evangelising for their sport overseas and appreciate what these two video games have done in that regard. It's easy, from a distance, to get the sense these are perfect sports video games.
But they've still got to show something new every year, and today's announcement of NHL 13's feature set shows a gameplay focus common to both titles. That shouldn't be surprising, they're both built at the same studio, EA Canada in Burnaby, BC.
While there's inevitably more to come on both titles, both games' focus on movement and player intelligence show the conundrum a an annual sports title can get into by being too good. Change nothing, and you're taking your customers' $US60 for granted. But try to fix that which ain't broken, and you risk tarnishing what's already a good product.
In both cases, EA Sports promises revolutionary new gameplay is coming to these titles, a bold claim that is almost never supported when it comes time for the reviews, even if the features deliver as advertised. NHL now gets "True Performance Skating", described as "a game-changing innovation" that layers physics-driven skating on top of the requisite hundreds of new animations. "True Performance Skating, combined with the Skill Stick, finally gives gamers access to the entire toolset of an NHL player," said the official release today. "True Performance Skating authentically replicates the explosiveness, momentum and top end speed displayed by today's NHL players."
Sounds a lot like "Complete Dribbling" in FIFA 13. "Players change direction quicker, are more explosive accelerating with the ball, and are more effective shielding defenders for longer stretches," said its news release on Tuesday. Combined with the refinement of the "1st Touch Control", FIFA is looking to open up its motion system and make humans more able to contest the ball against bot opponents, as NHL is making human players more nimble against bot defenders.
"Attacking intelligence" is the other phase FIFA intends to deliver. "Players have the ability to analyse space, work harder and smarter to break down the defence, and think two plays ahead," goes the promotional copy. "Plus, players make runs that pull defenders out of position and open passing channels for teammates."
On the other side of the building at Burnaby, NHL 13 is working on something called "Hockey IQ". In that system, "all players are now fully aware of every other player on the ice, resulting in quicker, smarter and more true-to-life decision-making."
These are not the kind of things that can be easily verified. They need huge sample sizes to be observed. E3 gets going in a couple of weeks, and it's absolutely the worst place to evaluate a work-in-progress sports video game. If it's hands-on, the experience is very guided and the game is often one of six that writer has seen that day. And the noise and breakneck pace of an entertainment expo is in no way the same experience as what you will have in front of your TV this September.
So while FIFA and NHL have earned some benefit of the doubt, their claims rate as much scepticism as any other sports video game's, if not more because they're promising game-changing innovation on top of something already accepted as best-in-class. The fact they're both evolving in the same areas leads me to believe these two groups are borrowing each other's technology, and that's fine. But it does raise the question of whether it is more optimal in one game, or if it had to be broadened to serve both.