Editor’s Note: In my sports column Sunday, I noted a rather significant change to the control system in NBA 2K13 and pondered why sports video games remake their controls more often than other genres, including series that are now releasing annually. Zack Hiwiller, himself a former designer of sports video games, sheds a good deal of light on this issue in the following response. — Owen Good
Why sports games have to reinvent their controls annually, I don’t know. Puppeteering a guy dribbling or throwing a baseball would seem to be a basically constant thing in a video game compared to a guy hucking a grenade or acrobatically slashing his foe across his torso. Yet the latter two acts have undergone less change on a video game controller in their respective series, going back more than five years.
This was on Kotaku Sunday and it is an excellent point. As a former disgruntled sports game designer, I will try to explain exactly why.
The tipping point was marketing, led by EA: “If it’s in the game, it’s in the game.” From that point on, the focus for both producers and consumers wasn’t about making a fun game (although that was still the secondary goal), it was about simulating the real experience.
And so sports games spend every yearly iteration adding more and more to get it closer and closer to the real thing. Awesome, right? Let’s take American football as an example. Sometime in that chain of Maddens, they added custom playbooks. Cool. They added audibles. Cool. They added custom packages. Alright, I guess? Now it is getting harder to come up with low-hanging fruit that isn’t in the game. What else can we simulate? Maybe the hand-play between a receiver and a defensive back downfield on a pass? Maybe we should simulate the QB’s eyes as he looks off receivers? (Don’t be ridiculous.)
Football video game players are generally pretty familiar with the real world mechanics of playing football. There are certainly a lot of them to choose from: running, blocking, passing, play selection, time management, coverage schemes, shifts, choosing plays and formations, and so on and so on. How do we fit all of that into the five chunks of working memory that we have?
The short answer is that we can’t.
As long as we are trying to simulate a thousand little things, only the people who have deep understanding of not only those thousand little things but how we’ve chosen to represent them in our game will be able to actually appreciate it. And it will always feel off because each of us will have a different idea about how that should work on-screen. We never had that problem in Tecmo Bowl because we weren’t as close to the Uncanny Valley. We had some sprites and two buttons; we imagined the hand-play, we imagined the blocking battles that didn’t really exist.
Sports game designers have a panacea that they always fall back on. The problem to them is never that you are asking too much of the player, just that you are asking the player in the wrong way. That’s why you see controller redesigns every year. If we just put juke moves on the right stick, then maybe everyone will get it this year!
Call of Duty doesn’t have that problem. Call of Duty doesn’t have to fulfil the expectations of a firefight, it has to fulfil the expectations of a first-person shooter. It would be moronic for the new Call of Duty to say “Now including wind that changes the trajectory of your bullets!” or “Now including cleaning your gun after battles!” More realistic maybe, but not fulfilling the expectations of the audience. Madden, for instance, isn’t simulating Tecmo Bowl. It is simulating the NFL — a real experience. If NBA 2K was simulating NBA Jam, you probably wouldn’t see changes to the control scheme every year.
Sports games are stuck marketing to the same, shrinking audience every year. As what’s “in the game” increases, the learning curve steepens. Because most of the designers are decades-long experts at playing these games, they don’t notice how utterly confounding it is. They scoff at notions of accessibility, pandering to concerns with a never-viewed tutorial or a condescending “beginner” mode that no one in their right mind would choose when playing against their buddies. The full super-hardcore mode is aspirational. Maybe we will never use offensive line shifts, but we like to know that they are there.
When developers do their consumer research, it starts with the loudest forum nerds. “WHY AREN’T THERE MEDICAL REDSHIRTS IN NCAA,” they scream as if anyone but them actually gave half a damn. The lack of medical redshirtting is absolutely breaking that one guy’s mental model of the simulation. And so designers and producers see this enthusiasm and go “Yeah, that would be pretty easy. I guess that’s what people want.”
But no one is putting down the game because there isn’t a perfect recreation of some byzantine NCAA rule. They are putting the game down because it is offering to fulfil that player’s mental model and failing. Playtest feedback never says that. I should know; I’ve been in a lot of playtest sessions. It’s never that lucid. Playtesters will either say or insinuate “I don’t get the controls.” Because obviously the controls are to blame! They are the interface between the player’s desired outcome and the actual outcome!
So what do you think the game makers try to fix next year?
Zack Hiwiller is currently the games design department chair at Full Sail University, and a former games designer, who also writes about games and the industry from his personal blog. He is the author of Practical Tools for Game Design Students. He writes from central Florida.
Republished with permission of the author.