An Xbox 180 Drags Sports Back From The Future Of Gaming

Until Wednesday there seemed to be very little selling the Xbox One to a sports video gamer. The questionable ability to rent, share or re-sell its games -- fundamental to a culture built on annual releases and punching friends on the couch -- was only the beginning. It's a console that cost $US100 more than its competitor, with no future in any baseball product.

Microsoft may have rolled back requirements that had no articulable consumer benefit -- checking in once every 24 hours? Reselling games through ... what again? How? But it didn't guarantee sports gamers' current lifestyle would continue into the future as much as it reminded them that their experience is tied to the past -- a past of physical media, no different from consoles' cartridge days, because others can't part with their old games as easily as we do from ours.

A lot of contrarian opinion on the Xbox One has since been offered, to hoots of derision. But as sports gamers already effectively pay an annual subscription for their favourite title, with none of the benefits accorded by fully digital, subscribed games, they should be aware how mainstream gaming's vehement indignation may have set back, by years or more, a system that could benefit them more than any other constituency.

Rare is the day that I don't post some workaday update on an annual sports video game release and see underneath it a comment -- from someone who probably doesn't even play the game -- wondering why these titles aren't offered every two or three years, with roster updates and other adjustments delivered as patches. The short answer is because these are licensed games, and their licensors, the leagues and the players' unions (and the BCS and the NCAA) expect a new release every year, because they earn more royalties from a new product than an old one sitting on shelves 18 months after release.

You can argue until you're blue in the face against that -- many developers I know would agree with you. Every year they face the unreasonable expectation of making a transformative work based on a sport more than a century old. But as long as games are primarily stamped on physical media, that is the model. It disregards the consumer and it puts developers on a treadmill to a fast burnout. Only publishers and their licensors benefit.

Digitally delivered games -- games which can't be shared, which can't be resold and, if they don't exist physically, need some sort of control to limit widespread copying -- potentially change all of that. Right now, physical releases have to sucker you back to a GameStop every summer with promises of a quarterback vision cone -- or mid-game ratings progression whose effects are rarely ever seen, or ballhandling that is, we swear this time it's really real, until next year, when we say, nah, it really wasn't so great.

A game that exists as a single, continually updated edition, sold through an annual subscription, puts an end to that cynical courtship. The NFL and the NFLPA's licence with EA Sports and Madden runs out at the end of the year, so maybe that's the last domino to fall before we start seeing the transformation to subscription-based sports gaming models. I have heard plenty of rumblings in those I talk to that Electronic Arts, not just EA Sports, wants to sell whole classes of titles on a subscription basis. For more than the price of one game, but less than the cost of two, you could theoretically get access to a huge catalogue of offerings. Sports. Action. Shooters. The man in charge of EA Sports was recently made the head of Electronic Arts' Origin service. "Software as a service" has been a company goal for years.

The tradeoff, of course, is the consumer doesn't completely own what he subscribes to. People still have a huge and understandable problem with this. But that concern is much less relevant to sports video games, which greatly depend on their leagues' current year, than it is to other game types.

Past editions of Assassin's Creed, even if they don't include their successors' gameplay advancements, remain compelling for the same reason rereading a book from The Leatherstocking Tales is still fulfilling. Compared to the currently available product, a past edition of a sports video game is about as interesting as rereading a Clemson football media guide from three years ago. Sure, I still own it; I can still use it without restriction. I can sell it to someone willing to buy it. But it is fundamentally outdated and inferior.

As idiotic as its messaging has been since May 21, the Xbox One, and not the PlayStation 4, was the console pushing more toward a future of digital delivery, rather than having its product catalogue driven by physical media, or facsimiles of it. They lost control of the message by failing to describe any benefit to consumers. Maybe they should have gone after the sports crowd to sell this concept.

Instead, sports video gamers -- an almost exclusively console-based constituency -- must wait until other gamers also accept the idea that there's a difference between nostalgia and value, and that most games of a certain age possess a lot more of the former than the latter. Then maybe we, and those who develop the games we enjoy, can get off this treadmill. Until that day, we'll continue shoveling cash into the furnace of disc-based offline gaming, and we will be the last to feel any warmth from it.

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

Comments

    Hmm I'm not sure what your argument is about here...what's stopping the publishers from going pure digital, subscription base now?

    Oh get off it. There is nothing stopping them from offering digital-only titles that are continuously updated. People already spend tens or hundreds of dollars on map packs and expansions. Another "futurist" on a soap box ignoring the realities of the greed of publishers...

    Once again we're asking why the hell didn't they market this better.

    Everyone is so focused on Microsoft impinging on gamers rights. We don't even know what was really on offer - the marketing campaign was completely botched, the statements were contradictory and opportunities to sell this change in paradigm were lost. This article is a great example of lost potential as the sports gaming market is a power unto itself.

      But none of that shit MS were pushing with the XBone was necessary for this. We already buy games then buy a "season pass" to get a certain amount of DLC over a year or two for some games. There is no good reason why EA can't switch to this model right now on 360 and PS3, never mind next gen consoles.

      I suspect perhaps the only stumbling block is that upgrades to the underlying technology probably need to be done as patches rather than DLC. Patches tend to just be applied universally to every copy of the game i.e. they probably couldn't restrict access to the patch to just those who had paid for the subscription. Which means they'd be relying on everybody paying for the DLC. But generally there's not much that changes content-wise year to year except the roster update and maybe an extra game mode or two here and there. So they might end up with everybody reaping the benefits of the upgrades from the patches but only a small percentage actually paying money for the content.

    Would people really go for such a subscription in that way? I buy a copy of an EA gridiron game - either Madden or NCAA - maybe twice every three years, a copy of Fifa maybe once every four - and that scratches my sports itch fine. I certainly wouldn't pay AUD40 for an annual subscription to all the sports games I can chew, despite the fact that that's a bit less than what I pay now.

    Off topic: The main reason sports games never look good no matter how the developers polish them is the faces. Look at almost any sports photography that involves an athlete doing something strenuous or taxing, their faces look like they're having their intestines ripped out of their rear passage. But look at sports games, the guy in the pictures above looks like a mixture of calm and bored.

    I don't play these games but I was wondering why these titles aren’t offered every two or three years, with roster updates and other adjustments delivered as patches.

      Actually NBA 2K does do this quite well. You can download current rosters and even updated player statistics/ratings, very close to real-time.

    When my Xbox account was hacked it was used to play a stack of sports games before I got it back ... I wonder ....

    Do i just lump this piece of garbage in with the rest of the "alternate xbox one viewpoint" arguments with flimsy justifications, rampant with naive speculation?

    I just want an EA Sports Rugby Union game. Rugby World Cup and Rugby Challenge 1 & 2 are both shit. And not only is the gameplay substandard each game has about half of the exclusive licenses for different competitions or international teams, so you can't get it all in one.

    Pain in the Ass.

    A future of higher game prices, zero ownership and crushing DRM... but with frequent roster updates. Subscribe now for your Daily Dystopia!

    So am I reading this right, is it possible that the rights to the NFL will no longer be exclusive after this year?

    Your utopia of subscription based sports game fails in one area. They are not going to make two games, they will make one game and port it to the PS4, PC & XBone. Since now the XBone uses the same system as the PS4 I don't think anything has changed.

    And there is nothing stopping them as far as I know of doing what you suggested currently on both the 360 and PS3 other than having no sledge hammer to force the players into their new subscription based method.

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