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In this column, which is directed at hardcore sports gamers, I'd like to compare two of gaming's premiere sports franchises: Madden NFL and FIFA Soccer. Both are magnificently fun to pick up and play, but neither has ever managed to perfect the selection and development of young players in franchise mode. Perhaps I'm especially attuned to this problem because, as a fan of Cleveland sports, my favorite thing to do in a sports game is to build up a sad-sack team over the course of several years. So what do each of the games get right about young players, and what do they get wrong?
Madden NFL 12
In the newest iteration of Madden, EA introduced a revamped scouting system that precedes the NFL draft. During the season, you scout players every 4 weeks to learn a certain set of attributes. Then, at the combine, you get to learn a different set of attributes (speed and strength, in particular). Finally, you have pro days (which reveal yet another set of attributes) and then a very small number of individual workouts, which reveal all a players' ratings. Armed with all this information, you go into the draft and work your magic.
Player progression then depends on their overall potential and their playing time, with players seeing very rapid development in their first few years before levelling off and then declining in their 30s.
What Madden Gets Right
Player progression. Well, perhaps I should amend the heading to "sorta right." Player progression in Madden is superior to FIFA, for instance, because improvements in ability follow a true-to-life path: big leaps forward in the first two or three years in the league, gradual improvements for the next two or three, and then a plateau before age-related decline. FIFA, in contrast, tends to have players steadily gain 2-3 ratings points a year until they reach their plateau, which should strike anyone who watches the sport as unrealistic. Every year, we see a Lionel Messi, Eden Hazard or Mario Gotze blow up on the world stage and attain a rating 6-8 points higher in the next year. On a less extreme level, players tend to blossom between 18-25, with large and rapid gains in development during those years.
Why, then, does Madden only get progression sort of right? The game is plagued with the typical problems of the genre:
1) Insufficient performance-related decline for veterans: underachieving players between 26-32 stay at their plateau setting, regardless of in-game performance, until they suffer age-related decline.
2) Too much progression for bench players: if you aren't getting playing time, you shouldn't be improving as much as someone who's in the game. Madden adheres to this principle to some extent but doesn't get the magnitude right. If you draft two players who are 80/A at the same position in one year, the one who plays will gain 5-6 points and the one who doesn't will still gain 3-4. The gap should be larger than that and should worsen the longer a player stays on the bench. In some franchises where I've been overloaded at a position, a guy who never plays has grown to 95-97 overall while the starter plateaus at 98.
Madden is also pretty good at personalizing created players by attaching an actual, human photograph to them. (Sometimes this leads to problems, as the number of photos is limited and you will see face "twins" pop up in many draft classes.) This is a small touch but really makes you feel better than being in Year 10 of franchise mode and having half or more of your players being blank spots on the screen.
What Madden Gets Wrong
Scouting is terribly broken in Madden, and is both too easy and too hard. It's too easy, because of certain cheap exploits that remain in the game. When you're scouting players, and sort by "Potential," the game will order players by their potential even if those ratings are all locked as "?". Thus, you have a free and easy way to see which late-round draft picks will have A potential and be most likely to develop into stars, leading to horrifically unrealistic drafts where you can routinely grab multiple 80/A players (who will develop into 90+ stars in two years) in Round 3 or later.
On the other hand, scouting without exploits is too hard, because the game does not give you enough scouting information. In particular, you can only discover the speed and strength ratings of 20 players via the Combine. This is patently ridiculous -- the hard thing for scouts to uncover is knowledge of the game, play recognition, and technique, not raw physical abilities like speed and strength.
Scouting would be more realistic if the series introduced significant error to scouting evaluations, particularly of hard-to-evaluate traits such as potential or play recognition. Thus, while players' physical abilities would be known (with a high degree of accuracy), players' potential would be evaluated by scouts with some margin for error. Thus, a player who has 4.3 speed and a scouted potential of A would almost certainly have elite speed, but their potential could vary anywhere between A and C.
This would also give the computer a fair chance in the game. Over time, by exploiting scouting, you can develop a 95 OVR team while everyone else in the league regresses to 84-86 OVR. This makes for an unrealistic experience where the talent level around the league is extremely diluted with the exception of a concentrated pocket of superstars on your squad. Exacerbating this trend is the fact that the game does not incorporate holdouts or salary disputes, so if you lock up your late-round draft picks to 7-year deals (for 230K a year), they often develop into 95+ superstars while making the rookie minimum.
FIFA Soccer 12
FIFA's another EA product that received a revamped player scouting and development system this year. In the newest iteration, you hire scouts. The scouts then go on trips to various countries around the globe to find players between 14-16 years of age and develop them in Youth Academy. Once they reach 16 or 17, they must be signed to the senior squad and then receive playing time to develop. Progression is somewhat slow and depends more heavily on performance, so the only way to achieve stellar progression (e.g., 4-5 rating points in a year) is to play a young lad constantly and also insure that he's performing at his peak on the pitch.
What FIFA Gets Right
Very little. It's a new system, so I may be a little harsh on EA, but the new Youth Academy is pretty poor. One thing that I approve of is the fact that the system appropriately tailors progression to performance -- only stellar work will earn a player quick progression to star level (which is far too easy to achieve in a series like Madden, where you can become an All-Pro-caliber starter while riding the bench).
Another is the mechanics of scouting. Sending a scout to a specific country, and then having players from that specific country, accentuates the global reach of soccer.
What Fifa Gets Wrong
The game's two biggest problems are:
1) The new system simply does not produce enough high-quality players. This is a huge problem with a lot of sports games: in Year 1 of a manager mode, how many players are rated 85+? Quite a lot, though not an overwhelming number. In Year 20, how many are 85+? Much fewer. At a minimum, games should insure that youth development continues to produce talent on par with what currently exists in the world. After all, how likely is it that in 20 years, the world supply of elite soccer talent will diminish? If anything, given the increase in population, training and sports science, one would expect more and more talents to crop up (particularly from developing parts of the world that are currently under-scouted).
2) Development relies too much on first teams. Barcelona is famous for its well-oiled development machine, which includes not just its legendary youth academy but also its Barcelona B team (which plays in a lower division). It makes no sense for Barcelona to scout in FIFA 12, because it is rich enough to just buy talents when they are fully developed, and the cost of developing talent itself is to give first-team starting opportunities to players who are far inferior to the rest of the roster. The best players I've ever seen coming out of the Youth Academy are rated 69 or 70 as 16-17 year-olds, and would not be good enough to player for a world-class side until they are 20-22. However, they will never develop sufficiently between 16-17 and 20-22 unless they have somewhere to play. In the real world, this development occurs with B teams or with de facto loan partnerships (e.g., teams in other countries that have very good relationships with elite European clubs who will take their young players on loan to develop them). FIFA does let you loan out young players, but it's only part of the equation, and is not enough to account for all the ways in which real clubs are developing high-caliber talent.
There are few things more disappointing than picking up a game that has received stellar reviews only to discover that it simply isn't very good. Or rather, it isn't good for you-- it's not necessarily the critics' fault that your tastes are different. Of course, over the years, one learns which sites tend to provide the best reviews (or at least the ones that most conform to one's own idiosyncratic tastes). So which one do you trust the most?
In my experience, here are some differences I've noticed between a few prominent sites.
I have to start with these guys, right? Since they're the hosts of this particular blog post, I'll do them the kindness of counting their strengths first.
Overall, I find that Gamespot provides review scores that come closest to my own preferences for games. In particular, they do a great job rating sequels, and take it more seriously than others, dinging games a bit if they don't innovate enough. A great example of this is Bioshock 2, which received a very fair 8.5 here.
Above: Look familiar? It's probably because you had to take down 10-12 of these Big Daddies already in Bioshock.
On the other hand, some sites have a consistent "If it ain't broke, don't fix it!" attitude toward sequels. That is, if a sequel provides more of what the original does, then it automatically warrants the same (or better) score. However, I've always felt that a sequel usually fails to capture the full impact of the first game. This effect happens in other media, like film or books, but is especially severe in games, because games are almost always a series of repetitive acts chained together by a narrative. Thus, by the time you play a sequel for a game, you're not just doing the same thing one more time -- you've already done the core game mechanic, be it shooting, or platforming, or hitting a baseball thousands of times before. Do you really love it so much that you can do it another two thousand times without a fundamental change, or at least a substantial wrinkle, in the formula?
I also think they have a really solid rating scale, one that IGN more or less wholly adopted recently. Gamespot goes from 0.0 (ostensibly, I've never seen it) to 10.0, with 0.5 increments. This scale allows for more nuance than a five-star system, which tends to glob too many games together (especially in the four-star range, which seems to become the default for a decently fun game with high production values). But it also doesn't aspire toward an unattainable precision, as in a scale with 0.1 increments. (Is that 9.4 demonstrably superior to the 9.3 that came out a month ago, yet somehow not quite as good as this 9.5?)
With that being said, this site has its issues. One is the dark side of the site's appreciation for innovation, which is that it sometimes hands out a harsh review (meaning below 8.0 for a AAA title) to make a point about a series' failure to improve dramatically. There are a few notable examples that come to mind, most recently the surprising 7.5 doled out to Zelda: Skyward Sword. Gamespot has been growing increasingly caustic toward Zelda in recent years, and Skyward Sword's score must have felt surreal to those fans who were up in arms about Twilight Princess's "low" 8.8 in 2006. Both titles have Metacritic scores of 93 or above, which suggests Gamespot's serious departure from mainstream opinion regarding the series.
Of course, the other negative is the site's arguably problematic relationship with its biggest advertisers. The famous controversy regarding Jeff Gerstmann's firing -- which coincided with his 6.5 takedown of Kane & Lynch, which was prominently splashed across the front page at the time -- has left a lasting stain on the site's reputation, and I always wonder a little about the reviews that I read while the game's advertising plays out in the background. Of course, Gamespot gave Battlefield 3 an 8.5 recently, not a spectacular score by any means, even while that game was all over the site. But I couldn't help but wonder what would have happened had the reviewer wanted to give it a 6.0.
Above: Kane & Lynch, who caused more mayhem in real life than they wrecked on the Xbox 360.
All this discussion of Gamespot inevitably brings us to arguably its biggest competitor, the multimedia juggernaut over at IGN. I always read up on IGN, and think they do a better job of being a one-stop shop, the Walmart of gaming sites. If I want movie news and rumors, the first review of a particular game, or a fun diversion or two, I always stop by IGN.
By and large, however, I don't put much stock in IGN's game reviews, mainly because they are so unrelentingly positive. Bizarrely, the site actually grades loweron average than other game publications, at least according to Metacritic. But I get a sneaking feeling that their lower average score comes mainly from dropping 5.5's and below on terrible games (for example, Lair), while rewarding most well-hyped titles with such high scores that one begins to think 9.0 is the bottomof the realistic scale.
IGN's reviews are problematic, because it's impossible to differentiate true masterpieces from just very competently crafted games. For instance, Jade Empire -- a decent action RPG but by no means a lifetime masterpiece like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic -- received a staggering 9.9 from IGN. Compared to the rest of Bioware's work -- KOTOR, Mass Effect 2, Baldur's Gate 2, etc. -- this seems like a gift. There are less egregious examples, but I still find IGN scores to be largely meaningless, and it's possible to scroll down their list of reviews and keep seeing ones that seem bizarre today: Jak 3 at 9.6, or Resistance 2 at 9.5, ad infinitum.
Above: Think she looks surprised? She probably just read the review of her game over at IGN.
Giant Bomb began as the brain-child of Jeff Gerstmann after his Gamespot days, and I find that their reviews are -- if possible -- even better than Gamespot's in terms of quality of writing and just being on-point about whether or not a game is worth buying. This makes sense, since they're effectively a guerrilla offshoot of this site (the way that Respawn Entertainment is a guerrilla offshoot of Infinity Ward, I suppose).
But the site, although now no longer young, has remained puzzlingly small-scale. Yes, I understand that they want to avoid the same problems of becoming too large and commercialized. But come on -- would it kill you to hire some more staff and review a sports game or two? Madden did get a review this year, but I'm still waiting on FIFA 12, MLB 11: The Show, and NCAA Football 12. Considering this is a hugely important and lucrative genre (just take a look at FIFA's sale numbers year in and year out), you'd figure that the site would prioritize these games a little more.
Above: Interested in what Gerstmann and co. thought about the gameplay improvements (or lack thereof) in NCAA Football 12? Well, you'd better email them, because you're not going to find out on Giant Bomb.
Those are the three sites that I spend the most time reading. What do you guys think?
Warning: Spoilers for Prince of Persia (2008), Heavy Rain (2010), and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007) ahead!
Prince of Persia has stuck in my mind far longer than other, superficially superior games. This isn't to say that it was perfect -- far from it! Critics roundly excoriated the game for its repetitive design and poor combat mechanics, and the early enthusiasm for the title (it actually received surpisingly good review scores) faded quickly. In fact, the game's lackluster sales and failure to capture the popular imagination resulted in an abrupt end to this bold new direction to the series, and perhaps rightly so. Yet there is one element of the game that some have criticized, yet on reflection seems to be its finest and most interesting element: its unrepentant embrace of tragedy.
Above: From the Prince of Persia (2008): the protagonist and his companion and love interest, Elika.
The plot of the game follows a scoundrel, Han-Solo-type protagonist who encounters a tattered princess in the desert. Together, the two must cleanse a series of corrupted realms (i.e., levels) in order to imprison the dark god Ahriman. Over the course of your time together, you learn that Ahriman was imprisoned for eons. However, he broke free of his prison with the help of Elika's father, the King. The King agreed to release the dark god because only he had the power to grant the King a wish: the resurrection of his beloved dead daughter.
The end-game of Prince of Persia is startingly memorable. You defeat the King and the dark god, and Elika reveals that she must sacrifice herself to restore life to the tree in which Ahriman will be imprisoned once more. Yet by this point, the Prince (that is, you) have fallen in love with her. Devastated, you destroy the tree and release Ahriman again -- and in doing so, you revive Elika.
This conclusion is genuinely tragic, and I mean that in a specific sense. I do not mean, for example, the death of Dom's wife in Gears of War 2. While "sad" (and I may even be stretching that word here, since you never meet her and she has no meaning to you as a character), her death is not tragedy in the artistic sense but rather character motivation. Her death inspires you to carry forward to reach the conclusion of the plot, which is triumph -- the Gears' massive, though costly, victory in the war against the Locust. This analysis would extend even to the death of Aerith in Final Fantasy VII, a moment many gamers consider "tragic" in a more colloquial sense. In contrast, Prince of Persia concludes as a pure tragedy: an ending where the hero undoes everything, even or especially himself and his value system (and, as the DLC reveals, for no individual benefit, for Elika leaves him due to his selfish decision).
Some were enraged by the game's finale. What was the point of playing a game and striving to reach an objective (the imprisonment of the evil force) when, at the end, you released that force? In a certain light, it makes all your effort, and the narrative, a waste of time, or meaningless. It is a game that no one can "beat," since its conclusion is the undoing of its only objective.
Yet these criticisms reveal a deep feature of almost all video games: they must end in triumph and cannot abide by tragedy. This is especially startling, given the desire of many gamers (and game developers) that video games achieve recognition as a form of art. It also leads me to return to a puzzle I've discussed several times before.
Games as Narrative or as Skill?
In two earlier posts, I commented on a growing schism in modern gaming: that between narrative and skill. And regarding this divide, I offered a natural law of gaming: that narrative games will become easier and easier over time, and that skill games should become more and more difficult (or at least, that the difference between the two will become more pronounced).
To briefly summarize my argument, there appear to be two types of games: narrative games, which try to replicate the experience of a movie or a novel, but with the advantages of interactivity; and skill games, which are about mastering a difficult task and defeating others. The contemporary paradigm of the first group is the Uncharted series, which aspires to out-Indiana Jones the Indiana Jones movies themselves (and, no small feat, succeeds). The contemporary paradigm of the second group are sports games, where there is no story at all, only repetition aiming toward excellence. Alternatively, one can consider the multiplayer components of most shooters, e.g., Call of Duty. There, the already threadbare story of the campaign is stripped away in favor of completely non-contextual battles between friends or anonymous foes, where victory means being better than those around you.
I continue to stand by this argument today. In fact, the most narrative games, such as Heavy Rain, have abandoned the concept of difficulty altogether, since it is impossible to "lose," (the idea of losing has no meaning in its design) and you never have to replay a sequence to get it "right" or "win" an encounter.
Above: Heavy Rain (2010), another title that offers a glimpse of tragedy and is an exemplar of the narrative school of game design.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Heavy Rain is also one of the few titles I can recall that squarely confronts the possibility of tragedy. In several of the narrative's conclusions, the protagonist does not reach his abducted son in time to save him, rendering the entire playtime effectively "meaningless." Yet as anyone who has played the game and loved it can surely attest, it is far from meaningless to fail to save the boy -- if anything, the failure evokes greater feelings: of despair, of the value of love, and the consciousness of evil.
The tragic ending is most compatible with the player/viewer's experiences the game entirely as a narrative. After all, no one reads Hamlet, or watches The Titanic, to their sad conclusions and angrily asks, "Well, what was the point of all that? What a waste!" No one does so precisely because it takes no skill to reach the end -- you as the reader or viewer are passive, and the play or movie transmit their narrative to you. Thus, it is no insult to your time spent or your endeavors, your awareness of your own effort or striving, when the narrative ends badly for the protagonist.
On the other hand, when the player/viewer experiences the game as skill, tragedy is seriously unfulfilling. The entire point of skill is winning or achieving some discernable result -- after all, there's a reason people rage-quit sports games when they are getting destroyed, and a reason why people become addicted to Call of Duty multiplayer when they gain enough experience to tear apart their opponents with ease. Tragedy unwrites the accumulation of ability and unhinges the fantasy of the skill-gamer: the transformation into someone or something more powerful, even unstoppable. Tragedy is an acknowledgment of vulnerability or, even worse, the inevitability of utter defeat. In Prince of Persia, you and Elika strive together and grow more powerful together; yet it is precisely those shared experiences that result in the ruin of your shared project.
The Birth of Tragedy
The infrequency of such tragic occurrences testifies to the immaturity of gaming as an artistic medium, but also hints at one direction where I believe gaming ultimately will go (indeed, must go). And as it does so, it will strike at the heart of this schism between narrative and skill.
Concededly, gaming will always remain some mixture of the two. (Even Uncharted involves skill portions, such as learning its combat system and then clearing increasingly difficult set-piece battle sequences. Even Madden gives you Franchise Mode, allowing you to craft the story of your own team, your own version of the Browns, or Cowboys, or Redskins.) However, as the narrative portion of some sub-set of games grows in prominence, the medium will attract more and more attempts to depict tragedy. This is a good thing. As tragic gaming develops as a genre, I predict it will produce epics that root themselves firmly in the public consciousness, and establish gaming as art in the mainstream. Even Shakespeare, after all, is lionized more for his great tragedies (MacBeth, Hamlet, and King Lear) than for his more audience-friendly comedies.
Imagine, for instance, a shooter that did not automatically end with a triumph over our enemies. (The Resistance series, whatever its flaws, offers a glimpse of this narrative possibility). The first game could describe a war, and the first major setback of the good guys' efforts. (Imagine if Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare had ended with the famed nuclear strike scene.) The second could thoroughly chronicle the subsequent defeat of the protagonist's side, from a new perspective. And the third would take place in a post-apocalyptic setting and end on a note reminiscent of McCarthy's The Road. Why do we not see this type of game more often, instead of the mindless progression of Modern Warfare, with ever more ridiculous enemy scenarios thrown at us, and ever more ridiculous victories over evil?
This generic growth will demand a change in our attitudes about games -- a shift away from the skill gamer inside of us that screams in protest when a game ends not by celebrating our mastery, but by signalling our futility.
Above: An unforgettable scene from Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007).
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