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The Future of Sports Gaming

Page 1

Sports gaming is on the verge of a major evolution. With the debut of the Dreamcast, the Playstation 2 next fall, the plummeting prices of fast, powerful PCs, and the possibility of two more 128-bit consoles in 2001, the technical limitations on sports games are quickly vanishing.

With the Dreamcast capable of rendering 3 million polygons per second, and PSX 2 promising at least 20 million polygons, the most obvious and immediate improvement will be in graphics and animation. Sega's impressive NFL2k and NBA2k already hint at the potential for 128-bit sports games. Players, fields, arenas, and crowds should look almost photo-realistic, and gameplay should be smooth, fast, and responsive. But if future sports titles only distinguish themselves with better graphics, sports gamers will be deservedly disappointed. Graphical improvements will be a given on new consoles and PCs. The key will be how else the genre evolves on these new systems and how well developers utilize the incredible new technologies.

Each new generation of consoles has led to major evolutions in sports games. The first generation of console sports games (Atari, Intellivision) featured flickering blocks or stick-man athletes on plain, two-dimensional fields, with limited features and few one-player options. In its day, Intellivision's introduction of players with actual arms and legs (compared to Atari' flickering blob athletes) was revolutionary. The second generation 8-bit consoles (NES, Sega Master System) delivered more detailed, bit-mapped athletes, season play, computer opponents, statistical tracking, and limited speech. The third generation 16-bit consoles (SNES, Sega Genesis) delivered three-dimensional playing environments, increasingly sophisticated computer AI, and the introduction of sports announcers, most notably, John Madden. With games like Madden NFL Football and NBA Live, sports gamers were finally beginning to get realistic sports simulations. The "next generation" 32- and 64-bit consoles (PSX, Saturn, N64) made polygonal graphics the standard for sports games and offered detailed, realistic graphics, down to uniform trimmings, divots on the playing fields, and athletes' facial expressions. "Next generation" sports games fully integrated announcer play-by-play and color into games, and set new standards for realistic, intelligent computer AI. Finally, some computer opponents could be nearly as challenging and crafty as a real person. But as the PSX comes close to the end of its lifecycle, its graphical and memory limitations are beginning to show. Meanwhile, the N64's limitations have also become readily apparent — despite graphical prowess, the dimwitted decision to have the console cartridge- rather than CD-based has handicapped the 64-bit console, limiting the quality of speech, audio, and music. Despite a superior processor and better graphics, the N64 simply cannot match the all-around quality of many PSX sports titles.

The next generation of sports titles should offer dramatic improvements in four key areas: season and game immersion; dynasty and franchise modes; advanced AI; and online gaming. Given the capabilities of upcoming consoles and PCs, all of these features are technically possible, as long as developers are willing to take the time to write the code. The memory and storage limitations will no longer be excuses. None of these features are questions of "how," but questions of "if."

Season and Game Immersion
The best sports titles draw you into a game or a season and invite you to lose yourself in the experience. You not only play a videogame that simulates a sporting event, but also experience the sound and feel of the game, get hooked on the excitement and action, and find yourself drawn into the ebb and flow of a season. A great sports title makes you fret about playoff position, check box scores, watch the standings, and worry about post-season match-ups. Some games, such as EA's NHL and NCAA Football series, do a good job re-creating the sound and feel of "the big game." But even these innovative titles do not do a very good job of immersing players in not only a single game, but in a season or multiple seasons.

None of the games on any console or on the PC do a good job putting individual games in the context of a season, as commentators usually do on a TV broadcast. For example, on Monday Night Football, ABC's announcers will typically start a game talking about the standings, where the two teams are, and what the game means to their playoff aspirations. In addition, they will often talk about the previous or upcoming week's games, noting how they bear on the current game: Can a team bounce back from a big loss on the previous week? Can they stay focused on the game at hand instead of looking ahead to next week's big match-up? Or is the team ready for a letdown after a big win the week before? As a season comes to a close, the announcers should understand the importance of every game and what it means for the standings, playoff position, or just staying alive for post-season play.

This kind of immersion doesn't require a 300-Mhz processor or 20,000 polygons, just savvy programming and an appreciation for how seasons unfold. Better game immersion should be implemented not only on the new consoles, but also on new games for the PSX, N64, and PCs. Games like NHL and Triple Play have shown that speech in videogames has evolved to the point where complex speech can be scripted without sounding hacked together, so the only challenge is one of programming intelligent, appropriate observations. Here are some immersive features that should be part of the next generation of sports titles.

  • Crowds should be more dynamic and reactive to individual plays, ebbs and flows within a game, and trends within a season. Some of these features are slowly being implemented, but should become common in new sports titles. Examples:

  • Every arena/stadium should have team-specific chants, songs, or cheers (unless they just don't have them in real life, which is rare)

  • Some teams should elicit league-wide reactions. For example, when the Lakers go on the road, lots of crowds should greet them with the obnoxious "Beat L-A!" chant. Some players should get more than their share of boos or heckles from road crowds. Fans often know whom they don't like -- and that should be "in the game."

  • Crowds should react more dynamically to individual actions and moves on the field. Again, some games are doing this better, but in general, crowds need to be more dynamic. When a halfback takes the a ball, for example, it would be great to hear the home crowd react to an effective juke move, increase in volume as he breaks free of a second defender, and rise to a roar as he busts loose for a 30-yard scamper into the endzone. Likewise, the home crowds should explode with intensity when their defense picks off a pass or recovers a fumble. And on the other side, turnovers should elicit groans and audible dismay from the crowd.

  • Crowds should react to the overall season. If your NFL team is 3 and 6, the crowd should thin out and become more hostile. If your baseball team is in first place and playing great, the crowds should be packed and supportive. If your quarterback throws an interception and has done it a lot during the season, especially in tough cities like Philadelphia or New York, the crowd should shower him with boos until he is yanked or makes a good play.

  • Announcers should mention the outcome of the previous games and put them in context of the new game. Examples:

    • "Last night, the Lakers couldn't miss, crushing the Sonics 110-89…. They'll have to stay hot against the Jazz this afternoon to win in the Delta Center"

    • "Last week, the Irish came back from 14 down in the 4th quarter to beat Michigan… they hope to keep the momentum on their side tonight to beat Florida State. But the Seminoles have their own ideas, looking to continue their undefeated season and improve their record to 8-and-0!"

    • "The Dodgers come into today's game having lost their last five games. They're just trying to get a win today, but they won't get any help from the red-hot San Diego Padres, who come into today's match-up on the back of an eight-game winning streak!"

  • During the game, announcers should acknowledge streaks and trends within the game. Some games do a little of this now, but only in a very rudimentary fashion. Some examples of more immersive analysis:

    • "Wow! It's hard to believe this is the same Laker squad from the first half! They shot the ball 70% after two quarters, but are only 2-for-18 so far in the second half!"

    • "The Irish are really on a roll! That's three straight touchdowns on three straight possessions! They've got the Seminoles back on their heels! They've come back from 28 down to pull within a touchdown!"

    • "Kevin Brown has just retired the last seven batters in a row! Five by strikeout!"

  • During the game, announcers should acknowledge stats and trends from other games. Examples:

  • "Another three by Rice! He has been on fire! He's shooting 42% from behind the arc on the season. He hit six threes last night against the Sonics…"

  • "Sack by Jones! His second today! This sophomore from Raleigh, North Carolina is becoming a force to reckon with! He had three sacks last week against Michigan."

  • "He strikes out! Mondesi is really in a slump. He's batting .187 in his last ten games…"

  • After a game, announcers should make intelligent observations about the game, wrapping up the final outcome and putting it in context. Examples:

  • "The Lakers hang on to beat the Jazz, 100-96. Rice led the way with 29 points. This win puts them in first place in the Pacific Division, and just two games behind San Antonio for the best record in the Western Conference."

  • "So despite another furious second-half comeback by Notre Dame, they fall at home today to Florida State, 37-34. They came back from 28 down to pull within four, but it just looked like they ran out of gas. This loss drops them to 5 and 3. This game has got to be a real heartbreaker for Fighting Irish fans."

  • "The Dodgers' woes continue, losing their sixth straight game. San Diego wins today, 6-5, on Tony Gwynn's three-run homer in the ninth. San Diego takes first place in the division, a game ahead of the Giants, while the Dodgers sink to fourth place."

  • After a game, there could be a virtual post-game show. The game could present an ESPN- or Fox-style post-game studio report, with highlights from the game just played, plus highlights from other games. An old version of Madden did something like this, where you could watch a final play from a "game in progress." A wrap-up game could do that and more, with highlights from other games, final scores, and stats. With faster processors and access-times on next-generation consoles and new PCs, there's no reason new sports titles couldn't integrate a virtual post-game show. Developers just need to be willing to devote programming time to these features as much as better graphics or generating "virtual faces." The technology is there -- the question is whether developers can see the value of such features.

    None of these immersive features are essential to gameplay. To some gamers, they may seem like fluff. But they can add much to the sports-gaming experience, giving the player the sense that the computer understands the relevance and context of each game. Immersive qualities like these enhance one-player gaming, as it deepens the experience, weaving individual games into a season-long storyline, just like real sports.

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