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The Future of Sports Gaming
Rich Multiple-Season Modes
Some of the best innovations in sports-gaming in recent years have come in the area of "dynasty" or "franchise" modes. Many games have expanded season-play to include multiple seasons, front-office management, drafts, trades, roster management, player development and deterioration, and countless other aspects. EA has been a leader with its brilliant NCAA Football Dynasty mode, and Madden's complex Franchise mode. Unfortunately, these games are the exception. In the future, ALL sports titles should offer rich, complex multi-season play. If your team just falls short of winning it all, it should have a chance to come back to redeem itself the next season. If you win a championship, you should have a shot at defending your title against the computer. Not only do franchise modes improve the replay value of every sports title, but they deepen the sports-gaming experience. With an excellent multiple-season mode, the game is never finished. There's always another challenge. Can you repeat? Three-peat? Can you rebuild after your star player retires or graduates? Can you draft good players to replace older veterans? Can you make a big-trade to fill the gaps in your roster? Can you establish a true sports dynasty? Can you go undefeated? The possibilities are almost endless, and to the true sports gamer, so are the rewards of a quality multi-season mode.
While some games are doing a fine job expanding franchise/dynasty modes, there is lots of room for innovation. All of these features should be optional, so that users can choose to minimize the storage needs of their games, but for those who want advanced features, they should be available. Here are some ideas to start with:
Career stat tracking. All players should have career statistical profiles. Stats for every season, plus overall career stats and records.
Save all scores and stats. With the increased memory and storage capacity of PCs and new consoles, the ability to store simple numeric stats should be almost unlimited. For that reason, every box-score of every game in a dynasty- or franchise-season should be saved, so that players can go back and look at any previous game and study numbers and trends. If users decide to clear these stats, that should be an option, but the choice should be theirs.
Integration between games and versions. EA Sports has offered a limited ability to "graduate' players from their NCAA franchise to Madden. Unfortunately, the option were very limited -- you could only move "created" players, not ones you recruited, and in Madden, you could only use the imported players in regular season-play, not franchise-play. The feature is a great innovation, but should be developed further. How great would it be to recruit a wide receiver from high school in NCAA football, develop him over four seasons from a clumsy fourth-option to a legitimate NFL-prospect, then, in Madden, make some draft-day trades to get into position to draft him and built an winning NFL team around him? Not only should sports games allow players to be imported between titles, but they should also allow you to import players, even teams, from previous versions of a game. If you built a franchise in Madden 99, you should have the option to import that roster into Madden 2000 and try to continue the legacy in a new version of the game with improved features and graphics. Likewise, fans of NCAA 99 should be able to continue their tradition in NCAA 2000, instead of having to start from scratch. Rather than discouraging gamers from buying new versions of sports titles, these options would increase the incentive to rush out and buy new games, since they would allow you to continue seasons and teams from previous versions.
Name libraries. One of the coolest features of EA's NCAA series was that the stadium announcer worked from 700+ name library. If you created a player with a relatively common name, the announcer would not only use the custom names, but use them with varying pitch and tone, depending on the situation. In the past, created players in sports games were usually identified, if at all, by their number, but in NCAA 99 and 2000, custom players' names are woven seamlessly into the gameplay. With new games being released on higher-capacity media and on PCs, name libraries can be even more expansive. The only limitation will be the number of names recorded by the announcers.
Multiple-season memory. The computer should remember past season performances in multi-season modes. For example, if you were the Cowboys and got crushed in Lambeau Field in a divisional playoff game, the next year, the commentator should remember that the next time the teams play. As the game starts, the announcer might say something like: "Last year, the Packers ended the Cowboys' season here in Lambeau field. Today, Dallas is looking for payback!" Over time, the computer could identify trends and rivalries. Another example might be a team against whom the last three games have been decided by one point. The announcer might note: "The last three games between these two teams have come down to the wire, with each game decided by a single point. Today's match-up could be another classic battle!" An even more advanced possibility with multiple-season memory might include actual replays from past games.
- You should be able to see each player's career highs in every category, and should be able to see a list of some of their overall best performances (triple-double games, MVP games, games with 4th quarter comebacks, etc…)
- You should see a list of their accomplishments and awards. If your player was named to an all-pro, All-America, or all-star team, you should see that noted. If they were named "player of the week" or "player of the month," that should be noted, with stats from the period mentioned.
- On system with enough storage, players should have "highlight reels" where you can see some of that player's best moves and moments. (This could be an in-game option, where a user could pause the game and save a replay for a player's record)
Nothing beats head-to-head play in a great sports game. Trash-talking, taunting, and long nights of grudge matches are part of most sports gamers' memories. Unfortunately, for many of us no longer in school or living near old friends, the opportunities to play human opponents are often limited. As a result, the vast improvements in computer artificial intelligence have been critical to the continued enjoyment of sports games.
However, while many titles have managed to eliminate "money plays" and brain-dead computer players, playing against the computer is still a far cry from the challenge of playing live opponents. Computer AI in future sports titles could improve in several critical ways to better replicate the challenge of taking on a crafty and skilled human opponent.
- Season-wide AI. In recent years, some titles, most notably Madden, have improved computer AI, especially on defense, so that it adapts to your style of play and playcalling tendencies. The best AI doesn't just "cheat" by knowing when you're calling your favorite play, but adapts more logically and naturally, like a real opponent, altering its defensive strategy during the course of a game to counter your playcalling. As a result, for example, that power sweep you ran in the first half for five yards per carry may get stuffed repeatedly in the second half. The problem is that, unlike with a real opponent, the computer has to re-learn your tendencies with each game. True AI in a season-mode should allow the computer to recall what you did in previous games and be aware of your statistical tendencies. This would be just like real sports, where teams routinely "scout" each other, watching game tapes to prepare for an opponent. A season-wide AI wouldn't guarantee that the CPU will stop you all the time, only that the computer will remember that it played you before, and more importantly, how you played against it before. If you tend to run the ball in football a lot, for example, the computer should know that and focus its defense on taking away your running game early. In baseball, let's say you steal bases aggressively – over the course of the season, your reputation should precede you, and the CPU should anticipate your tendency to steal with more cautious pitchers.
- Improvisational logic. Another area in which computer AI can improve is to not only make computer opponents smarter, but more unpredictable. Too often, computer opponents can be tough, but not particularly inventive. They tend to execute plays well and make sound adjustments, but they generally lack creative, improvisational instincts. That's why the game you mastered against the computer feels like a different game altogether against a real opponent. In Madden, for example, your buddy might have his quarterback drop back and pretend to be looking for a receiver, when he is actually preparing to keep the ball and run for the first down; or his wide receiver with the ball may come to a dead stop to trick you into a premature dive; or his running back may run behind his blockers to the right, then, seeing a tough bunch of defenders, reverse field and gain yards on a broken play. Improved AI in new sports titles should allow CPU opponents to have more "random" thinking like from time to time, emulating real-life "thinking on your feet." Until computer opponents can improvise and trick you with crafty, unconventional gameplay, single-player sports gaming will continue to pale in contrast with two-player gaming. Such AI may not be easy to program, but the attempt should be made if sports game developers want to continue to keep AI challenging and entertaining.
- Artificial "personalities." One of my favorite old arcade games was an odd "robot football" game called "Cyberball." It wasn't the greatest game of all time, but it had an interesting feature: not only did you play against different teams, but different coaches as well. Some coaches were conservative, while others were known as "gamblers." Surprisingly, few sports games since Cyberball have included a similar concept in their game. New sports game might include similar concepts. Computer AI might include a "coach" concept, where factors like use of trick plays, gambling defenses, or substitution patterns may vary, depending on who is "managing" the team you are playing against.
Perhaps the most eagerly anticipated possibility in the future of sports gaming is the ability to play online. Unlike shoot-em-up and role-playing games that have offered online multiplayer features for years, sports games have only begun to truly arrive on the Internet this year. Within the next couple years, software improvements and improved bandwidth will bring down the barriers to online sport gaming. Basic online competition is already here for some PC sports games, but the Internet play is generally limited to exhibition games, and often suffers from sluggish or laggy gameplay. In any event, when the speed and bandwidth barriers vanish, gamers can hope that developers will fully realize the online potential for sports games.
- Online leagues. Much as today thousands of users log onto the web to participate in fantasy football and baseball leagues, online sports gaming should allow people from anywhere on the globe to join a league in their favorite game and test their skills against global competition. EAFootballNet provides matchup services for Madden 2000 on the PC, but it is plagued by an unstable server, unreliable rankings, and few gameplay options. Ideally, server sites should organize leagues and tournaments, challenge ladders, and online clinics for gamers. Outside of league competition, matchup services should allow random scrimmages and competition between players at various skill levels. Quality sites should develop reliable ways of recording stats and tracking games in progress to prevent losers from quitting games to avoid the network recording a loss.
- Online Multitap. In addition to online leagues, the web promises true multiplayer sports games, where users can play a specific position on a team comprised of other online players. Ten players could link up at the same time for a virtual five-on-five pick-up basketball game. The ability to play online as a team opens up sports gaming to the huge popularity of "clans" in other online games, where people develop teams and friendships online and play together, both amongst themselves and against rivals.
- Online Spectators. Eventually, users could log onto the web and watch other games in progress, for entertainment to study other players' techniques and tendencies. Games played on the web could also be archived and called up as streaming video at a later date on request. This would be useful in leagues, if you wanted to "scout" your next opponent – you could simply watch a steaming video broadcast of his last game.
- Internet Sportscenters. Online leagues and competition would easily lend itself to "sportscenters" where players could compare their stats, records, and accomplishments with other players. Players could upload their replays, custom plays, and records, while downloading game updates or patches, revised rosters, and up-to-date scores from the real world of sports.
- Virtual-reality Sports Gaming. Some games already offer a "helmet cam" perspective where you can play through the eyes of an actual player. Why not take this a step further online with multiplayer games in which every user plays a position through the first-person perspective of a player on the court or field? With the almost unlimited graphics and audio potential of the next generation of games, the leap to true virtual sports is only a step or two away.
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