I wrote this several years ago as a scattershot attempt to address some of the questions that would later be used as the basis for an interview with Aaron McHardy, lead FIFA designer at EA Canada, published by Paste Magazine last month.
It’s unfocused and weird, but I figured I may as well share.
Sports games occupy a strange and troubled position the games industry’s caste system. They’re generally reviled by the self-identified hardcore, despite selling well and representing one of the few examples of traditional games left in the industry. Games demand multiple players following the same sets of rules, a test that, say, Call of Duty’s single-player campaign fails.
Real-time strategy and fighting games pass this test as well as sports games do, but series like Madden and FIFA are the most visible and well-marketed example of traditional gaming.
It’s also worth noting that the nascent mixed-martial arts genre—no doubt standing on the back of the professional wrestling games that blossomed during the mid-1990s—effectively blurs the line between the fighting and sports genres. This seems pretty obvious.
A subtler observation: sports games can act as fulcrum of design a whole.
Here, I defer to Margaret Robertson, who prompted my line of thinking almost three years ago:
Here’s a game design conundrum for you: what do Halo and football have in common? . . .
What Halo and football have in common is verbs. Or rather, a verb. Shoot. Halo is a game about aiming a projectile, usually a bullet, to hit a target, usually someone’s jaw. Football is about aiming a projectile, usually a ball, to hit a target, usually a rectangular, poorly weatherproofed shack which is home to an angry man who jumps a lot. . . .
From my exhaustive study of the rules of football, you can only win if someone makes a projectile hit a target, and that to me is a shooting game.
If (association) football is akin to Halo, then—for Jorge Albor, at least—(American) football is akin to real-time strategy:
Simply put, I had always thought football was an action game, when really it is a turn-based strategy game. Each play is a single turn, and each option the quarter back has is a potential maneuver. Whether a throw succeeds or fails depends on which strategy was used in one instance, how expertly it was performed, and how it matches up with the same condition from the opposing team.
While I think Albor’s interpretation is a little too mechanical—there’s something uniquely human about watching Chris Johnson wait, agonizingly patient, to make a play—he and Robinson suggest that sports games have a fundamental connection to other video games that gaming culture tends to ignore.
In simplest terms, it becomes clear that games are about movement, about kineticism. Something—some piece, some character, some projectile—needs to be somewhere else, and it’s up to you to get it there as a function of the game’s ruleset. Go and chess—ever-useful touchstones of game design—illustrate the rule.
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My own shaky analogy? Soccer as Street Fighter: the ebb and flow of a match, the importance of timing, critical and lateral thinking, of anticipation.
The best Ryu and Ken and Akuma and Sakura players use hadouken — the iconic blue fireball — not to attack their opponents, but to force them into compromising positions. If you block the fireball, the Ryu player closes in; you can jump over it, but that leaves you vulnerable to a number of anti-air attacks; if you do nothing, you take a face full of fire.
An analogue: watching an enganche zig and zag through a defense. Even if he never actually receives the ball, he’s created space for his teammates by forcing a defensive player to track him. These types of supportive, sacrificial runs happen constantly in a match. Attacking soccer consists of perpetual human hadouken.
The same purity that informs two people beating the shit out of each other infuses soccer, as Robertson points out. That simplicity is absent in other sports and other games, even if the basic components—bodies in motion—are similar. And on a technical level, Street Fighter (for that matter, most Capcom fighters) plays very similarly to modern soccer sims, especially in terms of players’ need to be aware of frames of animation, collision detection, and hitboxes.
High level play requires—and this is true for both the FIFA and Pro Evolution series—acute familiarity with the game engine and the ability to exploit it effectively. Combos and ultras and supers and cancelling are ontologically identical to FIFA‘s oft-touted dribbling mechanics: only Daigo and the Daigo-of-video-soccer can actually do them. Mere mortals can only gaze longingly towards Olympus, hoping for a beautific moment of bicycle kicks and roulettesand more fireballs.
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If sports game represent a centrally-located node on game design as a whole—and I’m not sure that they do, but it’s a useful thought exercise—they also act as a lens through which to see the entire games industry: Sports games address, every year, the big questions that most games only have to tackle once.
The EA Sports line of games are frequently derided for being nothing more than “roster updates,” and to an extent that’s true. But it’s also true that EAs Canada, Tiburon, et al. have simply chosen a more conservative approach to serialized game development. That’s not a value judgment, mind.
Electronic Arts, as a developer, is neck-deep in the latest graphical updates, teetering ever closer to the uncanny valley even as they try to build a bridge over it. And it seems obvious to me that EA’s iterative approach pays off in spades when it comes to the physics and collision detection of their engine. The EA Sports franchises and most others, if nothing else, are technically and technologically sound.
What games writers have dubbed — incorrectly, I’ve been told, though the developer in question didn’t offer an alternative — artificial intelligence seems to me a particularly prickly question. Visuals and physics aside, the AI is where sports fans look for veracity and verisimilitude. That might mean deciding on how “realistic” your game—or is it just a a fun fascimile?—should be. And what exactly is realism anyway?—a question exacerbated by the existence of games like Football Manager on the one hand and, oh, Mega Man Soccer on the other.
More obtuse questions abound. Generally speaking, in the second half of FIFA matches, the opposing AI starts pressing higher and attacking more often, usually leading to more scoring opportunities for both teams. Should we feel cheated that EA Canada artificially raises the stakes to keep us entertained; or is our experience more authentic because FIFA‘s rubber-banding is reflective of real soccer? Real soccer matches do become more frenetic as the death knell approaches, but it’s a psychological shift, not a mechanical one.
The panic that real humans feel in the dying minutes of a close game is psychological, yes, but—in the parlance of game design—it emerges, organically, from the rules of soccer: games are 90 minutes long, and you can’t use your hands—go.
On the other hand, consider an American football game like Blitz: The League, which triples the number of yards needed for a first down from ten to thirty. The ostensibly minor change dovetails nicely with the “Clash” mechanic which allows fullbacks to super-stiffarm their way down the field, but it also undercuts the tactical, conservative elements of American football: with the first down 30 yards away, you can forget about trying to wind the clock down or grind through four-yard receptions. The change in rules forces players into extravagant risk-taking. The presentation layer of game like Blitz is hyper-masculine and vulgar, but it’s in Blitz’s ruleset than really mark its highlight-reel mentality.
I’m tempted to gripe that FIFA’s drama is a result of developer scripting, or that Blitz fundamentally changes American football, but I also realize that some games end not with a bang, but with a whimper. The rub, such as it is, is the same one that lies in, say, the New Journalism of Tom Wolfe—the facts may have been fudged, but the emotional truth is similar. The balance between entertainment and verisimilitude lies at the heart of the entire games industry.
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Video games, especially ones with physical analogues, have the amazing ability to take real-life and transmute it—as if by alchemy—into something approachable and explorable. There is something lost in the translation, sure, but there’s also something gained. In games stripped of narrative, those gains might be harder to find, but they exist nevertheless.
And its a shame that sports games, so fundamental to our understanding of both games and videogames, so often seem ostensibly bereft of intentionality in their design. It’s relatively easy to compare sports games to their real world counterparts; sussing out what the differences between the two signify is tougher, but more fruitful.
Games like FIFA and Blitz use their rules and mechanics to give players what the designers think is fundamental to their respective sports. I might feel maniuplated by FIFA and insulted by Blitz, but I suspect that most gamers just find them fun and bad ass, respectively. There is a pessimism in both, the same pessimism that informs Mario Kart—if gamers aren’t scoring goals, or scoring extravagant touchdowns, or making daring come-from-behind victories thanks to a few red shells, they aren’t having fun. It’s not just that Blitz’s chest-thumping is gross (it is), but it’s that its rules are designed to lock players into a cycle of tension and catharsis.
Tracing the modern videogame backwards ultimately leads back to a traditional definition of gaming: two players on equal footing trying to best each other. Sports games do this well, but even their mechanics, to different degrees, suggest a push toward emotional smokescreening and positive reinforcement. For most other games, the concept of losing is alreadly a vestigial organ, waiting to be cut out.