There's the Backyard Football/Baseball series, aimed at children. There's the old standby, the Street series, featuring NFL and NBA but still aimed at pro sports fans with story modes that center around conquering the odds and challenging the top. There's Swingerz Golf, Hot Shots, Mod Nation Racers and a host of other "casual sporting/simulation" titles that promise good times without the seriousness of other more simulation heavy titles.
So why do I still feel like most developers are missing the point? And what features get the closest to that magical "Just let me drive/fly/play already!" kind of game that I'm looking for?
Games are systems of rules we put on real life to make things more interesting, right? And when we get a bunch of humans involved, where the only random element is the humans involved, we get sports.
Sports games cover a lot of group. Ultimately we look up to Madden as an example of the modern model of sports gaming: TV-style coverage of the in-game events. Announcers. Sponsors. Star players. The works. It's like watching ESPN, but being involved. Each play can be meticulously fiddled with, flipped, hidden from view. There's tournaments and big events packed in. Tiger Woods 12 even lets you play alongside the Masters tournament as it happens in the real world! There's a deep level of simulation that these games are trying to achieve and every year we get baby steps closer as features change and evolve, or disappear entirely. These features are all designed around giving the player an accurate experience of the sport at hand. The goal is simulation: the real world made digital.
There's a push for a "natural" feeling in the sports game genre, despite the overblown presentation. Madden introduced a "QB Vision" feature, where the player could actually control where the QB was looking during a snap to either focus a pass, or fake out the defense with a nice no-look throw. Tiger Woods has the "Shot Stick" shooting method. EA did it first, though, with Fight Night Round 3's one-stick punching system. It was all about making the controller move like the avatar, having the players hand work buttons with some semblance of what they might be doing in the flesh, mixing in a little of that natural finesse and accuracy we develop as sportsmen...but with button presses instead of actual punches and passes. It's a great plan in all honest, but it hits a tough brick wall: We don't have good enough motion controls.
The Wii tries so hard. Move is pretty cool. Kinect is nifty. Why do all the sports games for that feel so thin? It's like bowling Granny-style: Feels good knocking the pins down, yeah? Well your form sucks and they'd laugh at you on the tour. There's nothing "pro" about motion controls right now, with their jittery misreading of your fine movements and lack of truly tight control. There's boxing on Kinect, but it's like shadowboxing more than competition. There's Frisbee and archery and more on the Wii, but it feels so proprietary and very un-simluation. Casual, sure...but too casual. The cartoony presentation of Kinect Sports and the lack of fidelity in other motion controllers means that high fidelity sports games are just not an option. Which brings me to my issue.
I want a game that makes me feel like I'm there. Not just the car that "I" am driving to take the cup. Not just the player that'll "Rise to the top of the ranks in blah blah blah shoot me." I just want to play some damned golf/football/etc. Why can't we simulate a little of what I, the average Joe can access, while blending in that nice sports simulation that games like Madden and Tiger Woods have perfected. There has to be a way to recreate the feeling of just going out with your friends to throw the ball around, or drive the car around, or whatever sport it is you want to play without having to cram in the "Climb to the top of the ranks!" rigmarole that's shoved down my gullet year after year. I'm tired of being the best! Just let me play some goddamn golf!
You all know I love lists. Let's make one.
1) No frills.
FIFA 11 has a great menu. You just shoot at the goal, over and over, with no HUD. This is probably my favorite mode in the game. When simulating the real world we don't have cameramen following us around. We don't have sponsors, we might have fans (Hi, mom), and we still manage to enjoy ourselves playing the sports our athletic heroes have mastered. The overcomplicated HUDs can become context sensitive. Not hitting? You don't get a meter. Not aiming? You don't get a reticule. Etc. Bring it down to what we want: us and the game. No fantasy information that we don't need, no overstuffed presentation. Just the game and us.
2) House rules.
Mulligans do not exist in Tiger Woods. No pick up games of NBA Elite are played with a single hoop. When we, John Q. Public, play sports we like to sometimes bend the harder rules to make the game more fun. By allowing players online or offline to take mulligan shots, change what the point values are for certain things or even just play a game without the score being kept sports games could tackle a wholly new market: People who just love the game. Even the more lax titles like Hot Shots hold you to some pretty tight golf rules...but while I'm out with my friends and I slice the ball into last week they let me drop another one on the tee box...they let me drop on at the trees where I think the ball went out of bounds. There's a level of laziness to the rules that only friends out tossing the ball can achieve with no refs, no score cards and passion for the game itself.
3) Let my friends get involved.
Online multiplayer needs to explode in a specific direction. Only some games truly need it, but when they use it right it shines like a brilliant star. Test Drive 2 Unlimited lets you drive around the island with random players, Tiger Woods 12 lets you shoot on the same hole simultaneously with four friends, Red Dead Redemption lets you free roam with mates, rolling as a posse. There is a great thread starting where some games understand that it's truly best with friends, and they're including ways to make it easier than ever to connect with them and interact. Need For Speed Hot Pursuits Autolog feature is pretty awesome, and the Rockstar Social Club even manages to make a single-player epic like LA Noire into a bit of a competition. Tackling challenges and trying your skills is always more fun with friends, especially in the wide world of sports and simulation.
4) Make me feel like a human being.
One thing I hate about most racing games is that I'm a disembodied racer, a ghost essentially, who possesses cars that my ghostly manager says I am driving...but I feel like I'm getting ****ed off when he tells me that I'm going to have to rise to the top, or take on tournament after tournament. That's not me, that's just some ghost driving that car A faceless, personality-free Any Pro who I will be possessing for a while. There's no humanity involved in a crash, no sense of blood and sweat when my player takes a bad hit in the finals. Some games cross that line hard (Blitz the League), some completely skirt it (NFS Hot Pursuit: head on, 200mph crashes send you head over heels into the air but your sunglasses will stay on your avatar when the car hits the pavement). Editing my character's appearance barely counts. It's how my character acts that I'm concerned about more. A lot of it comes from emoting, which there's a distinct lack of in sports titles. If we had a truly casual sports game, you could laugh and jeer opponents and teammates, call time out for any reason at any time, drive the golf cart from shot to shot, high five each other, pull out a brewski while you wait for someone to shoot...there's lots of ways to make me feel more involved without sacrificing the game.
5) Do not sacrifice the game.
The best thing about sports games is that there's no waiting involved. Or very little. If you want to you can skip a shot's replay camera in Tiger Woods, in Madden you can speed up the snaps, etc. There's a lot of get up and go that the player has direct control over...and keeping that intact is important to the pace of a game. By letting players decide if they want to take advantage of these features you can build a base game type with some really tight pacing. Like I said earlier, the HUD could be context sensitive, the controls could be just as complex or natural feeling as the best that EA has to offer with their one stick methodology...but don't lose that just to add the casual stuff. And don't think casual means cartoony or kiddy or fantastic because it doesn't. A casual game can look as good as real life, without the ESPN presentation or the ACME Sports presentation, and still evoke the spirit of competition and skill that professional sports maintain. And if you really, REALLY want to...build in a little tourney system players can fire up to keep score. Make it so you can throttle the game, in the game.
Is this a blind stab at a niche market? Nope, lots of people play sports games. Is this not hardcore enough for the hardcore? Maybe, but Hot Shots has a few sequels and Blitz The League II was pretty fun. Is this impossible to pull off? Not at all. I submit Test Drive Unlimited 2 as the best example of a simulation title where you feel like you're really there. You have a house, cars, places to go like clubs and casinos...etc. It's like living another life for a little bit, losing yourself to the idea of being in another place and doing another thing...and having complete control over it. That's what I'm looking for...and it's damned hard to find.
So finally there it is, a recipe for greatness. Now all we need is a company brazen enough to make my smash hit idea "Let's Play Some Golf."
Seriously, golf rules.