Monday, March 9, 2009

Opinion: The Negative Effects of Exclusivity

The sports genre used to be my favorite genre in video games, but now this simply isn't the case.


In 1998, I was quite different: I loved sports games (mostly baseball and football games). My friends and I would spend countless hours playing the latest "MLB" or "Triple Play Baseball" game. We'd switch between the latest "Madden NFL" title and "NFL Gameday" or play "NFL2K" on my Sega Dreamcast. Maybe we just had more time to play back then than we do now, but ever since the early sports game era of the PS One the genre was loaded with promise. Sure, most baseball games were way too homerun friendly, and a Hail Mary pass play might work one time too many, but the level of competition between all the popular franchises was inspiring new ideas and each publisher did there best to capitalize on it and cultivate innovation. New ideas were formed, titles each had a strength, and everything was right with the world.

Fast forward to December 14, 2004. This was the day that Electronic Arts announced it's five year exclusivity agreement with the NFL, giving EA the leverage in an ongoing sports-game-brawl with 2K Games and their NFL2K series.

Even back then gamers had their issues with the EA deal, but nothing could change the mark that this move made on the industry, or the subsequent moves right after: Take Two Interactive entered a similar agreement with Major League Baseball giving their 2K baseball series a jolt, but failing to secure full console exclusivity in the process (first-party published games were allowed, potentially leaving the door open for Nintendo, Sony, or Microsoft to develop their own fledgling sports games).

Fast forward, again, to 2009. After dabbling in the Madden series three times and purchasing two of the 2K titled sports baseball games onXbox 360, I've decided that I'm done with the genre (mostly). Granted, my opinion is probably a minority in the realm of sports gamers, but neither series has managed to excite me about playing a virtual sport the way they used to. And blame, what I call, the roster update theory for that - the idea that year-over-year features aren't changed or lightly modified, with only the player roster being the most significant change from sequel to sequel (something that DLC might solve someday).

Sadly, my stance is ironic considering the level of graphical fidelity that this console era and the improvements to the genre it's providing. Today, we're part of an era where high-definition visuals can paint an amazingly realistic representation of a stadium, and sometimes (if we're lucky) a sportscast. Today, we truly see something remarkable during a pitcher's wind-up and delivery. These little things are becoming more and more a true to life representation, and this will only continue to improve with time. But at the end of the day, no matter how visually splendid the product has become, the name of the game isgameplay. Well, that and presentation. And that's my beef with the sports genre, today: the lack of choice.

Call me biased, but I'm tired of the loose feeling my controller gives me as I try to judge a baseball grounded up through the middle of the field. It stymies me that I never know what fielder I'm controlling on a quick play. The blatant notion of involving the right analog stick as 'do everything' feature is dizzying. The fact that no game (in any sport) is really teaching me anything for fear of being too casual is sickening. Why not offer a mode to teach people not just the controls, but what to do here and why? Clearly this is something that a competing sports title can one-day offer, but in the current state of the industry there is no room for that competition. And now there is only one multiplatform baseball game and one NFL football game released every year.

The lack of clear choices, that's my gripe. It's the reason that I've sworn off most of the sports genre, with the exception of "Fight Night: Round 2". Players knew that the running game in NFL2K was great, probably better than the Madden equivalent. But Madden had it's own strengths. Both games did.

I'll admit that some of this post is a bit of an overstatement, but I yearn for the day when the exclusive publishing agreements are over and that day might be coming according to GamePolitics (via GameSpy ). Maybe then I'll be more apt to want to try a baseball game or a football game, again. Until then, I'll hang on to my fond memories of "MVP Baseball" and my younger years playing football games. Those were the best days of the genre because of how much choice we had, and in the end having choices is what makes games great.

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