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Put me in, coach!


Sports games are wallflowers at the video game dance. Routinely ignored or dismissed, they rarely appear on best-of lists, nor do they get much GOTY love by reviewers. Last year NBA 2K11 (an extraordinarily well designed game by any measure) got a few cursory nods from critics, but when we talk about important titles or influential games, we seldom pay much attention to sports games.

Lessons in Game Design
It’s a shame because sports games have much to teach us about game design - especially with regard to thoughtful iteration and sustaining player engagement over time. The mistake we make with sports games is to assume they’re all lazy sequels with minor tweaks and simple roster updates. Slow-witted Madden players will amble in a mindless herd to buy the latest version, regardless of quality, so why bother making a big effort? Or so the thinking goes.

The Madden series may too often herald minor changes as major features, but other franchises have more carefully iterated from season to season, listening and responding to player feedback. These games borrow  shrewdly from other genres to offer players a hearty menu of gameplay modes and options. While other game genres struggle to stay relevant, sports games like the FIFA series and MLB The Show continue to find news ways to add value to the player’s experience.

I’m a big fan of Sony San Diego’s MLB The Show franchise, and I believe it offers some valuable design lessons for anyone willing to look. Here they are in no particular order.

Rethink “Gaming on the go”
I’ve played handheld games for as long as there have been handheld games, and one thing about them has never made sense to me. Why can’t I use my portable device to extend play on my console? Shouldn’t this thing be able to grab my character - progress and stats intact - and let me continue adventuring, puzzle-solving, stealing bases, or whatever on the road; and then export that character - progress and stats intact - back to my console to continue playing? Given that most portable games are derived from console counterparts, doesn’t this just make sense?

The forthcoming MLB The Show 12 will let me do just that. If I’m willing to pony up for both the PS3 and Vita versions of the game, I can transfer my player, team, season, franchise - you name it - back and forth between units with the game’s cloud sync feature, and never miss a beat. The console and portable versions are 100% feature compatible, so when I’m on the road, I’m not playing a stripped down version of the game. Portable gaming can mean different things to different players, but this kind of gaming on the go is - ok, I’ll say it - a game changer for me.

Re-think “Persistent World”
JoeSports games have always relied on role-playing, but in recent years many sports titles have fully implemented RPG design into their core systems. “Road to the Show” mode in MLBTS includes character customization and baseball analogues for quests, leveling up, items and inventory, and even a dynamic story setting. A player-created character can live in this universe from high school to retirement, experiencing dynamic events from season to season, winning and losing, and gradually unfurling his own unique story.

Granted, sports games have the advantage of an unchanging play space (baseball diamond, football field), so designers needn’t endlessly generate new content or environments. But there is great appeal in creating a character whose player-earned properties span many seasons over many years. My favorite player that I created 15 seasons ago was recently sent down to the minors. His skills had eroded with age, and I did everything I could to keep him in the Bigs. But his day finally came, and I have to admit I took it hard. As role-playing goes, I couldn’t have felt more connected to him or more engaged with his story.

Re-think “Modes of play”
Most games have a binary concept of play modes: solo and multiplayer, typically with three available degrees of difficulty. Sports sims like MLB The Show (Out of the Park Baseball is an even better example) offer players far more granular control, as well as layers of play modes that are less about difficulty than modes of fun. If you enjoy choosing every pitch, you can do that. If not, the AI will take care of it. If you want to make every trade decision for every team in your league, you can do that…or let the AI handle it…or choose something between those two extremes.

Be a manager. Be a player. Be the commissioner. A good sports game positions you in a variety of settings, altering your play experience and enabling multiple points of view from which to exist inside the game’s universe. And, of course, if you prefer to play with live opponents, sports games typically give you many more options for controlling the parameters of such games, including minute control of the mechanical properties of your “weapons.”

Rethink “Player Agency”
If narrative games create a possibility space for players to generate or discover their own stories, sports games offer a captivating vision of that possibility space, unconstrained by branching-paths or author-driven plot points. I’m not suggesting authored narratives are a bad thing; nor do I think Mass Effect-style storytelling is broken or inferior. But a game like MLB The Show shares important characteristics with Minecraft, especially in the ways they rely on strict rule-sets that constrain player behaviors, yet also enable imaginative meaning-making within that space.

KoufaxI know the story of the 1962 LA Dodgers, who won 102 games, but still finished second, one game behind the San Francisco Giants. In a baseball sim I can attempt to change that story, and through my own efforts engineer a better conclusion by making different choices, assigning different roles to my players, and generally trying to be smarter than real-life manager Walter Alston, but limiting myself to only the tools available to him. Or I could make a few trades. Or maybe limit the season to 50 games. It’s up to me, but whatever I choose, a story will emerge.

Every game is a story. Every series. Every season. A good sports game lets me tightly adhere to “history” or go hog wild with possibilities. I once made a team that included Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Ted Williams, and Ty Cobb. We won lots of games…but lost the World Series. How I managed to do that is a whole story in itself. My story. My humiliating story...