By Dave Gilmore
10:58 AM EDT, April 25, 2012
As far as downloadable content goes, "Fifa 12's" add-on “UEFA Euro 2012” leaves plenty to be desired. Released yesterday, the expansion to the hit game suffers from a lack of officially licensed teams, lackluster presentation and no support for online play.
At $22.50 worth of Microsoft Points, frankly it’s a rip-off.
Still, it represents a model that has better potential for customer satisfaction than the current method EA and 2K use to release their sports games. Logically, in the year 2012, the annually released sports franchise should not exist. It’s a remnant of the 16-bit era when patching games was impossible, online roster sharing was a pipedream and post-release DLC the stuff of science fiction.
A better way
We’re not covering new ground by suggesting that the same development team, or a version of it, shouldn’t make a new AAA title every 11 months. This is the standard for almost every big-money franchise in video games (we’ll get to the exception later).
However, sports game licensees are obligated to make a new game every year. It’s the system everyone is used to, even if they complain about it. Publishers make boatloads of money that’s used to secure (or monopolize) a league’s license to keep making in the future. And so the cycle perpetuates. If a sport (like college basketball) becomes too expensive to do an annual release, they simply stop making the games.
If all that mattered was making quality games, the model would look something like this: publishers commission a development team to make a new release every 36 months. In between that time, smaller teams could be used to do year-round roster updates, patches, DLC packs for special events and other add-ons to keep up with the changes in the sport. Many fans would gladly hand over their coin for this expanded content. Every game release would be a huge deal, because it would mean that the new game would look and feel significantly different and advanced from the last game. This, of course, only works in theory.
If it don’t make dollars ...
The obvious reason that the artistic logic of making the best product possible is largely ignored is money. Even though the EA forums, OperationSports and other virtual jock hangouts are littered with people declaring their umbrage at game devs and swearing off of “NCAA” or “Madden,” people still keep buying sports series games in mass quantities.
Think about this as a simple word problem. You have a brand with widespread appeal. Scenario A: You have the capability to produce and market a new version of this product every 12 months and sell it for $60. Scenario B: You also have the ability to make a superior version of the product and release it every 36 months for $60, while selling about $40 more in DLC to only some of your customers between releases. If the variable f, for fandom, is constant, you always make more money under Scenario A – always. This is why things will probably never change.
In an odd way, EA and 2K Sports are kind of doing what they should be doing in making games, they’re just accidentally leaking a new build of their game each year to the public. A big action or RPG title goes through a multi-year development cycle with many versions that never see the light of day. They have time to test what’s working and what’s not long before a game ever goes to market.
The “Madden” series in particular has suffered from what has felt like three or four years of simple tuning adjustments and feature-swapping. However, if you combined the best parts of “Madden 09” through “Madden 12,” you’d have a damn good game.
Not just sports
The plague of the annual release has spread to the insanely popular “Call of Duty” series, with every fall since 2005 seeing a new “CoD” title. And it would be overly simplifying to say that Activision publishes the same game every year. Features are added and tweaked, pixels are given a new coat of paint, and there may be larger innovations every fourth title as the franchise changes development teams.
But is “Call of Duty” any different year-to-year than say, “Madden”? The short answer is no, with the previously mentioned exceptions. Even more so than a sports title, “Call of Duty” has leverage over its consumer due to the fact that online multiplayer is an almost mandatory part of the gaming experience. If a prior release threatens the sales of the next iteration, there’s nothing but backlash from people who now own an outdated product to stop them.
In a culture where owning outdated things isn’t acceptably cool, the larger portion of consumers will ultimately latch on to the newer product, even if its substance is inferior. Sure, some may gripe about the dropoff in quality, but of course, there’s always next year.
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