Rugby Videogaming for Dummies

In my last post, I highlighted some of the problems facing the developers of rugby videogames, and the flaws in the current best efforts the industry has to offer. However, I personally reckon that the problems presented in attempting to replicate one of the most complex games on earth can be overcome; but that it may require a quite drastic change in the way these games are designed.

(For the purposes of this, I will stick simply to gameplay features; stuff like team licensing, graphics and the number of game modes available are all important quality factors in a rugby game, but can hardly be accounted for by any development team)

Probably the most similar sport to rugby currently in existence (excluding league… or union depending on your perspective) is American Football, which has the good fortune of having its own massive gaming franchise built around it. As such, I reckon that, despite the sizeable differences between the two sports, a quick look at the Madden game series would be a good place to start.

American Football is a highly structured game, and Madden (from my albeit very limited experience of playing it) reflects this well: before each play, the attacking player selects which move he wants to perform (from a very long list) and is then tasked with executing it properly (timing the pass and so on). This principle was also adopted to an extent in the 2005 game Pro Rugby Manager 2 (not a bad game, but graphics are appalling and large sections of gameplay horribly designed), which allowed you to preselect which move you wanted to perform before scrumss and lineouts. The fact that only about three of these presets ever worked is, of course, just a cursory detail.

Modern rugby, and many of its greatest tries, are dependent on such preset moves, and the tactic of allowing them to be selected from scrums and lineouts is, I think, a good one. Crucially, to retain the element of skill and to allow players to mix things up a bit in response to defensive frailties, only running lines should be pre-programmed, with the player choosing when and where to pass (or, indeed, kick). I personally think that the situation could be even further improved by allowing players to design their own moves, but this would be difficult to do on a console so probably wouldn’t be worth programming.

However, not all moves come from scrums and lineouts, and Rugby 08‘s idea of having a smaller subset of simpler moves to deploy in general play is worth reviving, I feel. Like that system, I feel four is the optimum number to be available in general play would be four, allowing console players to easily select them with the left analogue stick or D-pad. Two differences must, however, be stressed compared to Rugby 08‘s system; firstly, the players whilst running presets should not be constrained to jogging at two miles an hour in order to ensure speed differences don’t cause the move to break down (a frankly unsubtle solution to the problem that could be largely mitigated by allowing players to choose when they pass), and secondly, I think that a few even more basic moves should also be usable in loose play, rather than just after rucks. Simple stuff, like loops or scissors moves, the kind of stuff players could legitimately drop into play given enough space, just to give them the extra edge.

Next up, onto a few niggly details. The kicking system from Rugby 08 (which basically boils down to releasing the ‘kick bar’ at just the right time to ensure it bisects the upright) is just about perfect for place kicks and drop goals, although it could do with some method by which kicks are made more difficult to aim the harder they are hit. For kicks in general play, I like Rugby Challenge‘s system of slowing down time to allow proper aiming of kicks, not to mention most of their system of running rugby; a straight adaptation of that when playing ‘manually’ would be perfect. At the rucks, however, their heavy bind/quick bind system is, frankly, a bit stupid, not to mention the way that RC’s system prevents a team from playing the ball until it has definitively been ‘won’, preventing them from getting quick ball. Rugby 08‘s system is preferable; here, the team with the ball is presumed to have won it and are free to play it unless the opposing team get men there quickly enough. The only changes I would make to this system would be the introduction of a ‘grey area’ where the ball has been ‘half won’ from the opposition and neither side are prepared to play it, and for players to be able to cheat (and be penalised) of their own accord rather than requiring player input.

Trying to accurately replicate set pieces in rugby is, if anything, even more tricky than with general play. Lineouts would, I feel, be best replicated using much the same system as described for general play; preselecting how pods and players should move before letting the player manually perform the jump and throw. Again, flaws in both aspects should, I feel, be automated and mistakes dependent on a player’s lineout skill rather than getting the player to manually aim as in Rugby Challenge‘s frustrating throwing-in system. At scrums, things get more complicated, and although the simplest solution would be to just have teams simply push or dig in at the player’s discretion (as in Rugby 08), I reckon a better, more skill-centric approach would be to have two rhythm mini-games running simultaneously. To explain in more simple jargon, this would involve, on a keyboard by way of example, one hand pressing the up, down, left and right arrow keys in time with a series of symbols appearing on the screen, whilst the other hand does the same thing with the WASD keys, each set of keys representing the forward battle on each side of the scrum. A separate button press would tell the scrum half/no. 8 to take control of the ball; again, slowing down time here would allow for a suitably fast decision-making process. The more symbols are hit correctly in the rhythm sequence, the more control the prop is able to exert over his opponent; the amount the opposing scrum is pushed back as a result of this should not be arbitrary, but instead dependent on the relative strength and scrummaging skill of the second and back row players. And should also not be utterly ridiculous; on Rugby Challenge, a dominant scrum is often able to send opposing players flying back twenty metres or so, which simply never happens. Ever

Advocating the introduction of spurious rhythm mini-games is rarely something that will make you popular in gaming circles, and a lot of the ‘borrowed’ features I have advocated including in my hypothetical game could probably not be brought in verbatim for licensing reasons. But hey, I’m just some guy being hopeful; it may never happen, but if it ever did…

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The Rugby Challenge

I frequently feel like apologising on this blog for my all too frequent excursions into the worlds of my two main leisure activities; rugby and videogames. Today, however, inspired by the recent release of Rugby Challenge 2, I’m going to combine the two, highlighting the problems oh-so-frequently encountered when designing a rugby game.

Rugby is not a sport that can be said to have made a grand splash in the gaming world; unlike the likes of football and basketball which get big-budget EA Sports releases every year, EA’s only attempt at a rugby game in the last 5 years was a half-hearted and lazily designed attempt to cash in on the 2011 World Cup. It’s even worse for rugby league fans, who I believe have only had two games ever made concerning their sport. The reason for this is depressingly simple; money. FIFA sells because football is massively popular across pretty much the entire globe, resulting in a massive market and the popularity of American Football sells copies of Madden by the bucketload in the wealthy USA. Rugby, however, has no such market ready and waiting for it; worldwide, around 4.5 million people are registered rugby players, and a rather optimistic guess could put the number of fans of the sport at perhaps 15 million. Of those, there is a fairly broad spread of ages between 7 and 70; yet the majority of gamers fit into the 14-25ish age bracket. And not all of those are going to end up buying a rugby game anyway.

Put simply, a rugby game has nowhere near the potential market of many other sports, so whilst FIFA 2013 was able to sell more than 3.3 million units in its first week, Sidhe’s 2011 game Jonah Lomu Rugby Challenge sold just 430,000 units lifetime across PS3 and Xbox 360 combined. Admittedly it was competing against the RWC 2011 game (which sold roughly the same, and probably to the same people), but even in a year when rugby’s profile was at its highest, such comparatively meagre sales represent a big problem when game development and the acquisition of team licenses are so massively expensive.

However, there’s very little that can be done about this until more people get interested in rugby/videogames respectively, so I’m now going to focus on the content games themselves, which presents a whole host of other issues. The two major figures in terms of representing rugby in the virtual world are EA Sports’ Rugby 08 (which, despite being 5 years old and barely different from the two previous EA incarnations, still has its adherents) and the previously mentioned Rugby Challenge. Having owned and played both (although not yet Rugby Challenge 2, hence why it doesn’t feature here), I feel confident in saying that, whilst both are pretty good in their own way, both have sizeable flaws; Rugby 08 is full of little cheats (such as a way of automatically winning every kickoff) that make the game far too easy once you are sufficiently experienced, the players have no personality or realism about their movements, its knowledge of the laws is dodgy in places, the difficulty settings are blunt as hell, the preset attacking moves are rubbish, lineouts are oversimplified, manually attacking produces highly unrealistic gameplay, the defensive moves it bangs on about in the promo material make no difference whatsoever, players frequently run through one another’s falling bodies and for some reason the player has to manually select when he or she wants to cheat (which, given how unrealistically good the ref is, is a totally dumb idea). Rugby Challenge is, to my mind, a superior game, but it is no less flawed; in their efforts to make the game more free-flowing, the developers have almost completely done away with any semblance of structure as every move degenerates into one long spree of offloads, with no preset moves to help offset this issue. To frustratingly contrast with this, the rucking system guarantees a constant stream of annoyingly slow ball, lineouts and scrums are dysfunctional and just plain unrealistic respectively, the goal kicking is dumb, the player ratings unrealistic (particularly for northern hemisphere players), you can’t take quick throw-ins and the commentary is nowhere near as good as in Rugby 08. And, just to compound the annoyance, neither has a realistic career mode, which severely damages replay value (an issue thankfully dealt with in this year’s Rugby Challenge 2)

Phew. Right, rant over, now to actually address the causes.

Aside from most studios being unwilling or unable to invest large amounts of money in developing a rugby game due to the limited market size, the main issue facing any rugby game concerns the nature of the game itself. Rugby is a game of a myriad of different battlegrounds and ways of playing the game, with players having to function both as a team player and as an individual both on and off the ball. This makes controlling it from the perspective of the guy with the ball, as all previous games have done, inherently difficult and unrealistic; in rugby, it is just as important if not more so who runs the dummy lines and provides a threat to the defence as the person who ends up with the try. This practice of each player’s individual work adding up to a concerted team effort is incredibly difficult to program, and to simulate it properly would require an incredibly sophisticated AI system beyond anything seen in any other sporting game. And that’s just considering the work done by the backs; accurately simulating forward play would be a nigh-on impossible task, so complex is the technique and decision-making that, in a real game, is responsible for the rucking and scrummaging victories that can turn a match. The other issue is the level of control that should be allowed to the player; a more complex, detailed game would be more realistic, but would seriously risk either swamping the player with decisions and information as they tried to control fifteen players at once, killing the immersion, or automating everything and taking the player out of the equation too much, so that their individual skill level ceased to matter. Finding a suitable middle ground between the Scylla and Charybdis of these two extremes would be a difficult, dangerous task for any game developer.

Still, despite all these problems and more, I personally think that it is far from impossible to make a great game that (relatively) accurately portrays modern rugby. And to find out exactly how I’d go about designing such a game, you can read my next post, in which I will tell you all about it…*

*That sounded way creepier than intended. Sorry

One final note; due to developments in my personal life, posts are now only going to come twice a week, on Wednesday and Saturday. This may change again in the future.

Call of Duty: Modern Moneymaking

The first person shooter (FPS, or shoot-em-up) genre is the biggest and most profitable in the gaming industry, which is itself now (globally) the biggest entertainment industry on earth. Every year Activision pay off their expenditure for the next decade by releasing another Call of Duty game, and every so often Battlefield, Medal of Honour and Halo like to join the party to similar financial response. Given that many critics have built their name on slagging off such games, and that even the most ardent fans will admit that perhaps only four of the nine CoD games have actually improved on the previous one, this fact seems a trifle odd to my eye (which may have something to do with me being awful at them), and since I cannot apply science to this problem I thought I might retreat to my other old friend; history.

The FPS genre took a while to get going; partly due to the graphical fidelity and processing power required to replicate a decent first-person perspective, it wasn’t until 1992 that Wolfenstein 3D, the game often credited with ‘inventing’ the genre, was released, long after the first four home console generations had passed. However, the genre had existed after a fashion before then; a simple game called Maze War, akin to Pac Man from a rudimentary 3D perspective and with guns, is considered an early example and was released as far back as 1974. Other, similar games, including the space simulator Spasim (the same thing but in space) and tank simulator Battlezone (very slightly different and with tanks) were released over the next decade. All, as well as most subsequent efforts pre-Wolfenstein, used a tile-based movement system, whereby one’s movement was restricted to moving from one square to the next, since this was pretty much all that was possible with contemporary technology.

Further advances dabbled in elements of multiplayer, and introduced such features as texture mapping to enhance graphical fidelity, but Wolfenstein’s great success lay in its gameplay format. Gone was any tile-based or otherwise restrictive movement, and in its place were maps that one was free to move around in all directions and orientations in two dimensions. It also incorporated a health meter (and healing pickups), depleting ammo and interchangeable weapons, all of which would become mainstays of the genre over the next few years. Despite its controversial use of Nazi iconography (because the bad guys were Nazis, rather than the developers fascists), the game was wildly successful; at least for the short time before the same company, id software, released Doom. Doom used a similar interface as Wolfenstein, had better graphics and a more detailed 3D environment, but its real success lay in its release format; the first third of the game was distributed for free, encouraging gamers to experience all that the game had to offer before gladly paying for the remainder. With it’s consolidation and enhancement of Wolfenstein’s format and its adoption of a now-ubiquitous multiplayer mode, Doom is often considered the most influential FPS of all time, and one of the most important games full stop; its fame is such that versions of the game have been available on almost every major console for the last 20 years.

Over the next few years, many other features that would later become staples of the FPS genre were developed. The Apple Mac, not usually a traditional stronghold for gaming, was the platform for Marathon, which introduced a number of new game modes (including cooperative multiplayer), more complex weapons and placed a heavy emphasis on story as well as gameplay. Star Wars: Dark Forces introduced the ability to crouch for the first time, thus setting the template for today’s FPS pattern of repeatedly hiding behind chest-high walls, and 1995’s Descent changed the graphical playing field by changing from using sprites to represent objects and NPC’s in the gameworld to a 3D system based around polygonal graphics. This technology was one of the many technologies used in Doom’s 1996 sequel, Quake, which also increased the series’ emphasis on online multiplayer. Unfortunately, this market would soon be totally conquered by 1997’s GoldenEye, a tie-in to the James Bond film of the same name; the game itself experimented with new, claustrophobic game environments and required you to manually reload your weapon, but it was the multiplayer that proved its success. It has now been revealed that the multiplayer was actually nothing more than a hasty add-on knocked up in matter of weeks, but the circituous maps and multiple weapons & characters on offer made it endlessly compelling, and right up until 2004 GoldenEye was the best selling game for the Nintendo 64.

But the defining FPS of this era was undoubtedly Half Life; released in 1998, the game combined Quake’s graphical technology with a bulletproof gameplay format and one of the strongest narratives and plots of any game ever made. The single player experience alone was enough to raise Valve, the game’s makers, to iconic status almost overnight (a label they retain to this day due to their penchant for innovation and not being dicks about their business tactics), and when a multiplayer mod for it was developed (Counterstrike), it and its successor (Counterstrike: Source) became the most popular multiplayer FPS experience ever.

After Half Life, some felt that the FPS genre had been taken about as far as it could in its current iteration, and that the genre’s immediate future was to be based around increasing graphical quality, fiddling with storylines and making money. However, in 2000 Microsoft acquired Bungie studios (who had made Marathon back in 1994) and released their real-time-strategy-turned-third-person-shooter-turned-first-person-shooter as a startup title for their newly released Xbox console. The game incorporated a heavy focus on characterisation (helped by it occasionally leaving first person perspective for cutscenes, which Half Life never did) with a new style of enemies (well-rendered and varied alien opponents), a wide variety of weapons and the perhaps unusual feature of having an auto-healing system rather than health pickups. The game was called Halo, and it revolutionised the FPS genre.

Since then, advancements have been less revolutionary and more gradual, as the FPS genre has diversified. Halo has now gone through several incarnations whilst keeping the basic format the same, but the gameplay principle has been applied in almost every conceivable way. Battlefield and Call of Duty applied the concept to military-style gameplay with a strong multiplayer emphasis, whilst the likes of Resident Evil and Left 4 Dead added a horror theme (or at least used zombies as bad guys). The games based on the Crytek engine (Crysis and Far Cry) turned the focus away from linear mission design and on to beautifully rendered open-world levels (some would argue in direct contrast to CoD’s increasingly linear single player mode), and recently Spec Ops: The Line has followed in Half Life’s plot-centric footsteps with a nonlinear storyline based around the mental impact of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Some argue that the current FPS genre is stagnating; indeed super-critical game reviewer Yahtzee Croshaw has recently created a new genre called ‘spunkgargleweewee’ to cover generic linear modern military shooters (ie Call of Duty and her extended family) and indicate his contempt at their current form of existence. But to many they are the pinnacle of current-generation gaming, or at least the most fun way yet devised to spend an afternoon. By way of an example as to how much people… enjoy these things, the most recent Call of Duty game was released with a feature for the PS3 to allow the map packs used for multiplayer to be downloaded to the console’s hard disk. This was a feature requested of Activision by their hardcore fan base, who were somewhat perplexed at the request; the feature was, they pointed out, not going to make the game run any faster. But the fan base said they realised this, and it wasn’t a performance issue; it was just that they were playing the game so much that the process of continually reading the map data from the game disc was beginning to wear out the laser used to read the disc information. Thank you, Call of Duty fans, for making me feel especially productive after spending an afternoon writing an article for nobody on the internet to read.

Gaming Concluded

And so I return, wiping off my smirk and trying not to laugh at anything that sounds French, back into the foray of my regular blogging experience, in an effort to conclude the topic on gaming. So far I have considered the two main complaints that non-gaming people tend to have with gamers and games themselves- today I want to get more into the guts of exactly why gaming, over so many other things, appears to be a target for particular dislike from large sections of the mainstream.

In case anyone reading is in any doubt that games ARE as much of a target as I am painting them to be, I refer you to a situation a while ago in which the American Supreme Court agreed to hear a proposed Californian state law restricting the sale of games to minors, especially ‘violent content’ Please bear in mind that these laws pop up all over the US from time to time and are always shot down for violating the First Amendment- but in this case the Supreme Court, the ultimate last line of appeal, the highest court in the most powerful nation on earth, was willing to give voice to an argument claiming, based on claims made from rather spurious studies that ‘games harm U18’s’, that games do not offer sufficient value to the world as a whole to warrant First Amendment protection. Anyone could see the law was unconstitutional- but the political voice was loud enough to get the Supreme Court to have a listen. Can anyone imagine them hearing a case proposing the restriction of film content in this way? Or TV? Or music. Of course not- but games? Whole other kettle of fish apparently.

(I could spend all day shooting this law down, but since I only know about this from an Extra Credits episode and they are going to do a far better job of it than me, I suggest you hit PATV and watch their take on it: http://penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/free-speech)

So yeah- people and politicians don’t like games, but why? What is it that what’s basically giving a film a joystick and controls suddenly turns that film into something that everyone thinks just doesn’t matter? The reasons are, as with all such widespread emotions, many and varied, and I have certainly not thought of all of them, but here are just 3 that especially spring to mind:

1) The Social Gap

It’s no secret that gamers are a fairly predictable group of people in terms of who they are- young, often middle-class, men aged between 14 and 28 ish probably comprise at least 70% of the game-playing population (my own guesstimate, so shoot me down if you know any better figures). But, for starters, half the world’s population are female and the majority are outside the ‘game-playing’ age bracket- especially in the western world where advances in living conditions and healthcare have meant that seemingly everyone is middle-aged. Thus, gamers are something of a group unto themselves- in my social circle, for instance, just about everyone will be a gamer to some extent, but in, say, my mum’s, none of them would know the difference between Final Fantasy and Battlefield. So games become less of an all-encompassing medium, and more of a seemingly ‘niche’ product that just doesn’t seem very important to large sects of the population- particularly the small rich, white, middle aged, upper middle-class sect that dominates the western political and (to a large extent) cultural landscape. This is compounded by the fact that, unlike TV or film which have been around for years, gaming in its current, industry level, world-dominating form is really a creation of the last 15-20 years or so, so there has been little generational ‘trickle-down’- ie the more elderly sects of society will NEVER have played a game, much less grown out of them, so are even less inclined to be sympathetic towards them.

 

2) Internet Connections

As I’ve just said, modern gaming is really an invention that began gathering speed around the mid-to-late 90’s- almost exactly the same time that the internet was first invented. As such, with gaming and the web growing up to becoming the fully-fledged entities they are now almost in parallel, they have since developed a close bond. For example, a lot of internet memes, such as the whole ‘arrow to the knee’ thing, are gaming-based, and while gaming may only be relegated to a small back page every fortnight in the paper, online it has entire sites and communities dedicated to it in a way even films can’t match on the web. Unfortunately, this internet link, and especially the tie-ins the web also has to the same middle-class young men group who make up the core gaming stereotype means that a lot of the ‘bad boy’ parts of the internet that disgust big corporations and governments seem to have an inherent link to gaming- and thus gaming gets tarred with the same ‘we don’t like you’ brush. Not only that, it also gets landed with all the active dislikes people have of those sectors of the web- its juvenile and rather crude sense of humour, the potential for hacking dangers, and the generalised sexism and borderline-offensive ‘banter’. It is this, in part, which turns mere indifference to the gaming population into genuine dislike and mistrust of the medium.

 

3) Content & Style

The very nature of gaming and gameplay itself demands an action-driven plot & content style- even in the more cinematic or narrative games, what keeps the plot ticking over is you as the player actively doin’ stuff. If we make a quick comparison to films for a minute, this does happen in the film industry- action flicks for example often go for plots almost entirely driven by the protagonist’s actions over the course of the film. However, this is not the only way for a film to go- different genres, be they romances, ‘arthouse’ films, even horror movies, can push the film forward via other means, such as dialogue or even acting expression. This variety is one of the reason films are so accessible- there is something for every taste. However, the action-driven nature of games inherently limits the variety of experience delivery they can offer, which isolates large sects of the non-game playing public from giving them a chance. Basically, to a non-gamer, all games would, if they were films, have Jason Statham in the lead. Now, people not naturally inclined towards that sort of thing don’t find it so much of a problem with films because there is still space for the sort of delivery they prefer- but the image of gaming as ALL being like this makes it all seem a bit juvenile and not worth all the bother. This is a problem unfortunately compounded by the fact that the popularity of games like Call of Duty, where action is so central it seems to hide all else. This makes it seem like all modern games are about KILLING EVERYBODY- not the image that best portrays the emotion and general awesomeness that really good games can inspire. Thus, once again, an image of a medium that’s ‘just not for me’, is turned into one that is juvenile, grotesque, occasionally obscene and thus not worth the same merits as other forms of media.

This list is far from exhaustive but to me it covers the main points as I see it that make gaming a seemingly exclusive and disliked medium. What can be done about it? Well, a little just being more grown up about stuff and sharing quality gaming experiences with the rest of the world wouldn’t go amiss, as would not taking the piss constantly out of the Nintendo Wii- while it may not be a serious gaming platform, it has done more for gaming’s image than the PlayStation 50 ever could. As for any less ‘woolly’ ways out… well, do you want me to make this a four parter, cos I don’t?