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…


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.