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.

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Crossing Codes

Well, it was rugby last time and it’ll be rugby this time next week, so I might as well buck the trend and start talking a little more about rugby in preparation for the upcoming Lions tour (anyone who wants to hear my views regarding Christian Wade/Shane Williams’ callup will have to make themselves heard over the sound of me clapping with glee at the prospect of a bit of magic from either). However, today I will not be confining myself solely to my preferred variant of rugby union, but will instead be analysing its relationship to the other code; rugby league.

To tell the story of rugby league, we must travel back to 1895, just 22 years after the official founding of the game of rugby football. As befits a sport named after and originating from a public school, rugby at the time was very much a rich man’s game, particularly in the south of Britain, and such people could afford to live the amateur dream; where the game was not influenced by such crass things as money, but by honour and other such proud words. Indeed, as I explained last time, this attitude of die-hard defence of amateurism would persist in the union game for nearly the next century, and as late as 1995, as the game lay on the very verge of going professional, Will Carling was stripped of the England captaincy for (quite accurately) referring to the board of the RFU as ’57 old farts’.

However, way back in the late 19th century the game was just starting to take off in the north of England as well, where ex-public schoolboys were rather thin on the ground. This was working-class country, and rugby here was a working class game; for these men, amateurism was a hard task, and every game they played on a Saturday was another three hours where they weren’t earning much-needed cash. As such, a group of northern clubs proposed to the RFU that, with the reasonable income generated from the spectators at matches, players could be ‘recompensed for loss of time’; a reasonable request, one might assume. However, the old farts took the suggestion badly, not only rejecting it out of hand  but issuing a dictum that banned teams from playing at grounds where an entrance fee was charged for spectators. This, to put it mildly, did not go down well with the northern clubs, and on the 29th of August that year, 22 clubs formed the Northern Union; an entirely separate officiating organisation. Over 200 clubs would join the Northern Union within the next decade and a half (some argue this did the union code the world of good, stripping England of much of its skilled player base and making the international playing field more even), and gradually they also began fiddling with the laws, fitting them to their liking. The biggest changes came in 1906, when the number of men per team was reduced from 15 to 13 (dropping the flankers to give the attacking side more room; an idea being voiced by some in the union code at the moment too), and when the ruck was abolished, being replaced instead with rugby league’s characteristic ‘writhe around on the floor until the ref shouts “move”‘.

This revolutionised league’s playing structure, doing away with the dull scrummaging and mauling that dominated union at the time in favour of a faster, more flowing game. Gone was the suffering of the union winger, doomed to forever hang around getting cold and hoping for a pass or two; backs became the focus of the league game, as handling skills became prioritised over strength and wingers were encouraged to go looking for the ball, to make themselves useful. Games became far higher-scoring than in union (where 3-0 wins were not uncommon at the time), and this was only enhanced when league became a summer game, played on hard, fast grounds rather than getting bogged down in the mud and rain. Add to that the fact that league players could get paid to play, and it’s not surprising that many union players chose to switch codes (much to the chagrin of their respective unions, who would frequently ban them from ever playing the union code again). All in all, for much of the 20th century, rugby league could easily argue to be on top of its union cousin.

However, when union (finally, amidst much chaos and complaining) turned professional in 1995, the tide began to turn. In spite of everything, union had, particularly in the latter half of the century, maintained a bigger player and supporter base than league, and much of it in the affluent south; this meant that it was able to cash in on professionalism to an extent that league couldn’t match, and the union authorities had finally made concessions on the laws that were conducive to a far more spectator-friendly game. The tide began to turn. Union got richer (especially when businessmen like Francis Baron started to weigh in) and took back a few stars who had gone over to league. Then, it started poaching a few league stars of its own; former rugby league internationals like Lote Tuqiri, Jason Robinson & Andy Farrell began making their considerable presence felt as union started to wave around fat payslips and an approach to professionalism that has begun to take over from league in terms of intensity. Just recently, Sonny Bill Williams (who has just returned to league after a few years in an All Blacks shirt) has said that the approach that became second nature to him in union has marked him out in terms of professionalism in a league environment. As evidenced in this article, winner of the ‘most needlessly provocative title in a sporting article’ award.

So, rugby league then; a game conceived in rebellion to the arrogance of the wealthy southerners, it is in many ways the perfect embodiment of England’s north-south divide. Thankfully, said divide has (to me at least) receded somewhat in recent years, and so has some of the animosity between the two codes. This has lead some to propose a somewhat radical new idea; that the two codes combine, returning union to a single sport united by the best of both worlds. Will it happen in the forseeable future? Of course not; league is a proud game well capable of standing on its own two feet, and is blessed with some of the most passionate fans in sport, who I don’t think would take kindly to the identity of their sport fading away. Not only that, but trying to create a game appreciated by both parties would be a messy old business, even if the conception of the IRB has made union slightly more accepting than if negotiations were headed by unions quite as… vociferous as the RFU. Nonetheless, the debate does highlight an important issue; both codes have an awful lot to learn from one another, and union in particular has utilised the skills of former league talents both on the field and in coaching. With both games in serious trouble in places, particularly in today’s economic climate, not making use of such cooperation could prove very costly indeed.

Scrum Solutions

First up- sorry I suddenly disappeared over last week. I was away, and although I’d planned to tell WordPress to publish a few for me (I have a backlog now and everything), I was unfortunately away from my computer on Saturday and could not do so. Sorry. Today I would like to follow on from last Wednesday’s post dealing with the problems faced in the modern rugby scrum, to discuss a few solutions that have been suggested for dealing with the issue, and even throw in a couple of ideas of my own. But first, I’d like to offer my thoughts to another topic that has sprung up amid the chaos of scrummaging discussions (mainly by rugby league fans): the place, value and even existence of the scrum.

As the modern game has got faster and more free-flowing, the key focus of the game of rugby union has shifted. Where once entire game plans were built around the scrum and (especially) lineout, nowadays the battle of the breakdown is the vital one, as is so ably demonstrated by the world’s current openside flanker population. Thus, the scrum is becoming less and less important as a tactical tool, and the extremists may argue that it is no more than a way to restart play. This is the exact situation that has been wholeheartedly embraced by rugby league, where lineouts are non-existent and scrums are an uncontested way of restarting play after a minor infringement. To some there is, therefore, something of a crossroads: do we as a game follow the league path of speed and fluidity at the expense of structure, or stick to our guns and keep the scrum (and set piece generally) as a core tenet of our game?

There is no denying that our modern play style, centred around fast rucks and ball-in-hand play, is certainly faster and more entertaining than its slow, sluggish predecessor, if only for the fans watching it, and has certainly helped transform rugby union into the fun, flowing spectators game we know and love today. However having said that, if we just wanted to watch players run with the ball and nothing else of any interest to happen, then we’d all just go and play rugby league, and whilst league is certainly a worthwhile sport (with, among other things, the most passionate fans of any sport on earth), there is no point trying to turn union into its clone. In any case, the extent to which league as a game has been simplified has meant that there are now hardly any infringements or stoppages to speak of and that a scrum is a very rare occurence. This is very much unlike its union cousin, and to do away with the scrum as a tool in the union code would perhaps not suit the game as well as it does in union. Thus, it is certainly worth at least trying to prevent the scrum turning into a dour affair of constant collapses and resets before everyone dies of boredom and we simply scrap the thing.

(I know I’ve probably broken my ‘no Views’ rule here, but I could go on all day about the various arguments and I’d like to get onto some solutions)

The main problem with the modern scrum according to the IRB concerns the engage procedure- arguing (as do many other people) that trying to restrain eight athletes straining to let rip their strength is a tough task for even the stoutest front rower, they have this year changed the engage procedure to omit the ‘pause’ instruction from the ‘crouch, touch, pause, engage’ sequence. Originally included to both help the early players structure their engagement (thus ensuring they didn’t have to spend too much time bent down too far) and to ensure the referee had control over the engagement, they are now arguing that it has no place in the modern game and that it is time to see what effect getting rid of it will have (they have also replaced the ‘engage’ instruction with ‘set’ to reduce confusion about which syllable to engage on).

Whether this will work or not is a matter of some debate. It’s certainly a nice idea- speaking as a forward myself, I can attest that giving the scrum time to wind itself up is perhaps not the best way to ensure they come together in a safe, controlled fashion. However, what this does do is place a lot of onus on the referee to get his timing right. If the ‘crouch, touch, set’ procedure is said too quickly, it can be guaranteed that one team will not have prepared themselves properly and the whole engagement will be a complete mess. Say it too slowly, and both sides will have got themselves all wound up and we’ll be back to square one again. I suppose we’ll all find out how well it works come the new season (although I do advise giving teams time to settle back in- I expect to see a lot of packs waiting for a split second on the ‘set’ instruction as they wait for the fourth command they are so used to)

Other solutions have also been put forward. Many advocate a new law demanding gripping areas on the shirts of front row players to ensure they have something to get hold of on modern, skintight shirts, although the implementation of such a law would undoubtedly be both expensive and rather chaotic for all concerned, which is presumably why the IRB didn’t go for it. With the increasing use and importance of the Television Match Official (TMO) in international matches, there are a few suggesting that both they and the line judge should be granted extra responsibilities at scrum time to ensure the referee’s attention is not distracted, but it is understandable that referees do not want to be patronised by and become over-reliant on a hardly universally present system where the official in question is wholly dependent on whether the TV crews think that the front row binding will make a good shot.

However, whilst these ideas may help to prevent the scrum collapsing, with regards to the scrum’s place in the modern game they are little more than papering over the cracks. On their own, they will not change the way the game is played and will certainly not magically bring the scrum back to centre stage in the professional game.

For that to happen though, things may have to change quite radically. We must remember that the scrum as an invention is over 150 years old and was made for a game that has since changed beyond all recognition, so it could well be time that it began to reflect that. It’s all well and good playing the running game of today, but if the scrum starts to become little more than a restart then it has lost all its value. However, it is also true that if it is allowed to simply become a complete lottery, then the advantage for the team putting the ball in is lost and everyone just gets frustrated with it.

An answer could be (to pick an example idea) to turn the scrum into a more slippery affair, capable of moving back and forth far more easily than it can at the moment, almost more like a maul than anything else. This would almost certainly require radical changes regarding the structure and engagement of it- perhaps we should say that any number of players (between, say, three and ten) can take part in a scrum, in the same way as happens at lineouts, thereby introducing a tactical element to the setup and meaning that some sneaky trickery and preplanned plays could turn an opposition scrum on its head. Perhaps the laws on how the players are allowed to bind up should be relaxed, forcing teams to choose between a more powerful pushing setup and a looser one allowing for faster attacking & defending responses. Perhaps a law should be trialled demanding that if two teams engaged correctly, but the scrum collapsed because one side went lower than the other then the free kick would be awarded to the ‘lower’ side, thus placing a greater onus on technique over sheer power and turning the balance of the scrum on its head. Would any of these work? Maybe not, but they’re ideas.

I, obviously, do not have all the definitive answers, and I couldn’t say I’m a definite advocate of any of the ideas I voiced above (especially the last one, now I think how ridiculously impractical it would be to manage). But it is at least worth thinking about how much the game has evolved since the scrum’s invention, and whether it’s time for it to catch up.