Madden players, especially when playing with friends, make extensive use of audibles, hot routes, and adaptations at the line of scrimmage, just like real NFL QBs. The same is true when on defense, especially in this year's version of the popular franchise.
Earlier this week, I announced the beginning of my latest blogging project - a study on the very popular but under-studied sports videogame industry, particularly using the Madden franchise as a case-study to explain what makes these games popular, and applying those principles to other games - especially baseball. (NOTE: if you haven't seen it, you can check it out here)
To begin this series properly, I'd like to begin at the most basic level - individual games. No matter what game modes are in the game, in the end they all boil down to the same thing: games. A franchise mode involves playing over the course of a season, perhaps more; a superstar or "My Player" mode puts you into the shoes of one player during a game; an online tournament among friends involves games.
I'm going to make a rather shocking statement here: compared to most videogames, making a functioning sports game is rather easy. Not exactly apparent, I know, but let's look at it like this - when you boil it down, what happens in sports? The QB takes the snap and either hands the ball off or passes it; everybody has a pre-defined action that it simply executes. Program a receiver to run a particular route, a cornerback to cover a particular receiver, and the QB to throw the ball to a receiver at random after a set amount of time. In baseball, the pitcher picks a pitch and throws it, and the batter swings; fielders field the ball and throw it to first base.
Do either games seem fun? Yea...not exactly. But they function, and are recognizable as the sport. Key word I listed above - functional. It is easy to make a sports game where the computer is actually playing the sport; what is much harder, however, is creating an artificial intelligence (AI) that is able to play the game competently, and this is where games get good.
You get the idea.
One can argue, as I would like to here, that many sports can be boiled down to a four-dimensional chess match. An offensive coordinator and a defensive coordinator attempt to out-smart each other during the game, tailoring their game to highlight their own strengths while playing to their opponents' weaknesses. Then, when the teams are at the line of scrimmage, these attempts to outmaneuver the opposition extends to the QB and the defensive captain, who alter the play (and sometimes even change it entirely) to counteract how the other team lines up at the line of scrimmage.
Madden captures this experience very well when playing against the computer, allowing you to tweak the play at the line (hot routes, changing blocking schemes) or even change it entirely (calling an audible). Defensively, you can change coverage formations, set particular players to tasks such as QB containment, blitzing, shadowing a particular receiver, or playing coverage in a particular zone. This experience is heightened when playing with friends, as humans can devise schemes and run plays the computer cannot even conceive of, and make very extensive use of things like showing the blitz and quick audibles. In fact, playing Madden with friends is both one of the most satisfying and intellectually-challenging activities, especially when snowed-in in a college dorm.
There are few things in sports like the pitcher-catcher battle.
Even more so than football, baseball is a chess match, and this is one of the few areas baseball games have consistently gotten right (in particular, MLB 2K13, despite its terrible reviews, arguably captured this feeling better than any other game). When you boil America's pastime down to its core, it is merely a series of interactions between the pitcher-catcher battery and the hitter; everyone else - particularly, the fielders and runners on base - merely affects this interaction. A pitcher has an arsenal of pitches, some better than others, which he uses to get hitters out; the hitter, meanwhile, has certain tendencies - which pitches he hits better, where he tends to hit particular pitches, how often he takes a pitch, etc.; in truth, the options are endless. This sort of interaction is best shown with an example. Say a pitcher is up 0-2 on a particular hitter, who looked at a fastball low and away for strike one and fooled him on a changeup for strike two. Now, let's also say there is one out, and a speedy runner (Jacoby Ellsbury, perhaps) is on first base. The catcher could decide the best course of action would be to waste a pitch by throwing a curveball in the dirt, in the hopes of fooling the hitter and making him swing over the ball; however, with a runner like Ellsbury on base, if the catcher mishandles the pitch, he will easily take second and put himself in scoring position. He also might anticipate the fact that the hitter is expecting him to waste a pitch and might get him on a backdoor slider. Or he might...
I don't want to keep going on this; you get the idea. The point is, everything in the game - how particular pitches are working on a particular night, what runners are on base, the outcome of the previous AB of this hitter, the score....everything factors into every particular pitch. Videogames, surprisingly, have captured this feeling pretty well. In 2K, the results of every AB slightly influenced the overall stats of the pitcher's pitches over the course of a game, so that if, for example, opposing hitters are mashing the fastball but are getting fooled by the 12-6 curve, it will be reflected in the game, and the pitcher will have to adapt. If the pitcher gets in a jam, it becomes harder to locate his pitches, but replacing the pitcher resets this effect, based on the skills of the reliever. Again, just like in Madden, the game becomes a series of maneuvers and counter-maneuvers, within ABs and with calling in players from the bench and the bullpen, one that developers have captured fairly well, and which, as always, becomes even more engaging when playing with friends.
So...the point? In terms of videogame design, game developers have already captured the core experiences within games fairly well, which is good, because before all the bells and whistles of various game modes, these games are virtual sporting events where everybody can play at a professional level on their XBoxes and Playstations. What good would a sports game that completely botched the actual gameplay be?
What is amazing to note, however, is just truly how much of a mind game these sports can be. Scouting reports, offensive schemes, hitters' splits, pitchers' tendencies...no matter how physical these games are, the truly great ones are the ones who put thought, and not just brute force, into their game. Truly, as one great man put it, any sport "is 90% mental; the other half is physical."