Why can't sports video games get it right?   

Updated: July 21, 2008, 12:48 PM ET

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MIAMI -- The beer is cold. The bite-size crab cakes are delicious. Maria Sharapova -- the genuine article, not her digital doppelganger -- looks lovely in her pink-striped cardigan. I'm sitting in the air-conditioned ballroom of a Four Seasons hotel, being feted with drinks and hors d'oeuvres, checking out an early version of 2K Sports' new tennis video game, Top Spin 3. I'm being paid for this. And Sharapova just walked in, which means I'm also being paid to smile and nod, and pretend to take notes as the leggy heir to Anna Kournikova's tennis-hottie legacy smiles, nods and pretends to be an Xbox aficionado, even though she later shows far greater enthusiasm for my wife's shoes. (Remember: Sharapova gets paid to be here, too.)

ESPN VIDEO GAMES

Check out some recent highlights from the ESPN Video Games section:

NCAA Football 09 Top 25

Simulation: Favre returns to Packers

Madden 09 player ratings

All in all, not a bad workday. Nothing to complain about. Except for one little thing.

Serving.

Serving in the game is all wrong. Not because it's broken or clumsy, or consists of flaming balls that explode on impact, but rather because it's feeble. Underpowered. And it's driving me nuts. In real-world tennis -- a sport I adore and covered for years -- being on serve is an enormous advantage. Servers dictate points; entire matches turn on a few breaks; a mad bomber like Goran Ivanisevic can blast his way to a Wimbledon title. But in Top Spin 3? Aces are few and far between. Returning is too easy. The rest of the game is a huge step forward for the genre -- master the nuanced swing controls, and you'll never go back to Virtual Tennis -- but virtual Roger Federer feels more like pixilated Martina Hingis.

Toss … strike … doink!

Of course, Federer's flutterballs only make Top Spin 3 akin to every other tennis title ever produced. Not to mention Pong. Yet according to 2K product manager Ryan Hunt, the game was programmed this way on purpose, to better make it more … fun.

"We want to make the game accessible, so you can pick it up and get into some great points," he says. "I don't know how many gamers want to watch aces fly past them, or need the game to be so realistic that it's as frustrating as actually facing [Andy] Roddick."

Hunt smiles.

"Well, I guess that would be fun if you were playing as him."

Like realistic-looking snow and blatant-CPU-comeback cheating, tennis serves are one of those things sports games just can't seem to get right. The others? Read on …

GRASS PAINS

Talk about a bad lie: The combo of hardware limitations and the math involved give developers two choices -- grass that looks good from a distance but smeary up close (Virtua Tennis 3), or vice versa (the old NFL 2K series). And as for blades you can actually distinguish? "Back on the Xbox, we tried a grass texture with big blades, so you could see them," says one football game developer. "As soon as the camera moved, it looked like the whole screen was vibrating."

Says another developer: "Do you know how much RAM grass takes? It's a big texture, a whole field. You have so many other art assets, and grass is the last thing anyone thinks about. So when you stick it in at the end, it's like, 'Whoops, not enough memory.'" Translation: Enjoy Brett Favre's painstakingly modeled digital stubble. That's as close as you'll get to a decent-looking lawn.
Grass
Short. Green. Composed of little blades. Sometimes painted. On the whole, not that complicated. From football to baseball, soccer to tennis, virtual grass takes up most of the screen most of the time. So why does it look like spray-painted concrete (All-Pro Football 2K8)? A soggy watercolor canvas (NCAA Football 08, Wii Sports Golf)? Steam-cleaned carpet (Madden 08)? In Tiger Woods PGA Tour 08, the rough brings to mind brown straw … planted in cow manure. High-definition visuals make the pores on Woods' nose come alive. Shouldn't they make the playing field look equally believable?

Dumb Football Lead Blockers
Dear developers, all we ask is this: When our cement-headed fullbacks and beer-bellied pulling linemen cross the line of scrimmage, please direct them to block the oncoming linebackers directly in front of them as opposed to the defensive backs 15 yards downfield. Merci.

Dumber Football Defensive Backs
Dear developers, all we ask is this: When our CPU-controlled defensive backs are in position to make plays on the ball, please direct them to break up passes or immediately tackle receivers, as opposed to performing crazy, spinning, Matrix-like animations that turn 25-yard post-corner routes into 60-yard touchdown strikes. Merci.

B-BALL DEFENSE: IN YOUR FACE

It's not them. It's us. "Here's the problem," says a basketball game developer. "If I'm Steve Nash and you're KG and you post me up, in reality, when KG turns, Nash can't do anything but watch. But in a game, if the user hits the jump button, he thinks that jump button should do something. No matter what. And we have to account for that." In other words? Keep stabbing that block button!
Basketball Defense
Why do basketball gamers spend 80 percent of their defensive time repeatedly jabbing the steal button? Because they want to get back on offense, home to all the cool stuff -- crazy crossovers, slick passes, sweet mo-capped dunks. Meanwhile, defense is dull. Clunky. Hasn't improved much since Lakers vs. Celtics. Blocking and stealing are button-mashing crap shoots. Stoppers like Bruce Bowen feel the same as matadors like Gilbert Arenas. Zones never work properly. (Attention, CPU teammates: Why are you sagging off Dirk Nowitzki but shadowing Ben Wallace five feet beyond the arc?) All the little nuances that make real-life defense fun and involved -- such as forcing dribblers to their off hand -- are MIA. At this point, so is our patience.

CPU Cheating
Three things you'll never see outside of video games:

• A no-name defensive tackle chasing down Barry Sanders on a breakaway run.

• A middle linebacker leaping five feet in the air to bat down a pass he never even saw coming because his back was turned the entire time.

• Any professional basketball player not named Charles Smith missing more than two point-blank shots in a row.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but sports simulations cheat. Straight out. Always have. Always will. It's as if Bill Belichick and Ernie Adams acquired a Rick Moranis shrink ray and decided to bunker down inside your PlayStation. But don't take our word for it. Ask Matthew Kato, a writer for Game Informer magazine who has been playing and reviewing games for more than a decade.

"They all have catch-up AI," he says. "The computer is down, and then all of the sudden it breaks eight tackles and rips off an 80-yard run to conveniently tie the game up. I've run experiments to see if you can shut the computer out if you run the difficulty at the highest level. I know plenty of people who have tried this. And you just can't skunk the computer. Something always happens." Does it ever.

Clumsy and/or Complex Controls
In Top Spin 3, smacking a powerful forehand down the line while approaching the net can require hitting four buttons at once. Madden's screen-filling pre-snap command menu should come with its own instruction manual. Laudably attempting to add depth and nuance to player control, sports game makers sometimes go too far, forgetting that in all things electronic interface -- from iPods to the Nintendo Wii controller -- less is usually more. 2K Sports doesn't need to revamp its unintuitive NBA 2K "isomotion" dribbling system for the fifth consecutive year; it needs a subscription to Real Simple magazine. And baseball designers take note: if your game features multiple control systems for batting and pitching, that probably means none of them is very good.

VALLEY OF THE KILLER DOLLS

Welcome to the Uncanny Valley, the much-researched perceptual phenomenon in which the more human a digital figure looks, the more off-putting and revolting its nonhuman qualities become. Sorta like scary wax figures. For developers striving to create the feeling that gamers are playing with the pros, it's a Catch-22: Give Federer a photo-real face, and the second he squints, the illusion is ruined. "That is the worst issue," says Francois Giuntini, Top Spin 3's creative director. "It's easy to make the faces better with hi-res textures. But if the clothes are stiff, if the hair doesn't move, if the smile is off, people notice right away."
Faces
In the beginning, virtual athletes didn't even have faces (or bodies, in the case of Pong). Next came crude, blurry pixels. (Larry Bird's face? Or impressionist art?) NBA Jam popularized digitized, recognizable mugs, which evolved into today's normal-mapped, specularly lit noggins, accurate down to reflective eyeballs and the last wayward strand of Anderson Varejao's Sideshow Bob 'do. So what's to complain about? Only this: The more real the faces appear, the more creepy and laughably Nosferatu-like they seem (see Kaman, Chris, NBA 2K7). Oh, and don't get us started on virtual coaches, who apparently spend their offseasons vacationing on the Island of Dr. Moreau.

Hockey Power Plays
Too easy to stop, even when facing a two-man disadvantage. Penalty killing should make you sweat. Make your thumbs hurt. It should not be a minor inconvenience akin to mistakenly hitting the pause button. Power plays are the long-lost sports gaming brother of tennis serves -- mighty in the real world, meek in the digital realm. Pity.

THE RUNDOWN

Turns out developers can make on-screen athletes who sprint like their real-world counterparts. We just wouldn't enjoy playing with them because the smoother the running animation, the less responsive the user control. "There are athletes who are really quick and can turn on a dime, but they still have to go through the same basic body movements as everyone else," says a football game developer. "Lean, turn into the movement, take a first step. Do you really want that to animate every time you press left on the stick? Or do you just want to go left? Getting players to feel responsive, but not look robotic and twitchy -- technology these days has a hard time getting that done."
Running
Go ahead, game makers -- put on your shoes and jog. Do it in front of a mirror. Watch yourself. Watch other people. Watch athletes. Notice the common denominator: Everyone looks human. And totally unlike anyone in a sports video game. (In 2K football, players move as if they're in the middle of a no-anesthesia colonoscopy). Real people dip their shoulders, shift their weight from side to side. They stumble and stagger, skip and stride. They do not go from jogging to running to teeth-clenched sprinting by repeating the same animation cycle … only faster.

Basketball Rebounding
When shots bounce off the virtual rim and land on the floor before players pick them up -- hello, NBA Live! -- it's probably time to rethink your rebounding code. Just a thought.

Football Suction Blocking and Gang Tackling
The former -- when defenders are magnetically drawn backward and sideways to blockers, defying the laws of physics and common sense -- happens far too often. The latter doesn't occur nearly enough. Physical contact is the essence of pigskin. What gives?

MISTAKES HAPPEN

With sports games typically releasing well in advance of the actual season they're emulating -- for example, Madden drops in August -- accurate opening day rosters are basically impossible. As for other errors? "Sometimes we just mess up," says a developer who has worked on hockey and basketball titles. "But a lot of times, a team will make a slight change to their uniforms and don't think to tell us. Or they do tell us, but we've already finished the game."
Accurate Rosters, Uniforms, Stadiums
Missing benchwarmers. Missing starters. Misplaced student band sections. Pants that should be white. Shoes that should be black. Uniform fonts that are totally wrong. All little things, to be sure -- but as coaches always stress, victory starts with attention to detail. Can't game makers try a little harder? Or at least put more effort into downloadable roster updates -- ahem, NBA 2K8 -- and uniform patches?

Dropback Passing
Why is left tackle the second-most valuable position in the NFL? Because even elusive quarterbacks such as Vince Young can't dodge pass-rushers by dropping back 20 yards, rolling left and throwing 50-yard, laser-guided bombs off their back feet. On the digital gridiron, by contrast, Jim Sorgi can do all of the above. For years, football games have featured nonexistent pass pockets, brain-dead pursuit and godlike quarterbacks more evasive and cannon-armed than vintage Randall Cunningham. Something has to give -- and if you've ever watched "Madden Nation," that something is any semblance of realistic play.

Hockey Fighting
Hasn't been fun since the glory days of NHLPA '93. And yes, we know: The NHL licensing department won't be happy if game makers bring back bleeding heads. Still, fun, smooth and responsive fighting shouldn't be too much to ask. If Double Dragon and Bad Dudes could get brawling right, so can hockey games.

TIGHTENING THE BRAND

Again, it's not developers. It's us. We're dumb. And too many of us want to succeed while guiding a virtual Rex Grossman. "The user gums everything up," says a football game developer, laughing. "First, you want a consistent feel for everyone. If you play as Peyton Manning, he should feel like Peyton Manning -- but if you play as Trent Dilfer, you still want the user to feel he's competent. So you can either make some players abusively good and others unplayable, or you can tighten that band to satisfy everyone."

Says another developer: "There are little subtleties in real football that make such a difference that you'll never see in a video game. In blocking, hand position is so important, almost as important as quickness off the ball and basic strength. But how do we let people control that? Warren Sapp was awesome because he made himself a small target to block. If we tried to give users that element of gameplay, we'd push out half our market -- that's too complicated for them. People want the real game, but they're really not ready for the real game."
Player and Team Personality
So you're playing against the virtual San Antonio Spurs. Tim Duncan takes two shots, both from the outside. Meanwhile, Bruce Bowen takes a dozen, half of them on dribble drives. Or say you're facing the digital San Diego Chargers. They open the game with three straight rushes by LaDainian Tomlinson, then pass on 30 of their next 35 plays. Talk about frustrating. It's nice that NBA Live 08's Steve Nash has an up-to-date haircut; it would be nicer if the in-game Suns actually played their distinct, "Seven Seconds or Less" brand of high-octane basketball. Also, why does every football game ultimately differentiate good players from bad simply by making the better players faster?

Endless Games
Bad enough that NBA Finals games now take three hours to watch. Worse still that a game of NBA 2K8 can take more than an hour to complete. Gamers have jobs. Gamers have lives. To paraphrase Patrick Henry: Give us in-game saves -- right now, not on the next-next-next generation consoles -- or give us death.

Superstar Benchwarmers
Call it the Matt Bullard effect. A former pine rider for the Houston Rockets, Bullard averaged 5.3 points per game in a nine-year career while shooting nearly 40 percent from beyond the arc -- the latter number making him a minor deity in older versions of NBA Live, where his 3-point shot rating made him good for 30-plus points a contest. "You still find that in games," admits a basketball game developer. "Two years ago in our game, people would just abuse Jason Kapono. He's a great shooter, but not that great. We had to go in and change a bunch of things. We added fatigue factors, made it so that he had to spot up, that he couldn't just dribble up and shoot. As a designer, you have to figure out ways to model players so users can't take advantage."

GETTING WHAT YOU ASK FOR

When it comes to errors in sports games, the customer is always right. Even when the users ought to be wrong. "It goes back to user frustration," says a basketball game developer. "If you're sitting there and a ball goes out and you can't explain why -- if the nuance is lost in the broad strokes of a video game -- we don't want that. We had it in one of our games that if you pass out of a shot with a player with a low passer rating, the ball will go out of bounds sometimes. I can tell people why this happens, and they still complain about it."
Errors
Bad snaps. Off-target throws. Passes that sail out of bounds. Slam-dunk attempts that ricochet into the third row. In sports, stuff happens. Yet outside of the occasional fumble, good ol' fashioned screwups don't occur nearly enough in sports video games. "I had a conversation about this with a developer," Kato says. "I'd like to see a random missed extra point once in a while. But that goes contrary to wanting to control the action in video games -- if you perform the right action on the controller in the right time, you get rewarded. That's the input-output system that video games have put forward."

We get that. But we're not Pavlov's dogs. If every now and then the food bell doesn't mean dinner -- if Ethan Albright occasionally sends one sailing over the kicker's head -- we'll live. And still buy next year's version of the game. Promise.

Money Plays
In Double Dribble, it was shooting from the on-court "X." In the old NHL games, it was the inside-outside deke move. In NFL 2K1, it was receiver out patterns. In Top Spin 3, it's a glitched, nigh-unreturnable wide serve. Despite programmers' best efforts, sports games always have unfair scoring exploits -- the technical term is cheese -- that result in broken gameplay, controllers and friendships.

"One of my favorite games is Pro Evolution Soccer," one developer says. "Problem is, the same techniques I've always used to score when I need to score are still there. Change sides with the ball really fast, sprint up the sideline, get close to the baseline, wait for a teammate to streak in front of the goal. Pass it to him and the defender will miss. The goalie won't do anything. I play with my friends, and I try to cut that pass off myself. It doesn't matter. It always works. Every year."

STUPID HUMAN TRICKS

Money plays? We're to blame because the human brain still beats SkyNet. "Having to account for the person who does something off the wall hurts every sports game," one developer says. "You can alleviate those problems by giving users less control, but they hate that. So what happens is that you program this great, intelligent football game, and then you put it into [quality assurance] testing. The first thing they do is take their left defensive end, loop him all the way to the right side by the cornerback and then rush the quarterback. Well, the game doesn't know what to do, doesn't even realize that the defensive end it still on the line. And that's before we release the game. We could have a QA department of 200 people, but it doesn't compare to 2 million gamers."
Cover 2 Zone
Is designed to take away the deep ball. Especially streak routes. We swear. That is all.

Nickel Defense
Should not be more effective at stopping the run than a 4-4 alignment. We swear. That is all.

Snow, Rain and Wind
It's not so much that inclement weather in sports video games looks lousy -- though with the exception of snow in All-Pro Football 2K8 and the upcoming Madden 09, it does -- it's that it generally has negligible effects on gameplay. If the wind is whipping through Giants Stadium, passing should be a chore; if the snow is falling at Lambeau Field, players should be slipping and sliding (to All-Pro Football's credit, this actually happens); if the rain is pouring Milli Vanilli-style, fumbles and drops should be more frequent. Also, if the temperature drops below zero, virtual Tom Coughlin should turn purple. Just because.

Artificial Non-Intelligence
Despite all of the above, sports games are better than ever. Better looking. Better playing. Packed with developer love and care. They've come a long way since Pong. Yet when it comes to smart AI -- or even Grady Little-level AI -- they still have a long, long way to go.

"The other day, I'm playing [against the Lakers], up one with 30 seconds to go," says a basketball game developer. "The CPU fouls me, sends me to the line. Why would it do that? Play out the clock, get the ball, call timeout, take the last shot. Anyway, I make the free throws. The AI rushes the ball up the court, shoots as quickly as it can with Pau Gasol. And it's an 18-footer. I get the ball and win."

The developer sighs. He's talking about his game. And it makes him crazy.

"For the past five years, we've set aside time to make sure the AI makes the right decisions at the end of the game. But either our engineers are stupid or our designers are stupid or I'm stupid, because we still haven't gotten it right."

Patrick Hruby is a columnist for Page 2. Sound off to Patrick here.


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