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Slow as Sunday: Reinventing sports franchises

Posted by: Nathan at 11/15/2009 4:51 PM
Every year it is the same story again and again. The next installment of a big sports franchise is coming to stores. The new game features only slight improvements over past installments but still feels like the same old same old. Production values suffer from the lack of time spent on development. Time is not a luxury sports games can afford. Athletes are injured or traded, old teams fade into oblivion or new teams spring up in less time than it takes to create a well crafted AAA title. There are also problems with expanding the size of the development team. Changes take place in the real world far more quickly than even yearly installments can adapt to. Only the best and most energetic team leads can keep track of all the personnel and resources that would be needed to create a masterful videogame.

While playing SmackDown vs. Raw 2010 I thought of a solution to these problems. After discussing the ideas with Editor in Chief of Gaming Nexus Charles Husemann I was able to take my own ideas and his suggestions and come up with a rough model; a new way to offer content to gamers and fans of sports franchises while offering a polished gameplay experience. Instead of the normal one year development cycle, development teams should shift to a two year cycle. I can hear the arguments already “Wouldn’t that mean less content?” Well the answer is yes and no.

Yes, there will be less features and “innovations” to gameplay coming out every year. Most would admit that despite the new features that come out every year it takes  two or three years for them to reach refinement. Team management, player created characters, and online multiplayer are all features that have just recently hit the sweet spot for many franchises. No, there would be even more content made available to players via downloadable content. DLC has already extended the life of videogames, and unlike mods, are proven source of revenue for publishers and developers. Regular roster updates are already in NBA ‘09 and ‘10 and the FIFA series but updates don’t have to stop there. New players, coaches, announcers, content for created athletes, sound tracks, and many other forms of content can be updated, changed, or added to.

Let us explore the development team structure needed for a two year, continuously updated, development cycle. Three separate teams working together on every game title would be ideal. The teams will be the main dev team which focuses on the creation of a new title, the support dev team that works to fix bugs in the new title and DLC, and a content dev team that focuses on creating new content for the new title and the DLC to follow the initial release. Splitting into three teams has many advantages. The main dev team will have two years to create new features and a polished gameplay experience without having to worry about staying up to date with every change in the sport. The content dev team will be constantly working with the tools provided by the main and support team to continuously update the experience for the user and the new content featured in the current and future title. The support dev team will be responsible for communication between all three teams, testing content, and communicating and sharing the ideas of the fans with the other dev teams in order improve upon the franchise. Over the course of two years, these three teams will be constantly working, creating, and inventing with enough time to polish, test, and innovate.

The costs and profits of creating videogames, distributing them, and advertising them is not a responsibility I envy. A publisher might think that by offering a new title every other year may hurt the bottom line and keep the franchise from being able to compete. This is not so. A two year cycle would produce a more polished video game without having to swell the development team to an unmanageable size. Any disadvantage that might come from not having the latest and greatest features of the rival company will only be relevant for a year. When the new entry in the series is released, has the new features, and implements them better than the competition it will be clear that their brand has the better game. PR could be shifted away from advertising the new slight improvements that come each year to supporting and growing user created content and the DLC offered by the developer. There is even potential to make more money using the two year cycle. For a small monthly price, say $5, publishers could make just as much money as they did before and potentially more with intelligent use of in-game advertisements. I’m not a particular fan of the practice, but I do like the idea that with constant updates there will be more changes in advertisements and more free content made available by sponsors.

I’m afraid this entry is already running long and I’ve barely scratched the surface of the how and whys of a two year development cycle. I’ll be continuing to discuss the different elements of the production cycle and how publishers, developers, and, most of all, players will benefit from the two year cycle on my blog. If there are any particular aspects or ideas you’d like to offer leave them in the comments section. I’ll try to address all concerns and suggestions later this week.