Complex Sports Games: The Law of Diminishing Returns

By Nick Olsen

EA Sports used to use the slogan “If it’s in the game, it’s in the game” to promote their sports game franchises (Madden NFL, NCAA Football, FIFA, etc.); it was an attempt to promote the realistic nature of their games. And gamers ate it up. With each new version of the yearly sports franchises, developers worked to integrate more and more realistic touches. It became a cold war style escalation between developers like EA Sports and 2K Sports to see not only who could make the best (or best selling) game, but who could make their games the most realistic. Graphically, this was excellent for gamers; we got beautifully rendered characters and environments with heightened attention to detail. Finally, sports games provided more than just generic character models with your favorite player’s number on their jersey.

sports games NBA 2K14

The push for realism has provided beautifully rendered characters and environments.

But caught up in their push for realism, developers tried to include every nuance of the real-life games they were duplicating, resulting in increasingly complex control schemes and growing player frustration. Developers began experiencing the law of diminishing returns, whether they were aware of it or not. The numerous hours spent on development and programming advanced gameplay features which players abandon or avoid are hours and dollars which could have been better spent elsewhere. The following examples serve only as lowlights of this phenomenon, as there was a deep well to choose from.

Madden NFL ‘06: QB Vision Cone

Admittedly, we’re reaching pretty far back for this one, but it is one of the most frustrating examples of the “realism” failures. According to Wikipedia:

A cone, appearing as a spotlight emitting from the quarterback, simulates his field of vision. To make an accurate pass, the quarterback must have his intended receiver in his field of vision. Passing to a receiver not in the cone reduces pass accuracy significantly. The size of the quarterback’s vision cone is directly correlated to his Awareness rating … A player can shift the vision cone with the right analog stick, or focus the cone on a specific receiver by holding a shoulder button and pressing the button assigned to that receiver.

sports games Madden vision cone

Madden’s QB vision cone was difficult to use causing many players to simply turn it off.

It’s easy to see that EA Sports was attempting to provide gamers a more realistic feel of what it must be like to play quarterback in the NFL. What they failed to take into consideration, is the multitude of limitations inherent in their game design: three-fourths overhead camera views, imprecise analog controls and untrained user reflexes.

In reality, quarterbacks in the NFL train for years to read defenses, and hone their reflexes. Never mind the fact that NFL quarterbacks are the best in the world at their craft. We, on the other hand, are video game players (some of whom may have the reflexes to use these mechanics) who spend a few hours a week playing the game for our own enjoyment. The last thing these players want is the frustration of a difficult-to-learn (and use) passing mechanic. And that’s why most of us simply turned off the QB vision cone and resorted back to a classic style of play. After much derision, EA Sports dropped the vision cone entirely for future iterations of the game.

MLB 10: The Show: Hitting

sports games MLB 10 The Show hitting

They made it look easy in the promotions, but hitting in MLB 10: The Show was anything but.

Look, we get it; hitting a little, round ball with a little, round stick is hard. Especially when the ball is traveling at speeds approaching 100 miles per hour.There’s a reason that baseball players who only fail 66 percent of the time are hall-of-famers. So we don’t need video game developers to make it any harder. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what SCE San Diego Studio did with MLB 10: The Show (though honestly, we could have chose just about any current generation MLB game).

While batting, the player could choose a “contact” or “power” swing – pretty standard for the genre – but after that it’s all downhill. In their attempt to capture realism, SCE San Diego Studio implemented the following options:

  • Swing a little early to pull the baseball
  • Swing a little late to hit the ball to the opposite field
  • Swing right on time to hit the ball up the middle

  • Influence hit aim by flicking the right analog stick in any direction

  • Aim your swing by holding the left analog stick in a direction (relative to where you think the pitch will cross the plate)

  • Click L3 in to review your selections (all the above) from the last pitch

  • Hold L2 to guess what pitch the pitcher is throwing (even if you guess right, you still have to hope the pitcher throws it in the strike zone and not over your head, and you still have to time the swing)

  • There’s even a “level of feedback” option to alert you to your correctness on guesses

What … the … hell?

Pete Rose had a MLB record 4,256 career hits and lifetime batting average of .303, and when asked for his approach to hitting he famously said “See the ball. Hit the ball.” And yet here we are, 25 years after his retirement as a player, trying to “influence our hit aim” and “guess pitches” in video games. Yeesh. Unfortunately for all of us, these types of hitting mechanics haven’t gone the way of the QB Vision Cone.

NBA 2K13: Advanced Controls

sports games NBA 2K13 advanced controls

You’ll need a master’s degree to use the advanced controls in NBA 2K13.

Think hitting in MLB 10: The Show was complicated? You might not want to have a drink before checking out the image to the right.

Now take a moment to collect yourself. Ready? Good; those are the just the “advanced controls” for shooting if the ball is in your right hand. Yep, that means if the ball is in the players left-hand all of the controls are the inverse. And lest you forget about dribbling, passing and defense, those all have advanced controls as well. How in the world did 2K Sports expect gamers to learn and utilize this control set for NBA 2K13? Of all the complex controls on this list, 2K Sports has to be the leader in the “most over-engineered control scheme” category.

Yes, we’ve come a long way since the run and shoot controls of Double Dribble, but if 2K Sports expected anything other than turning off advanced controls to be the player’s first action after giving them a try, they were sadly mistaken. How long did it take 2K Sports developers to program all of these unique controls? Not as long as it would take players to learn them, but considerably longer than it takes players to turn them off. The best thing 2K Sports did with regards to “advanced controls” was having the option to turn them off.

NCAA Football 13: DB Targeted Pump Fakes

Yeah, we’ve picked on EA Sports, and complained about a football game, but we really despise this on a personal level. In NCAA Football 13, EA Sports changed the way QB pump fakes work; there are now two of them. Players can do a generic pump fake with the left shoulder button, or they can hold it and press a receiver’s button to pump fake to that specific receiver. What’s the difference (other than hitting a slew of unnecessary buttons)? We can’t tell; both actions appear to do the exact same thing (mostly nothing). We imagine that the targeted pump fake is supposed to be more effective at allowing a receiver to gain separation from a particular defensive back. But as with every other item on this list, “supposed to” and “do” are worlds apart.

sports games NCAA Football 13

Did this receiver get open by a DB-targeted pump fake? We don’t know.

So why does it bother us so much that DB-targeted pump fakes were included in NCAA Football 13? Because of all the implementations on this list, it’s the one that carries the least ambition with it. Each of the other entries in this list had the lofty, if not misguided,  goal of advancing the sports game genre forward. Yes, they all failed miserably, but at least they did so on a grand scale. The EA Sports development team responsible for DB-targeted pump fakes couldn’t even muster that. Admittedly, this seems unfair when compared side-by-side with NBA 2K13’s “advanced controls,” but it’s still a bothersome example of the law of diminishing returns.

Why Diminishing Returns Matter

According to Wikipedia:

The law of diminishing returns (also law of diminishing marginal returns or law of increasing relative cost) states that in all productive processes, adding more of one factor of production, while holding all others constant (“ceteris paribus“), will at some point yield lower per-unit returns.[1] The law of diminishing returns does not imply that adding more of a factor will decrease the total production, a condition known as negative returns, though in fact this is common.

So as developers like EA Sports, 2K Sports and SCE San Diego Studios continue to invest more of their resource to implement more “realistic” elements into their games, especially (and this is critical) for functions which are turned off by players or discarded in future iterations, they’re eating into the return on their investment. A discussion about the economics of the video game industry is better saved for another time, but the point remains that by investing resources (developer time, money, etc.) in unappreciated (at best) or unplayable (at worst) gameplay mechanics, these developers are increasing their overhead and thus decreasing their margins from sales.

Development studios and developers of sports games (though the lesson certainly applies to other genres as well) should ask themselves about the true value of each aspect of the gameplay before investing in their creation and implementation. If these elements fail to advance the gameplay are they worth the investment? Or could those resources be better spent elsewhere? Or, in truly revolutionary fashion, could those savings be passed along to the consumers through cheaper retail games?