I don’t like "Be a Player" modes. At least, not these Be a Player modes.
The first version I played was Road to the Show from MLB 07: The Show. I still remember thinking at the time that "boy, this was it." A mode I have dreamed about for years. The skinny kid who can barely throw a ball sixty feet, six inches in real life can finally be a fire baller, pitch for the hometown Jays and single-handedly lift them from the basement all the way to the World Series. I don’t know which required more suspension of disbelief: me being in the big leagues or the Jays winning anything.
But as I went further into the game, it became monotonous. I found myself going through season after season while hoping for more. The goals were cool, the games played fine, and it was neat that I could request a trade -- the Jays were awful. But was that it? I could not help but feel that a player's life was much more interesting than that -- even without the extracurricular, Dennis Rodman-like stuff.
To be fair, it was Sony San Diego's first foray into this mode, and I didn’t expect the studio to include many bells and whistles. But has the mode really changed substantially from that point on? You create your virtual self, sign with a team, improve your attributes, win some things (or languish in mediocrity) and maybe change teams a few times. So I would argue that, no, it has not changed that much.
Toiling as an aspiring screenwriter -- I know, my articles are good evidence as to why I am a perennially aspiring writer, as opposed to a working one -- make me take a particular interest in a game’s storytelling elements. Who is my character? What is the game world like? What is my player’s relationship with that world? Simply put, I can’t help but feel that this "world" is drastically underdeveloped in most games.
Anxiously awaiting the 'Get out of Jail Free' bonus in My Player modes.
Just for fun, every time I fire up one of these modes, I create a virtual player who is a money-grubbing SOB with no loyalty. Mao "The Wow" Zedong -- thank you, I recognize the irony -- always requests a trade as soon as the team loses three straight. To my surprise, Mao’s behavior never has many consequences, if any at all. Most of the teams keep wanting his services, and as soon as he jumps ship, it seems like it is a blank slate all over again.
I’m not asking for a virtual rendition of "The Decision" and the subsequent fallout, I just want to be recognized for what my player has done and what kind of character he is. Right now the media within these games are almost nonexistent. I’m not asking for a lot, I swear. Even a few lines in a virtual newspaper would suffice.
Locker Room Drama and Contract Negotiations
Perhaps the locker room can be a place for interaction as well. As it stands, most virtual teammates and coaches feel like soulless ghouls. Why not enable the option of saying something to them and having them react to it, and vice versa? If I am a 30-something-year-old model citizen, I want to be seen as an elder statesman. In other words, when I talk my teammates shut up and listen.
Or how about introducing coach personalities where you have a full array of characters ranging from the chummy players’ coach to the drill sergeant? I picked up a red card/flagrant/misconduct in my last game, and my coach is berating me to tone it down for the team’s sake. Can I tell him where to stick his sanctimonious BS? Taking this idea further, perhaps the coaches and players have long memories, and so when they change teams, they still maintain that relationship with me and act accordingly.
In fairness, NBA 2K11’s My Player mode comes tantalizingly close to creating that virtual world, and only in its second year, too. It’s great that my teammates stop passing to me when I publicly rag on them, and the fans actually have an opinion of my player. But some things still feel lacking, especially during contract negotiations, if you can even call them that. I get to pick from four teams at the end of the season, with no money figures to speak of.
The very least the teams could do is tell me how much playing time they envision for my player so I could go through that good ol’ free-agent dilemma of playing time versus chance to win. And why not keep track of how much money my player has earned? Sure, it’s inconsequential, but for gamers who care about that kind of stuff, it’s another sign of recognition.
(For the record, I’m on the fence about being able to spend the money a player earns. I know I am calling for an expansion of the game world, but do we really want it to turn into The Sims?)
Being a virtual prima donna isn't quite as good as the real thing.
Teammate AI Lacks AI
There is also an inherent disadvantage to these "be your own player" modes: the teammate AI. Simply put, they are just not smart enough yet. It probably doesn't affect baseball games as much, just because of the way the game is played, but in other team sports, being able to control only one player during the entire game shines a much harsher spotlight on AI behavior.
It would also be nice if there was a way to communicate with the AI players. I can’t count the number of times I have become frustrated and quit in the middle of a game of FIFA because players were running in the same pattern, and my passes were getting picked off time and time again -- there's not really anything I can do when something like this happens. This is not necessarily a knock on the developers because we’re just not that close to experiencing AI players that behave like real ones, it’s just that the nature of the mode really accentuates these quirks.
Better Days Ahead
We are, of course, still in the relative infancy of this game mode. After all, when franchise modes first came out in the late '90s, they looked and played nothing like what we toy with today. So despite what the title suggests, I am writing more in hope than in disillusion. I think during the next decade we will see radical improvements to these career modes -- online teams managed by a real manager/coach, perhaps? And maybe 10 years from now, Mao "The Wow" Zedong will have finally been exposed in the virtual world for the greedy mercenary that he is. Oh, the possibilities.
Kelvin Mak is the soccer writer here at Operation Sports. Residing in Toronto, Canada, his favo(u)rite sport is -- surprise -- soccer, and he religiously follows the Premier League. You can find him on OS under the username kelvinmak, or in a bar in Toronto, usually after 2 p.m., under the name Pukey.