As I brought up in my review of London 2012, many Olympic-themed video games over the years have struggled to really be anything more than novelty products. The time crunch that the development team is under to churn out a game with so many events is usually evident, and said team developing the game is usually not carrying much of a pedigree. London 2012 showed some flashes of something different, with very good online play, effective (but simple) presentation, and a few events that were actually fun to play. Still, it mostly played it safe and did very little to break the mold of official Olympic titles.
It is really unfortunate that this is the reality for Olympic video games, as I think most people either really like the Olympics or at least respect it as an area of sports that you get to peek at once every four years. For the most part, you have athletes that are there for the right reasons, and they clearly pour a ton of effort into the events, even though they might seem obscure or quaint by outside observers. So why can't we have a game that really explores the depth of some of these events and the athletes who compete in them? I propose the following five areas where Olympic video games have been lacking — and that also serve as a road map for how they can excel.
5) Depth in the Events
One of the bigger issues that Olympic products have is that the events are so numerous and diverse that the generally smaller development studio that handles them doesn't have the time, resources or experience to provide any depth or variance in how they play out. Each time you approach an event, it's the same athlete (with just a color palette swap for his/her country), the same setup, the same venue and the same few variables. There's always room for mastery, but only in a very narrow band.
It would be great to see an Olympic title that at least provided some level of optional depth, whether that be from training minigames, athlete styles (aggressive, controlled, all-or-nothing, etc.), weather effects (wind, rain, etc.) or even some sort of composure meter on events that have subsequent attempts. It would likely also be a benefit for Olympic products to focus on less events if it meant an increase in game depth and quality. Maybe even a downloadable model makes sense, where the track-and-field events could be a $10 download, the water events for $5, and so on. There just needs to be some way to reduce the events being spread so thinly that they have no substance to them.
4) Proper Licensing and Actual Athletes
If an Olympic product is going to be branded as “The Official Video game of the Olympic Games,” then it needs to have all the trimmings, which includes licensing and rosters. There's certainly a novelty and charm to making your own names for athletes and having fake sponsors, but that should really just be an option. The Olympics drive in enough money that a product revolving around them should be able to acquire a few official sponsors to make things seem more realistic. Just the same, athletes for each country should be authentic to allow users a closer connection to their countries. I understand that the restrictions on athletes' rights might be an insurmountable task, but it would definitely go a long way to rounding out the experience.
3) A True Career Mode
Further to the issue of depth, probably the biggest hole in Olympic video games is that there is no build-up or career mode that allows players to work towards the Olympics and train an athlete along the way. You're often just dropped in an event with not context of who you're controlling or how you got there. It would be great if there was a training schedule leading up to the actual event, and maybe even regional qualifiers and world championships. A good example of this would be training for the decathlon, as it encompasses a great deal of events and would allow for a robust training and qualifying schedule. In fact, you could probably build a whole career mode around that concept (a decathlete), with the main Olympic mode still featuring all events.
Further to this, the earlier suggestion of a downloadable game would complement this, as you could have $5 or $10 downloadable games that allowed you to compete in rowing regattas, track-and-field qualifying, swimming meets, etc. These downloadable “careers” could feed into the main Olympic game (that would hopefully cost $20 to $40). Some of the events are still more of a novelty and would not be well suited for a true solo mode, but I think there are certainly those “mainstay” events in the Olympics that would provide a compelling career arc, culminating in the Olympics themselves.
2) Presentation Worthy of the Olympics
Much like the sponsorship and official athletes, the wildly varying presentation treatment found in Olympic products betrays the stage that these sports are being played on. London 2012 actually had some fairly effective camera angles and colorful venues, but I think it's possible for an Olympic title to go even further down this road.
The commentary is almost universally bad in these types of games, so it would benefit any developer striving for something more realistic to either spend a lot more time and resources on this issue, or maybe even abandon it altogether. It might be a better idea to work on the immersion from the angle of the athletes and the crowd, as I'm sure there is some convincing Foley work that could be done to create raucous fans and as well as the sound of coaches and fellow athletes.
A spectator mode might also be a cool idea, as it would allow users to view the events as they would a TV broadcast, changing the camera angles and viewing skilled players to improve their own abilities. I thought this feature worked exceptionally well in Rockstar Table Tennis, and an Olympic product could blow out the whole “Olympic TV” concept even further.
1) Full Multiplayer Support
London 2012 made great strides in the area of online, with reasonably good latency, international players, playlists and tournaments, as well as country-specific leaderboards. While there is nothing particularly wrong with what the developers at SEGA Studios Australia did for the online portion of their game, I think there's an intriguing possibility of taking the online further. Why not have the whole Olympic tournament online? A large-scale metagame could take place where a “season” is played, with many players participating. It could be something similar to the “Texas Heat” tournaments in Full House Poker, where live events could provide XP boosts and rewards and help countries work towards overall medals, achievements, and so on.
Additionally, I think Olympic video games need to get back to embracing some aspect of couch co-op multiplayer, with all events supporting and being designed for several people to participate. There could be a return of additional silly minigames that would leverage four players competing at the same time.
It's hard to persuade developers to really strive for more with games based on the Olympics, because it seems that a moderate effort on their part provides a reasonable rate of return in sales. It would be encouraging to see a developer have some additional time and resources, as it might create something more creative than the boilerplate grab bag of events that we get in Olympic products these days.