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Are Sports Games Too Hard? Are They Not Realistic Enough? Is There an Answer? (Roundtable)

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Are Sports Games Too Hard? Are They Not Realistic Enough? Is There an Answer? (Roundtable)

It is round table time again on Operation Sports!

Today, our writers are going to break down a question a bit more that’s been raised across OS and social media, increasingly over the last year.

Today we are debating the topic of if sports games are too hard to increase their mass appeal, or if they’re not realistic enough where difficulty would obviously be even higher. Also, we will ponder if there’s even an answer to this debate that’d make sense for everyone.

Kevin Scott

I feel like a big buzz term right now among all sports games is “skill gap.” Competitive players want to consistently be rewarded with victories for superior stick skills, which makes sense as sports titles continue to evolve as esports. But developers understandably don’t want to alienate new players who might be turned off by the fact that it will take some time to get good at a game. Add in the fact that all sports inherently feature some amount of chance, and that not all digital athletes are created equal, and you begin to see the conundrum.

As someone who has pretty average skills in most sports games (but slightly above average, for the record), I probably don’t notice this skill gap as much as those on either end of the extremes. But I’ve certainly played my share of games where I felt like I’ve lost to people I was better than, and I’ve also won some games I felt like I didn’t deserve. And even though that does happen sometimes in real sports, it’s still a concern.

All games could start by doing a better job matching you up with people online who are at a comparable skill level. No one wants to be demoralized by losing all the time, so let people learn the game without feeling too discouraged. They could always do a better job amplifying all of the wonderful content creators out there making invaluable videos on how to improve in every aspect of the game.

In the future, I really hope developers don’t feel they ever have to sacrifice more complicated game mechanics for fear of scaring away new players. With enough resources out there to help people improve, they will be able become great if they put in the time.

Elliott Jenkins

This is a bit of a loaded question. Today’s games are technically not too difficult for their own good. Drop any game’s difficulty to its easiest setting and send any player, beginner or veteran, into an exhibition game and they’ll be okay. All of the AAA sports titles are easy enough at the lowest level, and they also flood you with guides. However, “difficulty” gets very hazy when it comes to finding the “right” difficulty level for a player. Just like most players, I do not want to play all of my MLB The Show games on a difficulty setting that constantly feeds me meatballs, and offers up little to no strategy or challenge.

But in order for players to reach the coveted plateau wherein the on-field gameplay is perfectly tailored to their skill sets, the games can become unnecessarily difficult. MLB The Show, for example, leaves a lot to chance and will punish players for being too aggressive in the count. It does not matter the timing of the swing, the attributes of the hitter, or where the bat made contact. I squared up first-pitch hanging breaking balls with elite power hitters with good timing and contact only to watch it result in a weak chopper or a weaker pop fly. This is especially problematic in online play, making Diamond Dynasty an endless and frustrating grind. That built-in difficulty is a deterrent that all developers should avoid.

It is also important to separate complexity from difficulty. Play Madden on its easiest setting and then on its hardest. You may as well be playing two totally different football games. But when you settle in on the “right” difficulty for you, take a look at all of your pre-play audible options. That can be daunting for even die-hard football fans. Madden inundates you with on-the-fly options that can cause players to overthink their strategy and give up big plays. What about the advanced stick controls in the NHL series? Mastering these is paramount to playing at any sort of competitive level, and greatly distorts a fair playing field if one player knows them and the other does not. All told, complex skill moves in FIFA, NBA 2K and NHL all generate exceptional depth. But newcomers can play on beginner settings and avoid them.

Games are not necessarily too difficult or too easy when it comes down to it. Players need to tailor the difficulty to match their skill set and what they want to get out of the game. Sliders exist for us to adjust our offline play, but the online experience can be so imbalanced due to the need to create an accommodating environment for all skill levels. Developers could toy with the idea of expanding online modes to feature different difficulty brackets (which does exist already in some respects), but until a formidable idea emerges, they at the very least should never punish players for being too good at their game.

Brian O’Neill

I definitely agree that the ability to customize sliders makes this question tough to answer. Really, it’s up to the player. If you want a 100-point triple double in NBA 2K, you can make that happen. Or if you want to make the game an absolute challenge even when playing the Brooklyn Nets, more power to you.

Online is another ballgame. Hopefully, matchmaking will continue to improve, and then as the games continue to become more and more like their real-world counterparts, they should become more intuitive for players of the real-world sports — which is great. And then of course eliminating pay-to-win options would help level the playing field, but that’s another conversation altogether.

Until then, in-game tutorials and online are there to help you get to the skill level you desire. And I hate to disagree with one of the greats, but sometimes you just have to put in the time to get better.

Joel Smith

This question, as we’ve seen answered by some of the other guys, has several variables that really lead to a solid answer. I don’t think games are complicated for their own good. The amount of flexibility that most AAA titles provide gives you the chance to make the game match your skill level. Online, against others, these options are determined by the game/devs. Depending on the mode, player skill is all that determines difficulty level; in the card playing modes, difficulty is usually determined by having an inferior team compared to facing off against an opponent whose team is stacked (more of the time than less).

The other thing that can make games more “difficult” are intricate controls that create a learning curve for the user. This is also something I don’t currently see as a problem, but there are some instances where I struggle. For example, NHL 18‘s newly introduced dekes this year are hard for me.

All in all, I think that the devs have done a good job of making game difficulty a tailored affair that the player can modify offline. Online is where they’ll have a hard time striking a true balance, but I think a fairly well done job has been achieved there, too. Like Brian said: practice. If you really want to dominate at a game, and have the time to do it, practice really helps you to understand a game’s nuances and gain supreme skills on the sticks to dominate your opponents.

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  1. I just don't like when games amp up difficulty by increasing the cpu skill meanwhile, decreasing the user skill. Programming the cpu to automatically choose corresponding plays in order to stop you is a cheesy method to increasing difficulty.
    But in order for players to reach the coveted plateau wherein the on-field gameplay is perfectly tailored to their skill sets, the games can become unnecessarily difficult. MLB The Show, for example, leaves a lot to chance and will punish players for being too aggressive in the count. It does not matter the timing of the swing, the attributes of the hitter, or where the bat made contact. I squared up first-pitch hanging breaking balls with elite power hitters with good timing and contact only to watch it result in a weak chopper or a weaker pop fly. This is especially problematic in online play, making Diamond Dynasty an endless and frustrating grind. That built-in difficulty is a deterrent that all developers should avoid.

    I don't believe this is true, at all.  Is there evidence of the game being designed to act that way, or is this more of it being "obvious" because you don't get  the result you want?
    The problem The Show has is that there will always be gamers that can master stick skills to a point that getting realistic results is impossible.  Guys that see the frames in fighting games are an example.  Likewise, being able to use the PCI to square up every pitch could turn teams into hitting .600.  Baseball has alway been about the grind, doing the right thing over and over, and at best, getting a hit 40% of the time. 
    One of the reasons I prefer Directional hitting is exactly this.  It produces a fairly realistic and satisfying experience, partly because you cannot dial in and be perfecto in every pitch, as your hitter's ratings effect that.  This does put me at a disadvantage in DD, as guys that can dial in the PCI can always hit better than I could ever hope by relying on directional hitting.
    The biggest problem with sports games are the gamers.  They have been trained, from an early age now, that they can be a beat in any game they play if they figure it out.  But beasting a sports game ruins it.  And getting a hit about 23-27% of the time will enrage many, many gamers.  
    You see this so often in the forums, as someone struggles to play well, and the first suggestions, and tones taken most often, is sliders.  Just dial the game in to make you feel you are as good as you want.  It is truly paint-by-number gaming.  Instead of easing off the bullet passes, drop the INT slider.  Swing at too many pitches, SCEA adds quick counts.  Wait till you see the suggestions for guys getting tripping penalties from spamming the poke check.
    The DD, UT, and MyTeam modes are pretty great from removing this from the equation.  You are expected to perform under the the same sliders and settings as everyone else, even offline.  It's brought actual competition back to sports gaming, something more like the days when I play 90's Madden on the couch with friends all night, with the winner getting to play the next challenger.  But playing online means you might suck.  And that is something many, many gamers fund unbearable.
    Until accurate, realistic physics determine 100% of the outcome, games won't ever be too realistic.  Besides that, no game makes a player play at a certain level. It can be as easy or as difficult as you like.
    JayhawkerStL
    I don't believe this is true, at all. *Is there evidence of the game being designed to act that way, or is this more of it being "obvious" because you don't get *the result you want?
    The problem The Show has is that there will always be gamers that can master stick skills to a point that getting realistic results is impossible. *Guys that see the frames in fighting games are an example. *Likewise, being able to use the PCI to square up every pitch could turn teams into hitting .600. *Baseball has alway been about the grind, doing the right thing over and over, and at best, getting a hit 40% of the time.*
    One of the reasons I prefer Directional hitting is exactly this. *It produces a fairly realistic and satisfying experience, partly because you cannot dial in and be perfecto in every pitch, as your hitter's ratings effect that. *This does put me at a disadvantage in DD, as guys that can dial in the PCI can always hit better than I could ever hope by relying on directional hitting.
    The biggest problem with sports games are the gamers. *They have been trained, from an early age now, that they can be a beat in any game they play if they figure it out. *But beasting a sports game ruins it. *And getting a hit about 23-27% of the time will enrage many, many gamers. *
    You see this so often in the forums, as someone struggles to play well, and the first suggestions, and tones taken most often, is sliders. *Just dial the game in to make you feel you are as good as you want. *It is truly paint-by-number gaming. *Instead of easing off the bullet passes, drop the INT slider. *Swing at too many pitches, SCEA adds quick counts. *Wait till you see the suggestions for guys getting tripping penalties from spamming the poke check.
    The DD, UT, and MyTeam modes are pretty great from removing this from the equation. *You are expected to perform under the the same sliders and settings as everyone else, even offline. *It's brought actual competition back to sports gaming, something more like the days when I play 90's Madden on the couch with friends all night, with the winner getting to play the next challenger. *But playing online means you might suck. *And that is something many, many gamers fund unbearable.

    The best example of the ramped up CPU skill is NBA 2k. I have no problem taking losses and in any league I've done with others I'm always pushing to make the games harder so that we take losses on a regular basis.
    My issue with NBA 2k is that when upping the game to Hall of Fame level was that it would have players on the CPU perform way above their levels. I would strategize to leave weak 3 point shooters open while applying more pressure to their stars. This would lead to players like Rajon Rondo or Josh Smith going 7/10 or 6/9 from 3 point range even though they were notoriously horrible shooters from deep. That to me is taking shortcuts to make the game more difficult compared to upping the AI's ability to recognize different strategies and picking it apart the same way a great human player would.
    One of the more recent methods developers have introduced is Dynamic Levelling as in MLB The Show & NASCAR Heat. This has some positives but ultimately once your general level of play if reached it becomes a case of bouncing between winning too easily to losing irrespective of your performance .
    It’s quite a complex issue trying to make AI behave realistically, have real world physics, yet still make the game playable & enjoyable to each gamers ability. 
    I think games certainly need a wide spread of selectable difficulty levels not just Easy/Medium/Hard etc. I like in F1 2017 for instance where difficulty can be scaled from 0-100. 
    every sports game should have a default, casual, arcade and sim mode.* each mode should stick to the philosophy/rules/ai that governs said mode.*
    MLB THE SHOW's dynamic ratings is a great* feature and idea,** other games needs to implement this feature as an option in their games.
    IN addition, the way teams are weighted in head to head game-play should be different than offline modes.
    personally, I feel that online team rosters should all be equaled out.**
    with NBA 2k a* old bronze, silver, ratings systems similar to APF2k8 should be implemented to offer slight differentiation in rosters.** which if used properly by the gamer would provide a counter to every advantage.*** with this type of scenario, stick/user skills could shine through more.
    with* Madden on line you could take it a step further by adding a Tecmo bowl type feature.* where teams would be provided with a stripped down playbook (an example: 10-16 plays each for offense and defense).* picking the appropriate defenses would be the counters to said offensive plays.* in this scenario a gamer would have to understand their opponents tendencies to gain an advantage both offensively and defensively.**
    this along with the in game adjustments would produce real grudge matches, where understanding football would shine through
    I think where I see the biggest issue, as Im a offline players only,  I have no desire to play online, and no matter what the sport, the franchise mode is the only thing Im interested in. I quit buying Madden several yrs ago, and did not buy MLBTS this yr as I went with OOTP baseball. So NBA2k18 is all I got to go buy this yr, but what seems to happen is they give unfair boost in certain attributes for the CPU that gives a unfair advantage to the CPU, so you then spend all your time trying to find the right slider balance, and buy the time you do, they devs have put out a pacth or updated something, to where your back at square one trying to find the right slider balance.
    IMO on the higher difficulties, the CPU players and coach should be smarter, and thats the only thing that should be changed. Instead it seems they give unfair attributes, such as speed for 1 example. CPU players should have the same attributes, whether your on rookie, or HOF difficulty. What should change is the IQ of players and coach.
    Madden has gotten ridiculous when it comes to playing the CPU. I mostly play franchise and there are times ive  had a 21-0 lead then the CPU offense becomes unstoppable and the defense turns into the 85 bears. Then you are in a dogfight. Another thing that irks me is when im purposely running clock down at end of game injury bug goes around and stops clock. 
    Last but not least if im playing against a stagnant offense and they get the ball at end of half or game the no huddle offense makes you look like a 5 year old just playing the game.
    I think they have come a long way over the years, but too easy or too difficult depends on your own personal settings.  If out of the box settings are too hard or too easy, you have to move to sliders to make it tough.  For example, Madden on All-Pro is too easy for me, but All-Madden is too difficult.  I need a happy middleground, which is achieved with sliders.  Luckily, on OS, we get a TON of good slider sets from people who test them out a lot.
    I think the better questions are: Are sports game fair? Is the learning curve too steep?
    I agree, there are settings that make games easier and simpler, but that comes at the expense of limiting what skill moves are available to you vs those using the standard controls.  I'm probably average at games, but having a job and family these days, it's difficult to perfect the increasingly complicated controls to play games online or on higher difficulties.
    That leads me to, are they fair?  I think most people hit on this.  Many games, especially those made by EA, manage difficulty by nerfing human abilities or making the CPU super human.  My favorite game is PES. I rarely feel cheated when I lose on that game because I can't point to my impatience on defense or the other team was better that match.  I lost a game of Madden last night because I fumbled 3 plays in a row (all returned for touchdowns).  Frustrating because it seemed unfair and programmed to happen.
    Online, it's a glitch and programming exploit fest once you sniff the top tier divisions.  If you can't practice enough to get really good, and/or not willing to glitch, the experience gets frustrating super quickly.
    It helps to define exactly what we're talking about, but I think the answer is "both".
    Sports games are too hard in the sense that, while I know what I want to do and I generally know how a play is supposed to look when run correctly (in a football game, for example), I don't have all the nuances of the button combinations and inputs memorized and at-the-ready in order to get the game to do what I want it to. I often find myself fighting/fumbling the controller in order to get the on-screen team members to do what I know I want them to do (e.g. press cover the corner on the "X" receiver, bias the LB's to cover the center of field, leave the safeties in deeper coverage). Never mind my Sisyphean odyssey of trying to create-a-play in College Hoops 2K to get my guys to execute a relatively straightforward pin down screen play...
    However, sports games (some, anyway) aren't realistic enough in the sense that the way the players interact with each other on the field is still not where I would have imagined they would be at this point. I mean, there are a million videos on the tubes of you that show how wacky and incongruous Madden can be with regard to real football, and that's not to mention how poorly the game is animated (in comparison to what a real football player running looks like, for example). Not to pick on Madden, I mean the game is virtually indistinguishable from a real football broadcast...until you see it in motion.
    I realize there will always be a gap between what competitive players want and what regular people want (and what enthusiasts of the sport want), but to me, it's not asking too much for the games to be relatively straightforward from an input point of view (not over-simplified as in 1-button, but not "hit LB then "B" then select a guy then "X", etc. etc. etc.) but play out realistically on the field once the game is in motion.
    I feel like the issue is many options of old have disappeared. Madden used to have a dynamic difficulty for vs cpu games... Now that's been removed... Many options in CFM of old have also been removed... We keep hearing about limitation of resources yet seeing more and more HD cutscenes added over Gameplay mechanics that worked in the past like assistant coaches. Not sure that the focus for gaming companies is anything but profit, but I think many miss the boat on how users really enjoy their games.
    I agree CaselH.
    I pretty much only play offline Franchise modes and have not been impressed with most of them lately besides MyLeague in NBA 2K.
    And why on harder levels does it feel like you are being cheated. I don't mind losing, but I hate where it is cheating to beat me. Have them play smarter, not become super human, be able to go thru you unrealistically to get the ball, or make my players idiots and forget to guard anyone. 
    They need more tutorials in games to help with controls to become better. I don't get the games every year and a lot of times it is hard to figure out how to do half the stuff that is possible.
    I don't mean to pick on Madden, but they never been able to address this. In Madden, "difficult" is pretty much cheating. The AI guesses your play half the time and on the other half, your team cannot block, cannot tackle, cannot catch. 
    The players should not play dumb as a means to make the game "difficult." The level of strategy needed should make that determination. In an "easy" setting, the AI should do dumb things like call a hail mary on 4th and goal; punt on 3rd down, and stuff like that. 
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