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Archive for the ‘Sports games’ Category

Wagging Madden’s dog

Since Mrs. Liquid Architecture got me a Kindle for Christmas, I’ve been on a bit of a magazine article bender renaissance.  In case you missed them, be sure to check out this chilling article on Marvin Harrison’s gun rap from GQ of all places, along with their entertaining take on EA’s Tiger Woods PGA Tour series, post… whatever you want to call Tiger’s whole thing.

Wired’s always a treat to read and Chris Suellentrop dropped a gem in this month’s issue, exploring how gaming’s most successful franchise is also the best selling off-the-shelf  field simulator for a very specific group of employees – NFL players.  Suellentrop calls on a crystal clear illustration from a Bengals/Broncos game earlier this season to show how The Game (Madden) has come to influence the game.

He does a good job showing how EA’s crown jewel series has shaped this generation of NFL players, but I’m surprised Suellentrop didn’t explore how Madden‘s impacted the game itself, and the fan experience of how NFL football is covered.

Digital 1st down lines make the game more accessible to casual fans

For example, every NFL game (and most college football games) I’ve seen since the lat 90’s make use of a digital line to highlight the distance for a first down.  It’s become so commonplace, hardly anyone even talks about it anymore.  When the “virtual line” tech first debuted way back in 1998, I can even recall people saying how it was “just like in a video game.”  Would those handy little markers even exist without Madden?

Skycam apes Madden to show viewers the QB's options

SkyCam (and it’s other branded cousin, CableCam) more recently revolutionized coverage of the game.  It first debuted in the XFL (just like HeHateMe!), giving viewers a floating vantage point above the quarterback.  For the first time in a real live game, we got to clearly see the passing lanes and defensive set at the line of scrimmage, just like in (say it with me now) Madden!  Of course, the makers of SkyCam deserve a lot of credit for their ingenious system of reels, pulleys and cables that make SkyCam work.  But I have to believe the genesis for their entire operation was Madden’s primary camera, and aping that as close as possible in a living, breathing 3D space.

Of course, long time readers (all 3 of you) will remember yours truly covered how ESPN more overtly incorporated Madden into their NFL highlights show.  So Madden imitates life imitates Madden.

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It's never too early, or too late, in the year to talk about baseball games. Right?

If you haven’t been reading Kotaku’s awesome weekend sports series, Stick Jockey, do yourself a favor and head over there immediately.  These weekly thinkpieces are consistently fascinating, especially considering that 99% of the sports game coverage out there is a very paint-by-numbers affair.

This week’s is no exception, as columnist Owen Good really shows his sports business chops examining the 2005 semi-exclusivity deal between 2K Sports and MLB.  Good does a much better job than I ever could in breaking down the how’s and why’s of the deal, but what I found to be really fascinating here is just how off the mark otherwise savvy companies like 2K and Major League Baseball could be in striking a deal, and how ultimately iffy a property MLB has become for a video game license.

There have been a few bright spots here and there (RBI on the NES, World Series on the Genesis, and Ken Griffey Jr. Presents MLB on the SNES come to mind), but baseball has had the must lackluster games library of all major US pro leagues, hands down.  The recently released Madden NFL Arcade and another tremendous annual installment of NHL, both from EA, remind me just how broken baseball games are.

So is the answer as simple as “wait till EA can do another MLB game?”  Possibly.  After all, the Triple Play series was becoming very good just before 2K locked up the exclusivity deal, and MLB2K has a lot of flaws that just wouldn’t make it through EA’s very polished sports game development process.  But Sony’s first party series MLB: The Show suffers for reasons wholly different from 2K’s product – an unforgiving difficulty curve and an engine that emphasizes photorealistic stadiums over responsive controls and a smooth play experience.

With baseball’s annual winter meetings just concluded, the countdown is on for next year’s outings.  They’ll likely be tweaked versions of last year’s games, built upon the same engines that 2K and Sony already introduced this console generation.  2K’s in particular seem to be showing its age.

It’d be great to see one of these license holders tear the whole thing down and start fresh.  Perhaps EA’s 7 year absence from our nation’s pastime will end up benefitting them AND us in 2012, for the simple reason that they haven’t had a baseball game on any current-gen system, and will have to field a whole new team and start fresh.

2K’s pricey misadventure makes it unlikely that anyone, be it EA, 2K, or another player, will be in a hurry to buy up exclusive licensing rights when they become available again for the 2012 season.  But if someone opens the checkbook, I hope MLB Digital Media takes a close look at the plan, the team, and at least asks to see a preview build this time around.  In all fairness, that office wasn’t yet created for the 2005 deal.  Who knows how many fans they’ve turned off or missed out with lackluster branded games since then?

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ODST's won the day, but was September a turning point for Sony in the war?

ODST's won the day, but was September a turning point for Sony in the war?

The NPD Group’s US Video Game Report for September just hit my inbox last night, and it may be an early indicator of the exciting fourth quarter predicted by some pretty smart cats.  We saw increases across most categories from September ’08’s numbers, but not enough to pull the year-on-year numbers out of their recession doldrums.  However, Sony’s got several reasons to smile, in spite of Halo 3: ODST nabbing the top spot on this month’s Software Top 10:

Rank Title Platform Units
1 HALO 3:ODST 360 1.52M
2 WII SPORTS RESORT WII 442.9K
3 MADDEN NFL 10 360 289.6K
4 MARIO & LUIGI:BOWSER’S INSIDE STORY DS 258.1K
5 THE BEATLES:ROCK BAND 360 254.0K
6 MADDEN NFL 10 PS3 246.5K
7 MARVEL:ULTIMATE ALLIANCE 2 360 236.0K
8 BATMAN:ARKHAM ASYLUM PS3 212.5K
9 GUITAR HERO 5 360 210.8K
10 THE BEATLES:ROCK BAND WII 208.6K

Yes, there are only two PS3 titles in the top 10 this month, but looking at this list, you can practically see the purchase behavior!  Madden and Arkham Asylum both shipped to decent numbers on the PS3  in August, but not enough to overtake their respective Xbox 360 counterparts.  These particular games’ second month in the Top 10, despite the PS3’s much smaller installed base, is a clear indicator of a positive trend in hardware sales for Sony.  More casual gamers that only buy one or two pieces of software a year religiously get Madden, and strong word of mouth among hardcore gamers (not to mention a pretty good ad campaign) for Arkham Asylum has made that a must-have title for anyone just purchasing a current gen system.  So gamers that were holding out for a price drop seem to be gravitating towards the PS3, and they’ve essentially created their own hardware bundle in the process.

The price drop and slim hardware proved to be exactly the 1-2 punch Sony needed.  Take it away, NPD analyst Anita Frazier!

“Compared to last September, the PS3 was the big winner, more than doubling last year’s sales.  This portrays a very strong consumer reaction to the price decrease as August and September both realized a lift of more than 70% over the prior month.  This is the first month that the PS3 has captured the top spot in console hardware sales.”

It’ll be interesting to see if Microsoft rolls out a new hardware bundle or retailer discount for the holiday.  This very well could be the PS3’s year.

In other news, this month’s NPD report saw Wii Fit fall out of the Top 10 for the first time since its introduction 15 months ago.  Of course, it was immediately replaced in the Top 10 by Wii sports Resort.  But for a $90 game to spend 15 months in the Top 10, where even a soft month has the floor somewhere around 200K units, is impressive.  Just like the home crowd standing up for their starter during his 7th inning exit, I’ve got to salute Nintendo on this one.  Well done.standing o

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tiger bundleTiger Woods keeps good company.  He stands with Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus as the only men to win the Masters more than 3 times.  He’s a dominant athlete that’s changed the face of his sport, just like Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan before him.  And just like Lebron James or even non-athletes like Mark Zuckerberg, his entrance on an international stage at a very young age can truly be described as phenominal.  With the release of Tiger Woods 10 for the Wii, he joins the rare company of (fictional and immortal!) characters that have starred in a game good enough to move hardware.  And NINTENDO hardware to boot.

Unlike last year’s game, EA chose the Wii as the lead platform for Tiger Woods 10.  That effort’s been rewarded out of the gate with shining review scores.  More importantly, it’s finally making good one EA’s “All Play” effort to bring Nintendo’s more casual Wii-owning audience into the sports game fold.  A Sunday golfer in his 30’s could easily pick this game up and play alongside his entire family, with plenty of fun minigames and varying difficulty levels to keep everyone entertained.

Tigers Frisbee Golf mode adds a much-needed party game appeal

Tiger's Frisbee Golf mode adds a much-needed party game appeal

In a move that really surprised me, Tiger comes bundled with the new Wii Motion Plus peripheral, fully a month ahead of the first compatible first-party title, Wii Sports Resort. When I first saw Motion Plus at last year’s E3, I thought Nintendo would go for the identical release plan as N64’s Rumble Pack, which came packed in with Star Fox 64 for its introduction.

I certainly hope we see more support from third party devs for Motion Plus.  Tiger uses it correctly, and it makes a huge difference in the overall feel of the game.  It really connects with most of the things that make playing golf fun, especially when you bring some other players into the room.  Here’s hoping all the attention and TLC this title obviously benefitted from during development pays dividends for EA on the shelves, too.

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42Today marked the 62nd anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s historic first Major League Baseball game with the Brooklyn Dodgers.  Throughout the league, MLB teams honored Jackie in their own way, from a dedication at the new Citi Field to scholarship awards and Jumbotron retrospectives.  And every single player in every game today wore #42, with no name on the back of his jersey.

It was a class move that involved the entire league.  And yet, it didn’t carry over to either of the officially licensed baseball franchises,  MLB 2K9 or MLB 09: The Show.

Considering these games (and every major sports game, for that matter) get continuous roster updates and patches throughout the season, is it really too much to ask that this carefully planned, well executed salute make it into the digital version of our favorite pastime?

Sports games have led the way in verisimilitude for quite some time.  Madden brought in authentic rosters and 11-on-11 formations 20 years ago, and still adds a nifty trick or two each year to bring the game just a bit closer to reality.  A few years ago, they linked in-game weather conditions to the actual field conditions in each stadium in realtime.  This year’s NBA Live game features daily adjustments to player performance based on their real-life counterparts’ hot and cold streaks in realtime.81705570SL030_JACKSONVILLE_

For all of EA’s attention to the little things, even very recent editions of Madden missed the occasional detail.  Where were the Gene Upshaw memoriums in this year’s game?  No, their lack of inclusion shouldn’t (and hopefully doesn’t) impact anybody’s enjoyment of the game overall, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect these seemingly minute details to come through in the games.

I really hope Sony’s MLB: The Show team can get around to a pink bat update in time for the Mothers’ Day games.  Maybe they could even tie in a charity component with the Susan G. Komen foundation.  That’s DLC that really adds value to a game, and makes us all feel like we’re a small part of something much bigger.

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Fellow marketer and WordPresser Doug Meacham tied together some stirring evidence to back up a thought I’ve been chewing on for quite a while: popularity of music games will lead to greater interested in playing actual musical instruments.  It makes perfect sense.  While there were a few sky-is-falling critics of the genre early on, Guitar Hero and Rock Band allow a whole new audience to interact with music in a very real way.

Beyond trading up for real instruments, the Guitar Hero audience has shown plenty of love to previously obscure bands from the game during a dark time for record sales.  And I’m willing to bet there are quite a few GH fans that “discovered” older bands (that totally play, like, their dad’s music) through the game, and really learned to appreciate them.

Rock music games give us a nice, tidy package to study the direct correlation between games and non-game merchandise sales.  The genre was created well after gaming moved from a niche hobby to mainstream entertainment, it consists of only 2 flagship series, and interest can be tracked through solid sales numbers on (mostly) tangible products that are tied to only this one genre: guitars, and records and downloads of  music from featured bands.  There’s no spillover data from other genres here, because no one rushes out to pick up a new guitar ’cause they had an awesome time playing Left 4 Dead.

It would be interesting to see what other games had similar effects, if only it were trackable.  I’m sure there are plenty of guys out there who learned the rules of football (and eventually an interest in the sport) from Madden.

Licensed NFL merchandise continues to move at a steady clip despite the young male audience move away from watching TV, but it’s a real leap to call an uptick in sales of footballs, helmets and jerseys “the Madden effect.”

So when I see a team like the Yankees loading up their luxury boxes with PS3s and copies of MLB 09: The Show, it’s clearly a deal designed to

benefit Sony.  But I think MLB might be pleasantly surprised with how much interest a wider reaching games initiative could generate in the sport.  At the very least, it would bring some of the cool factor they despereately need to make the very worthy RBI program a success.

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Early estimates from Black Friday 2008 are slowly trickling in, and it would appear that Nintendo is off to a third straight killer year for the Wii.  Impressive, considering they’re working with a sparse holiday software lineup and their only first-party offering is the tepidly received Wii Music. By all indications, Wii Fit is flying off shelves, and likely keeping the hardware a hot commodity almost by itself.  

This really demonstrates Nintendo’s Blue Ocean strategy working well.  Wii Fit launched nearly seven months ago.  Under normal circumstances, it would be rocking the discount bin this Christmas with a sequel on the way.  But that’s just it: hardcore gamers that would run out to get a game on launch day aren’t fueling the Wii’s swollen installed base, and they certainly aren’t the target audience for Wii Fit.

Microsoft had a good weekend as well, handily outselling the PS3 and last year’s Xbox 360 number.  Sony’s no doubt up on year-over-year sales, but I can’t help wondering how their numbers would have looked if they had put out a LittleBigPlanet bundle in the US, like they did in the UKLBP is getting some decent ad support now, and Sackboy appeals to a family that could really only afford to spend $400 on a box if it’s going to keep their entire family entertained for the better part of this year.  As much as I love Metal Gear Solid 4, I just don’t think Snake has the same appeal to that audience.

In theory, the PS3’s Blu-ray player helps on the family entertainment front, but I’m not sure that’s a real value add for that type of consumer.  Disney is just beginning to put animated features out on Blu-ray, and those discs aren’t compatible with the portable and in-minivan DVD players that parents already bought.  Between the Netflix addition, price drop, and Kung Fu Panda/Lego Indiana Jones bundle, the Xbox 360 deserves to be on their radars.

Beyond that, Pricegrabber shows Sony’s own budget-priced Blu-ray player (the BDP-S350 1080p) as one of the top 3 searches over the weekend.  Did they cannibalize PS3 sales with their own player in a similar price range?  I think we’re seeing a case of what’s good for Sony the company not necessarily benefitting the games division.

Obviously holiday sales are a much longer battle than one weekend, but it looks like the industry may just be as resilient as we had all hoped.  I’ve long held that Wii Fit will be the best software seller this season (hardly a bold prediction), and it looks like the very deserving Gears of War 2 will pull in second.  Weren’t single console exclusives supposed to be go away?

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