The Madden Cycle

It’s August again, which in gaming terms means that the new Madden is out. My relationship with Madden is pretty simple. Every year the new one comes out. Every year I decide which one or sometimes two platforms to buy the game on. I buy the game and I play my Patriots for a few seasons of franchise until I figure out where all the money plays are. I win a couple of Super Bowls and I put the game away until next year.

I’ve noticed though, that for others the situation is more complicated.

Among the set of web sites that I keep track of via RSS (or, as I like to call it, USENET only with really stupid client), there are three weblogs that concern themselves with sports games. There is Bill Harris over at Dubious Quality, Dan and Glen over at The Blog for the Sports Gamer and Bill Abner at the Nut and the Fiesty Weasel. I don’t know where they get these names.

Almost every year these guys, but in particular the two Bills, get very busy when the new Madden rolls out. They pick it up and engage in what can only be called a nearly psychotic deconstruction and reconstruction of the game. This process can go on for weeks, and when it’s over each of the sites will have published what has to be the deepest and most thorough evaluation of any game anywhere. No other review that I have ever read examines the game under scrutiny at such a level of detail. No minor piece of minutae is too small to bring under the microscope. It would be as if someone reviewed a Half Life 2 expansion pack by reverse engineering the game engine and then simulating all possible experiences in it.

What interests me about this work is two things. First, they do it every year, or at least almost every year. Second, to a large extent the results are always the same. I don’t just mean the final results either. I mean that it is possible to predict the current opinion of the game based soley on the amount of time that the game has been in the reviewer’s hands. The cycle progresses through a uniform set of stages:

1. High Optimism. Soon after the game is released, there is always some reason to think that this time, this year, things will be different. Bugs will be fixed. EA finally gets it this time. They actually care about the hard core simulationist football fan and will be providing the most realistic version of the game yet. This state of mind lasts for one post to the weblog. Maybe two.

2. Normal Mode. The reviewer spends a couple of days playing the game the way the rest of us do. They play franchise mode game by game controlling their favorite team with the controller. Various bugs in the presentation and user interface are pointed out. Stupid plays are recorded in digital video and uploaded on YouTube.

3. Initial Simulations. After playing a season or two game by game in, ya know, video game mode, the reviewer sits down and starts to really get his teeth into the fat chewey center of the game: the simulated franchise mode. Seasons are simulated. Stats are collected and compared with the “real world.” Doubt starts to form.

4. Slider mode. Now we get to the meat of it. The reviewer will spend a week or two, sometimes more, tweaking the sliders in the game. The sliders are knobs that affect the outcomes generated by the simulation engine in the game. These knobs will be adjusted incessantly and several dozen more seasons will be simulated to try and get them “just right.” At this point doubts about the game are growing. It just might be completely broken yet again.

5. Anger and Disillusionment. The reviewer will conclude that the whole exercise is hopeless and that the game is fundamentally broken. Nothing they do leads to “realistic” behavior. There are always problems which, once perceived, completely “break” the game.

6. Denial and Disgust. The game goes back to Gamefly or Gamestop. The reviewer vows not to be suckered next year and proclaims that he will give up football games for a season or two while EA fixes all the bugs.

Obviously I’m being unfair and disingenuous here. I don’t mean to imply that I do not appreciate what these people do. I think what they do is fantastic. They really dig into what is broken and they hold the developers up to a higher standard. This is a refreshing change from the regular relationship gamers have with their dealers^H^H^H^H^H^H^H developers. I think if all reviewers took their task more seriously, the way Mr. Abner and Mr. Harris do, we would not have so much blind praise or equally blind dismissal of games in the other genres. How many Earth-shattering 1010 games were actually just a piece of crap that you’d get tired of in about a week? So, please don’t think that I don’t value what these people do.

But, however much I admire their work, it doesn’t really change how I interact with Madden. I buy the game. I play the game for a while. I wait for the next one. I’m not in this to figure out how to make the simulation engine play “like real football.” I just need a decent illusion of realism for a few weeks every year to get from the summer gaming lull to the fall gaming lull. Then I’ll turn the PS3 off and spend my weekends watching NFL Football. It’s too bad the real game doesn’t have sliders though. Because that would be awesome.