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Soccer’s successful FIFA video games are big business, here’s why the AFL just can’t compete

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When four of the AFL’s most outspoken club presidents got together for a Fox Footy Roundtable discussion in June, they didn’t agree on much.

But sharing a vested interest in expanding footy throughout the country, they all agreed that the growth of soccer in markets like Western Sydney was an issue that our indigenous game needs to overcome.

Collingwood president Eddie McGuire added another fear — a virtual one.

“FIFA and the PlayStation is as big as a threat to AFL football as the game of soccer itself,” he said.

Electronic Arts (EA)’s FIFA series is one of the most successful video game franchises in the world, consistently sitting in the top ten of all games for copies sold each year.

It has a truly global presence, as seen in late April when footy stars Gary Ablett and Scott Pendlebury participated in a FIFA 15 tournament in Melbourne.

Check most AFL players’ social media accounts and it’s likely that you’ll see them talking about playing FIFA at some stage — because they’re just like every other 20-something.

Hawthorn star Jordan Lewis estimates that 60 to 70 per cent of his colleagues play games like FIFA, as well as competitors like the NBA 2K series.

It’s hugely popular, and it’s converting a generation of fans to the round ball. And it’s not just the Australian sides — you’ll see just as many if not more Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi tops as you will Archie Thompson or Besart Berisha while out and about.

Lewis agrees, suggesting that some of his teammates have become bigger fans of soccer from playing FIFA.

It’s then fair to ask the question as to why there isn’t a similar AFL video game. Wouldn’t fighting fire with fire be the best way of stopping the FIFA train? If footy’s more popular than soccer in this country, surely a game could be the same?

If only it were so simple.

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GAMING THE SYSTEM

VIRTUAL representations of footy have been attempted since 1991, when Aussie Rules Footy was published for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), the console of the original Super Mario Brothers and Legend of Zelda games.

With the NES very low-powered compared to consoles created just a decade later, it wasn’t much. The next evolution in footy games came in the late 90s when EA Sports, publisher and developer of FIFA, put out two of their own AFL titles — AFL ‘98 and ‘99.

Those games came out on the original PlayStation, a console part of a generation that welcomed true 3D gameplay into the world. As technology improved, so did the graphical horsepower available to create more advanced versions of the games.

Being early in the 3D gaming revolution, these weren’t overly sophisticated, but they were still on par with other major sports’ games of the time.

Australian developer IR Gurus took over the series in the early 2000s and they put out games for six straight years, finishing with AFL Premiership 2007. Most of these were released on the PlayStation 2, the Xbox and PC.

This was a relative high point for AFL games, with consistent releases despite limited resources for the Melbourne-based company that saw issues with in-game bugs.

The next generation of games consoles, the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, were released at this time but it took four years for Aussie Rules to get a game, with Big Ant Studios’ AFL Live.

But they would only release a single version of the title, with Wicked Witch Software then developing AFL Live 2 in 2013. A small update with 2014’s teams and players was released the next year but that marked the last major footy game release so far, with no AFL titles available for the current generation of games consoles, the Xbox One and PlayStation 4.

 

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HE STOP-START PROBLEM

WHILE in general, this run of titles gave footy fans plenty of options on almost every available games console, there was never a level of consistency in who was making the games — crucial in sports titles.

Compare the history of footy games to the development of the FIFA series. They’ve had a major release every year for two decades, all published and developed by EA, enabling them to incrementally improve on the games each season.

This is vital in sports games because unlike major titles like Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty, the rules never really change. GTA releases every four or five years with an entirely new world to play in, and even Call of Duty uses different game ‘engines’ (the code base that the game runs on) and is developed by different companies depending on the year of release.

Sports games, in an effort to save money and to make things easier on a developer (a year is barely any time at all in the games industry), generally just expand upon the previous title. This is particularly true when working on the same console, where there are very few changes from year-to-year.

The longest period footy games had under the same developer was six years, under IR Gurus’ watch, but even they commented on the lack of resources they had available.

In an interview before the release of their final game, AFL Premiership 2007, lead artist and designer Mark Houaeau explained some of the difficulties involved.

“At the moment our dev (development) team of 15 people are spread thin in certain areas,” Houaeau said. “It can affect the final product when compared to budgets and dev team numbers of the companies that make the FIFAs, Maddens and Pro Evo’s out there.”

A team of just 15 developers is very small for a title trying to compete with the market leaders. FIFA, for example, currently has a development studio of 1,300 people and uses an engine called Ignite that is shared among almost all of EA’s sports titles.

This enables them to essentially work in bulk, saving time and money by not having to repeat work over their wide range of sports titles.

Houaeau also explained why the company weren’t able to develop a title for the next generation of consoles, the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

“Next gen titles would require bigger dev teams than we currently have (only 15 people) and bigger budgets (which we currently don’t have) so it’s a case of organising that stuff too.”

It was estimated in 2006 that at least $10 million was required in order to make high-quality games on the previous generation of consoles.

The more intense development required for PS4 and Xbox One games, more powerful machines that allow for greater scope, means budgets have only grown from there.

 

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AI: AFL INTELLIGENCE

IF we can’t even figure out how we want the game to be played in real-life, how can we get it represented properly in a game?

The nature of footy itself means that creating a game with the limited resources Australian developers have available is very difficult.

It’s a hard thing to recreate just from an aesthetic point of view — you have to cater for both free-flowing play and congested mauls, plus all of the little features special to our indigenous game that just don’t exist anywhere else.

Previous attempts haven’t been overly successful. AFL Live, the first footy game on Xbox 360 and PS3, was given a 6.5 out of 10 by major gaming site GameSpot, with rival site IGN scoring the game as a six on the same scale — that low score given for a game that IGN described as having “probably the best gameplay of any AFL video game yet”.

Even if the game feels right for the player, then the artificial intelligence has to be developed for players to get a real challenge when playing against the computer — or even when playing against a friend, as all players, even ones not under direct player control, need to act naturally.

There’s never a 100 per cent right answer in where a player should run at any single second in a footy game, so how on earth is a programmer supposed to tell their little digital representation of Gary Ablett where to run without him looking entirely lost?

ALL ABOUT THE MONEY

THE practical reality about making video games is that at the scale of a game like FIFA, decisions are almost all financial.

Former games developer Ben Abbott worked at major studios such as Rockstar North, the creators of Grand Theft Auto, as well as Australian studios Atari Melbourne House and THQ Bluetongue, creators of the well-received ‘de Blob’ series.

He says the creation of an AFL game on that level almost certainly couldn’t happen.

“There’s no return on investment, it’s essentially a game for one state in one country. Sales of the game overseas would be absolutely tiny and even interstate it would be minimal,” he says.

He estimates the budget for a single game at the quality of an EA or 2K (creators of the NBA 2K series) would be at least $10 million, although that includes all of the benefits those companies have by producing the games year after year.

“Let’s divide that by around half for the sake of this example. 65,789 copies at the standard JB Hi-Fi sales cost of $76 would be needed just to break even. This is not a viable business model.

“People want to play NBA, FIFA, even UFC … they want to play games with global appeal and games that have household name star power and have been refined.

“You need to be able to sell more copies of the game than the average crowd at the MCG when Collingwood plays Essendon on Anzac Day.”

Even then, $5 million wouldn’t be anywhere near enough to make a game of the quality that consumers want, especially when working from scratch.

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THE UNLUCKY COUNTRY

BUT even if there were the consumers in Australia willing to buy the game, there are intrinsic issues that restrict game development in this country.

Abbott says it was once seen as cheaper for major game publishers to outsource development work to Australia, but when the dollar strengthened, it became much less viable.

“From a development standpoint, it was noticed immediately as the companies (in Australia) were all owned by US publishers, and studios closed at a super quick rate,” Abbott says.

“Now there’s nothing left here outside of EA, who have a small team that make mobile games, and small independent teams.”

So not only do overseas companies not want to do their work in Australia any more, but the natural difficulties that exist within the country also inhibit production of major ‘AAA’ titles.

“Australia is a tiny market place,” he says.

When he worked overseas on a game that was primarily online and asked about resources to create Australian servers, “the response was that the market and user base is too tiny and there is minimal return on investment.”

“Compared to North America and the EU, we are but a tiny blip on the radar.”

You can see the difficulties in Aussie development when you look at Team Bondi, a Sydney-based studio.

They produced a well-received game for the PS3, Xbox 360 and PC called ‘L.A. Noire’, a noir-styled adventure where you play as a former soldier turned policeman in 1940s Los Angeles.

The title sold very well — over 5 million copies worldwide — but difficulties inside the studio along with the issues intrinsic to Australian development caused them to close down and go into liquidation.

They were one of the many major studios to close down in the wake of the global financial crisis — a group that included Abbott’s Bluetongue — but even more recently, the last AAA studio in the country, 2K Australia, was also forced to close.

The Canberra-based group worked on popular titles such as the ‘Bioshock’ series, The Bureau: XCOM Declassified and Borderlands: The Pre Sequel.

Their parent company in the United States, 2K Games, said in April when the decision was made that the closure was “in order to better manage ongoing development costs while improving the working proximity of our creative teams.”

In essence, their reasoning was that costs in Australia are too high, and that we’re too far away.

Our elected officials have begun to recognise this problem in the industry which employed thousands of people at its peak.

In June the Greens secured an inquiry into the state of the Australian games industry, with Senator Scott Ludlam saying that “the (games) sector has been treated like the poor cousin of the creative industries”.

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IS THERE A FUTURE?

WITH all of this in mind, for an AFL-branded game to be made, the potential developers and consumers would all need to aim lower.

There’s been a recent revolution in games based on the model of crowd-funding, where websites like Kickstarter provide a platform for consumers to give money to a potential project in order to show that they want it made.

But even then, the most successful funding campaign for a video game has been for ‘Shenmue 3’, a cult adventure game which had backing from industry giants Sony. They raised over $6.3 million — a total that actually won’t cover the entirety of the development of that title.

Instead, perhaps footy should look towards games like the ‘Football Manager’ series, a soccer management simulation where you do everything involved in running a soccer club without actually playing the games.

The lack of graphical power needed to design such a game would make the budgetary requirements lower, although a current crowd-funding campaign for a game called ‘Australian Football Manager’ that has received under $3,000 of its $10,000 goal has the necessary bar set far too low.

A release in 2010 called ‘AFL Premiership Coach’ attempted this type of game but to little success.

Development could be done on the most recent major series, AFL Live, but that hasn’t seen a full release in almost two years.

If incremental development leading to yearly releases was a possibility, they’d have the best chance of making a game that can compete with the big boys.

But at some stage, we just have to recognise that our indigenous sport is still not a big enough fish to swim in the global gaming pond.

© 2015 Foxsports | This article was written by Max Laughton and first appeared in Foxsports on 19 July, 2015. 

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