John Madden Football pioneered it, and now everyone does it: the annual sports title update. Once a new sports season starts, the game you bought last year is out of date—even if the gameplay is still just fine, and even if the manufacturer could keep updating the rosters for a small fee if it wanted to. If you want a roster that matches the games you see on TV, you're stuck shelling out $60 for a "brand new" game that, let's face it, you pretty much already own. Heck, if your sport is having union troubles—as the NBA was when NBA 2K12 was in the works—you might not even get a new roster until everything's sorted out.
It's simply not possible for developers to dramatically improve their game mechanics every single year, and if they tried to do it, they'd probably mess everything up. So, most sports titles are destined to contain moderate adjustments at best. And almost everyone agrees this is a problem. But what's a gamer to do? It seems impossible to change the behavior of a major corporation.
If you're fed up, one great thing to do would be to make sure that the game companies understand how you feel. Given the existence of the Internet, it costs quite little for developers to continually update rosters. It's fair if they don't want to include endless updates with every purchase, but there's no reason whatsoever that they couldn't charge a modest subscription fee after the first year for further updates. That way, fans would get to decide whether the actual gameplay advances of the new version are worth it, and they wouldn't be forced to spend boatloads on what's really just a roster tweak. Perhaps the companies that make sports games need a wake-up call in the form of a coordinated campaign of phone calls, or even a boycott.
There are less dramatic avenues of protest as well. If you're more of a casual fan, you could buy the games every two or three years—after all, some of these games feature lengthy career modes that will take you forever to complete if you don't play constantly. If enough people did this, it could grab the attention of the suits at EA or 2K. When publishers see that there's money to be made selling roster updates for older titles, they might move to provide them as DLC–if they don't think offering updates for more than a year will cannibalize sales of the new editions. And of course, that's a big if.
Is there any chance that we'll see a fairer system in the future? The current trends are not encouraging—to my knowledge, not one sports game has ever offered roster updates beyond the end of the season it's named after—but I think we're most likely to see positive developments in sports that have competition between game companies.
Thanks to exclusivity deals or the inability of the market to support two franchises at once, many sports have only one official game. Madden NFL has an exclusive contract that lasts through 2013, MLB 2K has a deal that's expiring after this year, and NHL 2K has ceased production, leaving EA's NHL series as the only game in town. But in other sports—including NBA basketball (once NBA Live returns this year to take on NBA 2K)—consumers get to choose from several options. Conceivably, a company could get a serious leg up by announcing that it will support its next game past the end of the season. I won't be holding my breath, but I will be hoping that competition will create a market that's better for consumers.
There is another development in gaming that encourages optimism as well: the rise of subscription-based MMOs, which prove that you can make a great game and earn a profit off of subscription fees rather than sales. Perhaps we'll see sports games try this model—gamers would pay by the month to access the servers and updates, and the updates could improve the game mechanics in addition to the rosters. A game set up this way could evolve naturally, rather than getting a new set of tweaks once a year.
If there's one thing that's for sure, it's that sports gamers are at least a little annoyed every time they have to shell out big bucks for a game that's not much different from last year's model. Unhappy consumers are bad for business, so the company that figures this out first will have a big advantage in the marketplace.
Date: March 14, 2012
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*