Aussie Sports Games

The past, present, and future on video games based on the biggest sports down under.

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The history of video games based on Aussie sports is a long and varied one: from the early AFL games on the NES in the early '90s to EA's long-standing rugby union series and cricket series to Sony’s upcoming AFL Challenge and Rugby League Challenge for the PSP, and even new next-gen AFL games coming from Aussie developer Big Ant. But how much success have these games seen? And does association with a big publisher really mean a better quality game that will sell more? There certainly seem to be more misses than hits to speak of. While cricket, AFL, rugby league, and rugby union games all generally sell well, critical plaudits have been somewhat lacking. Why is this? Are all games based on Aussie sports ill-fated to live in the shadow of those polished and successful games based on other sports? In this GameSpot AU feature we take a look at the history of Aussie sporting titles, from the ones that had an impact to those that didn’t, and canvass opinions from local and international developers to discover if things have gone stale, and whether there’s any hope for change in the future.

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AFL games have been around since the NES.

The Aussie perspective

In an interview with GameSpot AU in April this year, EA Sports president Peter Moore talked about the challenges of developing and publishing region-centric games. Moore said EA has fewer opportunities to apply resources to games that do not have a global reach, making it more difficult to justify the costs of creating games based on AFL or rugby league as opposed to “true EA Sports next-gen titles”. Simply put, there isn’t enough money to get the former up to the standard of the latter, even if games based on Aussie sports do sell well in their market. Moore concludes: “We love all sports titles, but love doesn’t necessarily transfer to making a game.” But is the relatively small Australian market really to blame? Or are there other factors involved?

A large number of Aussie sports games have been developed right here in our own backyard. Melbourne-based studio Transmission Games (formerly known as IR Gurus) began working on local AFL sports games in 2002 with Kevin Sheedy AFL Coach 2002 on the PC for Acclaim. It continued to work with Acclaim to develop AFL Live 2003, AFL Live 2004, and AFL Live Premiership Edition. In 2005, the studio signed an exclusive deal with Sony to develop AFL Premiership 2005, AFL Premiership 2006, and AFL Premiership 2007 for the PS2. In 2007 IR Gurus signed a deal with Codemasters to produce a series of cricket games, beginning with Ricky Ponting’s International Cricket 2007 (known as Brian Lara International Cricket 2007 outside Australia) on the PS2 and the upcoming Ashes Cricket 2009 for the PC, Xbox 360 and PS3.

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EA Sports head Peter Moore says the publisher’s focus is on creating games with a big market, like the Madden series.

According to the studio, there is a big difference in sales figures between AFL and cricket titles. While an AFL title may sell a total of 85,000 units in a good year and around 40,000 units in an average year, cricket appeals to a broader market, selling in Australia as well as the UK, New Zealand, and South Africa. A good year for a cricket title means in excess of 650,000 units sold. CEO of Transmission Games, Mike Fegan, says there are also other factors at play.

“These figures are really dependent on timing of release, installed bases at this time, general status of the games itself standing with the community and the success of the team,” Fegan said. “For example, with the impending Ashes series this summer, sales [of Ashes Cricket 2009] will be very strong in England. I should say this is the only time I would wish the English to beat the Aussies in any competition!”

Fegan believes budget is the most important factor affecting the quality and success of games based on Aussie sports.

“It really comes down to the production budget set by the publisher. Obviously if you are EA or Konami you can spend an incredible amount of money on a soccer game because you will have a huge audience who will buy the game. But a title based on an Aussie sport will always be constrained by the limited sales it’s going to achieve in our small market, and the production budget reflects this," he said.

“We will probably never have an AFL game looking as good as a FIFA or Madden game. Unfortunately, gamers expect the same quality without realising the constraints of the business. This will never be solved unless a game is published in multiple territories where the financial return for the publisher is going to be much stronger, like cricket or rugby union titles.”

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Melbourne-based IR Gurus partnered with Sony for AFL Premiership 2005, 2006 and 2007 on the PS2.

Fegan says it is difficult to develop Aussie-specific sports games for the local market because the local gaming community does not seem to understand the situation: a case of "damned if you do, damned if you don’t". The other problem is local sporting licensors, who, according to Fegan, are not flexible enough on their licensing costs to allow a game to reach a high standard.

“It always comes down to the game play and to a lesser extent the visual quality. Ideally you want the game to look and feel like a TV broadcast and also to be very accessible from a gameplay point of view, so even if you're not a big fan of the sport or particularly skilful in playing games you can immerse yourself in the game. Unfortunately, these licensors don’t realise how much a game like this can be used to promote their sporting code to a broad audience, so the games often fall short," he said.

Fegan believes gamers want realism and smooth gameplay in a good sporting title, two things that are dependent on a good budget and time. Unfortunately, budget and time are difficult to achieve for local developers selling products in the Australian market. When Transmission Games was still operating as IR Gurus, the studio was never fully satisfied with the final outcome of its AFL titles. As niche games in a very niche market, these titles simply could not compete with internationally renowned game developers and become a world-class product.

"We took one step back and looked at a sport that could not only work in Australia but also in other key markets,” Fegan said. “From there we knew that the only major national sporting code that all Australia followed on a major scale was cricket. Thankfully, we were able to convince Codemasters to hand over their successful Brian Lara/Ricky Ponting franchise. We have spent the last two years working on it and are very happy with the results to date but we will wait until we get direct feedback from the fans come July this year," he said.

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Brian Lara International Cricket 2007 was the successful collaboration between Aussie studio IR Gurus and Codemasters.

Towards the future, Fegan believes the only viable option for games based on Aussie sports is to move away from consoles and concentrate on PC releases.

"The future is in PC 3D web browser based versions which are free but laced with in-game advertising and micro-transactions to buy the latest players or resources to move the game up the pecking order within a total on-line world. This will come in time, as Australia rolls out faster broadband infrastructure," he said.

New-Zealand based Sidhe Interactive is a well-known developer of Aussie-centric sporting titles, including Rugby League, Rugby League 2, and Rugby League 2: World Cup Edition. According to Sidhe’s managing director Mario Wynands, the studio’s rugby league titles have had strong sales success in Australasia. Rugby League even set a games industry world record for preorders in a single store at an EB Games location in Sydney with 1,169 copies, only to be broken later with preorders on Rugby League 2.

Wynands agrees with Fegan that budget is the most important factor that contributes to a title’s polish and success.

“With respect to quality, content and features, sports titles based on more popular sports such as American football, basketball or soccer have access to much larger budgets because they have much larger sales potential,” he said. “A publisher just can't put the same development budget behind an AFL or rugby league title because the market is much smaller and they would lose money.

“On the sales side, the console market for rugby, rugby league, and cricket games is limited primarily to Australasia, the UK, and some European countries. AFL, unfortunately, has even more limited international appeal. North America is currently the largest game market, and without success there, it is hard [for games based on Aussie sports] to reach the sales success that franchises like Madden and FIFA have.”

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Sidhe Interactive's Rugby League game set a record for pre-orders in Sydney stores when it was released in 2003.

Click on the Next Page link to see the rest of the feature!

Wynands recognises that Aussie-specific sports titles can, and have been, successful locally, although that success has been inconsistent as quality varies from title to title. He believes in order to maintain consistency developers working on these titles need to produce quality products.

"Developers need to be very switched on in the development process and adopt a multi-title approach--don't bite off more than you can chew all at once, and focus down on a few key features and innovations," he said.

“Any sports game is challenging to create, especially when those sports are team based. There is always a lot of content and data that has to be very accurate and detailed, you have to replicate the sport in a way that feels authentic but fun for one or more people to play and you need it to complement what is happening in the real world. Sports fans are very passionate, and if there is any area of a sports game that isn't up to scratch they will let you know about it. Sometimes Aussie sports titles have delivered on this core experience. Other times they haven't. Inconsistency in quality is the downfall here which has made gamers cautious.

“I think Australian gamers are very critical of Aussie sports titles, and rightly so. They are more emotionally invested in a local sport, and an Aussie sports title is going to end up on the shelf at the same price as Madden of FIFA, so why not compare directly. But at the same time we need local gamers to understand the challenges on working on smaller budgets, and that improving the quality if products will require long term investment and support in the various franchises.”

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It’s hard for Aussie sports games to match the scope of games like EA Sports' FIFA franchise.

Wynands says bringing Aussie sports titles to market is becoming much more viable with the improved graphics, sound and online functionality of consoles like the Xbox 360 and PS3.

“What we need to do when developing Aussie sports is pick our battles. We need to pick out those things that are important and make sure we deliver those things to their fullest potential at the highest quality possible. So while we might never match the scope of titles like Madden or FIFA, we can certainly match the quality in what we do have.”

Aussie sports games snapshot

Now that we know some developers think, it’s time to look at the games themselves, beginning with a brief history of AFL, rugby union, rugby league and cricket games, including game quality, the best and worst reviewed, those with and without commercial success, evolution, and some of the highlights of recent years.

AFL

Critical reception of past AFL titles have been somewhat ordinary. The majority were developed by Australian-based development studio Transmission Games, formerly known as IR Gurus, and published by mostly three publishers: EA, Acclaim, and Sony, with the majority of these titles received poor reviews. The highest reviewed AFL game on GameSpot was AFL Premiership 2006 for the PS2 (developed by IR Gurus and published by Sony), with a score of 6.2. GameSpot praised the game for its depth in career mode, exhaustive list of real-life players, and training modes. However, its negative points proved too overwhelming: clunky controls, less than satisfactory AI, bad player animations and a lacklustre mission mode. GameSpot also reviewed AFL Premiership 2007 for the PS2 (developed by IR Gurus and published by Sony), giving it a score of 5.5 for its lack of improvement since the previous title. Speaking about the latter game, managing director of Sony Computer Entertainment Australia Michael Ephraim said in a statement to the media: “It’s very exciting to have an Australian team like IR Gurus behind the development of this title. The synergy between Australia’s leading football code, Sony Computer Entertainment Australia and one of Australia’s finest development teams can only mean that this game will be a huge hit with Aussie football fans.” Unfortunately, the game wasn't a huge hit, either with fans or with critics.

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AFL Premiership 2007 was touted by Sony to be a hit; unfortunately, it wasn't.

However, Sony has continued its support of the game, this year announcing AFL Challenge and Rugby League Challenge as two exclusive PSP titles to be developed locally by Melbourne-based Wicked Witch Software. According to Sony, 2009 marks the fifth year of the publisher’s official partnership with both codes, with PlayStation sponsoring the AFL Umpires each season. Sony says its AFL and NRL sporting franchises combined have sold over 370,000 games on the PS2 to date. In comparison to this figure, EA Sports’ FIFA Soccer 09, the fastest-selling instalment in the football franchise, sold over 1.2 million copies in its first week of sale in Europe alone, topping the UK, Ireland and Denmark charts.

Rugby league

Rugby league titles may be fewer in number than AFL titles, but they have certainly enjoyed more success. The first rugby league title to be developed was EA Sports’ Australian Rugby League for the Sega Genesis in 1994. Since then, only a handful of other league titles have surfaced. The best known are Rugby League (2003) and Rugby League 2 (2005) for the PC, Xbox and PS2, both developed by New Zealand studio Sidhe Interactive. Both titles received favourable attention from gamers, who had not seen a rugby league title since EA’s 1994 release.

When an early pre-alpha demo of NRL Rugby League was released in December 2002, the game received a positive response from gamers and prompted a number of fan sites; when the game was released a year later, it received numerous positive critic reviews. According to Wikipedia, fans of the game did not stop their support of the title, pushing for a sequel and commenting on ways the gameplay could be improved. Rugby League 2 was announced in February 2005 along with its own website, which featured a forum hosted by Sidhe Interactive, where fans could discuss the title and talk directly with the developer. Since that time, thousands of ideas from fans on ways to improve the game’s features have been submitted, ideas that Sidhe took on board before releasing Rugby League 2: World Cup Edition exclusively for the PS2 in November 2008.

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NRL Rugby League was a big success with fans of the game, prompting a sequel from Sidhe Interactive.

Also according to Wikipedia, Rugby League 2’s online functionality proved particularly successful at the time of its release and beyond, being the first (and only) game of its kind to go online. Since its release, thousands of online games have been played.

Rugby union

Rugby union is not a uniquely Australian sport. The sport not only has a lot more games dedicated to it than AFL or rugby league, but a lot of titles have also known international success. One of the earliest rugby union games was Rugby: The World Cup, published by Domark and released in 1991 for the Commodore 64.

In 1994, EA Sports began releasing its own rugby games, starting with Rugby World Cup '95 for the Sega Genesis, and moving into its flagship rugby series with Rugby for the PS2 in 2001. Acclaim followed suit, releasing World Championship Rugby in 2004 for the PC, Xbox and PS2, while Ubisoft joined the action with Rugby Challenge 2006 for the PS2. However, EA Sports’ series has seen the most success, with titles in 2005, 2006, and 2008. To date, all games in the series have featured Australian players and team members.

Critic response to EA Sports’ rugby series has been largely favourable, each title improving on the last. GameSpot gave EA Sports’ Rugby, released in 2001, a score of 6.8 for its lacklustre graphics, which did not compare to other EA Sports PS2 titles of the time such as FIFA or Madden. The series improved with time: Rugby 2005 scored 7.1 while Rugby 06 scored 7.6.

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EA Sports' Rugby 06 proved the highest scoring rugby game on GameSpot, with a score of 7.6.

Cricket

Like rugby union, cricket is a sport that is not uniquely Australian. More cricket games have been produced than any other Aussie-centric sports, by both local and international developers. Also unlike the sports mentioned above, cricket titles continue to be prolific year on year, improving in both quality and popularity.

The three most popular and long-running cricket titles belong to publishers EA Sports, Codemasters and Empire Interactive. EA Sports kicked off its cricket series in 2000 with Cricket 2000 for the PlayStation. Codemasters began its best-selling cricket series Brian Lara Cricket on the PlayStation in 1998 (endorsed by West Indian cricketer Brian Lara), while Empire Interactive has had success with its International Cricket Captain which launched on the PC in 1998. Atari entered the scene this year with the upcoming Ashes Cricket 2009 on the Xbox 360, PS3 and PC and includes all the official players from the Australian and English teams.

Codemasters’ Brian Lara International Cricket 2007 is currently GameSpot’s highest rating cricket title, with a score of 7.5 for its accessibility and online play offering 16-team tournaments. The title was shipped during the 2007 Cricket World Cup in order to maximise sales on the PC, PS2 and Xbox 360. The 360 build was the first console port in the series in high-definition widescreen, which, along with graphic and gameplay improvements such as analogue direction control when batting, made the title successful.

EA Sports’ Cricket 07 received a GameSpot score of 7.3 while Empire Interactive’s International Cricket Captain 2008 and International Cricket Captain 2006 received scores of 5.5 and 6.3 respectively, GameSpot’s lowest scores for cricket titles. GameSpot’s biggest criticism of the games was their lack of improvement from one version to the next, in terms of game functionality.

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Empire Interactive's International Cricket Captain 2006 was among the highest scoring cricket titles on GameSpot.

The answer?

There’s no doubt that games based on Aussie sports have a real fan base locally. However, while cricket, AFL, rugby league, and rugby union games all generally sell well, critics and gamers alike recognise the difference in quality between such titles and titles based on other sports such as American football or soccer. After speaking to local developers, it seems Peter Moore was right: the problem is budget and the size of the Australian market. These factors are not likely to change anytime soon, but that does not mean the future of Aussie-centric sports games is doomed, with local developers like Transmission Games and Sidhe Interactive continuing to strive to create new products while recognising the difficulties of working in a niche market with a limited budget.

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