The Sports Desk – The Death Of The Franchise Mode
Even with a yearly schedule for many sports games, you never know what you're going to get. What's the focus this year? Did the developers fix that thing? Is there a new feature or direction they're taking? I don't know if it's a coincidence or what, but some of this year's titles have created an overall trend that I hope only applies to this year: The lack of features for games' franchise/GM modes over online collection modes.
As I've mentioned before, my favorite mode in sports games is franchise mode. The ascendancy and lucrative nature of Ultimate Team-type modes (a term I'll use to cover all the player collection modes including Diamond Dynasty, MyClub, etc.), however, seems to be related to the relative stasis of the franchise modes.
First, here's a non-exhaustive look at what some of what this year's sports games have done with their Franchise modes:
- Madden 18 – More injuries, ability to jump into a franchise mid-season, draft day big board, regression/XP progression tweaks
- FIFA 18 – Transfer cutscenes, compressed player/team negotiation timeframe, automated training rollover
- NBA Live – Play the Moments and player leveling features like Madden. Overall, however, the mode is simply lacking in too many areas.
- NHL 18 – Expansion draft feature using Las Vegas Knights or created team, prospect/young player progression tweaks, mid-season contract extensions
- MLB The Show 17 – Quick Manage and Critical Situations sim features, player quirks
- Pro Evolution Soccer 18 – Challenge mode for Master League, pre-season tour, release clauses
- NBA 2K18 – Adding story/choice elements to MyGM franchise mode, pre-free agency moratorium period, analytics for player scouting
While these titles contain some changes, big franchise mode shakeups have been needed for years in practically all of this year's games – something that only NBA 2K18 arguably delivers. For instance, FIFA's transfer and morale systems have been the same, with the former not offering up enough players to try and sign even if you tweak your scout instructions, and the latter a nice feature, but very basic and exploitable. Not addressed by the mode are other necessary features such as more managerial influence, dynamism from players during the transfer windows, and more fan/league flavor in general. Madden's Connected Franchise Mode has changed its game planning system and tweaked its menu presentation in recent years, but free agency and the draft/player scouting simply don't capture the real-life excitement of these times in the sport.
Of course, this isn't just an EA problem. Konami's Master League mode needs an overhaul, and NASCAR Heat 2 changed its franchise mode this year to put in new racing series, but it's actually worse than last year's.
Reworking a game's franchise mode within a single yearly development schedule is a big task for any studio, but my larger concern is that this year's dip in form is more of a trend than a coincidence. Online modes with the ability to add content and include lucrative microtransactions represents a more profitable path for a developer's time – so much so that I start to wonder if this is just the way it's going to be from now on.
A possible way out of this is for companies to release two versions of a game at different, sub-$60 price points – a regular game without an Ultimate Team mode and a code to an always-evolving digital platform for a franchise's Ultimate Team mode. This way gamers are only paying for what they want to invest in, which changes expectations and allows them to more directly apply their money where they feel it should go. But, with many of these sports titles being perennial million-sellers and beyond, there's no reason for these companies to change what's already working well.
Previously, I've talked to an EA developer about this mode-split possibility, but they said that this is unlikely, as the company likes to keep everything together so that gamers have the chance to play a mode that they might not always partake in. Splitting the two seemingly at-odds modes also isn't likely to happen because it necessitates two sets of equally focused and funded development teams – something unlikely to happen in an era when most dev teams are probably happy not to shrink. Of course, a series like NBA 2K has successfully worked on its multiple modes over the years, so it's not impossible to do two things at once.
Despite these pessimistic thoughts, I still hope that sports games franchise modes (excluding pure sim games like Football Manager or Out Of The Park Baseball, for instance) continue to grow year-upon-year, and I do think developers will continue to work on them. The NBA 2K18 franchise is an example that it's possible to grow your franchise mode and still address other parts of the title at the same time. The series is wildly successful (year-round, too), possibly proving that gamers appreciate Visual Concepts' wholistic approach. Hopefully growth in one mode in a game doesn't have to come at the sacrifice of another.
Missed some of the previous Sports Desk entries? Take a look at the past installments via our Hub page by clicking on the banner below.
GT Sport (PS4) - October 17
Football Manager 2018 (PC) - November 10
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