The Sliders Point Toward Madness

He grew up big, and he grew up tough. He saw himself scoring for the Wings or Canucks... but he wasn't that good with a puck. - Warren Zevon, "Hit Somebody! (The Hockey Song)"

The Penguins are on the attack, four men arrayed on the east side of the ice around the Bruins' goal, with a wing hovering off to the goalie's right. They're up two goals against the Bruins and look ready to tack more points onto their lead. The offense keeps flicking the puck from the faceoff circle and back to the blue line, but they can't get any closer to the goal thanks to an aggressive and apparently tireless Bruins' defense. The tension is reaching a fever pitch in TD Garden, a few miles away from where I sit watching on TV, but I find I'm becoming obsessed with the passing game and disengaging with the rest of the match. I'm seeing a ton of successful passes that look nothing like the hockey I see in NHL 11, and now I want to turn off the Bruins game and go fix the setting sliders.

I probably don't need to do this to myself. The sports world is full of people who will test games and run statistics comparisons between virtual sports and their real-life analogues, tweaking settings until the video game closely resembles reality. But I'm hesitant to use their work. As I get more comfortable with NHL 11's controls, the responsibilities of my position, and learn more about hockey, what I want from the game changes. I'm smart enough to realize that what I want isn't reality, but a simulation of how I perceive reality.

I know this is wanting to have my cake and eat it. On the one hand, I want sports sims to be a window on the sports that have increasingly colonized my spare time. While I have fond memories of games like Tecmo Bowl, I harbor no desire to go back to the days when some fast fingers on the D-pad could turn every kick returner into Devin Hester. My enjoyment and appreciation of sports is enhanced by good sims, and vice versa. For me to be invested in a sports game, it has to feel authentic.

Emphasis on feel. I don't necessarily want a simulation that produces the most realistic outcomes, but one that convinces me of its realism while I am playing it, which means one that flatters my own distorted view of the sport. For instance, I tend to watch the Blackhawks, the Penguins, and the Bruins. The kind of hockey I want to play is the kind I'm seeing right now between the Penguins and Bruins, with fast play, good passes, and tough battles around the blue line. To me, that's hockey, and that's what I'm not seeing enough of in NHL 11.

But here's the rub: my NHL 11 avatar isn't playing with any of these teams. He's playing with the Florida Panthers, a team that in real life is enjoying a profoundly undistinguished season. So I'm left wondering whether the simulation is flawed, because my fictional Panthers don't play like the Penguins do on TV, or if the game is accurately illustrating the difference between a good team and a middling one. On TV, the Penguins and Bruins are executing plays and slapping passes across the ice. My Panthers flail a lot, and seem genuinely bewildered by the movement of the puck.

Then there is my own imperfect contribution to the game's drama. NHL 11 is the first hockey game I've played since the Super Nintendo, and I'm semi-competent at best. Rob Zacny, left wing for the Florida Panthers, is one of the league leaders in penalty minutes and turnovers. He has a tendency to get frustrated and has twice injured his shoulder delivering vicious body checks to the glass. He's officially designated a playmaker, but he doesn't make plays so much as he shells opposing goal tenders with pucks. When his coach implores him to "make better passes out there," he often hears, "Go and kick somebody's ass." His play has steadily improved throughout his rookie season, but he still poses a problem for me as I consider my game settings. Do I want realism, even if it makes my avatar an unrealistically inept player? Or do I want a forgiving, slightly too-easy sim where I can get the hang of my position?

For now, I enjoy the slider minigame, because it lets me adjust NHL 11 to reflect how I understand hockey. As I adjust to that new level of simulation, I start to see other areas where it's deficient, and I have new things to watch for during games. As the fictional and real-world hockey seasons continue in near-tandem, my involvement and appreciation for the sport increase. But I can already spot the trouble on the horizon. Even now, there are some little annoyances that sliders can't fix. A penalty that's called just a little too often, or a tendency on the part of the AI to repeat itself on offense. Small things, easy to overlook at first, but eventually they start taking me out of the experience.

And then I'm going to start looking toward NHL 12 and NHL 13 to fix the issues. More sliders, more granular settings. At first I will simply hope, and then I will demand. Because while I'm not a hockey professional, I play one on TV.

Comments

I've actually become less and less interested in the NHL franchise as its become less and less accessible. I'm of the opinion that making them more and more realistic and simmy is defeating the purpose - whenever you're setting the game up so that you can have the same score and tempo in 15 minutes of videogame that you would in 60 minutes of play, you're already moving so far beyond the realm of reality that I wonder what the point is in even trying. All I know is that I've lost interest in slogging through regular season game after regular season game on my own, and that my friends that I enjoyed playing NHL03 and the like with on the couch have become frustrated with the increasing complexity of the controls and gameplay.

I'm generally more interested in my teams than any particular sport, so I don't even consider picking up a title unless my team's players are ranked well. That usually means I'm only playing when the team did well the previous year, though, and often get upset that the real team isn't playing up to EA's offseason expectations.

I have become less interested in the slider "mini game" over the years. You can obsess over them to a degree that ruins the game. I generally start out on Pro to get a feel for the game then move to all star when my skills improve. When people adjust sliders it generally means they are adjusting to their current skill level, but it also means they are adjusting for the talent of the particular team they are controlling. It's a daunting task for a developer to come up with a slider set that will be equally enjoyable to a majority of their fans. I think NHL 11 does a pretty good job with the default all pro sliders. Especially when you remember that the game is a representation of a real life event and it can't encapsulate the entirety of nuances involved in actually playing the sport.

Nice article Rob! I've considered the same things, since I'm dipping my toe back into sports gaming for the first time in years with NHL 11. Mainly, I play online against random people, so it doesn't behoove me to switch up the sliders for play vs. the computer when online play would shuffle me right back to the defaults. The online play does tend to devolve into a few money plays that I can't defend or execute, frustratingly so. The pass across the face of the goal to one timer and unstoppable freestyle left to right deke while skating at an acute angle across the crease leave me in appreciation of others' skill but disappointed over the lack of realism or variety. How many times can I see the same puck juggling and landing on the goalie's back save without any chance for me to knock the puck in? In some sense I think the realism of game play in NHL 11 has hit some kind of strange uncanny valley.

Ice hockey... that's a bit like curling, right?

Flying_Norseman wrote:

When people adjust sliders it generally means they are adjusting to their current skill level, but it also means they are adjusting for the talent of the particular team they are controlling. It's a daunting task for a developer to come up with a slider set that will be equally enjoyable to a majority of their fans.

There are some weird problems with this level of customization when you bump up against another player whose settings are very different from your own. Whose settings do you use? Does the 'home team' (or 'home PlayStation') advantage apply?

carrotpanic wrote:

Mainly, I play online against random people, so it doesn't behoove me to switch up the sliders for play vs. the computer when online play would shuffle me right back to the defaults.

Or, in this case, the 'default' sliders... which negate any advantages of customization regardless. Reminds me a bit of tournament FPS games: there are tools provided that people use to create thousands of multiplayer maps, but you only ever see competition on 2 or 3 'default' maps anyway.

I tried a playmaker for a while, but eventually settled on a Power Forward, as that's how I play the game anyway. Clumsily brutish. Once I had a named role for my style I felt like I was being rewarded for doing my job well and enjoyed it more.

I came back to the NHL series with NHL 10 (waiting for NHL 11 to get cheap) and I too played the slider game.

I spent a lot of time trying to get the feel just right. I like the arcade-style with lots of hitting, shooting, and very few penalties. It just feels more intense.

If anyone can remember:

I played a Wayne Gretzky arcade 2v2 hockey game on an old console that was awesome, but I can't remember the name, year, or system. It was like NBA Jam, but for hockey. Lots of big hits and crazy animations. For example, when the goalie was on a streak, he would actually turn into a wall on some shots and the announcer would shout, "that goalie is a wall!"

Can I be the only person who argues in favor of sliders and realism? Speaking as someone who loves simulations, and is currently playing NBA 2K11, the basic game just doesn't cut it at the default settings for me. So I did a little hunting, found a set, played a game, tweaked them a little more, and hit a sweet spot that i'm enjoying the beejezus out of.

Part of the use of sliders is that their implementation itself can be done badly. EA's generally had issues here because their sliders don't have drastic and easily verifiable gameplay results. You move it two clicks left, and to see what the result is, you have to play almost 10 games to see what the difference is.

When I was tweaking my NBA sliders, I looked at the basic stats after the games. Were teams shooting at a realistic percentage? Was Kevin Durant taking the majority of shots, or was some scrub off the bench?

Wanting realism in a game, even a sports game doesn't strike me as inherently bad, even at the exchange of complexity. I don't mean to deride titles like NBA Jam as "shallow", but there are times when I want to skate up the ice and blast a cartoonish laser not past, but through the opposing goalkeeper, and then there are times when I want to be rewarded for intelligent puck-movement on the power play, for taking smart shots and playing good defense, rather than bodychecking everything that moves. I'm not saying that doing that in a game is a bad thing, but there's space for both. There's nothing wrong with huge abstractions that slew to the arcadey (let's say, Risk, for argument's sake) nor is there anything wrong with games trying to give you an idea of the breadth of things going on in reality that you'll never actually get to experience (Europa Universalis III).

With the High Heat Baseball series, which had a huge and in-depth suite of sliders, I used to spend more time tweaking sliders than actually playing. For me, once I came to the realization that I was looking for a slider suite that fit my own perception of the game, and the understanding that no sports sim is totally realistic when it allows player input such as trying to deke the Goalie every time with some lumbering defenseman. Good sliders are about pushing the game into an area you feel comfortable with, and (usually) eliminating some of the more spectacular BS that appears on the default levels, but again, there has to be give-and-take.

I like simulation style play too, but it is near impossible, like you said, to find the right settings. I think if the studios took it more seriously (like the racing sims. do) it might work out better and be more enjoyable. I would definitely play more sim. style if I the devs. play tested the hell out of the game and balanced it just right. They do have the presets, but none of them feels quite right. I use stats. much like you do, to try and tweak the sliders, but it usually doesn't have the result I am looking for and becomes very tedious.

I think these sports games are designed for casual same room multiplayer. That has always bee the great appeal and focus of the gameplay. A ton of people have outgrown that and now just play online and on their own,. It would be nice if they focussed on making a really well polished simulation version like in Gran Tourismo and Forza.

heavyfeul wrote:

I like simulation style play too, but it is near impossible, like you said, to find the right settings. I think if the studios took it more seriously (like the racing sims. do) it might work out better and be more enjoyable. I would definitely play more sim. style if I the devs. play tested the hell out of the game and balanced it just right. They do have the presets, but none of them feels quite right. I use stats. much like you do, to try and tweak the sliders, but it usually doesn't have the result I am looking for and becomes very tedious.

I think these sports games are designed for casual same room multiplayer. That has always bee the great appeal and focus of the gameplay. A ton of people have outgrown that and now just play online and on their own,. It would be nice if they focussed on making a really well polished simulation version like in Gran Tourismo and Forza.

It's not quite impossible to find the right settings, you just have to be willing to cut a deal between what the game is realistically capable of and what you're happy with. Frankly, one of the things I hate about the PES and FIFA series is that they don't give me any sliders to toy with, to fix what I find to be sorely lacking or unrealistic in their titles (they don't even have to give me a bunch, just give me like, six).

The closest sports games come to GTA and Forza is pretty much down to what 2K puts out. EA has generally made sims with a lot of arcade elements, and that increases their appeal and pulls in buku-bucks for them (seriously, if you think the controls for NHL 11 are overly-complex, don't ever even look in NBA 2K11's direction). There are really well-polished sports Sims out there, but it's Out of the Park Baseball and Football Manager et al. I don't think it's possible to make a, say, ArmA2-style sports sim when you allow for so much primary input from the player. As long as you're giving me the option to I directly funnel my offense through Derek Boogard, it's never quite going to be a sim.

Something else i've noticed, is that a lot of people i've seen talking on GWJ about their loves/misgivings about various sports games are playing in the newfangled "Be A Pro" modes that all games have. Which I understand, but I don't see a reason for criticizing them as much when using that mode. Considering that all of these games have clear and obvious AI flaws in normal play, those problems frequently become even more exacerbated when you strip yourself of the GM-like control of Franchise mode and tell the AI to handle everything else. That's how you end up with the last play of the game being run for your Center, when you're down 3.

Concave wrote:

Ice hockey... that's a bit like curling, right?

From what I can tell that looks like an accurate assessment, kind of like curling mixed with rugby.

I find the idea of sports games really interesting, but I have no familiarity with the usual suspects and EA only puts out a rugby game every 5 years or so. Codemasters does release the Ashes cricket game though, which sounds like it's improving, but they only license English and Aussie players.

Maybe there will be World Cup games for both sports this year.

Thanks for this, Rob.

I can now point to someone on the internet and say "boy, that guy as a complete geek", without having to resort to images of people dressed up for cosplay. This is new for me; I'm a particle physicist who likes Doctor Who. So thanks for that.

I like sliders, they give us a lot more options than we had just a few years back.

Haven't touched them much in NBA 2k11, really enjoying the base game in My Player. I've discussed the hell out of it in the catch-all, but I joined one of the middle teams in the west and as my character has improved, the team has had a couple of winning streaks and held strong to 2nd in the west and 3rd overall. Shooting %s are always about right, and PPG too, for the 8-min quarters I play and the AI teams sim. The only thing that has really bothered me is the contact on driving where a defender bumps you and you lose your dribble or stop and pick it up. That should be a foul. I dunno if there's a block/charge slider somewhere but I should look I guess...

In NCAA 11 I've already played with the penalty sliders a bit, to keep my varsity game more enjoyable. But I haven't tried gameplay stuff yet. I'm still learning my playbook and getting used to audibles and so on. Starting to win games by 2-3 TDs though in my dynasty, so I'm trying to debate between turning up the difficulty or tweaking the sliders on Varsity that I have been playing on. Again it's great to have options.

Sometimes turning up the difficulty just lets the AI team or players cheat in some ways that your guys can't. Interceptions/steals in football/basketball without ever turning around or seeing the ball, and stuff like that. So sliders give us an option at least. More options is always good.

They certainly give more options these days, I just do not have the patience to change->test->change->test, etc. till they are suitable. I gave up on NHL 10 and just went arcadey, which was a lot easier to dial in and a lot of fun to play.

Also, there seems to be, at least in NHL 10, a lot of last minute come from behind wins, by the computer. Feels really unfair. There seems to be some Mario Kart-esque rubberbanding going on in the game, which breaks the simulation feel. Maybe it works well playing a human (keeps the game close and exciting), I have no idea, but it made me want to chuck my controller several times playing against the computer.

I also tried the mode where you play a single position. Sitting on the bench and in the penalty box while the game goes on was too frustrating. So, since I just play in puppet master mode, the simulation aspects don't seem as important or relevant in the god's eye view.

I am not anti-slider or anything, It just seems like a poorly implemented stop-gap to a real simulation game. But, I don't think the developers are all that interested in making it a true simulation type game, so, while they throw features in to service the marketing (most realistic hockey game ever!), it isn't elegantly designed and implemented. I just never get the feeling that the gamemakers really embrace that type pf gameplay enough to spend some significant development time and money on it. They wouldn't be able to release every year if they did though, so it will never happen unless there is a new NHL game built from the bottom-up.

Prederick wrote:

Can I be the only person who argues in favor of sliders and realism? Speaking as someone who loves simulations, and is currently playing NBA 2K11, the basic game just doesn't cut it at the default settings for me. So I did a little hunting, found a set, played a game, tweaked them a little more, and hit a sweet spot that i'm enjoying the beejezus out of.

I'm with you here. I just starting playing NHL 11 on a recommendation after not having played any console sports games for ages. I have avoided them for a long time for the reason that the so-called "simulations" seemed to be totally divorced from reality. I want a game to be "fun" but much of MY "fun" comes from experiencing things I would not realistically get to experience with some level of fidelity. Professional ice hockey is one of those things. My inexperience with console gaming in general is making it tough to get used to the controls and I am having some frustration due to that, but the inaccessibility of the control scheme is another story, and one I am hoping to overcome with time.

The first thing I did after being unsatisfied with the default gameplay was to hit the internet and find a set of sliders that worked to increase the realistic feel of the game. I've got one or two tweaks to be made, but taking that time has made a world of difference in my enjoyment of the game. Do I realize the game is still not totally realistic? Of course, but the feel of the game and the numbers it produces are close enough to make me feel pleased by the results. I want a slower, more deliberate game where my shot positioning matters and defense is important. I've got a lot of work to do on my actual ability to control my player's actions, but at least I have found a setting that seems to support my perception of what hockey should be.

heavyfeul wrote:

I am not anti-slider or anything, It just seems like a poorly implemented stop-gap to a real simulation game. But, I don't think the developers are all that interested in making it a true simulation type game, so, while they throw features in to service the marketing (most realistic hockey game ever!), it isn't elegantly designed and implemented. I just never get the feeling that the gamemakers really embrace that type pf gameplay enough to spend some significant development time and money on it. They wouldn't be able to release every year if they did though, so it will never happen unless there is a new NHL game built from the bottom-up.

I'm not completely sure that it is true that the devs are not interested in simulation. While I think Madden definitely aims towards the casual player I feel like hockey is a slightly different animal. There are tons of casual Madden players but hockey more of a niche sport and I expect a larger proportion of buyers are serious fans looking for a more realistic game. The trouble comes that many are, at the same time, also looking for the chance to play quick pick-up games against their friends. Providing both experiences in one package is tough and trade offs have to be made. There's also the additional problem of what can be expected out of a console. Even with all the impressive things they can do, they are still in some ways very limited particularly in terms of processing speed and RAM.

*Legion* wrote:

The problem is realism. Realism is a good thing, but we're in an uncanny valley of sports realism. It's done too well to go back to the smoke-and-mirrors mechanical and scripted "tricks" that old sports games used to rely on. But it's still not good enough to avoid crumbling before players that poke and prod it and find the exploitable holes.

That sounds familiar to me

To me, what ruins sports games isn't slider issues, but exploitability.

My interest in hockey games falls like a rock when scoring becomes about exploiting a few shooting tricks instead of the game rewarding good offensive teamplay.

My interest in football games has bottomed out since only one company makes them now, and they truly can't figure out how to make defensive backs work.

My interest in boxing games sputters when the winning strategy becomes punch-spam instead of something that we could call a sweet science.

The problem is realism. Realism is a good thing, but we're in an uncanny valley of sports realism. It's done too well to go back to the smoke-and-mirrors mechanical and scripted "tricks" that old sports games used to rely on. But it's still not good enough to avoid crumbling before players that poke and prod it and find the exploitable holes.

It used to be we were willing to turn a blind eye towards realism mechanical failures if the game could still come up with a good realistic result. Honestly, if you look at NFL2K5 now, it is a comedy of mechanical failings. But we forgave many of them because even if stupid stuff happened on that 12-yard pass play, the result still felt good: 12-yard pass plays happened about as often as they should, and when they seemed like they should.

Now, sports game development is so caught up in the realistic mechanics that the AI failures mean that the results no longer feel right. Objectively, defensive backs look a lot more like real defensive backs, but the breakdowns mean that the result feels a lot worse.

The problem is realism.

I think that's the crux. I think that the pursuit of realism is a double-edged blade that injures the wielder more often than anyone else. To switch metaphors, when you tie yourself to the mast of realism, you're likely to go down with the ship.

*Legion* wrote:

To me, what ruins sports games isn't slider issues, but exploitability.

My interest in hockey games falls like a rock when scoring becomes about exploiting a few shooting tricks instead of the game rewarding good offensive teamplay.

My interest in football games has bottomed out since only one company makes them now, and they truly can't figure out how to make defensive backs work.

My interest in boxing games sputters when the winning strategy becomes punch-spam instead of something that we could call a sweet science.

And this is how. When you're tied to that realism idea, the stakes are much higher as regards any breaks from realism—and the chances that your game ages well plummet.

I think it's time that creatives recognized that the uncanny valley isn't just about robotics and isn't just about visuals, but is about all attempts for the artificial to mimic the natural.