Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Rating Players in Sports Games

If you read my NHL 10 review you probably noted I devoted a fair bit of time to whining about how players are rated in the game. Not specific players mind you. There’s nothing more annoying than that guy who cannot accept that his favorite player got a 92 overall when, dammit, everyone knows the dude’s mad skillz make him a 96! WTF, yo?!?!

No, my beef with player ratings in NHL 10 (which is a great game overall) is that, on a 100 point scale, the vast majority of players have an overall rating between 75 and 85. Every single overall team rating is between 85 and 90, which is something that I suspect kills the sim engine (in terms of win/loss results, not player stats). On spec, I also think that range is just crazy narrow, but I’m honestly not sure how much it really detracts from play on the ice. I mean just how much a point or two difference in a skill rating affects how a player performs on the ice is incredibly subjective; it’s a point that an EA Sports rep on the Operation Sports forums fairly made when commenting about my review.

While I was writing up a response to his post, though, I got to thinking: At what point did we all decide that presenting gamers with player ratings on this inexplicable 100 point scale makes any lick of sense whatsoever? Regardless of the actual impact any specific rating has on gameplay, I think there’s a real usability issue here. For the sake of this post I’m going to focus on NHL 10, but I think this is applicable to most any sports game, even Madden, which has done phenomenal work at making these ratings really matter.

Seriously now, what are you telling the guy at home booting up NHL 10 when you present him with a list of 30 teams in which 90%(?) of the NHL players, graded on a 100 point scale, have an overall rating between 75 and 85? It’s completely meaningless. It is without meaning.

Now, I realize that, as a gamer, if you're going to really analyze this you can't go by just an overall rating and you have to look at how specific skills are rated relative to the player's position and role. (The notion of players having roles is a great asset to NHL 10, btw.) At the same time, though, you have to be realistic. Most gamers, when confronted with a free agent screen, are going to want to look at a player and say, "Okay, which of these guys here is The Balls." (Answer: Ron Burgundy.) So, when you see this list of player names, positions and overall ratings, what separates a guy rated an 83 from a host of players listed right behind him rated an 81 or 80? In terms of what it’s going to mean to your team if you sign the guy it means absolutely nothing. It’s worthless information that in no way helps you play the game. If you’re going to make an informed decision you have to dig, and just how many buttons must you push and how many menus must you go back and forth on to get the detail necessary to figure it out? Too damned many.

The user would be better served if, when the player is highlighted, the top of the screen included a couple sentences from the team scout that said:

Player X is in the top 10% of defensemen in the league. He is positionally sound, not a big hitter, and is effective on the powerplay.

Now, I’m not saying this is the best route to go, nor that there aren’t complications in this example too. This is completely off the cuff. But having this statement appear on, for example, the main free agent screen when I highlight a player would instantly tell me way more about him than seeing that he’s an 84 overall. How good is this guy? Well, he’s in the top 10% of league defenseman, but if I’m looking to make my team more physical, he’s probably not my guy. At that point, if I want to know more, by all means, have me click a button and send me to a more detailed screen that specifically addresses individual skills (but does so using criteria that actually means something).

NHL 10 has a kind of neat little spherical graphic on the player trade screen that lets you get a sense of how two different players compare based on, I think, four criteria. It’s something like offense, defense, athleticism, and smarts, but don’t quote me on that. The only problem with it is that it’s a smallish graphic that can be hard to read and, well, as a concept it’s completely underutilized. We need more stuff like that.

At the end of the day, I really don’t care what sort of system a game uses under the hood. If players are rated based on a 1000 point scale but only have ratings between 455 and 460 and that somehow manages to produce convincing results in gameplay and in simulation, then hey, that’s fine with me. Just keep me away from that madness when I’m trying to manage a franchise. Give me information where and when I need it and ensure that it's both concise and meaningful.