I recently posted a new video to my YouTube channel about my frustrations with the design of Control's "challenging" gameplay. I'm not going to transcribe the entire video here on the blog because most of what is in the video is already in my previous written review of the game.

In summary, the video compares the "tough but fair" design philosophy of From Software's games (most notably, Dark Souls) with the way that difficulty is implemented in Control. Even though I found Control to be a much easier game overall, and I suffered far fewer deaths in Control compared to Dark Souls, I did feel that Control lacked that "tough but fair" feeling that Dark Souls is famous for. Control uses a lot of seemingly cheap tricks to artificially inflate the difficulty of the game. If deliberate, then they are cheap tricks. If not deliberate, then they are faulty game design. I may not have died as often in Control, but the few deaths that I did suffer rarely felt deserved.

The full critique is available on YouTube.

The video also contrasts Control's healing system with that of Doom (2016) and Bloodborne. All three games seem to be trying to encourage fast-paced, aggressive play by rewarding the player with health for relentlessly assailing the enemy. Yet this intent doesn't come through as clearly in Control because the player needs to be close to where the enemy dies in order to pick up the health, but most of Control's action is done at medium or long range. Doom and Bloodborne, however, give health to the player when the player performs melee attacks, ensuring that even if the health is dropped on the ground as a pickup, that the player is always close enough to immediately get it if they need it.

One thing that I neglected to mention in the actual video, but which I want to add here, is that Control also has enemies with hit-scan weapons. Most enemies have machine guns that instantly damage the player if the enemy has line of sight. Attacks are not always projectiles that travel across the arena and which can be dodged, blocked, or otherwise avoided. This means that exposing yourself to crossfire is almost certain death if your health is critical in Control, and it contributes to the player needing to slow things down and play cautiously and defensively, instead of maintaining that fast-paced, aggressive play.

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Madden NFL - title

I don't think I've ever played a football game that feels like it truly nails special teams play. Madden has been especially bad at this phase of football for a very long time, and has largely neglected it year-in and year-out. Every now and then, a release comes out that focuses on special teams, but the upgrade is never as comprehensive as it should be. I was considering making a video about all of special teams, but that's too big a topic to tackle in a single video, so I decided that it would be best to make shorter videos that each focus on specific aspects of special teams play.

While drafting the script for my previous video about pass blocking and pass rushing, I had started thinking about issues with blocking and rushing in special teams, and thought I'd do a video about one specific specialist position that has been a personal crusade of mine for quite a few years now. I'll surely discuss more of Madden's special teams failings in future videos. But for today, I want to talk about how Madden completely fails to do justice to an oft-overlooked and under-appreciated specialist position: the longsnapper.

The full video on YouTube contains additional commentary and examples.

I'm looking at this specific position for two reasons:

  1. I played on special teams in high school and worked alongside our longsnapper. He spent extra time before and after practices honing that skill.
  2. And the 2nd reason I'm covering this topic is: unlike other highly specialized positions like holder and kickoff coverage gunners, Madden actually includes Longsnappers as a position in the depth chart, but has never included any mechanics or rules that actually make the longsnapper a meaningful position on your team, or which differentiate who is a good longsnapper versus who is not.

As for my high school teammates on special teams: there were several of us who never would have seen playing time if not for our special teams duties. Instead of resigning ourselves to a life on the bench, as some other reserves had done, we carved out niches for ourselves, so that we could see more playing time. We worked hard to earn our positions, and the coaches noticed the hard work (especially if it was extra-curricular in nature), and they rewarded us with extra rotational reps on both offense and defense in relief of tired starters. My experience has lead me to respect special teamers, probably much more than most football fans.

Some of us reserve players would have never seen playing time if not for our specialist roles.

A Knee-Jerk Reaction

I remember proposing a "Longsnapping" rating on a YouTube comment or Madden forum like 6 or 7 years ago, and received absolutely vitriolic responses that largely boiled down to "having the outcome of a game decided by a random fluke like a botched snap would be horrible game design." It's a sentiment that does makes a certain degree of sense. Determining the outcome of a match by a die roll does seem like it would be bad video game design -- at least, outside of digital craps.

But hold on a minute. Is it really bad game design...?

Running backs have a rating that determines their likeliness to fumble. Quarterbacks have several ratings that determine the accuracy of passes. Receivers have several ratings that determine their likelihood to catch a pass. Linemen have ratings that determine if they whif on a block. Defenders have ratings that determine the likelihood of missing tackles. DBs have ratings that determine whether they blow a coverage. Kickers have ratings that determine if they miss a kick. Every player has ratings that determine if they get injured on any given play. All of these ratings can affect the outcome of a play or an entire game based on a random die roll. Heck, even coaches have ratings that determine how much players develop in the offseason or how likely free agents are to sign a contract. Ratings semi-randomly deciding the outcomes of games or entire seasons is apparently OK for literally every other position both on and off the field, but somehow having a rating that determines if a snap or special teams hold is botched is a bridge too far?!

Nobody complains about other positions having ratings that can randomly decide a game.

To be fair to the critics: if you're playing a 5 or 6-minute quarter pick-up game online or in Ultimate Team, and each team is only getting between 3 and 5 possessions the entire game, it does make sense that you wouldn't want your one and only attempt at a punt or field goal to go awry because of a fluke like a botched snap. In such a shortened game, it would swing the game wildly in one direction or the other, with little-to-no time or opportunity for a team to overcome such an unfortunate outcome. (I keep saying, every installment in this series is probably going to refer back to that first essay about quarter length.)

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Madden NFL - title

In the previous essay in this series about how Madden fails to simulate football, I discussed how QBs in real football go through their progressions to find open receivers to throw to. And then the second half pulled a bit of a bait-and-switch and turned into a pitch for the return of the QB Vision mechanic, or something analogous. Surprise!

I also briefly talked about how the goal of the defense is to cover the primary receiving threats long enough for the pass rush to disrupt the play. In the best of cases, the defense can cover the receivers long enough to sack the quarterback, or force him to make a bad throw into coverage that is intercepted. But sacks and interceptions aren't really the goal of the defense. The defense will, of course, be happy to take them when they happen, but no defensive play is really designed to force a sack or an interception.

The full video on YouTube contains additional commentary and examples.

Truth is that a lot of relatively mundane outcomes can be complete successes for the defense. Forcing the QB to throw before he can make his reads and set his feet so that he throws an inaccurate ball is a success. That is true whether the QB deliberately throws the ball into the sixth row of the stands, or if his rush to release the ball puts it inches out of reach of the receiver's outstretched fingertips, or if his inability to set his feet results in a weak, wobbly ball that bounces harmlessly at the receiver's feet. Or maybe the defense tips the pass or knocks it down such that the play gains no yards. All of those outcomes represent unqualified defensive success.

Defenses don't need sacks or turnovers to "win" a series.

If a defense can do this for three consecutive plays and force the offense to punt, then the defense did it's job, even if it isn't flashy, doesn't show up in a Chris Berman highlight reel, and doesn't light up a stat board. Heck, even forcing a check down that is completed for positive yards, but which does not result in a first down is still a success for the defense! Especially if it happens on 3rd or 4th down.

Of course, the defender who wants to pad his stats with a sack or interception, and get a big payday next time contract negotiations come along, might disagree.

EA's Madden video games apparently disagree as well. Since the pace of play in Madden is sped up to facilitate the shortened length of quarters, gaining yards and making first downs is really easy for the offense, but yet sacks are paradoxically too common.

Get used to hearing statements like that. Quarter length and game pacing was the first essay of the series for a reason! -- because it really is so fundamental to almost everything that is wrong with Madden. I would not be surprised if every single essay of this series will refer back to that first episode at least once or twice!

For much of Madden's history, pass rushers either have no impact on the play (because the QB can see the entire field and can hit any receiver on the field with the press of a button), or the pass rush downs the quarterback for a seven yard loss on a sack. Sometimes two or three times in a row if the game's scripting or an X-Factor ability decides that the defense should win this particular possession.

Playing Madden on 15-minute quarters, it's not uncommon to see each team pile up 5, 6, or 7 sacks by the end of the game. For reference, good NFL defenses usually average 2 or 3 sacks per game. You can adjust the difficulty level or the "Pass Blocking" A.I. sliders to reduce the frequency of sacks, but then this leads to the opposite problem of the pass rush being almost completely irrelevant, and QBs having the opportunity to complete more deep shots that inflates completion percentages, passing yards, and final scores.

On 15-minute quarters, it is not uncommon to see each defense record 5 or more sacks.
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I do not have particularly strong opinions one way or the other about the video game sub-genre known as "walking simulators" in general. I have strong opinions about some of the games that I've played within this genre, but I would not say that I either like or that I dislike "walking simulators" as a whole genre. Some work well and are good games. Others are un-engaging or lazy and didn't particularly work for me.

For example, I hated Dear Esther and Ether One. I was immensely disappointed in Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs, after having enjoyed The Dark Descent. But on the other side of the coin, I thoroughly adore Gone Home, Firewatch, and What Remains of Edith Finch.

Patrons had early access to the full video essay.

Are "Walking Sim" games?

So what is a "walking simulator"? Well, like with most things in pop culture, the definition will vary depending on who you ask. But I think most people would agree that a "walking simulator" can be accurately described as interactive entertainment that conveys a narrative almost exclusively through the exploration of an environment and the clues provided therein. You may notice that I used the term "interactive entertainment" as oppose to "video game". I did this in order to keep this discussion's definition as non-contentious as possible. One of the criticisms of walking simulators that I specifically wish to address is the idea that they are not video games, and such critics would immediately object to the use of the term "video game" in the definition. These experiences generally lack any of the violent conflict that is present in most video games, and the mechanics rarely go beyond navigating obstacles, solving puzzles, or managing a limited inventory.

While I am perfectly content to call walking simulators "video games", there are somewhat valid arguments for why the label might not be appropriate for such entertainment products. It could be argued that they are not video games because they lack conflict; they lack a traditional win state, fail state, or any stakes at all; and they lack mechanical depth or complex systems. I personally do not accept these arguments as disqualifying walking simulators from consideration as "video games". There are plenty of universally-accepted video games that also lack one, or even all three of those criteria.

Many games have lacked violence conflict, traditional win states, or complicated system mastery.
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Last year, I put up a poll asking my Patrons what topic they would like me to discuss in a video critique for the 2020 series of independent football video games. At the time, I only had a handful of Patrons, and the winning topic (which won by a single vote) was to discuss the "football knowledge" of Axis Football 2020 and Maximum Football 2020. At first, I wasn't sure if there would be enough for me to talk about, but I ended up having plenty of criticism. I broke the critique up into three broad topics, which were further divided up into sub topics. Each major topic received a video, and altogether they added up to over two hours -- the length of a feature film!

At the time that this is posted, only my Patrons had been given the link to the third video in the series. I'm posting this blog a few days before the final video is scheduled to go public on YouTube, so that my loyal blog readers can also have early access to the new content. There is also a new poll available on my Patreon page asking which topic(s) I should cover for the fall 2021 indie football game season.

I'm not going to reproduce a transcript of the entire video series in writing here, but I will summarize each, with each video embedded in the corresponding section.

First, I want to point out that the criticisms in these videos may seem harsh. These are small, independent studios with only a few developers and limited money and resources. I can't expect them to produce games with the polish and production quality of EA or 2k. But that being said, both games are trying to compete in the "simulation" football market. If we are going to take them seriously as simulation football games, then I believe that we should give these games the same level of scrutiny that we would give to a game published by EA or 2k. We can do so while still acknowledging that these games are coming from smaller studios, and we can set our expectations accordingly. I don't expect Axis or Canuck to address all of the issues that I point out overnight, but I still want to point them out in the hopes that they will be addressed in future iterations of the games.

Topic I: Play Design and Concepts As Old As Football

The first video topic was the design of play concepts in each game.

Axis Football and Maximum Football currently do not do a great job of replicating certain common play concepts. I started by demonstrating how neither game properly models timing routes, especially, short, quick routes that are common in west coast schemes. If you press the button to throw the ball to a receiver prior to the receiver completing his route, the quarterback in both games will throw the ball in the direction that the receiver is running (at the moment the button is pressed), instead of throwing to where the route is supposed to go. If, for example, the route was a curl, and you press the receiver's button just before the receiver turns around, the QB will throw the ball down the field as if the receiver is running a streak. This can often send the ball right to the waiting hook zone defender or safety, even though the play is explicitly designed to get the ball underneath those specific coverages.

The 1st topic is the design of timing routes and power running plays.

The second sub-topic in this first video was how each game implements power running plays, which have been a staple of football since its inception over a century ago. Maximum Football does not support pulling linemen, with the sole exception of one single play in the Canadian rulebooks. Even the play designer does not support the ability to add pulling linemen.

Axis Football does have pulling linemen, but they don't work quite right. Blocking schemes aren't designed to isolate or "trap" certain defensive players, which means that plays like Traps, Counters, and Power plays do not create the running seams that they are designed to create.

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A gamer's thoughts

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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