Monday, September 19, 2011

Open Letter from "A Dying Vine

If you guys are wondering why I havent updated the blog. Truthfully, Some of the problems with 12 have pushed me away from the game to where I havent played in about 2 months. The letter below, from the moderating staff of Ncaastrategies.com, signifies some of my concerns and sentiments. Please read and pass along.

In the wake of Patch #2 for NCAA 12, the moderating staff and community at Utopia wish to express our displeasure and frustration in an open letter to EA and the so called “Game Changers” and “Community Sites.” EA’s NCAA football series served as the catalyst for this site in 2003, and though the Utopia community has evolved to the point that it is no longer centered on EA’s game, we still have a common wish for a quality college football video game. This franchise was once unanimously recognized as one of the most enjoyable and innovative sports games on the market, but has now fallen to such depths that virtually everywhere you look, more and more people on forums all across the internet are expressing extreme frustration and displeasure with both the game and the company that makes it. We see three obvious factors that have contributed to the environment that allows such an abject failure of a video game to be released (with good reviews, no less); exclusivity limiting competition, EA’s patching methodology, and the “Game Changers” marketing scheme which helps to fracture the community and marginalize legitimate concerns about the game.

Problems caused by exclusivity:

Due to the fact that EA has purchased the exclusive rights to the NFL and NCAA football games, they have effectively pushed out all competition from football gaming. This means that they can release bug-filled games without the risk of losing customers who would buy a more polished football game if one were available. One need look no further than the recent failure of EA’s basketball game to see the effect of competition on sub-par and bug filled games. The Madden and NCAA series have been plagued with bugs similar to those that caused NBA Live to be shelved, but without competition the games will continue to be developed with as little effort as possible. The results of the lack of competition speak for themselves. The NCAA series has devolved to the point that gamers can expect even the heavily marketed new features to be completely non-functioning at launch.

For instance, NCAA ’09 touted a new roster share feature that was supposed to allow people to create custom rosters and easily share them with their friends. Unfortunately, the roster editor feature of the game contained a glitch so that once a certain number of players were edited, teams started completely disappearing from the game. On top of that, “Wide Open Gameplay” (the tagline for that year) translated into “No Defense At All”, and the game quickly turned into a complete joke as it was nearly impossible to stop anybody on defense. On NCAA ’10, the game was released with sliders that did not work (i.e. they had no impact on gameplay at all), with rosters that were clearly flawed, and with a new “run commit” feature that was so overpowered it virtually destroyed any gameplay balance (particularly for online play). NCAA 11 touted the new “locomotion system, which effectively broke zone defense, and new web based dynasty interfaces like the “Dynasty Wire,” which turned out to be incredibly buggy (frequently crashed or displayed the wrong information) and is still listed as “Beta” on the website.

This year, one of the most heavily marketed new features in NCAA12 was custom playbooks, something Utopians have been asking for since the feature was dropped with the move to next-gen systems. As many have come to expect from EA, the custom playbooks feature was completely broken at launch. It contained a glitch which would cause the playcall screen to go blank and would result in players standing around in a huddle over the football rather than lining up in the correct formation. In addition to the custom playbook glitch, the new custom conferences feature was also broken at launch, containing massive scheduling errors that rendered it unusable. In addition to problems with new features, there were also numerous instability problems that caused the game to freeze or crash, as well as several glitches that affected online dynasty mode, such as dynasties not being able to be advanced properly and wins not being correctly recorded. At this point, the game is so bug filled that you are lucky to finish a game without a crash or disconnection. Even if you do finish the game, the result may have been recorded incorrectly, making your efforts futile. It is like clockwork; every new feature will be completely broken at launch and features that worked in the past will have new and crippling bugs.
We acknowledge that all video games are released with some bugs, but we feel that the lack of competition due to exclusivity has allowed EA to release football games that have more numerous and game-killing bugs than any other title. NCAA12 is the least stable console game that we have ever played. If EA had true competition in the football gaming world, they would be forced to either shelve the game, like NBA Live, or go back to the drawing board and dedicate more resources to releasing a quality game, like the FIFA series.

Problems Caused by EA’s Patching Methodology:

In general, the ability to patch games has been both a blessing and a curse for gamers. While a good patch can save a game that would be otherwise derailed by a small bug, it also allows developers to release games that are basically unfinished, counting on patches to tie up all the loose ends. Nowhere is this practice more prevalent than in sports games, with their rushed yearly development cycle.

With the NCAA series, EA manages to take the “release an incomplete game and patch it” model to an incredible new low. Not only do they release obviously unfinished games, but in an effort to patch problems, they introduce new and bigger problems. For instance, last year EA released a patch that was supposed to address some problems with defensive AI and overpowered man to man coverage, and it instead resulted in a new glitch were the QB could pump fake backwards (towards his own goal line), and cause all of the defenders to immediately abandon their assignments and run towards the line of scrimmage.

While there is a long, well documented history of these issues, NCAA12 has taken things to a completely different level. This year, after waiting for nearly two months, EA released a patch that was supposed to correct some of the problems with custom playbooks, online dynasties and system stability. Producer Ben Haumiller closed his blog about the title 2 update with “Thank you again for your patience for the arrival of this second Title Update. I trust you will find that it has been well worth the wait.” To put it bluntly, Ben, It was not “worth the wait.” The patch not only failed to fix the majority of the problems it claimed to fix, but it also caused new problems that affected the no-huddle (a prominent feature for NCAA 11) , completely removed some formations from the game, and caused a host of new issues with the few custom playbooks and online dynasties that had the good fortune to work before the patch. Not only did EA release an extremely flawed product for sale at retail in July, but it took almost 2 months to release a patch, and the patch turned out to cause numerous new problems. At this point, it is obvious that the development team for NCAA football cannot even patch their own game without introducing a cornucopia of new glitches and bugs.

Problems caused by EA hijacking “The Community.”

Over the past few years EA has gone to great lengths to improve their faltering reputation with “The NCAA Community.” Whether it came in the form of sending EA representatives to forums, the “Community Leaders” program, or the Game Changers” program; EA has shown that they value having a positive image in “The NCAA Community.” While this all sounds great, we find their efforts to be entirely disingenuous.

Before they even try to reach out to “The NCAA Community,” EA attempts to define “The NCAA Community” in a way that eliminates those who are openly critical of their product. For instance, Utopia is notably absent from EA’s list of “Community Sites,” despite the fact that we are the largest NCAA specific community. The only interaction we’ve had with EA this year was a Cease and Desist letter in response to our April Fool’s prank, proving that they not only read the site, but they also did not find our prank nearly as funny as we did (in retrospect, our April Fools descriptions of the game were actually far more accurate than the glowing reviews found on other sites). We acknowledge that EA attempts to avoid interaction with us because we are uncouth, drunk, and/or overly hostile; but that doesn’t mean we aren’t part of the community!

We also aren’t the only ones to be excluded from EA’s community program. Several other critical community members, including those who belong to TheSimStandard YouTube group (many of whom have provided incredibly detailed documentation to show problems with the game and ways to solve them) are also shunned by EA. This, despite the fact that they reach far more people than many of the “Community” sites that are included. For example, videos uploaded by TheSimStandard channel contributors have combined for a total of 713,955 views and they have well over 20,000 subscribers, while several of the sites that are included in the program appear to reach fewer than 100 members and are rarely updated with new NCAA related content. The simple fact is that EA has systematically worked to prevent anybody who is openly critical of their game from receiving any official recognition for their efforts. Instead, they choose to define “The community” as those sites, regardless of size/exposure, who will toe the EA company line.

The “Game Changers” program, much like the “Community Leaders” program before it, is a complete farce. As much as EA talks about incorporating community feedback into the game, it is increasingly evident that EA does nothing of the sort, and these programs are simply an extension of EA’s marketing strategy. Simply put, we do not see any substantial in-game results from the “Game Changers” program, but we do consistently see a ton of pre-release hype along with glowing reviews. To be fair, we do not fault the “Game Changers” in this. We truly believe that most of them have the best intentions and that they have put in a lot of work attempting to make this a better game. The problem lies entirely in the fact that EA simply can’t (or won’t) make most of the changes suggested by the “Game Changers.” The game engine itself is so archaic, bug-filled, and ad-hoc at this point that most of the common and recurring issues cannot be solved without a significant commitment of resources from EA, which is a commitment they won’t make. Instead, EA will take input from the game changers and promise grandiose changes like “Custom Playbooks” and “Pattern Matching Coverage,” while the actual implementation of those “features” will be nothing but ham-fisted tweaks to an aging game.

Beyond being simply ineffective, we believe that the “Game Changers” and other EA sponsored “Community” programs fracture the true gaming community and create a divisive environment that allows EA to release such buggy games without the proper amount of community outcry. This is due to the fact that EA places the “Game Changers” in the unenviable position of answering to angry gamers for all of EA’s fumbles. These “Game Changers” serve as the only link between the average frustrated gamer and the NCAA football developers. They become de-facto customer service representatives, without the paycheck. The frustrated gamers and the frustrated “Game Changers,” who now must put up with misguided personal attacks, end up divided. Instead of directing the frustrations and anger at the proper target, the community bickers between themselves.

We are therefore extending an olive branch to the “Game Changers.” We don’t hate you, we just lash out in frustration because EA has forced you to play customer service representative for a terrible product. We even apologize for directing our anger and frustrations at you, when EA is clearly the culprit. Please join us in calling EA out for the incredible levels of failure that are present in NCAA12 and Patch #2.

Signed-
The Utopia moderating staff and frustrated NCAA gamers elsewhere

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