Beating the buzzer

Cloning may be morally reprehensible by certain standards, but it's nonetheless commonplace at Electronic Arts, the world's foremost videogame publisher. More specifically, every summer since 1988, one of the most popular sports simulations in existence has been re-released with minor makeovers. And, contrary to what one might assume, fans just can't get enough.

Fall simply wouldn't be the same for armchair quarterbacks without the Madden NFL series. Since an initial debut as John Madden Football fifteen Super Bowls back, the long-running franchise has been made annually available on almost all conceivable platforms. With over 30 million copies sold, the virtual juggernaut shows no signs of slowing its momentum either.

Which, of course, begs a relevant question: given seasonal time constraints, how does the company -- or its competitors, for that matter -- continue to create athletic brands that justify repeat purchases year after year?

"We're constantly taking feedback from our customers, many of whom are professional athletes, to make our products better," explains Erik Whiteford, director of the EA Sports brand. The executive further insists that over time, various league officials have also been a great resource in terms of ensuring that his employer's products perpetually live up to their vaunted reputation.

"We do a lot of research to ensure that we are making the games the way our clientele wants, too," he adds. "At the end of the day, we're producing the titles for them, so their input is invaluable."

Whiteford additionally attributes the business' success in multiple fields including baseball, basketball, soccer and hockey to an ongoing commitment to improving franchises - even in the smallest ways - continually over their lifespan. Predictably, the practice has resulted in longer product development schedules, with the typical manufacturing cycle now lasting more than twelve months in duration.

An interesting side-effect is that even before a current season's title ships, work has already begun on the next year's iteration. As the time for platform transitions approaches, (e.g. the move onto PlayStation 3 and Xbox 2) the consequences become yet more pronounced. When a new console's unveiling looms, design teams will often start pounding away on concepts and innovations for games whose eventual release might be two or three years away.

Not that publishers mind: sports games are widely viewed as dependable cash cows. Whereas the next Silent Hill or even Medal of Honor might fail to deliver, fans generally return to their favorite NASCAR or NBA product regardless of periodic setbacks. It's for this very reason even multi-million dollar corporations take the market so seriously.

The success firms like Electronic Arts have enjoyed over the years has many potential entrants clamoring for a piece of the pie. Bearing in mind that the rewards associated with coming in even second place in this category are great, none can blame them. But the pressures to deliver a worthwhile gaming experience year-in and year-out can be crushing; many companies have actually retreated from the sector as a result.

The latest player taking a timeout is software giant Microsoft, who, after launching the XSN brand in 2003, recently announced it won't be releasing new versions of its core sports titles this season.

Says Kevin Browne, Microsoft Games Studios' sports studio manager, "after analyzing market conditions and customer feedback, we've decided to focus on closing the quality gap between our lineup and that of our competitors. Therefore we will not be shipping new versions of our sports games this fall."

While a temporary exit from the arena may allow Microsoft more time to develop better future titles, it will likely only make it that much harder to rebuild brand loyalty down the road.

As Tim Granich, director of marketing for Midway, can attest, sports games are pricey propositions… and ones that require major commitment. "These days, games are so expensive to create that you really have to be looking at them in terms of a franchise," he suggests. "That being the case, you look to plan for multiple releases and how you can graduate the title from one year to the next."

In this regard, high-speed Internet access and real-time, downloadable program updates will very likely change the future of sporting franchises forever. Mind you, across the board, publishers don't believe that online access will replace the need to release new versions of their products yearly. They do, however, feel that broadband connections can be used to significantly enhance game value.

"We offer live sports tickers, so that while gamers are playing online, they can check authentic scores in real-time," emphasizes Allan Frankel, product marketing manager for Sony Computer Entertainment America and 989 Sports. He adds that other online options common to the company's latest titles don't actually update the game at all, but rather serve as an enhancement that solo players clamor for. "Features such as tourneys, headset functionality and the ability to chat essentially become mandatory reasons for consumers to upgrade."

The true benefit recognized from support for online connectivity though is that as actual events happen in the real world, they can quickly be tied into the in-game experience. In the past, audiences were pretty much stuck with things as they were when titles shipped. At the time, there was little you as a player or the developer could do to change this until the following year's release.

Greg Thomas, president of Visual Concepts, creator of Sega's ESPN-branded games, admits that the technology gives developers greater leeway in terms of selling their titles in yearly. "We believe downloadable rosters and player updates add tremendous value," he says. "Sports gamers demand the most accurate and up-to-date information on their teams. Delivering this content ensures our consumers own the best product they can buy."

And, of course, yet another reason to drop fifty clams season after season on the fantasy leagues.