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Calling All the Plays

Visual Concepts designs sports games that look and sound like the real thing.


Sports games take wildly divergent paths.

One track is the over-the-top genre in which the fun lies in defying the rules or tweaking the laws of physics.

The other is the ultra-faithful, eerily realistic sports game, in which player characteristics are simulated with such painstaking detail that it becomes difficult at a distance to tell the difference between the video game and a live television broadcast.

The two philosophies are best represented by "NFL Blitz" on the one hand and "NFL2K" or "Madden Football" on the other.

Published by Midway Games Inc., "NFL Blitz" is a no-holds-barred football game whose principle feature is mayhem.

Sega's "NFL2K" and Electronic Arts Inc.'s "Madden" series evolved into pure simulations, emphasizing visual fidelity, individual players that act much like their real-world counterparts and teams with the same strengths and weaknesses as the real thing.

Pulling this off requires more than just slavish attention and brute force, said Greg Thomas, 34, president of Visual Concepts.

Thomas began making sports games in 1994, when his San Rafael, Calif., studio converted EA's "Madden 94" for the Nintendo Super NES console.

In 1999, Visual Concepts built its own football game from the ground up. The result was "NFL2K," a marquee title for Sega's now-defunct Dreamcast console.

Now, Visual Concepts makes sports games for all consoles, including Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox and Sony's PlayStation 2.

Question: A number of companies have made a run at sports games, but few have succeeded. What's so hard about this genre?

Answer: Consumers of this genre are the most finicky. They want the game to look like it looks on TV. As you give them more, they want more. It's the most difficult sport to make happen on a computer because it's about delivering true-to-life simulation.

We make sure every single position has as many behaviors as there are in the real world. We record every single NFL game. We have tapes of nothing but individual plays. We model the behaviors in as many ways as we can.

Q: What goals do you have in mind when you set out to make these games?

A: Our goal is to make a sport happen in a video game the same way it happens in real life.

For football, we will record every single game that's played. We have someone here whose sole job it is to take every single screen pass and put it on a tape. Same with running plays, pitches, bombs, outs, streaks. Whatever. And we will do that for every player in the NFL.

We have upward of 200 tapes, each about 40 minutes. They'll be labeled sweep play to the right, punt, punt blocks, and so on. Our programmers will sit there and look at every play. We want to make our players look and play like their human counterparts. We'll have their strength and speed, but we'll also put in special attributes that key people will have. Barry Sanders can cut on a dime. Peyton Manning has a signature play-action pass.

Q: Give me an example in another sport.

A: In basketball, players have signature motions at the free-throw line. Karl Malone is famous for saying one of his daughter's name just before he throws the ball. We do that in our game. Each player has a different free-throw routine. We capture all of that. That's the stuff that makes a big difference.

Q: Visual goals?

A: Visually, we have artists who have photo references for every player in the league. We'll narrow the cheekbones, raise eyebrows, draw in the goatees. It's a detail people don't necessarily notice, but it sets the game apart.

Q: Sports games, football in particular, can be intimidating. How do you make a game that anybody can pick up and play?

A: Consumers want to believe that they are the master of their sport. They want to be the greatest shooting guard of the NBA, but they're not. If we made the game that difficult, they wouldn't be able to play.

So we have [artificial intelligence programs] assisting. It'll assist them in making the right decisions.

But consumers still will feel like they have complete control, and yet we're helping them. We'll point people subtly in the right direction. We'll make sure the players around them will be doing the best thing for the player to succeed.

At the end of the day, these things are still entertainment, not chores. People have enough chores throughout their lives.


Alex Pham covers the video game industry. She can be reached at alex.pham

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