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Link: Football as an RPG

October 15, 2012

Earlier this week, my brother sent me an article about a football-inspired game that incorporates some RPG mechanics. It seems cute, and likely inspired as much by things like Blood Bowl and Mutant League Football as the actual sport itself.

But that article also featured a link to another article that compared real-life football to a role-playing game, which while not a terrible concept, features a fairly shallow understanding of what, mechanically, defines an RPG, and then stretches that shallow understanding to the limit in order to make what, surely, was a conclusion already arrived at before any serious interrogation of the topic began.

“You gotta train your skills and hopefully level up to make it to college and then to the pros. The boss fights are kind of brutal, let me tell you, sometimes.”

The first problem I have is that the metaphor that he actually explores in the article is not so much “football as RPG” as “football career as RPG”. Which makes sense, since there’s very little in a single game of football that can be mapped to the kind of character evolution and progression that characterizes the RPG genre. However, this also isn’t much of an attention grabber as headline, because the idea of building a sports game around a single player’s career isn’t a particularly novel one: MLB: The Show has a particularly good example of this, it’s just here being applied to a new situation.

“But they don’t know. How do you quantify a person’s ability when it can change year to year?”

That’s a good question. In many ways Madden‘s quantification of players is an attempt to turn the NFL into a neater, less random game. To turn it into more of an RPG.

The author also willfully misunderstands abstraction, via a misunderstanding of distributions and expected values. In most cases, statistics in these sorts of games are used as inputs into an algorithm that is based on random numbers. Boiling down a player’s performance isn’t an attempt to simplify, it’s an attempt to quantify. They’re attempts to boil down all on-field factors into a single expected value based on real world performance, and then take variation from that mean as a way to represent the sampling of actual real world performance. In most cases, the expected value of a player’s skill level doesn’t actually vary much from year to year or from game to game. The expressions of that value (i.e. small sized sample sets, based on the player’s true performance distribution) may vary significantly. But that isn’t the same as saying that the player’s actual performance distribution itself is varying.

Teams take turn attacking and defending, each trying to do as much damage—or score as many points—as possible. General managers are constantly looking to upgrade their parties. And every NFL player is always training to boost his skills.

In saying so, he’s conflating a particular implementation of RPG combat systems with the genre itself. Of course, there are a huge number of mechanics that can, and have been used to represent conflict resolution in the basic RPG structure. The concept of “team as RPG party” is a kind of interesting one, and an extension of management sims that isn’t very common. There was a similar concept around a racing team in a game called Choro-Q (billed as a “Car-PG”) a while back. But the concept doesn’t appear to have caught on

I’m fond of saying that football is essentially a turn-based strategy game. This is, of course, also an abstraction, but I think it’s a fairly meaningful one, and is the essence of the argument that the author of the column is actually making. Teams do in fact take turns attacking and defending, but this fundamental mechanic isn’t an RPG one, it essentially boils down to Rock-Paper-Scissors with some additional complexities based on variable execution and each formation actually having multiple possible outcomes (in the case of more complex option plays).

Additionally, I call football (and baseball) turn based strategy games for a specific purpose, to differentiate them from other games that follow the more traditional “sport” model. This is a topic I need to discuss in more detail someday, but essentially most team sports have more in common than different, and are essentially variations on a single rule-set (hockey, basketball, soccer, lacrosse, etc). Football and baseball are very much not like this. Thus the metaphor is in service to a larger point, rather than simply standing on its own.

And, uh, well, that’s pretty much it. I don’t have a larger point in this case. Just wanted to share some thoughts on the article.

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One Comment
  1. Anonymous permalink

    There is one aspect of football (and other games) that has an RPG-like component: injuries. You can think of each team as an RPG “party” in the larger context of useable, limited resources, like potions or wands, and you expect to “use up” those resources and wait for them to recharge (IR). Roster depth, mid-season replacements, etc. go into this. Of course nobody goes into a game holding back his starting QB against a lesser team to save for the postseason “boss fights”. I think that’s because of the tournament setup; there’s so few games that every game is essentially a must-win fight. But the metaphor works for baseball (pitcher rotation) and basketball (in-game, subbing out your starters until the last quarter.)

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