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Can these guys make a video game in a year anymore?

Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

Last Monday, WWE 2K15's release was delayed on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One by three weeks. The week before, NBA Live 15 publisher Electronic Arts did the same thing. Few batted an eye, because pro wrestling doesn't really have an opening day, and no one ever expected NBA Live to launch on time anyway.

But coming at the end of a year in sports video gaming known for delays and omissions — which touched standard-bearing franchises like MLB The Show and NHL — it raises the question of whether these titles still can be developed for the current console generation the way they have been for the past three. The latter half of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3's lifespan saw significant contraction from the usual cornucopia of arcade titles, spinoffs and head-to-head competition in simulation series. Now I have to wonder if the survivors can even be built in a year.

The answer, of course, is yes — if a publisher is willing to put enough manpower on the job. Today there appear to be only three series that rate that kind of attention:

  • FIFA, the runaway global sales leader in sports (and neck-and-neck with other blockbuster franchises). It also has the lowest licensing costs of any major sports title, and is less vulnerable when a league opts out.
  • NBA 2K, whose high quality and pop-culture appeal singlehandedly made 2K Sports profitable — without a single spinoff title — even when that division was dragging the terrible Major League Baseball license.
  • And Madden NFL, which has zero competitors of any type on video game consoles.

Those are the only three simulation titles from 2013 releasing on all consoles in their traditional slots in 2014. [Correction: NHL launched in its traditional slot. It took a major step back in what it offered, but it still made it.] And no, I'm not ignoring the often overlooked Pro Evolution Soccer. It arrived in late September in 2013. It makes its PS4/Xbox One debut in November this year, and that's with a new U.K. studio brought on to broaden the game's appeal to Western markets.

So what happened with the others this year?

San Diego Studio, makers of MLB The Show, has the least to apologize for as the smallest development team of a fully licensed simulation. They introduced new modes of play to make the long seasons in MLB 14 The Show's career modes both meaningful and manageable. San Diego chose to delay the game — not even announcing a release date until February — rather than hold features out of one version of the game or another. One wonders what kind of game we'd have gotten if Santa Monica had been held to an ironclad first-Tuesday-in-March release.

The rumor on NHL 15, which along with MLB The Show, FIFA and NBA 2K, formed the spine of console sports' annual excellence, is that it had developers reassigned to help EA Sports UFC, also built in EA's Vancouver studio, get out the door by the end of the June fiscal quarter. That explains, even if it doesn't excuse, why things like Online Team Play weren't ready for NHL 15's Sept. 9 launch. It will be patched in later — a bald-faced admission by EA Sports that it released an incomplete product. Still, numerous features and modes are present in the Xbox 360 and PS3 version that are not available to players on the new console generation.

The outright casualties: NCAA Football was canceled because of the litigation former college players brought against EA Sports and the NCAA. EA Sports had plans for a golf release this year, but was outsourcing its development and killed it last spring when then-CEO John Riccitiello was fired (the studio angling for that job ended up making The Golf Club for PC, PS4 and Xbox One.) Major League Baseball self-published an R.B.I. Baseball reboot for Xbox 360 and Xbox One but has no agreement for anything serious on those platforms, and probably never will until it gets real about the asking price for its license.

And NBA Live has been a dead man walking since at least 2012. Reportedly being held another three weeks for "polish," all that means is the game is simply too buggy to release — certainly if it's going to include an Ultimate Team mode to crowbar some extra bucks out of those who do buy it.

Multiple sources have told me EA Sports returned to simulation basketball on a three-year deal in 2012. NBA Live 13 was supposed to be a half-price digital-only release. It was canceled and two from its senior creative leadership were fired. In 2013, EA Sports hustled out an incomplete NBA Live 14 that needed a huge patch the following February. Now they've kicked the can three weeks down the road for NBA Live 15. All of that speaks to a company trying only to chisel back whatever it can against whatever minimum dollar figure it has guaranteed the NBA and its players' union. My guess is there will be post-release support for NBA Live 15 through the holidays, and then they pull the door closed. I'm happy to be proven wrong.

The Catch-22 is no sports video game can afford a major league license without already having that license.

That's where you really get to the core of the delays and the disasters in console sports video games today. Development costs have shot up as the hardware has become more sophisticated; that's undeniable. The problem for sports video games is that licensing costs have increased as well, as leagues and players' unions have understood the unique value video games provide. Atop that, when a league's television contract figure only increases with every renegotiation, they expect the same from their video game.

It's not the same as slapping a label on a can of beer, as Peter Moore, the former EA Sports boss, always said when given the opportunity. It should be no mystery that licensed film adaptations — a staple of the summer console release schedule six years ago — have all but vanished, and their deals were a fraction of what any sports publisher ever paid in a year. But comic-book fans don't have the same need to play a video game adaptation of Iron Man 2 that sports fans have to play baseball or football in the current year. And comic-book fans don't really care when Guardians of the Galaxy premieres without a dedicated console video game re-enacting its events.

The problem is, leagues and players' unions continue to sell their marks the same way as they do to someone's official beer or potato chip, though, as if it's being applied to an existing high-volume product that could stand on its own without the licensing.

That draws out the Catch-22 of sports development in the present day, where development costs have shot so high, and base game costs have remained fixed — $60 since 2005, with zero chance of going any higher — such that no sports video game can afford a major league license without already having that license. Not even Madden. If EA Sports lost that mark tomorrow, Madden would close down the same day.

That's not to pin this entirely on the leagues. Publishers' expectations of these sports titles remain deeply embedded in how they were developed in the 1990s and early 2000s, partly because iterative titles begin with a foundation where others begin from scratch. Publishers are loath to add staff, knowing that the cost to appropriately market a game is going to be formidable, too. It's why generational changes in hardware are so fraught with peril, and why attempting to reinvent yourself during that leap — as NHL 15 did — is supremely inadvisable.

Can a state-of-the-art sports video game still be built on a one-year cycle? Of course. Two of them, FIFA 15 and NBA 2K15, will come out in the next three weeks. For the rest, it requires everyone — publisher, developer, licensor — to get real about what they can do with that kind of time. And time is money.

Roster File is Polygon's news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games. It appears weekends.

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