AFL Video Games: The Unfair Expectations And The Future Ahead

AFL Video Games: The Unfair Expectations And The Future Ahead

It’s fair to say that 2020 hasn’t really gone as anyone expected, with the majority of the world put on hold due to the COVID-19 outbreak. As a result the AFL season has been postponed, and with no real concrete restart date the launch of AFL Evolution 2 couldn’t have come at a better time. After speaking to people working on the frontline this seems to have been reflected in the game’s sales figures, which are supposedly much higher than expected. But with a lot of the population stuck inside all day choosing to get their AFL fix from Evo 2 has the release of Evo 2 done more harm than good to the reputation of AFL video games?

I said it in my review and I’ll say it again: Aussie rules footy by design is hard to translate into a video game, and when you take the game’s likely small budget into the equation, it means that the final product is going to lack in some areas. The best that players can hope for is that the core experience doesn’t suffer too much as a result. Sadly there are still a myriad of people who expect AFL games to have the same production values as a FIFA or NBA2K title, and well if it doesn’t then it isn’t worth looking at.

The quest for the holy grail remains

The problem of high expectations generally doesn’t stem from the game’s core fan base (who while not being totally innocent do tend to have a better understanding), but more from casual players who play a small handful of games a year, such as the yearly FIFA, NBA2K and Call of Duty games. I’ve had discussions with more than half a dozen people who fit this profile since Evo 2 released and all of them have generally said the same things: “Is it still shit?” or “When EA make the game I’ll buy it.”

What these people seem to fail to realise is that video games cost an absurd amount of money to make – especially the games they are referencing. Plus they are made by huge teams of hundreds of people in comparison to Wicked Witch’s small team, and when it comes down to it, Aussie rules is a sport that is played religiously in one country, so the return on investment for any AAA publisher isn’t likely to be attractive.

“But EA has made AFL games before,” is a comment I’ve heard numerous times, but it’s not exactly true. Yes EA published AFL 98 and AFL 99, but they outsourced the game’s development to Creative Assembly, a UK-based studio that had previous sports experience with FIFA and rugby games. Furthermore, those games were developed more than 20 years ago and were for the OG PlayStation and PC (AFL 98 was PC only), and as we have come to know, development costs have sky-rocketed since then, plus nowadays there are four platforms to consider when releasing a game, meaning more money.

I’m not privy to the business deal between the AFL and Tru Blu/Wicked Witch, so I don’t know how much money they contribute to the game’s development. Should they be providing more? Probably. Although it’s a tough sell at the moment given the league itself has had to seek a loan to keep cash-strapped clubs afloat. But there’s no denying that the better the video game, the more universal appeal the sport itself has. The AFL wants to grow the sport outside of Australia in countries such as America, and what better way to do that than with a solid video game representation.

The only way some foreigners will ever experience the wonder that is the MCG

Sports fans are generally blessed with high-quality annual releases, mostly from EA or 2K (unless you’re into handball, which as a video game I can’t say I endorse highly). As a result, a large portion of fans expect the same level of quality from an AFL game, which is simply setting the bar too high and is unfair on the developer, whoever they may be.

However in saying that, AFL Evolution 2 is Wicked Witch’s fourth crack at adapting the sport into a video game and by now we should be seeing enough improvement in their output that proves that the future of AFL video games is in safe hands. Instead the launch of Evo 2 has been plagued by some frustrating issues that have soured the launch despite the core gameplay being much improved. As a result the game has been lambasted by many fans, some of whom are swearing off AFL games until a ‘better’ developer is behind the wheel.

Is the decision to release the game early without a patch to blame? Maybe. But they did it anyway, knowing that the player ratings were a basket case and that a ton of fine-tuning was needed. The question then becomes what does the future hold for AFL video games, and to use a footy cliché, it’s a results-driven business, so is Wicked Witch the right man (developer) for the job?

When it comes to licensed video games there are always going to be detractors – just take a look at the Star Wars games, with many fans practically begging Disney to strip EA of the licence, or at least allow other developers to have access to it.

AFL Evolution 2 is an improvement but still has its issues

A lot of AFL fans have signalled that they would love to see the AFL give the licence to another developer and naturally Big Ant is the first that comes to mind. Big Ant has come a long way over the past few years and they have released some fine sporting experiences, such as Ashes Cricket. But even they have released some games half-baked, with AO Tennis needing a large number of patches before it was up to the standard it should have launched at, something the studio did admit.

But if not Wicked Witch or Big Ant then who? Australia has very few development studios large enough to handle a game the scope of what an AFL game would require. Plus, and this is just a guess, you’d want any development team behind the game to have an understanding and interest in the sport.

I, much like every other AFL fan, want the best video game adaptation possible, and whether that’s with Wicked Witch, Big Ant or another studio in the coaches box isn’t for me to decide. What I do know is that after a number of less than ideal launches, AFL games are starting to get a stigma that may be hard to shake if they continue along the same path. I don’t think anyone, at least anyone with a proper understanding of what’s financially viable and possible, expects AFL games to be at the same level as FIFA and co. But if they could bridge the gap somewhat it would go along way to restoring the faith among the general public as well as enhancing the game’s appeal on a global scale.

Co-Founder & Managing Editor of WellPlayed. Sometimes a musician, lover of bad video games, Nickelback and Huawei. Living proof that Australian's drink Foster's. Carlton, Burnley FC & SJ Sharks fan Get around him on Twitter @tightinthejorts