Here's why rugby video games fail (and how to fix them)

120 million - that's the number of people, globally, who watched the Rugby World Cup final back in 2015 between New Zealand and Australia. According to some reports, rugby is the second most popular sport in the Western world (outside the US), behind football / soccer, and even in the US - where most die-hard sports fans would struggle to tell you much about it - some broadcasts will attract in excess of 1 million viewers. There's no shortage of fans, then, so why is the sport is so woefully under-served when it comes to video games?

While FIFA and PES limber up for another iteration that will delight round-ball fans, there's slim pickings for rugby enthusiasts. See, somewhere along the way, it was decided that rugby games simply don't sell, and they were promptly ditched in favour of safer bets like Madden and FIFA. This means that they  haven't iterated alongside other sports franchises, and with every passing year it gets harder and harder to rejoin the game. You've got nothing to build on. Core sports have absolutely nailed their gameplay and presentation, so it's all about tweaking, fine-tuning, adding new players. This year's PES, for example, is dining out on the fact it has improved goalkeeper AI.

Back in April, we got a game called Rugby Challenge 3, which is - duh - the third in a series made by Aussie developers Wicked Witch. It's not a new game, but there are some areas that require improvement. Here are things that need to be tweaked, changed, and overhauled from that game:

1) Fucking everything. Even the name.

See the difference here? It may seem like I'm being unnecessarily harsh, that I'm insulting the hard work of a development team that genuinely loves the sport. That's not the case: I believe that the whole formula needs to be changed; that rugby games need to be built differently from other sports. Rugby Challenge 3 attempts to capture the game by imitating the way FIFA or - more notably - Madden plays, but by doing so it forces the nature of the actual sport it's simulating to change. Round peg, square hole. On top of that, it clearly tries to achieve the same as EA's long-running franchises, but with a fraction of the budget and an absence of years and years of tech development to create a solid, workable foundation.

So what needs to happen? For starters, the creators need to look at two things: 1) what are the needs of the actual sport of rugby, and 2) what are the fans - the people who will actually buy the game - looking for. Let's start with the first point.

Rugby is a far, far more complex and demanding game than football / soccer. It's filled with different types of play, running lines, and player behaviours. On top of that, it flows continuously, unlike American football, so you can't just simulate the game in short, sharp bursts. You have 30 players to keep track of, plus three officials, and a ball that is deliberately shaped to bounce unpredictably. Nightmare. Previous attempts (and this is the vast majority of rugby games) highlight the inherent issues: packs of players ball-chase, instead of holding their positions, which makes the game completely fall apart. Players over-run passes, backs spend the whole game rucking, there's no time to kick, tackles are sluggish, the commentary can't keep track of the action... it goes on and on. The crux of the issue is that there's simply too much happening, moment to moment, to give an accurate representation of recognisable rugby. 

Imagine trying to recreate this...

Unless you strip the game back to 7s (which is very popular in the US, so that's possible), it's too much data to handle for both the game and the player. How do you accurately simulate being a prop and a full-back using the same set of control inputs or AI routines? It's technically possible, but you'd need twice the resources of a FIFA or Madden to make it happen. So it won't.

The solution, then, is two-fold. One option - and the most obvious - is to ditch the gameplay altogether, and create a really, really in-depth sim, like Football Manager. Build your team, tinker with sliders and settings, manage club budgets, and generally geek out on the strategic nature of the sport. Bamboozle opposing teams with your new take on the diamond formation, then bamboozle fans by ditching it the very next year and finishing ninth in the Aviva Premiership. Football Manager's tactical bent plays heavily into a sport where each position has defined roles and requirements, and the ability to tinker and simulate 'every aspect of the game' is a good fit for rugby.

Alternatively, you invent a turn-based 'battle system' that pauses the (traditional, on-pitch) game and allows you to manually set AI behaviour. Kinda like Madden, but you're artificially meddling with time rather than working with the natural 'down-to-down' flow of American football. So, for every phase of play, the action would stop and you'd queue up a series of commands for your team to execute (eg. Feed to George Ford and kick for corner, short-ball to Billy Vunipola, Danny Care to snipe the blindside) and you'd watch the AI play it out. Combined with more general 'style of play' settings, and pre-set attacking moves, you'd have a pretty decent simulation of the sport, providing the AI does what it's meant to - essentially you'd be the hand of God, influencing a game as it plays out. Similarly, you’d have defensive moves to counter the tendencies of opponents - just try not to spam the seemingly unbreakable Saracens ‘one-man-blitz’ defence.

This would have an impact on game flow, sure, so you’d have to artificially condense the time it takes complete a match (again, this is something Football Manager does well - it’s like you’re getting a highlight reel of the best or most notable moments of the game). Even better, you could impose a time-limit on making decisions for each play, dependent on how ‘rugby smart’ your active player is, to make sure the game moves at a pace and forces you to think. This would pretty neatly mirror the way the attacking game flows through the 9, 10, and 12 channel: got a shaky scrum-half? It’s going to cost you, Newcastle. You'd even tolerate a few unpredictable outcomes because that's what happens in real sport. Even better - the chance of success for each phase of play could depend on the confidence and experience of your play-makers. Essentially it’d make the game all about percentages and taking calculated risks… which rather neatly mirrors actual rugby, once you remove the physicality (which is something you’d struggle to replicate, virtually).

Personally, I'd play either option, although both cater to the passionate enthusiast in me, rather than the more casual sports fan. In an ideal world you’d combine the two to allow different play options for people who want to get more or less tactically involved. Neither is exactly something you'd play on the sofa with a friend, but does that matter?

Well, that leads us neatly onto point two - what do the fans actually want? It's certainly harder to get access to rugby, thanks to a lower presence in the media and a lack of marketable assets (name three players who your friends will have heard of), so those who want it are more motivated to seek it out. That's a bit of a generalisation, but unless you live in Wales or New Zealand, it's fair to assume that a little effort is involved in 'following' rugby, even casually. So, it stands to reason that if you offer the right game, in the right way, to the right audience... you're more likely to sell it to them because they're looking for reasons and avenues to interact with the thing they're passionate about.

Ok, I'll fully admit - I don't know what the size of that core audience is, and I totally accept that a more hardcore simulation would scare away less passionate fans. But, to be honest, they aren't buying the more casual games like Rugby Challenge 3 either (sorry) so there's very little to lose by changing the approach. Right now, the lack of authenticity and realism in rugby games is a huge frustration to the core, and a laughing-matter among the casuals - so who are they actually serving? It chills me to the bone to see Joe Marler taking a clearance kick in Rugby Challenge 3 (sorry), or to realise all the game's squads are a year out of date, but this is the reality of things. And I'm literally the person most likely to buy the game. Me.

Where do we find rugby fans? During the recent Rugby World Cup, the official app was downloaded 2.8million times, which suggests to me that bringing the game to phones and tablets is the way forward. Sure, many will own consoles and PCs, but why restrict yourself to the traditional 'core gamer' crowd? The cross-over simply isn't big enough.

That's something EA simply didn't have the luxury of considering back in 2004, when it ditched its own rugby series for good. It made perfect sense. The console-owning core wasn't buying it, so why keep making it? Unfortunately, that meant series like FIFA and PES - which had big enough audiences - got lightyears ahead, and continued to find their grooves. We know that the likes of Football Manager can run perfectly on mobile and tablet, as today's devices are rapidly becoming as powerful as most consoles, so it stands to reason that a more sim-based rugby game could replicate that success. 

There's even a potential awareness benefit here. One common complaint I hear about rugby is “I don't understand what's happening”. Something more tactically-focused could gently introduce people to the sport, allowing them to understand its nuances and flow. America - especially - would benefit from an education about how it differs to Grid Iron, because despite appearing similar on the surface, it's a hugely different beast. Sounds far fetched? I learned so, so much about basketball by playing NBA 2K, thanks to the fact it's a wonderful, clearly explained simulation of the sport.

Will anyone take a gamble on this madness? Completely reinvent the way rugby games are made to serve an unknown audience? Even as one of the sport's most passionate fans, I'd think twice about it. However, we only need one good game for the pieces to fall into place - something with immense tactical depth and an actual, decent simulation of rugby, would not only encourage players to invest hours and hours of play time, but would also very likely become a repeat purchase year after year. And here's another slice of brutal honesty: if you make a good rugby game, that players and clubs aren't horrifically embarrassed to be a part of, you're more likely to ride the waves of their personal recommendations on social media.

Now is certainly the time. Broadcasters are looking to streaming services to serve sports like rugby to wider audiences, directly connecting fans to the stuff they want to see. You want a rugby channel? You subscribe to it, and don't have to hunt through the mainstream media for odd games, or snippets of info on the sport you love. Again, it's just another place where a decent rugby game - or any other non-core sport - would find an audience.

So, there you have it - simple - I've fixed rugby games. The second most popular sport in the world (western world, I suspect) can now have its time in the sunshine, right? Maybe. It's equally possible I'll be playing another awkwardly-made FIFA-alike this time next year, soaking up the crushing sense of disappointment and grumbling about the fact its portrayal of rugby is about as accurate as Michael Bay's recreation of Pearl Harbor, and wondering if I really am alone in expecting something a little better...

Andy Hartup