Making a CFL video game won't be particularly easy

One issue that's frequently discussed on a variety of message boards is the possibility of a CFL video game. There have been some statistics-based games looking at the front office and coaching sides of the CFL, and even some unofficial CFL mods and uniform conversions in Madden, but there hasn't been an officially-licensed CFL game since CFL Football '99 (screenshots from it are pictured above; it also was more of a simulation focusing on the management side than a true Madden-style experience). To try and figure out why we haven't seen more official CFL games and if we're ever likely to see one, I spoke with Owen Good, who's a weekend reporter and sports video game columnist for renowned video game site Kotaku. Here's what he had to say (I've added links where appropriate):

Andrew Bucholtz: Why haven't we really seen a notable CFL video game developed before (at least, since CFL Football '99)? Is it market size, production costs, lack of interest from developers, or a combination of factors?

Owen Good: I'm not enough of a market-maker to guess but I think anyone could see that North America's current economic forecast discourages risk taking.

That said, 2K Sports shelved its second-place NHL title for 2010, but still released a Wii version, sensing there was some appetite from the Canadian market for it, especially for moms and families. At the time, it was also uncontested on the Wii, until EA Sports developed and released NHL Slapshot.

Remember that, in 2006, when 2K got the exclusive third party license for Major League Baseball, EA Sports then published not one but two versions of a college baseball game - a fully licensed, non-revenue NCAA sport on a console - unheard of before or since. If ever there was a time for a CFL title on a console, it would have been 2005, from 2K Sports, after EA Sports won the NFL exclusive. We can assume 2K didn't see such a venture as worthwhile.

So 2K still is willing to remain in the Canadian market with a second-place product, but only in specific circumstances. We can assume that a CFL game falls short of even those qualifiers.

A.B.: When asked about the possibility of a CFL video game in 2009, league commissioner Mark Cohon said, "I'd love to play one. Unfortunately, video game makers advise us that it costs millions to develop state-of-the-art video games and it would be virtually impossible for them to recoup that investment in a market the size of Canada." In your mind, does that assessment still hold true, have things changed since then, or does it depend on your definition of "state-of-the-art" (i.e., it might still cost millions to make a top-line game, but it would be possible to make a less-advanced version for substantially less)?

O.G. Both 2K Sports and EA Sports have ready-to-go football engines on the current console generation, and that's the most expensive development component of a full, simulation-quality game already in place. It's the stuff supporting it that really makes a football video game, though, things like broadcast presentation, realistic player modeling, and unique booth commentary. Those who enjoy sports video games expect to be treated to something that looks like a full broadcast, and I couldn't see EA Sports bringing TSN's A-list CFL crew to Burnaby to record dialogue for a Madden variant. Without those kinds of production values you're probably looking at a downloadable title and then, to remain simulation-quality and not something like Tecmo Bowl Throwback, you're looking at a game that would be huge in file size, and definitely at the upper reaches of PSN and Xbox Live pricing.

I'm afraid you'd end up with something like Backbreaker, which was different and innovative, but inevitably judged against Madden, where it could only fall short.

The CFL, done right, is too expensive for a developer; if it's done on a budget, still you would have to create something that would be notably expensive among its weight class, and, due to size restrictions, potentially disappointing even to serious CFL fans who also have Madden as a frame of reference.

A.B.: I know you've written about games developed for smaller-scale leagues before (in particular, I'm thinking of NLL Lacrosse 2010). That game seemed to take a low-cost approach to development and then try to hit as many lacrosse fans as possible by selling it pretty cheaply through digital downloads. In your mind, did that strategy work out for the developers? Is it something that might work for a CFL game?

O.G. It works for NLL Lacrosse, and for Carlo Sunseri's collegiate lacrosse game, because it's a fan base that really expects nothing in this medium and would be delighted by any presence within it. There is no lacrosse game, console or otherwise, to compare it to, so it's automatically a winner. The CFL may be a tertiary league to the U.S. consumer, but if we're making this for the Canadian consumer, I think they'd be insulted if it got an Xbox Live Indie Games treatment when there's Madden and NCAA 12 coming out every July and August in both countries. The CFL's efforts would be better spent licensing a mobile game facing lesser expectations, or a Facebook fantasy football/management simulation.

Again, I wouldn't diminish the CFL by placing it in the same category as a challenger outfit like the NLL. The CFL has been around a very long time; it has a national broadcasting contract, recognized stars, the full gamut. Its fans expect to see all of that carrying over to a video game. I would expect to see all of that - the Grey Cup, everything - carrying over before I paid money for it.

A.B. Obviously, one of the biggest game franchises in the world is Electronic Arts' Madden series. Any thoughts on how difficult it would be for EA to make a CFL conversion of one of their Madden titles? How would the potential benefits stack up against the costs?

O.G.: It's not just re-skinning teams. Even if the CFL and its players are willing to cut an extreme sweetheart deal on the licensing, developers still must evaluate the players, rate them realistically, create accurate player models for them, create stadiums, give the teams authentic schedules and create the same playoff structure. Even if EA Sports were to repurpose the audio from Cris Collinsworth and Gus Johnson (a major breach of authenticity) the game designers still have to account for the variances in rules between the U.S. and Canadian forms of the game. So it's not like EA Sports could develop a Madden that had, on the main disc, a CFL variant. It would have to be a CFL game unto itself. It's not difficult in that these things can't be built, it's just a question of where's the real consumer desire for this product, done according to Madden standards of presentation and post-release support?

A.B.: What do you see as the most promising avenue for a CFL game; a Madden conversion by EA, a cheap indie game, a regular game built ground-up (or off an existing non-Madden engine) by another developer, or another path altogether? What's the most promising platform or combination of platforms for a CFL game, and should a game be digital distribution only or take the regular retail path?

O.G.: If 2K got the CFL and CFLPA licenses for nothing, locked the football guys from Visual Concepts in a barn with the All Pro 2K8 code, the A-Team, a welding kit, and a keg of Labatt's, and said don't come out until you have a game, then marketed it on a very hipster basis to a targeted U.S, market, maybe you'd have something that broke even. The problem is the biggest mainstream flag-wavers for the CFL in the U.S. are Chris Berman and Doug Flutie (maybe Warren Moon), and their ESPN ties means they're tied to EA Sports, so you lose them as recognizable advocates south of your border.

Outside of that, I couldn't see EA Sports doing a conversion until production and distribution costs decline sharply relative to profit margins, which will have to wait into the next console generation, when we may be buying, playing or downloading games in a completely different way.

A.B.: What sort of benefits do you think having a video game provides a league? Does it recruit new fans, does it help to turn casual fans into hardcore fans, or is its impact on a league's popularity pretty minimal?

O.G.: There's an enormous sense of legitimacy when you're worth a simulation quality video game. It's also a huge, huge motivator for your diehard evangelist fans, who relish every mainstream affirmation they get beyond their native territory. As for recruiting new fans, I think that's dependent on a good economy, when people are more willing to spend money to try new tastes, versus a bad economy, when folks go more for comforts and experiences that remind them of older days.

A.B.: Do you think we're ever going to see another CFL game? If so, when?

O.G.: Not in my, gut, no. I'd love to. I would buy it, and I would play it. My brother loves the CFL, and this might be the first video game we play together since Mattel hand-held football. But my values, my spending profile is nowhere near the majority of gamers'. People have to remember that being interesting, fun, neat or different are all necessary but not sufficient conditions to make a profitable video game. Profitability is. That's circular logic, but that's how games are made.

Thanks to Owen for his time. Make sure to read his work over at Kotaku and check out his Twitter feed. If you have more thoughts on this issue, feel free to share them below, or get in touch with me via e-mail or Twitter.