I know that AFL isn’t a sport that matters much to anyone outside of Australia. So this is one of those rare articles where we remind readers of just how Australian we are by writing about an AFL game. AFL 23 launched this week and the response can be tactfully described as “anger.” The anger is not unjustified, but the thing is that it’s pretty clearly going to be a good game.
It’s rare for the community response to a video game to catch much mainstream media attention, but that’s what has happened with this one. “Disastrous AFL 23 launch leads to comical clips being roasted on social media,” is a brutal headline that no game developer wants to read, and it’s just one of many.
“One clip shows Collingwood veteran Scott Pendlebury’s virtual self waltzing from centre wing all the way into the goal square to boot a major, with defenders either stopping to watch or running away from the user-controlled player,” the article quips. For people who aren’t so familiar with AFL, that clip shows the equivalent of a goalie in a football game just dribbling the ball all the way from their goal to the opponent’s for an easy kick.
Meanwhile, over on Steam the game currently has a “mostly negative” rating, albeit it from just 77 user reviews. AFL really is a niche sport in video games. In addition to the criticisms of the AI, there have been a gauntlet of issues reported. Everything from frequent crashes to the buttons to swap players or tackle in-game not working as intended. There’s even an entire game mode missing.
I’m playing the game myself, and there are undeniable issues with it. I’ve only personally experienced one crash so far, but certainly struggle with the fluidity of players across the pitch. I have had trouble aiming both passes and kicks, and there are several very odd visual quirks. I personally believe that while games don’t need to necessarily be perfect on release, they should be a little further beyond the MVP (minimum viable product) than this is.
With that said, though. The developer, Big Ant Studios, has done this before. The original AO Tennis launch was what could only be described as a catastrophe, and to Big Ant’s credit it stuck with it until it was in a state that meant that people were generally enjoying it, and there was real excitement for the sequel from players of the first (full disclaimer: I was working with Big Ant Studios at the time. However, I have not worked at the company for well over a year, and have had nothing to do with AFL 23).
With some developers, you can’t assume that issues will be resolved. With Big Ant, I’m more inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. As such, I’m genuinely looking forward to the patches coming in, because the underlying game here is good.
The last couple of AFL games were handled by a different developer (Wicked Witch), and I honestly think that the reason those games weren’t blasted anywhere near as badly by the media and community is that it was clear from day one that they were never going to be good. They featured ugly character models that looked nothing like their real-world counterparts, clunky gameplay that tried to be far more complex than the developer was capable of, and a static flow that meant what you saw on screen looked nothing like the movement and energy of a real-world AFL match.
Already, even despite all the bugs and issues, Big Ant’s effort looks and feels better. Players dart around the screen in a far more authentic recreation of the movement of AFL (AI foibles aside). Animation is more fluid. The kicking game is cleaner, and the controls are far less complex, allowing you to focus on the tactics of the sport, rather than trying to play some weird pseudo-fighting game of combos and button presses. As the bugs are sorted out, this is clearly going to be a slick and high-energy game. The foundation – the bit of any game that can’t really be changed – is excellent, and no one is complaining about that. The only issues that people are having with it are the “easily fixed” bugs and quirks.
Meanwhile, aesthetically, the character likenesses are a massive step up over the work of Big Ant’s predecessor. Though there’s an odd plasticky sheen on the bare arms and legs of characters, and Big Ant does need to work on aesthetic quality below the neck for its character models in the future, that’s only a mild criticism and distraction. Meanwhile, the faces are nicely detailed and distinguishable. These are genuinely good.
As I was only able to start playing the game when the servers went live (and I am annoyed that this is another game where even the single player modes are locked behind a server login), and that was Thursday, I am by no means ready to write a review of the game yet. Meanwhile, Big Ant has already released one patch, and that has already significantly improved the on-field gameplay in some critical areas. There’s a journey ahead, but we are going to see iterative improvements at a good rate.
I do wish Big Ant wouldn’t do this to itself. It can’t be fun having to scramble through the controversy. But I do firmly believe that AFL 23 is going to evolve into something that does the sport justice for the first time in many years.
Well written article Matt, you nail a lot here. I wish a lot of ppl online would calm down, it’s embarrassing. Clearly we didn’t get the right build yet they yammer on like it was lies and incompetence all this time.
On the flip side, I’m extremely concerned there are some aspects that were never working as intended, but I will give BA the benefit of the doubt for now. Case in point not only are things a right royal mess, but their plans for the first planned patch pre launch are out the window as well.