Pregame: How Are We Going to Play This?
Sport-based video games occupy an odd space within the sphere of modern home entertainment. Reliably enjoyed by millions, the sport-based video game stands at what sometimes feels like an oblique angle from the larger medium, and in ways that can be hard to articulate. All video games are games, obviously. They’re designed, they’re digital, they have rules, they give an audience some type of vicarious experience. Beyond that, El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron and NBA 2K12 do not on first glance appear to have a hell of a lot to say to each other.
I think we’re pretty much done with the Are Games Art? question. How about this one: Are Sports Games Art? Not a few of the people who make sports games, I now know, regard that question as somewhat hilarious and way, way too parlor-room aesthete. (They probably wouldn’t put it that way.) Many of the games most of us feel comfortable viewing as art are, most basically, rule-set systems made dynamic by human interaction, out of which some kind of “story” emerges. This is, in fact, what excites a lot of us about video games: a brand-new narrative form, etc., etc., but here is my question: Sport itself is another such rule-set system, isn’t it? It’s based on just that kind of rules-meets-human-interaction dynamism and permits almost exactly that kind of emergent “story” to appear. Remember that the whole crux of the Ebert Position1 was that sports — and, thus, games — aren’t art but rather activity, no matter how beautiful and compelling said activity can be from the spectator’s point of view. Art, though, has intent and direction, meaning and submeaning, and is definitively not something that happens to arise within seemingly arbitrary rule sets.
And I just went and looked at The Simpsons Road Rage‘s Metacritic rating. Sixty-one? For the love of sweet Jesus, video-game reviewers of 2002: Did you hate joy or something?
Obviously, this whole conversation is hampered by the fact that people who talk about video games, myself included, often turn to those games’ narrative, atmospheric, or aesthetic content when discussing their artfulness. The conversation is also hampered by the fact that many who play and design sports games — not to mention athletes themselves — would sooner dive into a thornbush than say, “Yeah, that thing I do? Art, pal. Right there. Art.” But do me a favor: Go to YouTube and watch a few old clips of Jordan or Maravich. Watch Aaron Rodgers thread the needle through some impossible coverage formation. Watch Jackie Joyner-Kersee run. I’ve been doing that for the past 40 minutes or so. It’s been enlightening.
You forget, when you’ve been away from sports and sports watching for a while, how visually and emotionally ravishing sports of all kinds can be. Even football — which I have gone to impressive lengths to avoid watching and playing — can be as darkly gorgeous as peering down on warring amoebae through a high-powered microscope. Something like humanity’s cultural ancientness is revealed through sport, which reminds us of what we actually are: savage, noble, strange, playful, and, above all, creative beings.
Whatever art is, it must be, in some way, beautiful. Acts of physical beauty performed within rule-set confines are not art, but acts of mental beauty performed within only slightly less rule-set confines (like, say, a sonnet) are. Is that really how we’re going to play this? It doesn’t sit right. Here’s what I just realized: A world in which sport at its best is not seen as some kind of art is a world that doesn’t deserve any art.
First Quarter: “Soak It All In”
Every year for the past three years, key members of Madden NFL‘s development team have traveled to the Bay Area suburb of Pleasanton, Calif., to meet with John Madden himself at his production company’s office building. There, Coach Madden and the dev team discuss identifiable trends that have emerged in professional football over the past year and spitball ideas about how these trends might be implemented in gameplay. Coach Madden is also briefed on the creative direction and “feature set” of next year’s game. Once that’s done, Coach (as he’s called) and the dev team watch a fully catered afternoon’s worth of professional football games in a large studio space that Coach built after retiring from broadcasting a few years ago.
Electronic Arts Tiburon, Madden‘s longtime developer, invited me along to observe this year’s get-together. I confessed to Rob Semsey, the director of communications at EA Tiburon, that I had not played a Madden title in many moons — though I played the hell out of the first couple Sega Genesis Madden iterations, back when it was called John Madden Football and lacked an official NFL license. Semsey assured me that this alarming lacuna in my Madden résumé was acceptable — that, in a weird way, it was even sort of preferable, given that one of the franchise’s perennial challenges has been to figure out ways to keep the Madden base engorged while also rehooking those who once played Madden but don’t anymore.
When I arrived at Coach Madden’s studio I was told that things were running a little late. As it turns out, things often run late when Coach gets briefed on the next Madden title. Coach is understandably particular about the game that bears his name; his attention to detail and commitment to accuracy are large parts of what make Madden the game it is. No one minded running long. Coach is, by all accounts, spellbinding on the subject of football. I say “by all accounts” because I wasn’t allowed into that part of the meeting, which was fine: I probably wouldn’t want me there either.
A couple of dev team members wandered out of the meeting early, though, and they gave me a sense of what was going down one room over. Someone, they said, might draw up a new play on the dry-erase board. Coach would, in turn, consider that play, explain why the tight ends would be better off doing something else, get up, uncap a marker, and amend the proposed play. That’s one of the littler ways in which Coach improves Madden. Every member of the dev team to whom I spoke maintained that Coach’s impact on the game was profound, and I don’t think they’re bluffing. Since retiring from broadcasting, moreover, Coach has had more time to engage with the dev team. “He’s more involved now than he’s ever been,” Semsey told me.
About Coach’s studio: I was told that “man cave” is a phrase that irritates Coach, but I’m not sure how else to describe his studio. The Cavern of Man? It’s huge, dark, and mostly black (big flowy black curtains along every wall, gray carpet, black furniture, black tablecloths on the black tables), with track lights and spotlights festooned along an exposed industrial ceiling. In back there was a little window out of which a compressed beam of dusty light was shooting toward the 9-by-16-foot projection television screen. Ever seen a 9-by-16-foot projection television screen? I hadn’t. Picture the biggest screen imaginable. Got it? Good. It’s bigger than that. Nine smaller televisions were arranged around the tectonically massive central screen, and, from a distance, they all looked puny. Turned out they all had 63-inch screens. I was given a complicated chart that indicated which screen would be broadcasting which of today’s games; these charts had been distributed liberally around the studio, and no wonder. On the big screen, the only one that had volume, Chris Berman was canvasing opinions on the likelihood of the Pack blemishing their undefeated record against the Giants that day. Positioned in the middle of the room was a brown easy chair so comfortably broken in you could tell that sitting in it felt like putting on your favorite pants. I did not need to be told that this was Coach’s chair, and, around it, other chairs had been arranged so that the Madden dev team could comfortably commune with Coach during the many games they would watch today.
“I’m excited just to sit and listen,” one of the Madden devs told me. “I just want to soak it all in. The football setup is very impressive.”
The impressiveness of the football setup in Coach’s studio brought to mind a few things: the inside of the American male mind, the lair of a wizard who was once a wide receiver at Dark Mage University, the production design of Minority Report if Minority Report had been about football. It’s important to note that Coach built the studio so that his family and friends would have a grand venue in which to watch football with him, and you quickly get the sense that if you’re in business with Coach, you’re considered by him to be part of the family. Did I mention the fried-chicken-and-waffles buffet?
Watching football in an immense black cavern on a television screen the size of a continent seems pretty decadent. Until, that is, you’re reminded that having the luxury of spending a Sunday doing nothing but watching football is, incredibly, a relatively recent development in Coach’s life. He certainly didn’t get to watch football this way as a coach, and not really as a broadcaster. Incredible but true: Retirement has allowed Coach Madden, for maybe the first time in his adult life, to spend his Sundays being a football fan.
The first time I saw Coach was when he was coming out of Stage One of the dev team meeting. He and one of the devs were talking about wildcat formations while the rest of the Madden team trailed behind them. When you first see a flock of Madden developers, you’re not surprised that fully half of them look like former football players. How misleading an impression this turned out to be. The guys who most looked like football players were not and never had been football players. Mike Scantlebury, the dev team’s hugest, most intimidatingly football-player-y member, told me he pretty much “learned football on the job.” Life lesson! A couple members of the dev team had played football at a high level, however, including Cam Weber, the general manager of what EA calls its American football division, meaning that he oversees the men and women who work not only on Madden NFL but also on NCAA Football and the more arcade-y boutique franchise NFL Blitz.
The Madden creative team had been pretty seriously overhauled in the past year — most of the devs here to meet Coach had never done so before, and the team charged with gameplay design for all of EA’s American football titles is twice as large as last year’s — and I had been told that Weber, on the job now for nine months, was leading the charge to revitalize the Madden franchise; the word “excitement” was used by several to describe the new atmosphere. After playing college football (QB, team captain) at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Weber started his professional career at Radical Entertainment, where he worked on all sorts of titles, from open-world games like Scarface to driving-comedy games like The Simpsons Road Rage (which remains, second for second, one of the funniest, most entertaining games I’ve ever played).2 Weber later moved to EA Canada, where he was finally able to focus on his first video game love: sports games. Among Weber’s recent achievements was introducing a strong narrative element to the Fight Night franchise. In this year’s Fight Night Champion, the player has the option of guiding a fictional pugilist through a surprisingly nuanced boxer-flick story of redemption.
Weber told me he “had the benefit of coming down from EA Canada with a fresh new set of eyes, and more of a fan’s outlook. NCAA Football and Madden are two of my favorite games; I’ve played them for years.” The knock against the Madden franchise is that the game has become an annual title update, with very little innovation or detectable difference from one year to the next. On this point, Weber was surprisingly forthcoming: “We read the forums, we read the consumer feedback, we read reviews. I think in general there’s a feeling that EA’s football titles are starting to feel a little bit stagnant in terms of how you play them. And while the games have progressed on a graphics and rendering and A.I. side, how you experience them, and how you play them, hasn’t changed that much, especially in this generation of consoles.”
This is not to say that Madden NFL 12 did not have new features. The Clutch Rating of each player can dramatically affect endgame outcomes. A Dynamic Player Performance feature makes an A.I.-controlled Aaron Rodgers more likely to run for yards than Tom Brady. One Madden dev told me that he was irked to find Madden NFL 12‘s Community feature — which allows players to play online exclusively with other players who prefer, say, five-minute quarters — ignored by reviewers, while Mario Kart 7, which also has a Community feature, was praised for having such an option. All types of innovation come out of sports games, though often in ways that are hard for the average gamer to pick up on. Take the A.I. challenge of collision detection. “We have to go way deeper than a first-person shooter,” Weber told me. “Think of the types of interactions between two human beings where they’re touching each other or hitting each other. We’ve got blocking and all the different types of blocks that you’ve got to deal with. Then you’ve got tackling. Then you’ve got gang tackling. Then you’ve got pileups.”3 Only last year had Madden been able to rid itself of “suction” tackles, whereby two in-game players snap together like magnets. In this year’s game, players collide in a far less cartoonish manner. Creating realistic human collisions took more than a decade of iteration, and it’s easy to imagine how many other kinds of games will benefit from the work Madden did in this one area alone.
Hundreds upon hundreds of individual animations are captured every year for a Madden title. The “actors” are typically former football players themselves, and they emerge from most animation-capture sessions battered and bruised.
True fact: The modern football video game pushes current-generation technology to its limit. Why are football games so “expensive,” in the sense that programmers use that word? Well, first, a football game has to render all the players, all of whom have idiosyncrasies of movement and appearance that must be accurate, and, in the case of marquee players, downright meticulous. Second, the game has to render all the coaching staff and the refs. There’s also the crowd to render, not to mention the crowd noise, which is keyed to surprisingly complicated crowd A.I. Let’s not forget the grass on the field. Or the light. Or the broadcasting. The game’s also scripting, on every play, the individual behavior of every player on the field, most of whom will be doing different things on any given play. In a basketball, hockey, or soccer game, the range of behaviors is more limited. In basketball everyone’s doing roughly the same thing from an A.I. perspective. Hockey gets a little more complicated, and soccer a little more complicated yet, but football gives you 22 individual actors obeying a wide range of A.I. scripts. Not to mention the fact that every NFL team has an elaborate playbook with distinct tendencies and play styles. Meanwhile, during the plays themselves, there’s tons of contact between those 22 individual actors, all of which they have to respond to. And this has to look good — seamless, even. When you start pondering the immense complications of a game like Madden — the product of more than 10 million lines of code — you begin to wonder how the game even runs without shooting fire out of your console.
Second Quarter: “It’s Gotten to Be Another Thing”
Being in Coach Madden’s presence created an odd cultural tingle — the sensation of being in the presence less of a famous man than of the human face of an enduring institution. If that sounds grand, I’m sorry, but I felt it and I’m football agnostic. The only time I’ve felt anything similar is when I shook hands with Bill Clinton on the steps of the Student Union at Michigan State University in 1996. When I approached Coach, one of the Madden devs was scribbling a defensive play on a dry-erase board while he watched attentively. “So,” the dev said, “if this nickel back moves up here — ”
“No,” Coach said, “in zone, in true zone, you zone the field.”
Coach, I’m happy to report, was friendly and open and warm. He was also wearing what I’m fairly sure was a Super Bowl ring. (Until 2009, Coach Madden remained the youngest coach ever to win a Super Bowl.) The journalist part of me noticed Coach’s ring and thought, Huh. The human part of me quickly assassinated that shithead, and thank god, because if I had a Super Bowl ring, you can be certain I’d be wearing it to sleep, in the shower, while disco dancing, to fencing practice. You’d have to tear off my phalanges to get a close look at my Super Bowl ring.
Coach began our interview by describing the famous story of his 1984 train-car ambush by then-EA president Trip Hawkins — Coach Madden, also famously, does not fly — and being presented with the prospect of a simple, passing-heavy, seven-on-seven game of football, with limited play-calling possibilities; something, in other words, a bit like Tecmo Bowl, which came out in 1987. Hawkins probably expected Madden to say, “Sure, slap my name on it — and let me call my accountant.” Things did not go down that way. In 1984, the computing power that would make a tactically interesting, 11-on-11 football game was barely feasible, which is why Hawkins was lobbying for a simpler game. “I wouldn’t do it,” Coach said, “unless we had 11 guys on defense and 11 guys on offense.” In other words, he never just stuck his name on the game; he has never viewed Madden as a mere endorsement. “If it wasn’t real football,” he said, “I didn’t want my name on it. I wanted it to be real football — pro football — with the sideline, the numbers, the hash marks. Everything had to be pro football.”
Coach has admitted that his failure to buy large amounts of EA stock near the beginning of his involvement with the company was one of the more regrettable decisions of his life. With almost 100 million Madden copies sold, he’s able to laugh this off now. “No one,” he said, “knew there was going to be video games like this.”
The Madden franchise has seen a lot of competition over the years: Joe Montana Football (the first sports game I can recall that had variable weather conditions), which was released in 1991; the NFL 2K series, which ran from 1999 to 2005; NFL Gameday, which ran from 1994 to 2005. Every game has its champions, and not a few video game football fans regard Gameday as having consistently made a better product than Madden. The NFL 2K series pulled off one of the greatest, most insidious guerrilla-warfare moves in the history of video game competition when, in 2004, it released ESPN NFL 2K5 at the ridiculously enticing price of $19.99 and carved a serious gouge in Madden‘s domination of the football space. One of the Madden devs I spoke to still remembers 2K5‘s day of sneak-attack infamy: “It scared the hell out of us.” NFL Gameday proved an arguably tougher opponent (from the same dev who was scared by ESPN NFL 2K5: “We were always nervous about Gameday. We wanted to crush them”), in that it was a PlayStation exclusive and had all of Sony’s considerable resources backing its development. In 2005, the Madden franchise outmaneuvered its rivals by securing an exclusivity deal with the league, effectively putting every other pro-football game out of business. Since then, the Madden franchise has survived some rough spots, particularly during the console-generation shift from the Xbox and PlayStation 2 to the 360 and PS3: Madden NFL 06, the first next-gen Madden, is widely regarded, even by the devs themselves, as the undisputed lemon of the franchise. EA has no plans to commit another console-generation-shift blunder, and many of the company’s plans for the Madden franchise concern titles considerably further down the line than Madden NFL 12.
One aspect of Madden that Coach is particularly fond of is how it changed the way we watch football at home — this coming from the man who popularized the telestrator, which allowed casual fans at home to understand, as a coach or player would understand, what was happening on the field. “I really knew [what Madden accomplished] when I was at Fox,” Coach told me. “David Hill, the president of Fox Sports at the time, had a meeting with a bunch of us, and he said, ‘What we want to do is make our game on television look like the video game.'” Hill didn’t have to say which video game he was referring to. The visible lines of scrimmage floating beneath players’ feet? The forward-pointing yardage arrows? This is visual language drawn directly from Madden. How professional football is played from year to year is reflected in Madden, and how Madden is experienced is reflected in how professional football is watched. That cannot really be said about any other sports-game franchise.
A funny thing occurred to me while I was talking with Coach: When you think Madden NFL, you don’t, somehow, think of John Madden’s face. Coach disappeared from the cover box in 2000; he used to provide the game with color commentary, but he doesn’t do that anymore, either. (He described those long, lonely recording sessions as “the most difficult part of any part that I’ve ever had in the game and the least amount of fun.”) And while Coach occupies some serious real estate in the headspace of American sport, his game has grown … not bigger than him, but other than him. Even he realizes this: “It’s gotten to be another thing,” he said, and went on to note that, when his children and grandchildren play Madden, “they don’t really associate it, I don’t think, with me. They’re just playing Madden.”4
But does Coach himself play? “Oh yeah, I’ve played. When I was on the bus, I used to have games there I would play. … I was never a good player, and so what I would do is get other people to play; I would watch them to see where the game was. I went crazy one time, in fact, when my son Joe and Michael Frank played. They were on the bus, and the score was 98-96. Neither one of them ever punted. It would be like fourth-and-20, and they’d go for it. I was so pissed off. I said, ‘You’ve got to punt.’ And they never wanted to punt.” I’m glad I’ve never played around Coach. I’m pretty sure I’ve never punted in Madden — or any football game. Well, that’s not true. Sometimes, when I’m frustrated, I’ll punt on third down.
When I asked Coach how he felt about his legacy with regard to Madden, he said he never thought in those terms. Instead, he said, “It’s a way for people to learn the game and participate in the game at a pretty sophisticated level.”
Halftime: Feature Focus
The National Football League takes Madden very seriously. The game has become a way for the league to hold back encroaching hordes of young, shaggy, soccer-loving misfits and hook yet another generation on pigskin. Last year, during Madden‘s annual contest to find a game-box cover boy,5 13 million fans cast a vote — and this occurred during a threatened lockout. Several people told me that the Madden franchise is regarded by the NFL as the league’s “33rd franchise.” This derives from the fact that, at the end of every week, EA Tiburon, along with every NFL team’s coaching staff, is sent a massive searchable database of film in which every play of every game is broken down by its situational peculiarities. If you want to see every play in which Drew Brees was facing a third-down conversion of more than 10 yards, or see every instance in which Rashard Mendenhall ran for a loss, you’re in luck. This NFL “black box” is how opposing teams scout one another, and it’s how Madden game-design devs identify and develop team and player tendencies.
You’ve probably heard of the Madden Curse. If not, look here. I tend not to believe in things that a reliable witness is unable to confirm, but the Madden Curse sure seems real enough. I don’t know if prior to your signing the Madden cover contract they spray you with a bone-weakening agent or what, but the record is fairly irrefutable at this point, so much so that, last year, EA suspects that millions of fans were voting for the players they most wanted to see suffer a compound fracture or brain explosion. This year, the Cleveland Browns running back Peyton Hillis was the cover boy. Of course, he got hurt.
The NFL’s regard for its video game ambassador goes beyond techno-academic wonkery. Last year, EA was able to convince the NFL to send the Lombardi Trophy to a press thingy at E3 in Los Angeles. By this point, several hundred Manitoban hicks have probably sipped lager from the Stanley Cup itself, but we Americans are not so careless with our vessels of national coronation. The Lombardi Trophy! At E3! No other consumer product tied to the NFL gets this treatment, because no other consumer product can do for the NFL what Madden does.
But what does Madden do for video games? Tougher question. I know hundreds of gamers; only a few regularly play Madden, and this doesn’t break down along the predictably Manichaean lines of Jocks v. Nerds. From a critic’s perspective — and most of my closest gamer friends are critics of one stripe or another — you’re stuck, when writing about sports games, with what I call “feature focus.” Sports games are reality re-creations, or as close to such a thing as they can get, and so what do you, as a reviewer-critic, really get to talk about other than the features? The problem is that writing about a game in this way is pretty dull for reader and reviewer and developer alike. Of course, “feature focus” is a problem in regular video game criticism as well — the average video game review is a bastard child of the consumer-tech review and the belletristic reader-response review and somehow falls under the detestable rubric of “games journalism”; detestable because criticism is not journalism — but sports games most egregiously suffer from “feature focus” treatment. But what, really, can you say about a game like Madden if you’re not going to talk about its features? To go any deeper into its complexity, you need to put on a game-design scuba suit.
But I’ll take a stab. Does the art of the sports game derive from the purity of its simulation, its distillation of the simulated sport’s essence, or both? Madden has long tried to simulate and distill simultaneously. From a game-design perspective, that’s not an easy thing to do. Speaking to this issue, Anthony Stevenson, the director of marketing for Madden, told me, “It’s all about authenticity. As long as the game’s authentic, we can reach both audiences.” He brought up Gameflow, which debuted in Madden NFL 11 and indicated a “wholesale change in the way you called plays.” Gameflow allows you to custom edit your team’s game plan and go deep, but you can also let it call plays for you. In one case you’re the coach/player, and in the other only the player; all you have to do is execute. “It’s a sweet-spot thing,” Stevenson went on. “The core can build the type of team they want to play, and the casual fan can play the game they want to play.”
Maybe the art of the sports game derives from how the game creates a space for enjoyment on the part of the shallower player and mastery on the part of the deeper player? Yet again, Madden tries to be a game that both types of player can pick up and instantly enjoy. When people talk about the Madden franchise seeming stagnant, I think they might actually be trying to express their frustration with the sense that the game has long served, however valiantly, two seemingly irreconcilable masters.
Third Quarter: “An Artist With the Numbers”
Imagine you’re playing a word-association game with a gamer. If you say to him or her, “Electronic Arts,” the very last words you’re probably going to hear come back at you are “nurturing” and “whimsical.” Yet at EA Tiburon, there’s a conference room with a conference-room table, the center of which has been hollowed out and filled with versicolor plastic balls of the sort you might find at Chuck E. Cheese. Sometimes EA Tiburon employees hide in those balls and pop out and scare the unsuspecting. If you’re visiting and don’t want to be scared, a word to the wise: Check under the table for shoes and/or flip-flops. (EA Tiburon’s conference/romper room is by now locally famous, as can be seen by this pricelessly I-am-from-Mars Orlando Sentinel headline: “Capers Make Workplace ‘Fun.'”)
On the American football floors at EA Tiburon, sports talk radio is always playing in the bathrooms. In the hallways you see big checkerboard photo spreads of dozens of players arranged by position, to give designers good height and size references. Over there: a rack of NFL and NCAA jerseys, which artists often lug back and forth to their offices to make sure the mesh holes in the game’s virtual jerseys are the right size. Just about every office I visited had an impressive piece of football memorabilia signed by an equally impressive star player.
Maybe the most interesting person I met at EA Tiburon was Donnie Moore, who’s in charge of the ratings system to which every virtual Madden player is subject. When I learned that Moore was largely alone in overseeing this much-contested feature of the game, I had two visions. The first was of a stern older gentleman in a large office, a glass of water on his otherwise empty desk, wearing a bow tie and staring down all visitors with icily piercing blue eyes. The second was of entering a room dominated by a huge computer screen, and saying, as I approached, “You’re … you’re a machine.”
Instead, Moore is a 34-year-old EA veteran who sits in a dark cubicle on one of EA Tiburon’s two American football floors. He talks loudly, quickly, and very, very entertainingly about the Madden ratings system while occasionally pausing to drink from a can of Pepsi that I strongly suspected was neither his first nor last of the day. Moore has the largest number of Twitter followers of any of the Madden devs, not surprisingly, and he calls himself “an artist with the numbers.” I think there is something to be said for this. There’s probably no one else in the country doing what Moore does, or at least no one doing it for the same purpose. Lots of people do what Moore does, actually, but they are one of three types: scouts trying to bring honor to themselves while enriching their organizations, analysts trying to bring honor to themselves while enriching gamblers, or fantasy-league freaks trying to bring honor to themselves while triumphing over their fellow freaks. But Moore doesn’t get anything extra if he’s accurate. According to him, his ego is not on the line, at least not in the same way the ego of a scout or traditional analyst would be. The easiest part of his job, he said, is assigning a player with his initial numbers. The hard part is updating them week after week. He’s a first responder, not a prognosticator.
“If everybody knew that Tim Tebow would be great,” Moore said, “they wouldn’t have had Kyle Orton on their team at the start of the season; they wouldn’t have flirted with Brady Quinn. If it was such a sure thing, Tebow would have been started from the get-go; they wouldn’t have had all this controversy. So I guess what we’re always trying to do is see what happens in the NFL, and then that next week we’re putting it back in. We’re always sort of one step behind. We’re trying to stay up-to-date regardless of who they are, even if they’re our cover guy. Peyton Hillis is like an 85 overall right now and he’s playing terrible. We could care less that he’s on the cover of our game — or at least I could care less.” With that he turned to his computer. “I’m doing a roster update right now with the Packers. I want to make sure that the latest information is in there. Of course, Charles Woodson is a 95 overall corner, and he’s a top corner, probably one of the top five in the game, but he just had a terrible game against the Giants. I want to make sure that that’s reflected in the update.” With a keystroke Moore knocked down Woodson’s offensive awareness by one. “He had a terrible game and actually had a big penalty, so again, I’m going to make sure that that’s reflected in the update. He’s still going to be a great corner, but he’s sort of trending down based on the latest information.”
When I asked Moore how his job affected his experience as a fan, he said, “I can’t enjoy football if I’m watching just one game, that’s for sure. But I try to get into a bar or something where I can watch all the games simultaneously.”
Fourth Quarter: “Flip That Paradigm”
The primary offensive experience of Madden NFL is one person giving or throwing the ball to another. You begin the play as the quarterback and, 80 percent of the time, end the play with either a back or receiver. The primary defensive experience of Madden NFL is — for most players — blitzing the quarterback with whomever. The last real seismic event in Madden occurred with the rise of online play. Playing a cross-country game of Madden with your old college roommate is a big part of what made Madden a key title for years. But online play has been part of the Madden experience for years now. What else is there to do within the parameters of the game that could have a similarly drastic impact?
Clearly, the way sports games are played, and the way Madden in particular is played, is ripe for some massive paradigm shift. Why doesn’t the quarterback position feel as visceral and pinpointy as firing a rifle in a first-person shooter? Could you make the experience of being an offensive lineman as interesting as anything on the ball? Why, for that matter, is running the ball such an isometric experience? When I put these and other questions to the Madden team in Florida, many of them smiled. They are perfectly aware that something has to change, and are in an enviable position to change it, but they also have a fan base of 5 million to 7 million dedicated players to keep engaged, which is why, I suspect, Cam Weber hammers home the point that the entire house of Madden will not stand without a solid gameplay foundation of realistically simulated professional football. What EA Tiburon actually has in mind for the franchise’s future can only be guessed at, but several Madden devs were willing to plant the following seed: Future Madden titles’ gameplay will almost certainly revolve around more than a handful of positions.
Roy Harvey, Madden NFL‘s executive producer, is the dev team’s far-seeing futurist. An engineer by training and a former Michigan Wolverine, Harvey spoke fluently and fascinatingly about the future of the sports game. While he was unable to reveal what he called the “secret sauce” of the franchise’s plans, the stuff he could vaguely posit seemed both tantalizing and Huxleyan: “If you’re familiar with Copernicus,” he said, “then you know he was the one who figured out the heliocentric worldview — that we were orbiting the sun; everything wasn’t orbiting the earth. That was Copernicus’ big ‘aha’ about 500 years ago. A lot of what we’ve done traditionally in video games is say, ‘All right. We’ll create these online connections and we’ll create these online features.’ But at the end of the day it was always about the game here on a disc, on a console, and the users were orbiting the game. If you flip that paradigm, much like Copernicus did with the heliocentric worldview, it’s like, ‘Well, let’s put the user in the center.’ … That’s the core, I would say, of the idea behind how we are moving forward.”
Harvey brought up NCAA Football, which has been “a great place to evolve and mature ideas.” In 2009, he said, “NCAA 10 launched this Team Builder feature. Well over a million players custom-built teams on it. So, aha, users want to create, customize, and extend the experience. Big surprise, right? A million custom teams. Wow. That’s phenomenal. What’s going on there? Is it all like crazy, bizarre stuff? No.” Harvey asked me to imagine a world in which football games combined the twitch gameplay of the console Madden experience with Minecraftian games of making your own teams with fantasy football spreadsheet games and Be a Pro modes starring some version of, say, yourself — all of which would be part of the same seamless gameworld. A game you could play anywhere, on multiple devices, depending on your mood. “You play your game on Saturday,” Harvey said, “and the rest of the week, what are you doing? You’re trying to scout and acquire the best high school students to come to your college when they graduate.” And from there get them into the pros. “You want to have a virtual football experience,” Harvey said, “and, depending on what platform you’re on, whether it be Web, or phone, or a pad, or console, you have an experience that ties you back to that same core.” Harvey was careful to stress that the console Madden experience wasn’t going anywhere, and in many ways these ideas were a reaction to the Daddening of gaming and an audience with less time to play. All these posited functions, furthermore, would be totally dependent on “how deep do you want to go. You know, a lot of people will say, ‘Hey, I’m just happy to unwind after work. I pop in the disc and when I’m done, I’m done.’ But some people are jonesing for football: ‘Let me get on the Web and do something during my lunch break.'”
“So,” I said, “it’s about creating a football experience that could accommodate every possible desire.”
“Absolutely,” he said. “Any level of commitment, any level of immersion, that you’re interested in.”
From there I visited Mike Young, the former art director of Madden NFL and current creative director, who, I will go out on a limb to say, is probably the only dev on the Madden team who has a copy of Syd Field’s Screenplay on his bookshelf. I asked him about it and learned a few things. First, Young worked on what is my all-time favorite sports-game franchise: NBA Street. Second, he believes that one aspect of the modern video game experience that sports games have, to their detriment, largely ignored is storytelling — and he did not mean the emergent type of storytelling that arises from all kinds of play. In talking about that, he was happy to bring up the example set by NBA Street. Not only was NBA Street the first sports game that made playing defense more fun than playing offense, Street was quite simply shot to the core with a molten love of street basketball culture. It invented iconic and oddly compelling characters, such as the lightning bug basketball thief Biggie Littles and the achingly forlorn Stretch Monroe, who looked like Dr. J with a heroin problem. The game didn’t tell a story, but it seemed to have all these intriguing and beautiful stories floating around it — it seemed soaked in story.
“Art people,” Young said, “always think it’s boring to work in sports, because it’s real. I think there’s creativity in sports, and my passion is storytelling. I’m a big NFL Films watcher — that’s what I do in my free time — and my goal is to help bring that aspect to sports games.” He went on: “Could we deliver a Rudy experience that’s maybe not the simulation of football, but the experience of making the team? There’s scenes around it, and what happens on the field is more like an action movie, but the action happens to be football.” That, he said, is what Street got at so powerfully — the soul of the sport it simulated. The fact that Street was not at all a realistic simulation only emphasizes what more realistic sports games could do with a redefined template. Young admitted that the kind of soul he was looking for was “not there” in Madden. At least not yet. “We’re making strides with the career modes, and you can put your face in the game, [but] Madden has been very dry; it’s like a menu-based experience as far as the career modes go. Attaching yourself to any kind of identity was really near-impossible; it’s all in your head.”
The thing that will make a sports-game dev “legend,” Young said, was figuring out a way to blend what storytelling games do best with what sports games do best. “My favorite player,” he said, “is Kurt Warner, and his story is so unrealistic that it seems like a cheesy Disney movie. But I’d love to give you a character like that — the long shot who makes the team, is the hero, and has a fall. From there we can almost sequel it and have episodes: his comeback, his being tossed aside for the new rookie. We could go through that whole world.” The way most sports games have thus far tried to approximate this, Young said, is “an embarrassment. Sports games are given a pass on certain things. We’re not expected to be at the quality bar of some of the other triple-A story or action titles” — and Young rightly views these games, and the experiences they offer, as direct competition to Madden. Maybe this is all a grand gedankenexperiment, but Young sees no compelling reason why sports games can’t be as emotionally, artistically, and even narratively evocative as any other game, and, after talking to him, neither do I.
Postgame: At the End of the Day, It’s Still Software
Anthony White, also known as A-Dubs, works as an assistant designer on the core gameplay Madden team. I sat down with White in his cubicle — I noted a still-packaged Warren Moon action figure on a nearby shelf — where he was watching NFL film and playing around with a proprietary Madden dev-team tool called Playdesigner, which allows White to quickly drop real plays into a prototype version of Madden and tweak the variables until the play can run believably in-game.
I’d seen a lot of White in Pleasanton. He was rarely more than a few feet from Coach Madden, with whom he has, over the past five years, formed a tight bond. Both men can talk about shovel passes as though nothing in this world were more important. When I asked White about his view of Coach’s football mind, he said, “Oh, it’s outstanding. He was pointing out stuff like shotgun — some shotgun snap techniques and drop techniques — that we kind of, sort of know about, but he’d go into a lot more specific detail.” White mentioned Coach having stressed the increasing popularity of the rugby-style midfield punt, which allows the ball to bounce backward. A good rugby punt can land a ball on the 1, with backspin taking it back, crushingly, to the 5. Coach, White said, was adamant that these granular strategies become a prominent feature in future Madden titles.
White came to the Madden franchise with a strong background in computers and football alike. In high school he was a wide receiver. “I never played college or anything of that nature, but even when playing that level of football I never really had an interest in quote unquote Xs and Os. I just knew what I was supposed to do. I knew I was supposed to run a curl route, but I had no idea what the coverage was or what the other guys were doing.” It wasn’t until being in the military, he said, and playing on intramural teams for the Air Force, when tackle football was being phased out, that White “started getting into the Xs and Os.”
On his computer screen White brought up an Aaron Rodgers touchdown from the previous year, which was headlined onscreen in this way: “12-A. Rodgers pass short right to 87-J. Nelson for 3 yards. TOUCHDOWN.” “We get the end zone view,” he said, “where we can see run plays, blocking schemes, D-line plays, and we get the high press-box view where we can see coverages — all those little things that the fans at home don’t get to see, for the most part. We use that in all areas of building the game. Not only in putting together the playbooks, but also for animation reference on how certain quarterbacks throw, for example, or how they stand in a shotgun.”
A big part of the job was learning what to designate as a trend and what to leave aside as an outlier. With a few keystrokes White brought up a suite of defensive 49ers footage. “For example,” he said, “the 49ers — they do a lot of stuff where they’ll bring in six offensive linemen, unbalanced formations. They bring in Isaac Sopoaga, who’s their nose tackle, a defensive lineman — they have him at fullback sometimes. So it’s one thing if you see that once or twice during an entire season. … If you see something like that once or twice it’s like, OK, ‘Is it worth the cost of putting that in?’ Because there’s a cost for every play we put in the game.” A memory cost, that is. If White overspends, other aspects of the game might not work properly. Another thing White has to guard against is a play’s “exploit potential,” which can take months of testing to discover. “There’s nothing that we can’t do,” he said, “because at the end of the day it’s still software. What it comes down to is that everything has to be prioritized, because on a yearly sports title we don’t have the luxury of something like Grand Theft Auto, which has a four-year development cycle. They can get a rate on a massive amount of things, whereas when you’re doing a yearly sports title, everything is condensed. … We can’t put everything a team does in real life in the game, but we try to get the essence of what it is that they’re doing.”
I asked White how much film he wound up watching over the course of a Madden title’s development cycle. This is what he said: “Oh, wow.”
Finally, I asked White what he liked most about his job, and his answer provided a glimpse into why any of us like playing sport-based video games in the first place. “I have buddies I went to high school with who are high school coaches now. I know a lot of college coaches, some pro coaches, and they have stressful jobs. Especially my buddies who are coaching high school. Don’t get me wrong, we do have our stressful days — ”
“But actual people’s lives aren’t in your hands,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, “exactly.” He looked at his screen. “These virtual players, at the end of the day? I can turn my computer off, and they’re gone.”