16 June 2009
Sometimes game companies, even the biggest ones, start listening to gamers. Sometimes it takes a rough economic slowdown and some poor sales before that happens, but sometimes it does happen.
I think it is happening with EA Sports.
There seems to be some new winds of change in Electronic Arts’ sports division, and I for one am pretty elated about it. 2009 seems to be the year of the “seasoned sports gamer”. (Note: I’m reluctant to use the term “hardcore” anymore as it pertains to sports gamers, simply because “hardcore” and its varying degrees of interpretation are so darn subjective…so I’ll use the term “seasoned”)
..And by “seasoned”, I mean sports gamers that expect a year to year evolution towards greater realism in regards to yearly sports video game releases. These are the people who feel that as the technology gets better, so should the features/realism of the sports game. These are the sports-knowledgeable folks that expect a decent degree of product advancement in terms of year to year releases. “Seasoned” sports gamers differ from casual sports gamers in that casuals generally just want a fun, easy to pick up game that doesn’t throw much at them or require them to look anything up in the game manual.
It is these “seasoned sports gamer” folks that EA seems to be giving a firm nod to with some of the upcoming releases. Why is this important? Well, EA has been transfixed on the “casuals” ever since the advent of the Wii and its mind-boggling worldwide success. For two years, we listed to Peter Moore and others talk about how they’d love a piece of the Wii casual sports pie. This is fine, except for the fact that some of the “casual” development focus trickled into EA’s non-Wii sports games over the past several years. An example I will cite is NCAA Football 2009. EA’s entire design focus on that game was “wide open gameplay”. To a degree, I can understand that. College football, by comparison to the NFL is definitely more “wide open”. However, in what seemed to be an effort to make the product more “accessible to everyone”…the reality of “wide-open gameplay” meant practically non-existent defensive AI, virtually no defensive pass rush, and logical pursuit angles. Throw in the ongoing “run around backwards and chuck the ball anywhere” mechanics of the QB position, and you had a product that many seasoned sports gamers such as myself and Bangpow (Craig Gonzalez) quickly put down and traded in for something better. It was especially troubling to view the game down at EA Tiburon in June of last year as one of the Community Leaders. We all saw the same problems with NCAA 09, and when we brought them up to EA developer Ian Cummings, his response was merely “Wide-open gameplay, working as intended.”
However, since that time, several things have happened. The backlash of the seasoned sports gamers to these kind of problems with EA’s sports games seems to have done something. I think we may even be able to view last years’ NCAA 09 and Madden 09 Wii as a turning point. The casual focused Madden 09 Wii didn’t sell well (or at least- by comparison to Madden on the other consoles, and NCAA 09 Wii sold even worse.) NCAA 09 for next gen consoles sold well, but there were many complaints about the casual-focused gameplay where realism, or anything resembling realism, was shunned in favor of making the gamer feel like they could score on damn near every possession.
Apparently, EA was listening.
This year we are seeing tons of feature release news about the upcoming sports games. Just one year after the mess that was NCAA 09, we see that NCAA 10 is getting revamped AI, pursuit angles, etc.. .but also online team-builder, game-planning features, strategic playcalling AI where you can “set up” plays from various formations by suckering the AI into thinking you are doing something else based on previously used formations, new formations such as the FlexBone, player lock features (and a roving camera that makes it useable), enhanced pocket protection AI, and much more.
In Madden 10’s case, there’s plenty to be excited about before the game has even released. First of all, I can’t praise EA enough for putting Josh Looman in charge of resurrecting Madden franchise mode. I had the opportunity to meet Josh last year at Madden Community Day down at EA Tiburon, and the guy is a walking football encyclopedia and NFL strategy junkie. We are getting re-vamped injury realism (such as “re-injuries”), new pass blocking that is more true to life, Pro-Tak gang tackling technology, the “Wildcat” offense made popular by the Dolphins, Adaptive AI (we hope it means something bigger than it has in the past), new momentum modeling, new presentation including a weekly recap franchise show (which hasn’t been done since NFL 2K5), enhanced drafting and scouting, full game customization abilities, and…last but not least, refs on the field.
(and much more I don’t have time to throw into this article).
But its just not limited to football. Take the new Fight Night for example (due out in a week and a half). This series was originally less about serious boxing and more about hip-hop flavor back when EA Chicago was making it. Now, it looks to be a full boxing sim that is promising some big-time reality and strategy (as well as Iron Mike himself).
Then, my favorite example of EA now catering to the “seasoned sports gamer”..is the news about board-play being a big part of NHL 10. Why is this big news? Well, EA has always been high on re-capturing the NHL 94 feeling, and I can understand that, because it was such a fun, fluid game. However, the series was desperately missing board-play and defense. Every possession cannot be an end to end rush without obstacles, at least if you want to play something resembling real hockey. Now we will have board play, tie-ups, etc. That’s a big step for EA, because more than any other feature, that’s one that might ruffle the feathers of some casuals who want the NHL 94 “end to end rush” experience on every possession.
I guess maybe EA is starting to “get it”. The sports company who’s motto was once “Its in the game”…seems to actually be going back to that mantra in 2009.
That makes me happy, and I think seasoned sports gamers might be happy too.
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