Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Madden (360): Argghh

EA Sports: where great ideas go to die.

Madden 2007 (360) is a textbook example, and let's do just that--let's use it as a textbook example of the failures endemic to every EA team sports game.

Here's the framework: EA will incorporate a few great ideas into every game, but these elements will be butchered beyond belief by choices made in the design process.

Superstar mode in the 360 version of Madden is a perfect example, and I'm going to examine two great ideas gone bad: "influence" and "accelerated play."

I woke up in a cold sweat screaming "INFLUENCE!" last night. It's a phenomenal idea, that your performance could influence the performance of your teammates. Genius, really.

So let's look at how this is implemented. At the start of each possession on your side of the ball (offense for a quarterback, defense for a linebacker, for example), a big pop-up box launches and you get to allocate your available influence points. If you're a superstar, you can allocate them to your teammates. If you're a rookie, you allocate them to yourself.

In addition, After every single play, a box is going to pop up on that screen to tell you how many influence points you earned (or lost) on that play.

It's the most illogical, awkward implementation that could possibly have been imagined for what was, conceptually, a great idea. They might as well have titled that pop-up box "A Reminder That This Is Not a Real Football Game."

Besides, it's just stupid. Your influence changes on the basis of the outcome of the play whether you were involved or not. So if you're a wide receiver on the right side of the field and a pitch play is run to the left, the results of that play are going to affect your influence.

The worst part, though, by far, is that damned pop-up box. After every singe play.

Here's how this would be correctly designed, and let's use the quarterback as an example. Instead of a pop-up box after each play, you see teammates react to good or bad plays. You see them arguing with you in the huddle if your influence has dropped significantly, but if it's risen significantly, they're enouraging each other (and you). When they come off the field after a possession, someone might throw down a helmet if you're screwing up. They might argue with you.

How cool would it be to throw an interception, see your team walking to the sidelines, watch a wide receiver throw his helmet into the bench, and know it was your fault?

If you want to see the exact number of influence points, make it be accessible via the pause game menu. But do the cut scenes right and there's no need for that--there will be no question how your play is affecting people.

And if you want to use your influence points, you know what you do? After you select a play, you'd see a 2-3 second shot of the huddle, and during that period you could press a button to have your quarterback pat a specific player on the helmet, or put a hand on his shoulder. Touching one member of the offensive line would correspond to the entire line, but there would be player specific buttons for the skill positions. So if you've called a pass play at a critical time, pat an offensive lineman on the helmet to make sure the line has every advantage to improve their protection.

Totally organic, totally in the flow of the game, and totally consistent with what happens in real football. It makes cut scenes meaningful, it removes those stupid pop-up windows, and it takes you even deeper into the game.

And this is what drives me crazy: that's the logical way to design it. Designing it with pop-up windows is the most awkward, inconvenient way imaginable. It's the worst possible implementation.

What were people thinking in those design meetings? Did they all applaud when a guy said "I think we should use intrusive pop-up boxes after every play for the influence system!"

Where was our guy? Our guy who would have said "I think you should take those pop-box boxes and shove them up your ass."

That's the problem, though--our guy doesn't work at EA Sports. And if he did, no one would listen to him, anyway.

The second great idea is the concept of accelerated play. When you're off the field, the action speeds by at 2X (roughly) speed, and everything between plays (walking back to the huddle, huddling, etc.) is cut.

That's really a great idea. Watch it get butchered.

First, you can't opt-out of the higher speed unless you want to see everything that happens between plays. Again, no flexibility for us whatsoever--no ability for us to change the degree of acceleration, no ability to turn it off but skip what happens in-between plays. Those are easy options to include, but that's now how EA's decided to design these games. They're not about choices.

That's not the real butchery, though. Do you know what the game clock is doing while all these plays are taking place at accelerated speed? You guessed it--it's running at normal speed.

Even for EA, that's classic.

Teams frequently come to the line of scrimmage with thirty-five seconds left on the forty-second play clock. And an entire play will take place in two or three seconds.

How hard would it have been to sync the speed of the clock with the speed of the play? Two words: not very.

So this makes the time remaining on the clock totally meaningless. Even without running a two-minute drill, a team can easily run six plays in a minute. And good luck figuring out how long quarter lengths should be to get an accurate number of total plays for the game, because it will always be different, depending on time of possession.

The accelerated clock is already a feature in other versions of Madden. If that had been used, and the clock synced to the play speed, it would have been a fantastic feature.

"Would have been." A key phrase when discussing this game.

The 360 version of Madden is going to generate, at a bare minimum, fifty million dollars in revenue. Could you maybe throw us a damn bone here? Could you maybe include more display options--than zero? Could you maybe add more camera angles than ONE? Could you maybe hire somebody to lead the project who has, I don't know, common sense?

Could you maybe spend a little bit less money on primetime ads and full-page newspaper spreads and maybe hire a few more people to actually work on the game?

Nah. That would be crazy.

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