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The Madden Games Are Now as Much RPGs as They Are Sports Sims

"Madden NFL '16" is pushing experience points to the forefront of the game, allowing players to get deeper into the fantasy of running their favorite teams.

by Jason Nawara
Sep 1 2015, 6:30pm

All screenshots from 'Madden NFL '16'

My team is young and struggling. At 6–8, we lack an offensive identity and half my defense is injured. I'm already thinking about the offseason. As soon as it hits, I'm offering a contract to the best wide receiver possible and then I'm drafting the best quarterback on the board before adding some depth to my secondary. But as the coach of this team, I can't think about the future. I need a confidence boost for my ragtag squad right now. Like a side-quest in Skyrim, I need to drive for 30 yards so my offense can get a much-needed injection of XP and that game-changing confidence.

Sure, this RPG doesn't feature orcs or wizards, but there's more min/maxing in the Madden NFL games than in most traditional swords and sorcery titles. If you want to stare at spread sheets and stats, you're covered. If you want to role-play, you can do it. For years, EA's annually issued franchise has covertly been one of gaming's most complex RPGs—and now, it's presenting the XP (experience points) of each player to the forefront of gamers' minds with Madden NFL '16.

I spoke to Madden's senior producer Seann Graddy, creative director of gameplay Rex Dickson, and creative director of modes Kolbe Launchbaugh to discuss the creation of the world's favorite simulation/role-playing crossover game based on the guts and glory of gridiron.

VICE: You're bringing XP front and center in Madden 16. How do you feel the narratives of gamers have been enhanced by giving players more control over their XP gains?
Kolbe Lanchbaugh: I think of Connected Franchise Mode as our narrative mode, as our roleplaying game. Many, many jocks and all those sports guys out there, they'd never admit that they're playing a fantasy roleplaying game when they're playing any type of franchise mode, whether it's Madden, or a baseball game, or a football game, or whatever sports game is your poison of choice. When you partake in a fantasy, when you take control of a team, when you're living out the fantasy of being that coach, that owner, or even that player, and being inside of that role, the whole goal is always to let you live that fantasy, let you be that person, let you try and be in that world. Which is exactly what an RPG is trying to do—they're trying to let you live the fantasy of being a sword-wielding, magic-dealing thing that goes and fights monsters. Well, you wield football, you sling football, and you have these giant guys that stand up in front of you and take on the opposition. That's the fantasy that we're delivering.

Connected Franchise Mode seems to have a heavy focus for this release, but some of the narrative elements appear to be buried, such as the News section. What made the team decide to take this path?
Seann Graddy: You look at how players interact with our game, and in really any sports genre, Career Mode seems to be either number one or number two in most sports titles. Ours is no different, that's where people spend most of their time, because you want that fantasy of either taking yourself to the Super Bowl or taking your favorite team or franchise to the Super Bowl. We actually spend a fair amount of our time improving CFM every year. Kolbe, who was driving Ultimate Team last year, had a lot of success in how we organize that mode, in terms of navigating it and getting to that things that you cared about. We wanted to translate some of that into CFM, based on the feedback that we've gotten from the previous year. We looked at some of the same ideas and some of the same blueprints and took them over to CFM.

Lanchbaugh: To add a little bit to that, prior to this year, the investment in CFM was really in what we call really hardcore-depth features: the little tiny nuance things, and getting those details into the game. We shifted the focus a little this year to try and put the focus more on what's actually happening. Kind of trying to bring that fantasy to life. And I know that you may take that moving the news as the opposite view of what I just said, but the news is just an execution of what that looks like, and I think we can do that even better if we expend some effort and focus on it. We've made it easier to get in and adjust your team, and find your players, and see what's going on with your team—again, we're giving you that fantasy of being in power. We weren't able to expend any effort of refreshing the news and adding new content and storylines there, so we didn't want to put that front and center if it was going to be a rehash of what's been around.

There's a camp that believes the XP gains popping up over players' heads, and seeing their confidence build with every play, affects the overall immersion.
Lanchbaugh: Well, we knew it had the potential to be a polarizing feature, but we really wanted to show you all the things that are happening on every single play. We wanted to make you feel like you could earn things for your player. Even if you're a coach leading your team, you see all the advances your team is making throughout the game and you see the bottom line ticker updating: this guy is close to a milestone goal, or season goal, or weekly goal. And then you start focusing on trying to help them get better, and you see those results. We wanted to make sure we were showing you all of the things that were going on. At the same time, we gave you the option to turn it off, to turn the visuals off. We do know that there are going to be people out there who hate it. That's OK—turn it off and you'll never see it again.

That's interesting, but the drive goals and the game goals, you're not able to turn those off, correct?
Lanchbaugh: You can actually turn the visuals off, but they still fire. You can completely ignore them. The only thing they are is icing. They're just icing.

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I'm very impressed with the nuance in the procedural animations. In going for the ball aggressively or running after the catch, it's a gameplay element that's being made drastically better. To continue the analogy, it's like adding more frames to combat in an RPG.
Rex Dickson: Wide receiver touchdown interaction was actually on our priority list from the first moment I took the job back on Madden NFL '13. We had to build two years' worth of advanced technology to achieve the multiplayer catch interaction system. So that's something we've always wanted to get to, but we had to do a lot of hard work to have the architecture to actually do it. I'm really happy with the way it came out, and obviously one of our goals outside of showing just the contact and the physicality in the wide receiver/defensive back, is to try to revolutionize the way the game is played.

We try to do that with every year in gameplay, but this year I think we were extraordinarily successful in that we attacked an area that before didn't have much user agency at all. In fact, often times, the game did things that you didn't want it to do, and by adding those three passing mechanics and all the catching mechanics, there seems to be an almost limitless number of weapons that you can have on offense now. So we're really happy about that.

Do you prefer to play the ball or the receiver more?
Dickson: That's a great question. I've been playing the game for months now and I still don't feel like I have a mature game plan. I'm still trying new things every day, so it really depends on the situation. I think if I'm in one-on-one coverage, running down the field on a vertical route, I'm playing the ball. But if I'm coming down over the top of the zone coverage, I hit receiver single every time.

Graddy: I had a game last time I was playing draft champions where I had Dez Bryant, a big receiver, and I was trying to throw downfield with the OP default and I was aggressive catching it every time. The guy kept doing plays as the receiver and he knocked the ball out every time. It was a great little chess match going on, but I lost the game. It was 0-0 at half time, and I lost 21-0.

Watch something promotional: here's the faintly ridiculous 'Madden: The Movie'

One thing that stood out to me, and this hit last year and even more so this year, is the offensive and defensive line play.
Dickson: The scary thing is that we still have two to three years of work to go before we're where we need to be with blocking and defensive line interaction. This is a tricky thing for us, and it was probably like number one or two on my list when I got the job. The first thing you need to do is hire an expert.

We hired Clint Oldenburg, who played for several years in the NFL. The only way to get it looking correct and feeling correct, like an NFL game, was to bring in someone who could bring in real-world rules. Clint had no experience in game design, so when he wrote his design, he wrote it as an offensive lineman. He used real-world rules that he learned as an offensive lineman that coaches taught him, and that became the rules that the game is using. Yeah, it's ridiculously complicated. The amount of logic and AI thinking that's going on behind the scenes there is absolutely ridiculous. Think about all the concessions that they have to make for users doing stupid things that aren't necessarily likely in the NFL, for example—if someone is bouncing up and down in the A gap, we have to account for that. People move all their guys to the left side of the line and we have to account for that, and yield an authentic result. It's incredibly challenging, but luckily we have a lot of really good, really smart people on the job.

Are there any hidden variables like someone slipping, or the left guard picking up the wrong person to block? Is that programmed in or is it just a matter of dice rolls happening?
Dickson: We don't program in human error very often. If we did, people would usually perceive that as a bug or the logic breaking. But they will miss blocks, they will not get two hands off sometimes, and those are all based upon ratings and dice roll formulas. That's the way we achieve the separation between the elite players and the lesser players.

How do you balance the simulation Madden with the RPG Madden?
Lanchbaugh: The gameplay team is always striving to make an authentic simulation football game. My job as the creative director of modes is to wrap that authentic game into fun and interesting game modes that allow you to experience it how you expect, or how you want. We have the Franchise Mode to live out the fantasy of being in the league. We have the Madden Ultimate Team for the fantasy you had growing up, collecting cards and making your own ultimate team. It's another riff on fantasy football. But in the new mode Draft Champions, which is kind of the faster version of both of them, we're combining these modes into a really fun fantasy draft. It allows you to quickly build your team and live out the fantasy of being its owner for a short time. I'll let Rex expand on the authentic simulation of football.

Dickson: This is a very tricky part of our job because if you think about the Madden community, we have some real "Mutheads"; people who all they do, all they think and talk about, is Madden Ultimate Team. We have competitive online guys who are really highly skilled players and they compete constantly just to beat others online, or in head-to-head couch play. Then we have people who play CFM, who are sim-heads, who want a complete simulation experience.

Serving all of those audiences equally is one of the most difficult parts of this job. I'll give you an example. This year we're obviously pushing the game in more of a simulation direction. So we tuned down deep throw accuracy to be more accurate with what the NFL is. Quarterbacks who previously had high 80s and low 90s deep throw accuracy are down low 80s, high 70s. We're trying to achieve an NFL-accurate real-world percentage, which is around 60 percent for the best quarterbacks in the league, for deep throw accuracy. So immediately we might hear from our hardcore competitive players that they don't like it, that they're missing passes on a random dive throw. We start managing that response and we tune the game so we can keep it sim, but also make sure that the people who are playing competitively are having their needs met as well. We're going through this right now with the aggressive catch mechanics.

The first day we were out on Xbox Early Access, people starting posting videos about how aggressive catch is overpowered and there was this narrative developing. Two days later, a bunch of other people started dropping videos about how to stop the aggressive catch mechanic and here's how you take it away, your counter strategies, and all of a sudden the narrative started changing. Now it was about using strategy to stop this tactic. We love seeing that stuff play out—it happens all the time, and it's a big part of the job.

Madden NFL 16 is out now. Get more information at the game's official website.

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