Madden NFL - title

I had previously written about how the Madden NFL video game series from Electronic Arts has failed to simulate football by using a shortened quarter length to keep games around 30 minutes long. These shortened games lead to a rushed pace of play, fundamentally change the strategy of football, and also affect other aspects of balance and game design that are not easily fixed by simply setting the game to 15-minute quarters.

This time, I'm going to move away from the rules of the game, and look at more specific game mechanics that fail to simulate how real football players actually play football. This installment, and the next, will look at how real NFL quarterbacks make reads and go through progressions, and then at how defensive pressure packages are used to disrupt those reads and progressions to force the quarterback to make bad decisions. Then we'll look at how Madden completely fails to model these aspects of football, and the various ways that EA and Tiburon have tried to fix or cover up these problems over the years. Some have worked; others have been little more than band-aid solutions.

The companion isn't the sole focus of the narrative this time around.

How Madden succeeds at simulating football: pre-snap reads

Let's start with some good faith towards EA and Madden and talk about the things that the game actually does get fairly right: pre-snap reads. As a QB in Madden, you'll be looking at whether the middle of the field is open or closed before the snap, and this will give you a reasonably accurate idea of whether the route concept that you called will be successful. If you call a cover 2-beating post or dagger concept, but the defense comes out in a Cover-3 look, with a safety in the middle third, then you will be well-served to either adjust the routes using hot routes, audible out of the play entirely, or call a timeout to regroup and come up with another play.

Madden players can make sure
that a blitzing Mike LB is blocked.

Over the past few years, Madden has also gradually introduced concepts such as reading the Mike linebacker. This determines who the blockers will prioritize blocking, which can be important if the defense sends multiple blitzers. Identifying the most dangerous blitzer as the "Mike" ensures that someone on your offensive line will try to block him. Usually, this will be the inside-most blitzer (the one lined up closest to the center). You can also slide pass protection left or right to deal with an overload blitz, and can also assign a double team in order to neutralize a particularly dangerous pass rusher.

To Madden's credit, it gets most of this stuff right. Hopefully all the mechanics that I just mentioned are still in the game by the time you're reading this, and they haven't been stripped out by Tiburon in order to make room for some new gimmicky feature...

A Madden user can make many of the same reads that a real NFL quarterback would. The game will even highlight the key reads before the snap on certain plays to remind the user how to execute the selected play. Good stuff. I don't have many complaints here. Defenses can even disguise coverages, can fake blitzes, and use other similar tactics to try to fool the human user and force a bad read. Again, good stuff. The problems begin when a CPU QB steps on the field, and only get worse when the ball is snapped.

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This series of blog post will also presented as a video essay on YouTube.

My first foray into long-form video analysis was a cathartic, hour-long, breakdown of how EA and Tiburon's design philosophy causes its Madden NFL video game series to feel disappointing and stagnant. That video was mostly about how EA's insistance on releasing the game annually forces them to come up with gimmicky features that they can plaster on the back of the box and on marketing material to try to re-sell the game every year, while neglecting the core problems and bugs that are the real thing holding the game back.

The fact that Ultimate Team is the biggest money-maker, and the impetus of the game's design efforts certainly doesn't help. You'd think that wanting to have a competitive, e-sport-level product would lead to the developers (and the competitive players) emphasizing and demanding solid, robust gameplay. Apparently not.

I will discuss how and why things are done in real football.

I'm starting up a new series of blog posts and video essays dissecting the failures of the Madden NFL video games' ability to simulate the sport of football. I'll start by talking about how and why something is done in real football (with an emphasis on NFL football). Then I'll dissect the ways in which modern Madden games (that is any Madden since 2008) completely fails to model that respective aspect of football. If relevant, I'll even address the silly ways that EA and Tiburon have tried to cover up the problems with band-aid solutions. Lastly, I'll even propose my own suggestions for how EA could potentially resolve the issues I'm going to bring up. So there will be some constructive criticism to go along with the complaining.

Before I begin the critique, I want to say that I'm not making this content simply to shit all over Madden or EA for the sake of shitting all over Madden or EA. Not that they don't deserve it. I'm doing this because I love football, and I love football video gaming, and I want our football video games to be better -- whether those games come from EA, 2K, or any other developer. I've also written reviews and done video breakdowns of the successes and failures of the indie football games in 2019, but I'm not going to go into the same level of nit-picking with those, since they are from studios that are severely limited by a low budget and lack of manpower. Madden, on the other hand, is developed by a corporate conglomerate with 30 years of experience making sports video games, hundreds of millions of dollars to throw around, and has a staff of hundreds of people working on it, almost a hundred of which are programmers. Bottom line is that EA has lots of money and the resources, and they have the exclusive rights to the NFL at least through 2026 (and used to have the exclusive rights to NCAA football as well). EA could make the definitive football video game. They just choose not to.

EA Sports logo NFL

Besides, almost everything I'm going to say in this series will likely apply to indie games as well. Those indie games have been getting consistently better, so there's a chance they might get more of this stuff right before Madden manages to. So I'm going to be directing most of my criticism towards EA's multi-million-dollar Madden series because I expect Madden to be able to do these things right.

...

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Madden NFL - title

I think I've finally decided to take a stab at some long-form video analysis and critique on Youtube. My first go at this came in the form of a nearly-hour-long breakdown of my frustrations with the Madden NFL video game series (broken up into 2 parts). For the benefit of my readers, I'm also transcribing the video onto this blog post. Though reading this post will certainly convey all the same points that I make in the video, I still highly recommend watching the video, as the video footage included will do a better job than screenshots of demonstrating the problems I report. The entire video is embedded below.

If you want to see more (better-produced) video content like this from me, then I invite you to support me on Patreon.

Watch the full video on Youtube.

EA's ethos of releasing a new Madden entry every single year has become a tremendous detriment to the game as a whole. Modern games have become very large, very complicated, and very expensive to create, and every game series that has relied on an annual release cycle has, in my opinion, suffered for it. Even companies like Ubisoft have recognized this, which is why the company has decided to end the cycle of annual Assassin's Creed releases, opting instead for a major release every two or three years, with some large-scale DLC and expansions to fill out the intervening period. Despite re-using the same game engines, the huge cost of creating a new game every year stretches the company's resources further than they can go. Though I still didn't think that Assassin's Creed: Origins was particularly great, the game still clearly benefited from the extra design and development time that the year's hiatus provided, and the general internet consensus is that the game is very good.

Assassin's Creed: Odyssey was released only a year after Origins, and it looks like a terrible, derivative, waste of time fueled by a grindy micro-transaction economy pulled straight out of a mobile free-to-play game, except with a $60 upfront price tag. We'll have to wait and see if Ubisoft follows through on its promise to "spend more time making fewer, better games", or if it goes back to milking its franchises with slapped-together annual releases.

EA's Madden game is in an even worse boat than Assassin's Creed was in. Not only is Madden an annual release, but it's internal resources are being stretched out between multiple, completely divergent game modes! EA has to chose how much resources to devote to each of these modes, and that commitment comes at the expense of the other modes. In addition to having to make general gameplay improvements every year, the team is also tasked with coming up with new features and improvements for Franchise mode, Ultimate Team, and now Longshot. They're basically developing three different games, and trying to squeeze them all into a single annual release cycle.


Madden's resources are divided between three divergent game modes every year!

Worse yet, one of these game modes clearly makes a lot more money than the others...

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Madden 19 - title

I have a bit of a confession to make: despite my years of playing Madden, and my frequent blog rants about the quality of the game and my desired feature sets, I'm actually not particularly good at the game. I never really have been. I don't really have the "stick skills". I've been playing the game exclusively on All-Pro difficulty setting since the PS2 days, and never really graduated to being an All-Madden level player. All-Pro has always been a bit on the easy side, but I just never have a good time on All-Madden due to the A.I.'s excessive cheating.

Pro and All-Pro difficulties actually providing a challenge?

I'm having a really hard time with Madden 19, and I'm wondering if I'm the only one. The game feels like it's a lot harder to move the ball, and I'm still not quite sure if that's a result of the game cheating more, or if the A.I. has legitimately improved considerably, or if there's something wrong with me (are my 33-year-old reflexes simply not fast enough to play this game anymore?).

My early games were low-scoring defensive struggles in which I and the CPU struggled moving the ball.

I'm not the only one who's struggling; the CPU is only faring a little bit better. My first few exhibition games (on All-Pro difficulty, 9-minute quarters with 19-second accel clock) were field goal battles with final scores in the 16-6 or 20-10 range. I struggled to put up 150 or 200 yards passing or to surpass 30 or 40 yards rushing. The CPU didn't fare much better, usually getting around 150 yards passing, but beating me with 80 or 90 yards rushing.

In general, defensive reactions times and coverages (for both my team and the CPU team) seemed much tighter (without even having to tweak the game's A.I. sliders). Passing the ball downfield seems considerably harder and riskier, as receivers for both teams were often blanketed by man coverage, and the underneath defenders are uncannily good at reacting to the ball and swatting passes. They might even be a bit too good at swatting passes now, as even touch passes over the middle were routinely swatted down. Tiburon might need to tune down linebacker jumping abilities a smudge and add some animations of the ball being tipped instead of outright swatted.

Underneath defenders are swatting a lot of passes.

Passing concepts that had been reliable "money plays" for me over the past few years were completely shut down. Corners did a better job of staying with the receivers for Dagger, Corner, and comeback routes, and the defenders in the flats did a much better job of providing underneath support with those crazy leaping swats. Even when there were gaps in zones, I had trouble getting the ball off before defensive pressure got to me. Blocking is still a very binary "pass or fail" affair, so sensing pressure and getting the ball off on time is still largely a crap shoot. Drag routes seem to still be completely indefensible, but defenses are much quicker at converging and limiting the yards after catch.

This generally excellent coverage was counterpointed by occasional complete breakdowns. I had several instances in which my defender in a deep zone coverage (and it was always my defender!) would suddenly undercut the route while the ball is in the air -- as if to go for an aggressive interception or swat -- only to run himself out of the play and leave the receiver wide open with no help over the top. Almost every touchdown that I saw in those first few games was a direct result of one of these coverage breakdowns.

Deep zone defenders occasionally ran themselves out of plays by undercutting routes.

While I struggled with these early exhibition games, I did appreciate that Madden 19 was actually providing me with a substantial challenge unlike any that I had seen in the entire history of the franchise. And best of all, the game seemed to be relatively fair about imposing that challenge. As hard as it was for me to move the ball, it seemed almost equally hard for the CPU as well!

Could it be? After all these years, has EA finally produced a Madden game this is challenging, fair, and -- dare I say -- good?

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I've been having a lot of trouble with Madden 19 so far. The game has so far seemed unusually difficult. Not just for myself, but also for my CPU opponents. Both myself and the CPU have had a lot of trouble moving the ball. Part of this seems to be the result of some tighter coverage in the defensive secondary. But a big part of it is the complete ineffectiveness of the running game. At first, I thought the problem was associated with the defenders not being bound by the same Real Player Motion locomotion limitations as the ball-carrier. This may still be the case, but I discovered that a big part of the problem is a recurring glitch in which the center gets stuck in a looping animation of him snapping the ball instead of blocking his assignment.

This problem happened several times during the course of my Franchise preseason game. I captured some footage of it, and edited it into a quick Youtube video highlighting the problem.

Centers get stuck in a loop, as if snapping the ball repeatedly instead of blocking their assignment.

When this happens, the defender who the center is supposed to block (usually the defender closest to the quarterback or running back) goes completely unblocked and has an unobstructed path into the offensive backfield. This results in runs repeatedly getting blown up for losses of 3 or more yards. So far, I haven't seen it happen on a passing play, but it's possible that the bug affects passing plays as well.

The problem isn't isolated to the human user. While going back through some footage from that same game, I also saw at least one incident in which it happened to the CPU's center as well.

This isn't the first glitch that I've found in the game. I also posted a short clip of a defensive coverage glitch in which defenders in deep zones would undercut a receiver's route, as if to go for an aggressive interception or swat. The problem is that the defenders runs himself out of the play, out of position to even attempt such an interception or swat, and leaves the receiver open for a huge gain or a touchdown. I've seen this happen on several occasions, and the defender does it even though he doesn't have any help over the top.

Defensive backs also undercut routes and run themselves out of plays.

Bugs like this have been pervasive enough in my early time with Madden 19 that I'm not sure if I can consider the game to even be viably playable at this point. It just isn't worth my time. I might have to put Madden aside for now and check out the recent patch for Maximum Football 2018 instead. Or hold my breath until Axis Football releases...

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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