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.

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 NFL - title

Earlier this month, I posted a suggestion for hiding player ratings until the player has played enough games to reveal them. Afterwards, I posted a list of my suggestions for offense, defense, and special teams for Madden 18. That still leaves some other outstanding areas of improvement such as Franchise mode, and I'd like to spend this post focusing there.

Let's start out by going over some of the things that are left over from last year's wishlist:

A lot of these items are related to Franchise, and so keep them in mind as you read through this post. But before I jump into franchise suggestions, let's first look at the issue of the Accelerated clock as it has been implemented in Madden for years:

Accelerated clock, two-minute drill, and CPU timeouts

I've brought this up before, but clock management really needs to be addressed. The accelerated clock should never be disabled! Not in the two-minute drill; not ever. The two minute drill is when it is most important to enforce the accelerated clock because otherwise it completely breaks the two-minute drill. The CPU is particularly bad at exploiting this. I regularly see the CPU go into a huddle and break it within 5 seconds of game clock, which is faster than if they had tried a hurry-up, and which spares them from using a timeout. Human users can exploit this same tactic as well in order to avoid the time it takes to run up to the line. All you have to do is quickly select any pass play then audible or hot route your receivers.

Madden 17 - clock exploits
Breaking a 2-minute drill huddle with 35 seconds on the play clock while
the game clock is running completely breaks the 2-minute drill.

And speaking of CPU timeouts: the CPU should actually use them. There should be some logic in place where if a CPU QB either can't figure out the pre-snap coverage, or he doesn't like the pre-snap coverage, then he should call a timeout to mulligan the play. This should happen if the defense puts eight men in the box when an inside run was called, or if the CPU QB reads press coverage on a wide receiver screen, or other such situations in which the the CPU determines that the player's play is likely to trump their play call. This should be tied to a QB's Awareness and/or Play Recognition rating, and there could maybe also be a small chance that if the QB doesn't make the right read, then the coach can call a timeout instead. CPU defenses should similarly be able to burn a timeout if they read a particularly unfavorable personnel match-up.

Another improvement that could be made to the accelerated clock is to add some variability to it...

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Madden NFL - title

I recently wrote regarding a proposal for improving practice squad and training features by hiding player ratings until the player has played enough games to reveal them. Of course, there's still a lot of other aspects of the game that I'd like to see improved. I was pleased that this year's Madden 17 implemented some items from my wishlist from last year. There's still a lot from last year's wishlist that I'd like to see implemented in some fashion. Playing Madden 17 has also raised new ideas for improvement.

Let's start out by going over some of the things that are left over from last year's wishlist:

Loose ball A.I. was a point on my wishlist last year, but it wasn't addressed, as evidenced by this clip.

Now, admittedly, a lot of the following suggestions are going to be based on my own subjective experiences with the game. And these opinions come from someone who is almost exclusively a single-user Franchise player. My priorities are going to be far different from the desires of MUT players or even online franchise players.

I'm also not going to bother (right now) with the obvious problems: rubberband AI that creates obnoxiously artificial "momentum swings", the broken man coverage, robo QBs, the complete unwillingness of my linemen to block at the point of attack on run plays, or the down-tuning of new features (such as throw out of sack, aggressive catch, and defensive line moves) to the point of irrelevance, and so on. Instead, I'm going to try to focus on less-obvious mechanics that interact with these problems and which have forced EA to make the [bad] decisions that they've made.

Better run-pass balance and longer games

The general design of Madden isn't very run-friendly. The fact that the game is balanced and tuned for quick, 6-minute quarter, pick-up-and-play online matches (instead of full 15-minute quarter games) means that grinding it out on the ground to establish the run is futile. Trying to run the ball in a 6-minute quarter game (with accelerated clock turned ON, which is the default) can rapidly burn through time. I regularly eat up an entire quarter and a half in a single drive when I commit to the running game in such matches, and that is just unrealistic. This forces both players and the CPU to depend on the passing game to score before a half expires. In my opinion, this is a fundamental design flaw of Madden, and the game will never be truly great as long as 6-minute quarters is the focus of design.

Madden 17 - low rushing yardage
Madden's fundamental design is not very run-friendly.

But fundamental design flaws aside, my experience with Madden 16 and 17 has been that the CPU is completely inept at running the ball. Even when the blocking is solid, the CPU-controlled back can rarely identify and hit the hole, and usually runs right into a waiting defender or one of his own blockers. CPU backs are even worse at running to the outside, as they'll often run backwards in a futile attempt to get to the edge, instead of just cutting upfield for whatever yardage they can get. This often leads to large losses of yardage, backs up the CPU, and contributes towards the CPU's over-reliance on passing the ball. I usually play with the CPU Run Blocking A.I. slider up between 80 or 100, and yet CPU running backs still routinely finish games with stats along the lines of 15 rushes for 20 total yards. Pathetic. If a CPU runner does have a successful game, it's usually because they broke one or two long runs due to a missed tackle, and 90% of their yardage total comes from one or two plays. Also pathetic. Seriously, I have rage-quit an hour into games because of the CPU's ineptitude.

CPU Doug Martin runs right into his pulling guard [LEFT] instead of going inside like the trap play is designed.
CPU Doug Martin has a huge hole with only a single cornerback to beat [RIGHT], but cuts into traffic instead.

I also have a lot of trouble running the ball myself with my own Run Blocking A.I. slider set to anything below 60 or so...

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Madden NFL - title

Well, here we are at the end of the NFL season already. Seventeen weeks are in the books, and the 2016/2017 playoffs are in full swing. As we prepare to say goodbye to the 2016 NFL season, it's also time to start looking ahead to the future of the Madden video game series.

I was really happy to see the practice squad and weekly training added to this year's game. I feel that this allows for more realistic development of players over the long term, and it makes the draft feel more worthwhile since you no longer have to cut your late-round draft picks. Despite being a good thing to have, the practice squad feature has some problems.

Madden 17 - practice squad player ratings
Being able to see all of a player's ratings make it trivially easy to poach other team's practice squad players.

For one thing, determining who to start and who to throw on your practice squad is a pretty trivial process of comparing numbers in a spreadsheet. Heck, you can usually get away with just comparing a single number: their overall ratings. Practice squad poaching is another problem. Any player with a rating above 70 is likely to get poached off of your practice squad by another user (even by CPU teams). The reason for both these problems is that it's trivially easy to know how good any given player is - the game shows all their ratings right there in the menu. You don't need to put either of them head-to-head in practice or put them on the field to see how they perform. The ratings dictate performance, and the ratings are publicly available.

Uncover rookie ratings during training camp

How can we resolve this problem of practice squad poaching? Well, we can hide rookie ratings until you actually practice with them and play them in games. Much like how the true ratings of players in the college draft are hidden until you scout and/or draft them, the game could also hide the true ratings of incoming rookies.

This opens the possibility of a training camp feature being a valuable tool for player assessment. I've already proposed a training camp feature in my previous wishlist, but this idea could supplement that. As you put players through your training camp, you'd slowly uncover their true ratings by performing various Skill Trainer drills or other practice activities and scrimmages. Then, once the season begins, you would reveal further ratings through weekly training and by playing the players in actual games. This would also have the effect of adding further value to preseason games, as you'd use those as a proving ground to hopefully uncover any remaining key ratings for your young players. You'd actually have a genuine reason to play them in games because you honestly wouldn't know how well they'd perform.

Madden 17: hidden ratings in player card
Perhaps the ratings of incoming rookies should remain hidden, even after they are drafted?

Any ratings that you unlock would remain hidden to all other teams, so that they won't be able to simply compare overall ratings with their own players. Each team could then maybe have the ability to spend some of their college scouting points on scouting other teams' practice squads looking for players that they could poach. Doing so would gradually unlock some practice squad player ratings.

There could also be a set of publicly-known ratings for each player that would be known to all teams in the league. These would be unlocked as the given player plays in games, and playing in nationally-televised games (such as Monday night) could maybe even accelerate the unlocking of ratings. So players who have been in the league for a long time, and who have lots of public game film would be more of a known quantity. We would all know how good Tom Brady is, but we wouldn't necessarily know how good Jacoby Brissett might be until he actually plays some games.

The entire NFL knows that Tom Brady is a superstar, but not as many people know if Jacoby Brissett is any good.

In the meantime, the game could provide some more "fuzzy" ratings for players whose true ratings are unknown. Either keeping the grades that are used from college scouting (A, B, C, D, etc.), or by providing ranges for unknown ratings (e.g. a player's catch rating is between 75 and 85)...

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Madden NFL 17 - title

UPDATE OCTOBER 23, 2016: LATEST PATCH AND/OR TUNER HAVE PRACTICALLY RUINED THE GAME FOR ME.

I've been having miserable experiences with Madden 17 since publishing this review. I suspect that either patch #2 or tuner #2 are the culprit. CPU QBs have become robots that have 80% completion percentages every game. Running the ball has become impossible (for both human and CPU teams). Man coverage simply doesn't work at all, making corner routes, in routes, out routes, and slant routes unstoppable. The throw out of sack mechanic has been tuned down to the point of being irrelevant. And the list goes on...

Sliders don't seem to improve the experience at all. In fact, certain sliders (like CPU QB Accuracy and CPU Pass Blocking) don't seem to have any effect at all anymore. I am tempted to rewrite this review with a much lower score (Somewhere in the range of a D or D-), but I'm hoping that EA will fix the problem - or at the very least, that deleting the most recent Tuner data will resolve some of the issues. Sadly, I don't think it's possible for me to re-download the first tuner data. This is a shame, since that one actually did fix some genuine problems the game had at launch.

DO NOT DOWNLOAD PATCH #2 OR TUNER #2!

Electronic Arts has supposedly spent the last three years or so rebuilding Madden from the ground up. Because of that, the past few years' games have felt very incremental, and somewhat incomplete. It was obvious that there were still major holes in many facets of gameplay. Personally, I would have preferred that EA just take a two or three year hiatus in order to hold off on releasing a game until it was actually complete. I'm happy that it seems like we're finally getting a "finished" version of EA's vision of a "next gen" Madden game, and I was curious to see if it would live up to expectations.

By their own admission, EA has finally rebuilt the final few phases of gameplay that still used predominantly legacy code (e.g. special teams and the football itself). For the first time in a long time, it feels like Madden can be approached and reviewed as a complete retail product rather than one step in a long-term incremental beta process. Is it worth the wait?

We'll, first impressions let it down a bit. Much like last year's game, the introduction and tutorial for Madden 17 seemed like a pointless waste of time that misrepresents the actual content of the game with its frequent cutscenes and dialogue from players and coaches. I'm not sure who these scripted gameplay intros are intended for. I would expect that new players would likely be confused and unsure what to do, resulting in failing the intro without any clue what they did wrong or what they were supposed to do. Experienced players, on the other hand, are probably just annoyed with the lack of control in this sequence. The inability to skip the cutscenes only makes repeat playthroughs (if you care enough to try to actually beat the scenario) feel tedious, as you'll have to sit through more cringe-worthy dialogue. EA Sports / Tiburon isn't Naughty Dog, and so writing dialogue and directing voice actors are not the studio's strong suits. About the only thing that this intro sequence does is highlight the new commentary team, which is actually pretty good.

Slowly becoming a complete football game

Despite the blocked field goal in the intro being an un-playable cutscene, special teams was one of the primary areas of focus this year. It's an area that's been mostly neglected since the analog kick meter was introduced back around 2007. And what was the innovation that EA decided was necessary to bring their kicking game into the next generation? Well, actually, they decided to bring back a kicking meter that works almost identically to the older PS1 / PS2 era games. You start the meter charging by pressing X, then press X again to set the kick strength as the meter fills, then press X again to set the kick accuracy as the meter returns to the bottom. Nothing new here.

Madden NFL 17 - kick meter
The "new" kick meter is basically a return to the older kick meter.

However, you now have to hold the analog stick to aim the kick prior to starting the kick meter. If you let go, the kick trajectory will snap back to the default. This does require a bit more dexterity than either of the previous kick meter systems ever needed, but it's still fairly easy once you get used to it. Though, EA could maybe loosen up the accuracy window for online games because any amount of lag makes the kicking game virtually impossible. You also have to be more careful with timing your kicks, as the game and play clocks both continue to tick while the kick meter is charging. Not sure if this is a bug or a feature... So be careful that you don't wait too long and give yourself a delay of game (or let the game clock expire before) you get the kick off.

On the other side of the ball, defenders can now actually block kicks by jumping the snap...

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Grid Clock provided by trowaSoft.

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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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