Madden NFL 18 - cover
Tom Brady graces the cover of Madden 18

The first bit of news regarding this year's Madden NFL football game has been released by EA. As is typical, the first bit of news is the cover athlete. This year, none other than Tom Brady will grace the cover of the game.

The cover shown seems to be labeled as a "G.O.A.T. Edition". "G.O.A.T." -- if you're unaware -- means "Greatest Of All Time". I'm not entirely sure if this label is supposed to refer specifically to the cover athlete, or if it's supposed to represent a belief within EA that Madden 18 will be the greatest Madden game of all time.

NFL.com writer Dan Hanzus followed-up EA's cover announcement by writing a "Power Ranking" of all Madden covers. I'm not quite sure what his criteria for judging these covers is, as the justifications written below each choice seem more like fluff to me. As far as I can tell, he's basically just ranking his favorite players that have been on Madden covers, rather than the covers themselves.

This lead me to contemplate my own standards for a good Madden cover. Personally, I don't like the use of an individual cover athlete for a sports video game. I do agree with Hanzus that the covers featuring Madden himself tend to be pretty bland, but I don't dismiss them off-hand.

Personally, my standard for a good cover (for any game, let alone a sports game) is that the cover be representative of the game itself. This applies to Madden games as well. A game cover should effectively be an advertisement for what's in the game. And in the case of an annually-released title (like sports games, Call of Duty, Rock Band in its time, etc.), the cover should advertise what's new in this year's game. For me, the best Madden covers are the ones that showcase new features of the game. So when EA has contests and votes to decide the cover athlete, I roll my eyes. It's such an arbitrary process.

Covers for Madden '95 and '96 stand out as particularly good covers featuring John Madden's image,
as they both highlight scenes of football being played.

Since I would prefer that the cover showcase new features of the game, rather than an arbitrarily-chosen individual athlete, I'd much prefer to see a scene on the cover, rather than an individual player. For this reason, I actually like some of the old covers featuring John Madden. The Madden '95 and '96 covers stand out to me as particularly good game covers for this reason. The '95 cover, in particular works really well, as the imagery invokes the idea of Madden himself watching the action unfold and providing his trademark commentary for it.

I'd like to see EA move towards using scenes like this on their covers, instead of just single athletes. Ideally, such a scene should be representative of some new feature or mechanic in the game. The '96 cover is a great example, as it shows Carolina Panther and Jacksonville Jaguar players, both of which were new expansion teams being added to the NFL (and to Madden) that year. The cover is, effectively, telling any potential buyer what is new in the game, without you even having to turn the box over and read the marketing spiel on the back.

As far as covers featuring individual athletes go, there are a few that I like...

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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 50...

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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 that 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 is until he actually plays some games.

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

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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PolyCast logo

The past few weekends, I've been lucky enough to be invited to guest host on a pair of episodes of PolyCast, the Civilization podcast series. Both episodes were dedicated towards first impressions and thoughts about the release of Civilization VI (which I've already reviewed).

The first episode (episode 268) was recorded the Saturday following Civ VI's release. In this episode, a bunch of people in the Civ community were invited to briefly discuss their first impressions of the game, including things we like, things we'd like to see improved, and things that are just plain bad. About a dozen guests (including myself) offered our first impressions of the game, and a lot of good insight was given.

I invite all my readers to listen to the full episode. This episode of PolyCast was recorded on October 29th, and can be streamed in its entirety at civcomm.civfanatics.com/polycast.

The following episode (269) was the more involved one. I was a guest host (along with Alpha Shard) for the duration of that episode.

The biggest topic of discussion in this episode was the news that eSports team, Team Liquid, is attempting to recruit competitive Civ players to join their team. We discussed the possibility of Civ entering the eSports arena, as well as our reservations about it.

A big point of concern was whether or not the game is "balanced" enough for such competitive play. We all agreed that any league that would play Civ competitively would have to agree on certain settings (and probably on specific maps) that would be exclusively used for competitive games. The variation and randomness of maps, resource distribution, civilization uniques, barbarians, goody huts, and so forth would probably not be welcome by many competitive gamers, as there are admittedly many games of Civ in which a player lives or dies by the map conditions - which are wholly outside of the player's control. In single player, you have the luxury of being able to simply restart the game on a different map. But in multiplayer (and especially in formal, competitive multiplayer), you can't simply mulligan the game because you got a bad roll for where you start and what's present around you.

Team Liquid's Civ leader
TeamLiquid's Civ leader is recruiting members.

I went on a bit of a tangential rant about how I feel online gaming has hurt another of my favorite game franchises, Madden NFL. I was trying to be as brief as possible, since I didn't want to talk too much about Madden in a podcast about Civilization, so I'm not sure if I made myself entirely clear, or if I really explained the connection between Madden and Civ that I was trying to make.

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A gamer's life...

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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Madden 18 wishlist: offense, defense, and special teams balanceMadden 18 wishlist: offense, defense, and special teams balance01/14/2017 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...

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'Civilization V' strategy: Gajah Mada vows to spice up Indonesia and Civ V's Brave New World'Civilization V' strategy: Gajah Mada vows to spice up Indonesia and Civ V's Brave New World01/17/2014 Continuing my series of Civilization V strategies, the third installation will cover Gajah Mada and his Indonesian "spice islands". Indonesia is an Oceanic island nation between the Indian and Pacific oceans, north of Australia. Archaeological evidence shows that the region was inhabited by Homo Erectus, and that its primitive...