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 18 - title

Oh boy, booting up Madden 18 for the first time was like watching a slow motion train wreck -- before the train had even left the station. After a few start-up questions to set my play style and difficulty level, the game immediately loaded into a demo game of a Superbowl rematch between the Falcons and Patriots. Except it crashed to the PS4 menu before the game could load. I booted it up again, sat through setting my initial preferences again, and then waited in anticipation to see whether the demo game would actually load.

It did, but instead of a tightly-choreographed narrative tutorial like in Madden 16 and 17, it loaded into a normal Play Now game, but with pathetically sparse commentary and lazy SuperBowl presentation. Now, Madden 17's tutorial wasn't great. The player banter was cheesily-written and poorly-acted, and completely misrepresented the actual content of the game. But at least it had scripted scenarios that put the player in position to try out some of the new features. Madden 18's introduction couldn't even be bothered with trying to be a tutorial. It just throws you into a game with a few tooltips popping up in the corner of the screen that you may or may not have time to read, and which may or may not be actually relevant or useful.

The demo game exposed the persistence of legacy issues with loose ball and onside kick recovery.

The actual game exposed several legacy issues were still present. Loose-ball physics and fumble recoveries appear to still be an ongoing problem. A fumbled ball just magically sticks to a recovering player's hand, and an onside kick was sucked right into the waiting hands of a member of the receiving team. So much for my hopes that the Frostbite Engine might be a panacea for fixing any legacy physics issues...

The game ended, I was given a "What's New" teaser video that explained the settings and options that I had already chosen before, and then I was put on the main menu where every piece of content was locked out. The only thing that I was allowed to do is replay that same Falcons-Patriots Superbowl rematch. You see, this year's Madden game pulls that annoying trick where it installs just enough content to allow you to boot up the game and play a tiny piece of demo content while the rest of the content downloads and installs in the background. I hate this feature! I don't want to play an incomplete game. I'll play it when it's fully installed and ready to go. In the meantime, I can read a magazine or play something else. Don't tell me the game is "ready to play", when it isn't!

What I got was a buggy, poorly-performing game scenario that I didn't want to play, and which did nothing but showcase that major legacy issues still remain, that the commentary might be sparse and lifeless (fortunately it isn't), and it couldn't even be bothered to actually teach me any of the game's new features.

"Ready to play", my ass... At least install the Skill Trainer so I can do some tutorials!

And I thought Grand Theft Auto V's tutorial was bad.

When the game finally was ready to let me actually play, I spent some of my early time in Ultimate Team to get my feet wet and see if that mode had become worth playing. No, it still isn't...

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Madden NFL 18 - Longshot

I'm still working on my full review of Madden 18. It was starting to get kind of long and rambly, so I decided to break off the section regarding the Longshot story mode (which I've already played to completion) into its own post so that I could be a little more thorough regarding this unique game mode. Well, unique for Madden anyway. Games like 2K's NBA 2k have been doing a similar thing for years.

Longshot is a pretty radically different gameplay mode compared to the rest of Madden, and so it also felt kind of out-of-place in the review for the rest of the game. It's very much its own self-contained thing. In fact, it very easily could have been released as a stand-alone game or "expansion" DLC pack for Madden 18, rather than being a back-of-the-box feature. It's inclusion in the core package is probably one of the reasons that franchise mode received so little attention this year, as I'm sure this thing must have taken a lot of time and resources. Madden is already overpriced as it is (in my opinion) -- especially when you consider how much money EA makes from the Ultimate Team feature -- so I'm certainly happy that I got to play this mode without having to spend any extra money.

The story of Devin Wade

If Madden 18's arcade, simulation, and competitive game modes aren't enough game varieties for you, or if you're one of those "games as art" "snobs" who writes lengthy blogs about ludonarrative dissonance or about how seemingly-arbitrary game mechanics are actually informing the narrative, then the new "Longshot" story mode might be for you.

This isn't a character-creator like in earlier iterations of Madden's Superstar mode, or NCAA Football's Road to Glory / Race for the Heisman / Campus Legend. Instead, you take on the persona of a character designed by EA, named Devin Wade. Devin is a former college football star who quit after the death of his father and is eventually recruited into a fictional reality television show called "Longshot", in which he's trained to become a potential NFL draftee. Wade is dealing with the trauma of his father's untimely death a few years ago, as well as his own feelings of inadequacy, abandonment, and maybe some guilt. You play through his training process, as well as flashback bits of his high school career (and watch other bits of his college career and some pee wee moments). Surprisingly, one thing that you won't do is have Devin suit up in an NFL uniform, as the mode concludes with him being drafted (or not, as the case may be).

Longshot includes flashbacks of Devin Wade's high school and college careers.

The mode is mostly like watching a movie (a three-and-a-half hour long movie), with the occasional quicktime event, mini-game, or time-sensitive Mass Effect-style dialogue choice...

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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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