With the football season nearing its finale and the college Bowl and NFL playoff pictures coming into focus, I thought I'd take a minute to reflect on EA's NCAA Football 13 and Madden NFL 13 and offer up my suggestions for next year's football games.
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On-field gameplay is the most important aspect of any football game to me. Without solid on-field play, it doesn't matter how awesome a game's feature set is. In the eight years that EA has held the exclusive reigns of football video gaming, only negligible enhancements have been seen in the department of on-the-field gameplay.
Universal physics, "Wasted Movement", and "Breaking Down"
The Infinity physics engine was a decent first step towards truly next-gen football action. It wasn't perfect, and there were situations in which pre-canned animations seemed to take priority over the physics simulation. In addition, only the players on the field seemed to be a part of the physics simulation. Not the ball. Not the officials. Not the goal posts or pylons. Not the chain gangs. And most certainly not the sideline crowds. At the very least, the football and officials need to be part of the simulation. The goal posts and pylons would probably be next important. The chain gang and sideline crowds aren't really necessary, but if EA wanted to include them, they can go right ahead. In any case, everything on the field needs to be included in the physics simulation. And player skills should not be allowed to let them defy gravity. Players should not, under any circumstances, be allowed to hover in air, hit invisible walls that stop their downward momentum, or be prevented from colliding with one another.
The physics is just a first step though. Player movement in general also needs a major overhaul. Most importantly, the game needs to implement "wasted movement". You hear about it all the time from commentators. Changing direction needs to slow a runner down. And anything more than the most subtle changes of direction needs to require a cut. ESPN NFL 2K5 handled this exceptionally well, but Madden's running has always been too smooth and twitchy. And now that tacklers aren't being motion shifted into tackles, it is way too easy to break big run plays because it is just way too easy for runners to change direction and hit gaps. Doing this needs to slow the runners down, and when playing against good defenses, those defenses should be able to converge and stop the runner in these situations.
To complement this, defenders need to do a better job of filling gaps and "breaking down" to make tackles. You see this anytime you watch a team execute a screen pass (particularly a wide receiver screen). Notice how in real life, defenders will sort of stop in place to try to "corral" the runner. In EA's games, however, defenders are always sprinting towards the runner. This results in defenders over pursuing, losing contain, or failing to fill gaps, and this leads to big plays that shouldn't be happening. It also makes certain types of plays (like bubble screens) not work the way they should, since defenders instantly converge on the runner, who has no chance to wiggle away.
Player awareness, and universal ball-seeking
Now that collisions are being better handled, and assuming that player movement can be addressed, it is time to start looking at player AI.
First and foremost, I want to see players actively seeking the ball at all times. This is especially important when the ball is in the air or on the ground. If you've been following my blog for any amount of time, then you should know how disappointed I am with the lack of aggression by wide receivers. I've complained about this for several years now, but receivers are still making virtually no effort to go up and get the ball at its highest point.
Receivers need to start knowing to come back for the ball and try to beat the defender to it. Curls, comebacks, and many deep routes are very risky to throw in EA's games because it's too easy for a defender to make a break on the ball while the receiver just stands there waiting for the ball to come to him.
Receivers should also be smart enough to play defense and swat the ball down if the defender is in a better position to make a play. I want to see receivers jump up and swat the ball down if the defender is going to make a gimme interception, and I want to see receivers and defenders fighting for the ball in the air.
Another area that this applies to is fumbles. I want to see players reaching for the ball when it is on the ground - including (and especially) the player who committed the fumble. In EA's games, when a player fumbles, the ex-runner and tackler(s) are usually trapped in a tackle animation and can't do anything to try to recover the ball. Even if the ball falls right next to them. You have to wait for someone else (usually a pursuing defender) to approach. I'd like to see players on the ground scrambling, and reaching, and clawing for the ball.
Fix issues with putting players in motion
There has been an annoying issue with putting recievers in motion for years now. When you motion the weak-side WR on the line of scrimmage, he's (by rule) not allowed to cross the offensive tackle. So when such a WR is sent in motion, he only takes a few steps towards the center of the field, then stops. In EA's games, whenever this is done, there is an odd delay that prevents the ball from being snapped for several seconds, even though the receiver moves and gets reset very quickly. I believe this is because there is a timer preventing the ball from being snapped whenever a player is sent in motion. This timer is arbitrary and is not dependent on how long it actually takes the player to execute the movement. This should be fixed. I'm sick of getting delay of games because the game is preventing me from snapping the ball.
The player also needs the ability to to cancel sending a player in motion so that he returns to where he was.
Double team pass blocking
There's double team blocks on running plays. Why aren't there double team blocks on passing plays? This makes keeping extra blockers in for pass protection almost completely irrelevant. You only have as many pass protectors as the defense has pass rushers. Keeping extra guys in to block pretty much only has the effect of removing potential route-runners from eligibility.
A great video from RyanMoody about the importance of double-team blocking in the creation of passing pockets.
While I'm on the topic of double team blocking, I would also like the ability to set double team block priorities in the "Strategy" menu. Similar to the "Defensive Assignments" menu in older Maddens that allows you to set which defenders will cover which receivers, you should also be able to tell your offensive linemen to focus double team blocks on individual defenders. Furthermore, there should be a blocking "hot route" feature that goes beyond the "block left", "block right" options, and actually allows you to set your line to block specific defenders. This should be similar to the defensive keys feature of older Madden games (which is still present in NCAA 13. This would allow you to highlight a potentially dangerous rusher (such as a stud defensive end) or a blitzing linebacker to make sure he doesn't get to the quarterback.
Bring back the blocking play-art
Between 12 [LEFT] and 13 [RIGHT], the run blocking play art no longer shows individual blockers' assignments. Probably because EA is trying to hide the fact that the run blocking logic is broken beyond repair.
Knowing which blockers are going to block which defenders is critical to finding the gaps on running plays. This feature needs to come back!
Right now, blocking in EA's games is a crap-shoot. Blockers routinely miss blocks outright, they home in players that are completely out of the play while ignoring imminent threats, and they make no effort to get in the way of defenders. Blockers either "engage" or they don't. There is no in between. The engagement animation always requires the blocker to line up with the defender, set his feet, and start hand fighting with the defender. Similar to defenders "breaking down" to make open-space tackles, I'd like to see animations of blockers lunging to make blocks, shoving defenders, and throwing their bodies at a defender to try to make a block.
A blocker doesn't always have to set his feet and "engage" a defender to make a successful block. Sometimes, all that is required is for the blocker to just shove the defender to push him out of the way. And right now, that is something that blockers in EA's football games are simply unable to do.
Adding a wider variety of angled blocking animations would be tremendously helpful in many areas of the game. Particularly pass blocking, kick returns, draws, screens, and outside running plays - all of which are currently subject to questionable-at-best blocking. It would also help make pass rushing more realistic. Adding such blocking animations would also help reduce the frequency of defenders turning to engage a blocker that they have beaten.
To supplement this, defenders need the ability to reach through a block to try to put a hand on the runner and grab him or slow him down. They should rarely ever be successful at actually tackling the back, but they should be able to at least slow him down or force him to change direction. Pass rushing defenders should also be able to reach for the quarterback while engaged in a block. How often in real football do you see a defender reach an arm through a block to swat at the QB's arm as he's throwing? It happens a lot in real life; but never in Madden!
Make screens, draws, and play action passes work
Draws: make the delay last longer and add the ability to pump fake before handing the ball off.
Screen: blockers need to actually hit the pass rushers before pulling for the screen. Right now, they pull immediately without even touching the defenders. This is wrong, wrong, wrong! If a defender is left unblocked on a pass play, he should automatically sense "screen" and react accordingly. The offensive linemen need to hit the defender in front of them just for an instant, and then pull to the outside. The point is to pretend that the defender beat you in order to trap him into pursuing the quarterback. In addition to faking the block, pulling linemen need to watch for backside pursuit and block accordingly.
Play Action: defenses need to react to the fake run more frequently (at least the linebackers). Rushers and blitzers also need to be much more likely to pursue the running back instead of just taking the free sack on the QB. The play action needs to be more successful if a team's running game has been successful.
In summary, the blocking and defensive reactions for these types of plays needs to be improved, and the AI's likelihood of biting on a specific play fake needs to be correlated to the success that the offense has in running the faked play.
Complete overhaul of special teams play
I don't even know where to start with special teams... It's bad.
First and foremost, if my suggestions for improvements to blocking (specifically the ability of blockers to throw their bodies at defenders without "engaging" them), then return blocking would be improved significantly. This would also help with punt and field goal blocks, as defenders would be able to rush around blockers and continue to move towards the ball, rather than having to stop to engage the blocker. This would also help reduce the effectiveness of the "jumping the snap" exploit for blocking field goals, since the outside blockers could shove the defenders out of the way.
Incorporating the football into the physics simulation would also automatically improve special teams. It would be nice to see the occasional "back bounce" on a punt or kickoff (on the off chance that a kickoff hits the ground). Of course, this would necessitate that return blockers don't run so deep and that they would actually try blocking for a change. A "Get away" button would also be a nice addition to the punt return controls (perhaps holding the "X" button?). Or what about the ability to "lock in" on the ball on punt coverage so that you can down it inside the 10 yard line (similar to the interception and swat assist buttons on defense)?
Onside kick recoveries also desperately need to be fixed. These plays are completely broken! The ball usually just flies directly into the hands of a waiting receiver and sticks to his hands. We need to start seeing the ball bounce and hit the ground on onside kicks, and we need to see receivers dropping it and then a scramble for the ball on the ground. Again, my earlier suggestions of better ball physics and player awareness on fumbles would instantly improve this area of the game.
What ever happened to all the trick plays that used to be in special teams in old versions of Madden? Reverse returns, sideline wall returns, having a blocker go deep on punt returns, and so on all used to be in these games. The only play that's been added to special teams (and remained) in the past 10 years is the Field Goal Return. And we still haven't even seen a designed hook and ladder return (even the year after the "Music City Miracle", the hook 'n ladder return wasn't in the game)!
I'd also like to see kickers and punters actually take a split second longer to actually make the kicks on field goals and punts so that defenses would actually have time to get penetration and possibly make a block.
There should also be the very small chance that the center could overthrow the snap or that the holder could botch the hold. Perhaps there should be a "Longsnapping" and/or "Place holding" attribute for players?
And it always seems like punters' and kickers' kick strength is determined by their career long field goal. Which is a flawed method of assigning attributes. Just because a kicker has never attempted a 50+ yard field goal doesn't mean that he can't make one. There should be some kind of adrenaline feature for special teams so that if you hit the kick perfectly, a kicker can get that little extra bit of leg into the kick and make a field goal that's outside of his exptected "maximum" range.
Lastly, we need to have the ability for formation audible into Max Protect Punt if our opponent lines up in a punt block formation. The AI is able to automatically line up in Max Protect whenever the user selects punt block, but the user has no way to change to Max Protect without calling a timeout. Bull shit! The ability to formation audible to a fake punt or field goal would also be nice, but would probably be easily exploited online.
Oh, and could we go back to showing wind speed and direction on the play-calling screen when selecting a special teams play?
Seriously, no meaningful attention has been paid to special teams in at least 10 years! This needs to change. And no, the surprise onside kick is not a "meaningful addition". It's a cheap gimmick. Especially since onside kick recoveries are still broken.
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There is a serious lack of any real strategy in EA's football games. The AI play-calling logic doesn't seem to have changed much at all since the early PS2-era games. It still seems to be based almost exclusively on down, distance, and situation. This isn't how real football is called. In real football, you don't call your plays based on your own gameplan; instead, you custom-tailor your gameplan for what you expect the opposing team's gameplan is going to be. Especially on defense. This is currently something that is completely ignored in EA's games.
NFL 2K5 had a great feature that could have turned into the foundation of an awesome play-calling logic system: the VIP Profile. Every AI coach and human player was given a profile that tracked various stats about that player. This included play-calling tendencies in various situations, success rates with certain plays, common audibles and hot routes, and even the frequency with which the player would use the various moves available on the field.
This should have become a standard feature in all sports games. In addition, it could have revolutionized sports AI! By extending this feature to a game-by-game profile, an AI could not only make its decisions based on the specific user's tendencies, but also change and adapt its decisions based on how the user has played during the current game. With such a system in place, the game's AI could adjust its play-calling to try to neutralize a user's most successful tendencies, instead of having to rely on macromanaging the skill level of the team's players in order to force a comeback.
More game-preparation features
I would really like to see a meaningful practice and opponent-scouting mechanic be put in place. Currently, there really isn't much to do in EA's career modes in between games. Sure, NCAA has the in-season recruiting (possibly the most fun part of the career mode), and Madden now has in-season scouting and a crappy practice mode, but neither of these features really gives the user much to do during the week to prepare for an upcoming game.
I'd like to see a system in which you can scout your upcoming opponent to learn their play-calling tendencies and then be able to adjust your own strategy and gameplan to try to neutralize your opponent's strengths and exploit their weaknesses. Quite frankly, your playbooks should be changing every week based on your upcoming opponent, and your team should have to learn and practice the new/revised plays.
Wider variety of optional plays for custom playbooks
While we're on the topic of customizing playbooks, having custom playbooks is great! It would be nice if they worked a little bit better, but I would be willing to live with the weird, esoteric play requirements if there were just a wider variety of plays to chose from in each formation. For example: why doesn't the Pistol Weak Slot formation have any fullback handoffs available? I don't care if Nevada (or whatever team(s) this formation was derived from) doesn't use that play. If I'm trying to customize my playbook around the strengths of my team, maybe I want a fullback handoff in every formation that includes a fullback!
Defensive playbooks aren't even worth customizing. The basic playbooks already have every play in each of the formations present in the playbook. So there really isn't any reason to create a custom defensive playbook unless you want to have access to every possible defensive formation. Why aren't there more generic plays that we can optionally add to our custom playbooks? A few simple examples: where's a basic nickel back blitz? Or how about a single dime back blitz? What about mixed man/zone plays (like corners in man coverage, linebackers in hook and/or flat zones, and safeties in deep cover two)? Where did all these plays go? They used to be in Madden! Even if nobody in college or NFL football is using them right now, they should still be available for the custom playbooks. Otherwise, what is the point of building a custom playbook if I'm stuck just using plays that everybody else already has?
Every defensive formation should include multiple man-zone plays, multiple QB spy plays, multiple blitzes, multiple zone blitzes, a wider variety of defensive fronts (more slants, stunts, contains, etc), and so on. In fact, I really miss how NFL 2K5 required you to set your defensive front independent of your coverage. I'd like to see a variant of this be introduced in EA's games.
I just can't stand when I'm looking to customize my playbook, and I see a formation that I like only to find that it has a whopping 4 plays available for it, or when I'm playing defense and realize that there's a specific kind of play that I want to run (like a simiple DB blitz), but the game doesn't have such a play in any of my playbook's formations.
A play-creator would be ideal, but those have been tried in the past, and they've never worked.
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Balance the game for full-length, 15-minute quarters
Here's the best quality test that I can propose: play the game on full-length 15-minute quarters. If you end up with a game that resembles an actual football game, then you've done a pretty good job on your video game. If not, then something is wrong. 15-minute quarters should be the default setting for all football games, in all game settings. I play all my games of Madden on 15-minute quarters with the Accelerated Clock turned on, and those games generally take an hour and a half to play (usually less). That's only half the time it takes to watch an actual football game. If you call yourself a "football fan", and you can't sit down to play a football game that last more than 30 minutes, then you aren't really a football fan. Go back to playing Blitz!
Try as I might, I have never been able to find a difficulty setting and slider configuration that makes playing an NCAA Football video game on full 15-minute quarters feel anything like a real football game. Playing Madden on full 15-minute quarters with the accelerated clock turned on and some adjustments made to fatigue and slider settings actually works fairly well. Why can't NCAA be the same?
First and foremost, an accelerated clock should be a standard feature in all football games by now. Here's an easy suggestion: you know that 10 seconds that the defense has to pick a play? Why not run that time off of the game/play clock?! That way, instead of breaking the huddle with 28 seconds on the play clock, teams are breaking the huddle with less than 20 seconds on the play clock.
Also, the accelerated clock should not turn itself off inside of 2 minutes. This time of the game is when it is most important to simulate the time it takes to huddle up. It's way too easy in Madden to exploit the lack of an accelerated clock in the 2-minute drill.
Game-managing AI teams
Another thing that would help would be to tone down the CPU's aggressiveness when playing on longer quarter lengths. More runs. More short, possession passes. Fewer defensive knockdowns and turnovers. Fewer big plays.
Defenses need to leave more of a cushion for underneath passes, and offensive playbooks need to be designed to run routes shallower. This idea of EA that they need to make the flat zone coverages tighter is a misguided attempt to eliminate cheese. Defenses need to be designed to allow underneath passes and then converge on the receiver and tackle him after just a short gain. One of the big problems with EA's football games is that all passing plays feel like they are designed to force the ball 15 or 20 yards down field. This leads to too many incompletions and interceptions, which slows down the pace of the game. And when you do run short passes in the flats, it's too easy to change directions and get away from defensive backs who are crappy tacklers anyway. There needs to be more short, possession catches inside the field of play that keep the ball moving and the clock running. This needs to apply to both human-controlled teams and CPU-controlled teams.
AI QBs need to take some time to read the defense!
In both Madden and NCAA for the past few years, the CPU teams have had an annoying tendency to snap the ball as soon as they line up. This is ridiculous! Almost every quarterback on almost every play on almost every team will spend at least 4 or 5 seconds each play reading the defense. They usually do this before they even get underneath the center. But not in EA's games.
This has several consequences:
- Drags out the game unnecessarily by causing the CPU teams to run as little time off the play/game clock as possible.
- Gives the human player virtually no time to make defensive adjustments, or even to switch to the specific defender I want to control.
CPU teams need to spend more time at the line of scrimmage "reading the defense" and give the human player some time to make adjustments. 3-5 seconds would be good, but I'd actually prefer 5-8 seconds.
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Bring back the in-game save!
I like to play longer games. 9 or 11-minute quarters in NCAA and 15-minute quarters (accelerated clock on) in Madden. But sometimes, I can't sit for the whole hour and a half or two hours that it takes to play such a game, so it would be really nice to have the old in-game save come back. Even if you don't let us save at any point during the game, at least let us save during halftime or at the end of a quarter.
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