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I recently wrote about the game at E3 2018 that most caught my interest. But there are other things coming out of E3 that I also paid peripheral attention to. One of the few reasons that I anticipate E3 each year is that it is also around the time that we start to get the first substantial looks at the upcoming Madden game.

Madden 19 E3 trailer.

The first thing that I noticed about Madden 19 previews is the focus on player movement and locomotion. Specifically, I noticed the fact that they seem to be re-selling us features that were supposed to already be in the game. Didn't Madden 25 already introduce this same mechanic? Yes, it was called "true step" back then. If it was so important to gameplay back in 2013, then why was it ever removed?

Player locomotion and runners getting through gaps in the line are focuses of Madden 19.

We're also seeing the return of a variation of the "get skinny" mechanic that dates all the way back to PS2 versions of the game, but which had been subsequently removed. Hitting the right gap in running plays has been a problem for a long time. It's good to see EA addressing it with the "hit the gap" and "push the pile" mechanics, but they've supposedly addressed this issue several times in the past, and it's never solved the problem.

They've also claimed that defensive coverages have been improved, and that defenders will now do a better job of playing the first down marker in coverage. That mechanic was also supposedly implemented back when Tiburon revised zone coverages for Madden 17, but apparently that didn't work either, so here they are, promising to fix it again. Unfortunately, I haven't seen any of these promises play out in the small bits of gameplay that I've seen so far -- let alone improvements regarding block-shedding, defensive coverage, or general A.I.. So I'm tempering my expectations.

I did not see any of the promised new gameplay features pan out in the gameplay previews from E3.

EA's dev blog has also stated that tackles will now factor in momentum, speed, and player weight. Wasn't that what the Ignite, Infinity, and Frostbite engines were supposed to have been doing for the past five years or so? Admittedly, I did see a few improved-looking group tackles and broken tackles in another piece of gameplay footage, but not much regarding the advertised features. Don't get me wrong, if all these features work, then I'll be happy. It's just not very reassuring to hear the same promises year-in and year-out, and then not see them in the advertised product.

Also, what's the deal with Terrell Owens being featured so much (as the cover athlete and in the trailer)? Is he coming out of retirement or something? Does Owens actually have anything to do with the content of the game?!

A long overdue Franchise overhaul?

In any case, it looks like Franchise Mode is a large focus of this year's game, which is good news considering that the mode was almost untouched in Madden 18, which seemed to focus almost exclusively on MUT.

I've been very critical of Ultimate Team the past few years, and have derided EA's apparent focus on that mode to the exclusion of Franchise and further gameplay improvements. It seems possible, however, that a feature that was implemented for MUT might be successfully transferred into Franchise. The "Scheme Fit" mechanic that is being added to Franchise Mode this year looks an awful lot like the "Chemistry" mechanic that has been in MUT for a year or two. In MUT, this feature gave ratings boosts to every player in your depth chart that matched a given scheme, if you had a requisite number of players that fit into that scheme.

Scheme Fits in Madden 19 look an awful lot like schemes in Madden 18's Ultimate Team.

I might actually become much less hostile towards MUT as a feature if it starts being used as a testing ground for better team-building mechanics. I'm still not going to play MUT though, and I sure as heck am not going to spend any money on its micro-transaction loot boxes card packs.

Similarly, players now apparently fit into a variety of "archetypes". Archetypes were already in the game, but previously, each player only fit into a single archetype (based on their attribute ratings), and the archetype didn't really do anything other than to give the user a one-word summary of how that player's skills are distributed. Now, the archetypes seem to be the basis of the player progression mechanics and ratings. Each player has a handful of archetype ratings, and each player has different overall ratings based on each of his archetypes. Will this actually influence how the player plays on the field, or how well they play in synergy with the other players? When you progress the player, you actually level up their archetype ratings rather than individual attributes. Each archetype is tied to several attribute ratings, which all increase when the archetype is leveled.

My big concern here is with the pacing of player progression. Previous games allowed players to progress every week (if they had accumulated enough experience to do so). But now that you're essentially increasing a handful of attributes at once, does this mean that the rate of progression is going to be tuned to only happen a few times in a season? That makes sense for veteran players, but being able to rapidly improve a young player or rookie is key to developing that player over the season. If I have to save up experience points until mid-way through the season in order to upgrade a rookie's archetype, then his progression over the course of the season is going to be very slow, and is going to happen in fits and bursts.

Players progress by improving one of several "archetypes",
which automatically upgrades multiple related attribute ratings.

The good side of the coin is that at least this system looks like it will eliminate some of the cheese associated with pumping all your player's points into Awareness in order to quickly inflate their overall. It also means that the player's progression is going to be tied more to their specific playstyle.

Specialists and committees

Last year, I had written an entire suggestion post about improving balance in all three phases of the game. A big part of this suggestion was to incorporate more specialist players and backfield running committees. I am pleased to see that EA appears to be implementing at least part of this suggestion.

EA is adding a set of new ratings for players in order for individual players to be more specialized. This includes additional ratings for receiver route running, for blocking finesse, for lead blocking and pulling, and a few others. It looks like all of these new ratings are on the offensive side of the ball, which means we'll probably see heavy favoritism on offense this year while we wait for defenses to receiver counter-play attributes in next year's game.

New depth chart specialist positions include Power Back, Slot WR / CB, and edge rushers.

There's also new "specialist" positions and [supposedly] new logic for the CPU to properly assign and use appropriate players at these positions. New depth chart positions include: Power Halfback (presumably for short-yardage and goaline runs -- your fantasy football TD "vultures"), Slot Receiver, Slot Corner, and dedicated edge rushers. Assuming that this all works correctly, then this will be a welcome addition. Too bad we still don't have any new special teams specialists, such as Field Goal Holder, Gunners, or onside kick Hands Team.

An immersive facelift

The other big promise from EA regarding Madden 19's Franchise Mode is the inclusion of new, more immersive, screens and menus. They've shown Franchise screens in which the user seemed to be immersed in an actual location, rather than a simple menu. Locations that we've seen include the head coach's office, locker room, and the NFL Draft party. The idea here is to make the respective characters feel more alive, and to make the user feel more like they are managing an actual team, rather than just a spreadsheet.

I'm not convinced though. While the backgrounds look pretty nice, the actual menu options look almost identical to last year's game. It looks like this is just an extra level of graphical polish in the form of an animated background that has little-or-nothing to do with the actual game. While I appreciate the effort (these screens do look much more alive and inviting than the static menus of Madden past), I'd much rather see EA's effort being put into improving the way that the user actually interacts with the game. Madden has a real problem with how it presents information to the user, and in how it provides meaningful decisions based on that information. These new screens don't seem to actually change that.

Madden 19's menu will immerse the player in football environments.

Too much of the game boils down to just picking the player with the highest overall rating, and slotting him into the top of the depth chart. Need a free agent to fill a roster vacancy left by an injured player, departing star, or retiring veteran? Just open up the free agent screen for that position, and pick the guy with the highest rating. That's pretty much all you ever have to do. The scheme fits sounds like a nice idea, but in reality, all it's probably going to mean is that you'll be looking at a different number: the player's scheme rating, rather than his raw overall. Same problem; different number.

In fact, the only area of the game where I ever feel like I'm making meaningful evaluations of players is in the draft. A big part of that is that I simply don't know what any given player's actual ratings are going to be. I wrote about this extensively in my long-term evaluation feature pitch. But when it comes to filling depth chart vacancies, or simply chosing starters and backups, the whole process feels like a lifeless exercise in sorting numbers. This reality outright breaks the game's practice squad feature, especially in online Franchises against other actual humans (so I've heard, I've yet to play a multiplayer Franchise). Is this year's Madden going to change any of that?

But hey, at least we're getting custom, shareable draft classes!

A new creative direction?

We'll see how all of this plays out. I'm certainly happy that EA seems to be putting some actual effort into Franchise mode this year, and I almost feel like I should be obligated to buy Madden 19 in order to send a message to EA that Franchise mode does, in fact, sell games. However, I'm still not sure if the changes are enough to actually warrant handing over another $60. I might still end up waiting a week and buying it used. EA needs to improve Madden at more fundamental levels if they want to win players like me back. The game can't keep stagnating.

Some back-office news also came out of EA around the time of E3, in the form of former Creative Director Rex Dickson leaving the company, apparently due to having a vision of the game that differs from what the suits at EA want. Dickson seemed to care about the produce and always seemed receptive to the voices of simulation and franchise gamers. If EA's vision of the product is diverging from what Dickson wanted to bring to the game, then that's a bad sign for players like me.

Watch Interview with Madden's New Sr. Producer, Carlos Guerrero from MutheadTV on www.twitch.tv
New Senior Producer Carlos Guerrero talks about what he plans to bring to Madden going forward.

Dickson's ostensible replacement, new Senior Producer Carlos Guerrero, has had some promising things to say in interviews. In one such interview with MUTHead.com, he said:

"Gameplay first. Core fundamental gameplay has to be good. The game has to be fun at its core before you start adding anything else. [...] I want to bring that back to EA."
   - Carlos Guerrero, Senior Producer at EA Tiburon

That's an awesome sentiment, and I hope that he's serious. If the on-field gameplay between the hashes is dramatically improved, then that will also improve Franchise, and MUT, and every other mode in the game. I hope that his definition of "quality fundamental gameplay" is similar to mine. I want a game that plays and feels like realistic NFL football. My biggest complaint with Madden over the past years has been that it is too focused around quick, arcade-style shootouts, with the game basically starting in the four-minute drill. Is Mr. Guerrero going to focus on pivoting Madden towards being a realistic, 60-minute game of football? Or is he going to focus towards quick, pick-up-and-play MUT matches and competitive e-sports?

Let me stop beating around the bush and say: I'm worried with Guerrero's background, and what that might mean for the future direction of the game (and how it might diverge from Dickson's direction). Guerrero is coming to EA after having worked on Overwatch at Blizzard / Activision, so his experience is with fast-paced, competitive online shooters that are funded by a micro-transaction economy. That's the direction that I fear Madden is going, and it's the exact opposite of the direction that I want to see it go! That's not very promising from my perspective.

Guerrero comes from a background at Activision / Blizzard, working on competitive shooters like Overwatch.

When asked how he likes to play the game, Guerrero says that he likes MUT and sitting down with his son for Play Now, so the fact that he doesn't seem to really bother playing Franchise Mode himself is concerning to me. At about 19:40, he also says some things that seem to be dismissive of the desires and complaints of franchise players:

"[...] there are things that are put in for franchise, but it's never enough."
   - Carlos Guerrero, Senior Producer at EA Tiburon

He's not saying that Franchise Mode should always be improving; he's complaining that fans are never satisfied with what EA gives them. Comments like this worry me. The reason that Franchise players are often not satisfied with the additions to the game is that these additions are rarely substantive additions. Often, they are superficial additions that don't really gel with the rest of the game in order to create a more complete, robust product. Or they flat-out disappear after a year or two (see the top of this post, where I talk about locomotion / true step and the "hit the hole" / "get skinny" mechanics).

If Madden were a cake, then it's a pretty dry, bitter cake covered in lots of pretty frosting and sprinkles. Comments like this from Carlos seems to imply that EA keeps covering the cake with more colors of sprinkles, and that we fans should be happy with those sprinkles. What he may not be realizing is that no amount of sprinkles is going to make the cake better if the actual cake part of the cake is still too dry and bitter.

On the upside, he immediately goes on to say that Madden 19 is a "more balanced year", and that the game will be more balanced going forward. Throughout this interview, Guerrero also does acknowledge that there are issues with A.I. (defensive A.I. in particular), and that there are issues with player movement and animations taking precedent over player inputs. So he knows and acknowledges that these things are problems. Heck, at the 25 minute mark, he even starts talking about being more inclusive regarding female players, which is something that I've suggested EA go for. Hopefully, he actually is committed to addressing these issues, and that this isn't all just lip service.

Competition in the marketplace

Madden 19 has competition in the forms of Axis Football and Maximum Football.

There is actually some competition in the marketplace now, so Madden can't continue to drag its feet. Indie developers have started to pick up the slack and release some alternatives to Madden in the form of Axis Football and Maximum Football. We also have a potential new college football game in the form of Gridiron Champions, but that isn't due out for a couple more years (at which point, Ea might have revived its own NCAA Football series). Sure, neither Axis nor Maximum is going to have the production value of Madden. They are unlikely to have the same level of graphical polish or smoothness in animation. But being small teams of developers, they can be much more agile with regard to responding to customer feedback and desires.

IMV Gaming's Gridiron Champions seeks
to bring back college football gaming.

If Axis or Maximum can provide a level of team management and/or team-building that Madden lacks, then people are going to gravitate towards those games. EA can respond in one of two ways. They can make Madden a better and more robust game that fulfills more of the desires of the players who flock to Axis or Maximum. Or EA can double-down on the monetization schemes in MUT and [eventually] maybe even drop support for Franchise altogether.

I do intent on purchasing and trying out at least one of either Axis or Maximum Football this year (time permitting), as both are receiving console releases.

Both Axis Football 18 and Maximum Football 18 are getting console releases this year.

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