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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.

Madden isn't designed for full-length football

Let's start with the biggest failing of Madden with regard to simulating the sport of American gridiron football: its rules. Specifically, the length of regulation play.

Exhibition and online Madden matches default to 6-minute quarters.

This might sound really pedantic, and I'm certain that I'm going to get a lot of pushback on this particular issue (especially from online players), but I have always been frustrated by the fact that Madden has never defaulted to using full 15-minute quarters -- heck, not even half-length quarters of 7 or 8 minutes. Instead, Madden has traditionally defaulted to 5-minute quarters, but the length varies based on game mode. Sometimes it's 5 minutes. Sometimes it's 6 minutes. Heck some MUT modes only give you 4 minutes! At these settings, a full game of Madden takes about 20 or 30 minutes to play.

In the old days, a 5 or 6-minute quarter length was a practical necessity because football video games would otherwise drag out for hours. The game clock wouldn't run while the CPU team was picking plays, and a mere 5 seconds or so would be all that would tick off of the game clock in between the CPU's offensive plays. If the human player knew their playbook and could pick plays within a few seconds (or they just kept picking the same offensive play over and over again), then the same problem would be present during the human player's offensive possessions.

Old football games had shortened quarters because they didn't run time off the clock during CPU huddles,
allowing CPU offenses to break the huddle with over 30 seconds on the playclock, artificially extending game length.

Put simply, the time it takes to huddle everyone up and call a play was not accounted for by the video game's logic or design at all. This slow pace of play could drag out a game to well over the time it takes to play a regulation football game, could double the number of plays being run, and would routinely lead to over-inflated stats and scores. Even if the human player is taking his or her sweet time picking offensive plays, the CPU offense will be snapping the ball with 30 seconds or more on the play clock every play. The amount of time it takes the CPU to execute a drive would be halved, which would lead to a heavy imbalance in time of possession between the human and CPU teams.

But to EA's credit, Madden introduced an innovation that was (in my opinion) one of the single best mechanics ever to be introduced to football video games: the accelerated clock. This setting would automatically tick the play clock down to a specific, user-configurable value after the offense picks a play, and would tick the game clock down by a corresponding number of seconds if the game clock was running. This setting effectively simulated the time in the huddle for both human and CPU-controlled teams, normalized the time of possession, and enabled full-length games to be played within a reasonable time frame.

The accelerated clock goes back at least as far as Madden 2000 on the PS1!
It disappeared for a few years on PS2 before returning by Madden 2006.

Believe it or not, this feature was actually present at least as far back as Madden 2000 on the PS1! For whatever reason, this feature disappeared for a few years after the jump from PlayStation one to PlayStation 2 before reappearing sometime between Madden 2003 and Madden 2006. In fact, in Madden 2000, the Accalerated Clock even wound inside of the 2-minute warning, which made it much more important to manage your time properly, get out of bounds, use the hurry-up offense, and use your timeouts wisely.

The accelerated clock is a standard feature in football video games now, so why do they still default to 5 or 6-minute quarters? In the case of Madden, there's a very obvious reason for this. Madden is designed and paced for short games lasting about 30 minutes. And why are Madden games being designed for short, 30-minute games? Well I suspect that there's one reason and one reason only: that reason is Ultimate Team. The fact that Madden has been designed almost exclusively around this loot-box-fueled online gambling mode since Madden 13 has forced EA and Tiburon to find ways to keep games ridiculously short. It would be easy to blame these short game lengths on the shortened attention spans of modern gamers, but I'm sure that EA having to keep a connection to the servers and both clients stable for 20-to-30 minutes plays a big part in the calculus as well. Even if MUT-gamers do have the attention span to play a full-length football game (but let's be realistic: most of them probably don't), a game that long would dramatically increase the risk of a server disconnect before the game can finish.

You can play 2 full-length Madden games in the time it takes to watch one NFL broadcast.

In my single-player Franchise, I play with 15-minute quarters and the accelerated clock at 16-ish seconds, and most of my games run for about 60-to-90 minutes -- half the time of a real NFL game. At the risk of sounding like I'm gate-keeping, if a football game can't hold your attention for 90 minutes, then I am strongly skeptical that you actually like the sport of football. I mean, you do watch real-life football games, right? Well you can usually play two full-length Madden games in the time it would take to watch a single NFL broadcast , let alone to park your ass in the bleachers and watch a game live and in person, and then probably play a whole other game of Madden in the time it takes to commute back home.

Problematic Pacing

You might ask: "Why is 6-minute quarters a problem?" And that's actually a very good question!

It isn't just a simple matter of personal preference. Such a shortened length of regulation completely skews game balance, and completely redefines the strategy of football!

With 6-minute quarters, a full third of the entire game is played within the "four-minute drill", a period of time in which the trailing team is usually forced to rely more on the passing game and no-huddle offense to quickly score points. Having such a short quarter length limits the number of plays that can be run by both teams and forces both teams to need to move down the field more quickly in order to score. A team nickel-and-diming their way down the field with ball-control running plays and short passes can easily run out an entire quarter of clock -- if not an entire half with a single possession. I've seen people in online games give up and quit if they go down more than 1 score in the first half because they know these online games simply aren't long enough for them to come back and win.

Teams have to rush to score, right from the start of the game.

I had one MUT game (it was years ago, and I didn't have the foresight to record it, so you'll have to take my word on this one) in which my opponent went 3-and-out on the opening drive, and I proceeded to burn almost the entire first half on a single scoring drive. I kicked the ball back off to the other player with enough time left in the half for them to run maybe 2 incomplete Hail Marys. Then I received the ball in the 2nd half and proceeded to start running out the second-half clock. My opponent quit after they burned their last timeout early in the 4th quarter, and I successfully converted a first down to keep the ball. They had run something like 5 or maybe 8 offensive plays the entire game, up until rage quitting.

That wouldn't happen with a full 15-minute quarter game. A methodical ball-control offense could run out more than half a single quarter with a single possession, but not an entire half.

Having so few plays to run artificially forces the teams to play more aggressively. You have to throw the ball and pick up large chunks of yardage every play, almost right from the beginning of the game. The idea of running a "ground-and-pound" offense in which you run the ball for 3 or 4 yards per play in order to wear out the defense, is basically rendered non-viable because the game doesn't last long enough for defensive fatigue to set in. Teams whose personnel and playbooks are built for this sort of scheme are, therefore substantially nerfed.

Historically speaking, this rushed pacing has preferentially favored teams with elite QBs and receivers and effective passing playbooks, as well as favoring users who are better at executing a passing offense. I don't play much competitive Madden anymore, but my understanding is that one of the hallmarks of elite competitive players is that they are very good at user-controlling wide receivers, especially back during the days of the "rocket catch" exploit.

Madden's meta has historically favored users who are good at manually-controlling WRs.

I also understand that Madden 20 is kind of an exception in this regard, as its competitive play meta has apparently been dominated by overpowered outside stretch plays that are virtually unstoppable due to overly-effective blocking and poor defensive pursuit. In fact, a Madden Club Championship in December 2019 was won by a user who never once passed the ball. Furthermore, in the semi-final round, he received the opening kickoff and proceeded to run out almost a quarter and a half with his first possession. To make matters worse, the Madden Bowl champion in May won it all without ever passing -- or even bothering to draft a quarterback! This all serves to highlight how little time you have with just 5-minute quarters.

Madden 20 tournaments have been won by players who run out the clock with overpowered stretch running plays.

You can only realisticaly expect to get between 3 and 5 possessions in a game (as opposed to the average of 12 possessions per team in NFL football). Regardless of the meta in any given year of Madden (whether it's pass-dominated or run-dominated), the limited number of plays forces users to rely on exploits, "money plays", and 4th down conversions to ensure that every drive is a score. You can't afford to squander a single drive by experimenting with your entire entire playbook. Field position is also almost entirely irrelevant.

Balance and Rubber-Banding

Now you might say "Just don't play online if you don't like online play. Play single-player with 15-minute quarters if you want.".

Well fair enough. That is, in fact, exactly how I do play Madden. But that unfortunately doesn't solve the problem. This pacing problem isn't fixed by simply changing the setting to 15-minute quarters. Or at least, it isn't for me. I obviously can't speak for every Madden player. I can only speak to my own play experiences. Your actual gameplay experiences may vary. But considering how popular "simulation" slider sets are in the Madden and Operation Sports forums, those of us who want a more authentic NFL experience have to struggle to find it because of the way that the game is structured and balanced around those 30-minute pick-up games of MUT, rather than being more realistically paced based on real NFL games. At fundamental levels, the on-field gameplay is sped up to accommodate the increased pace of play that EA expects for MUT games.

Max Football 19 has a much more believable pace of play,
as long as you aren't breaking deep passes over the top of the poor safety play.

In my critique of the gameplay of Maximum Football 2019 and Axis Football 2019, I included a section about how the quick defensive pursuit and relatively shallow pass routes slows down the pacing of Maximum Football 2019 and makes the 100 yard length of the football field feel genuinely long. I see plenty of extended drives in that game that last 7, 8, 9, 10, or more plays, and which eat 5 or 6 minutes off of the clock, and yet still stall between the 40 yard lines and result in a punt. This is something that I rarely see in Maximum's principle competitor (Axis Football 2019), or in the bigger-budget Madden. A big part of that is because these games are balanced and paced to encourage explosive offenses and high scores within the short duration of their regulation game lengths. Passing routes in Madden and Axis routinely run 10 yards deep or deeper, meaning that consistently completing passes (even dink-and-dunk routes like drags and hitches) results in first downs and almost always leads to a score. If you make a few first downs, you score. If you don't score, it's usually because you got stuffed on a run play or two, then threw incomplete passes or got sacked, and went 3-and-out.

Madden in particular is balanced such that big runs, sacks, interceptions, and other big plays happen at certain intervals. From my experience, changing the quarter length does not significantly change those big play intervals. Playing on longer quarter lengths often results in an excess of breakaway runs, sacks, interceptions, and touchdowns. Especially in the 4-minute drill, when CPU offenses either go into TURBO mode (in which every QB plays like Pat Mahomes and can do no wrong), or they go 3-and-out after 3 plays of being sacked or throwing incomplete passes -- all depending on what difficulty you're playing and how hard the game's scripting is trying to force a CPU win.

EA wants the games to be quick, but they also want stats and scores to look superficially like the stats and scores of NFL games, so rushing yards, passing yards, and other stats are inflated with periodic "big plays" so that a 24-minute regulation game ends up with stats and scores that look similar to a 60-minute regulation NFL game. Because of this, running backs either break a run for 20 yards, or they get stuffed in the backfield. There aren't many 3 or 4-yard rushes in Madden. The game forces breakaway runs to happen with a certain frequency in order to pad the total rushing yards, and then has to compensate by stuffing runs in the backfield in order to hold the running back to a "realistic" yards per carry.

Madden forces break-away runs to happen to inflate rushing stats.

And there certainly aren't very many 3 or 4-yard passes! Almost all passing plays are designed to go 15 or 20 yards down the field, or more. There aren't many routes that are completed for 5 yards or less. Heck, even drag routes that are caught 3 yards beyond the line of scrimmage are easily turned up-field for 10 yards or more due to poor defensive play recognition and pursuit. Madden basically has to resort to incomplete passes and sacks in order to keep a passing attack in check, because almost every completed pass is a first down. Which is simply not true of NFL football. If you don't believe me, go ahead and look at the yards per pass stats for contemporary NFL teams and QBs.

It is possible to correct some of these issues with extensive modifications to the slider settings, but doing so requires a lot of testing and trial and error on the user's part. And since EA is constantly updating the game, these sliders need to be constantly re-adjusted throughout the life of any given annual release of Madden. By the time you get a working slider set for any given release of Madden, the NFL season is over, and it's time for the new year's game to be announced. And it shouldn't be necessary to adjust settings to begin with! If Madden is supposed to be an authentic NFL experience, then it should default to 15-minute quarters with the accelerated clock at less than 19 seconds. The gameplay should then be designed, tested, and balanced for games that run that long, with the corresponding number of plays, without the stats and scores feeling artificially inflated. That would be authentic!

Some problems can be corrected with extensive slider modifications.

Instead, the games have to be limited to less than 30 minutes total so that they can be completed before the MUT users get disconnected from the servers, while still letting both teams easily rack up 20 or 30 points. That just isn't football.

This perceived necessity of short games means that EA and Tiburon also had to find other ways besides just cutting the game clock in half to shorten games. They default to having the CPU "suggest" plays for the human player. They've cut out the walk-up to the line of scrimmage. And the CPU quarterback does not wait at all before snapping the ball. CPU QBs hardly ever spend time "reading the defense" on the walk up to the line of scrimmage, or using motion or hard counts to bait the defense into showing its hand, or making adjustments based on the results of those reads and whether the defense takes the bait, nor do they ever call a timeout if they deem that the play that was called is futile against what the defense appears to be doing.

This leads to a whole slew of new problems with how players and CPU QBs read defenses and go through their progressions. But that's a topic for another essay...

Playbook and Team-building

So far, I've only been focusing on how the quarter length affects the pace of the actual football matches on the field, but this setting affects more. It also affects team-building in franchise mode, along with playbook design and play-calling strategies and logic. How you build a roster for a 24-minute game is completely different than how you build a roster for a 60-minute game. For one thing, shortened games limits the effect of fatigue on players, so you don't need to build a roster with enough depth to spell exhausted or winded players. You can build a roster in that way, but the game puts little-to-no ludic pressure on the user to do so.

You don't need to build a roster with any considerations for spelling exhausted players.

Real NFL teams almost all use running back rotations because "workhorse" running backs with bodies durable to stay on the field for the whole 60 minutes of regulation play are few and far between in the modern NFL. The only reason that you might have to use a running back rotation in Madden is to potentially cheese the yards-per-carry rubber-banding mechanic that I discussed earlier. The same goes for having reserve defenders to give your starters a breather: it's just not something that a Madden player has to worry much about.

Even with 15-minute quarters, the game just isn't designed for fatigue and exhaustion to be that big of a deal. Fatigue is rarely something that you need to plan around unless you make extensive modifications to the fatigue, injury, and auto-substitution sliders.

You don't need to draft for depth.

This stuff affects how you draft. It affects how you structure contracts. It affects who you keep on your team and who you cut. It affects how you operate substitutions during the preseason. And it should affect how the CPU teams handle all of that as well, if any of those were things that the CPU teams had logic to do to begin with. And yes, it affects gameplanning and play-calling in the actual games.

What can be done about it?

In the meantime, what can EA (or other football game developers, such as Axis, Canuck, or anyone else) do to fix these problems? Well, first and foremost: test and balance your game for 15-minute quarters! If you do have any sort of scripting or rubber-banding systems going on under the hood, then make sure that they are scaled based on quarter length. Ideally, the game shouldn't be scripted or using rubber-banding at all; it should just be letting the animation and physics create organic plays. But I understand that the tech may not truly be there yet.

Instead of cutting the walk-up to the LoS, how about adding mechanics that require the CPU QB to actually stand at the line of scrimmage scanning the defense and using motion and hard counts to bait the defense into showing its hand. You can then adjust the CPU players' awareness ratings based on how much they learn about the defense's play call. This same logic can also be applied to the CPU-controller players on the human team: the more time you spend at the line of scrimmage using motion and hard counts to bait the defense, the better your players will execute when the ball is snapped. This would not only run more time off the game clock while the CPU is at the line of scrimmage and improve the pace of the game, but it would also create a strategic game of cat-and-mouse with pre-play bluffs and poker faces. If the defense bluffs or disguises its play-call well enough, then the offense could be baited into making a catastrophic mistake.

As for EA: maybe up the quarter length of MUT and online games to 8 or 10 minutes and see how the extra time changes the meta of the game. Maybe the extra time will free players up to feel like they can call running plays other than the OP stretch plays. Or maybe users will check down to an underneath route, which (with improved play recognition and pursuit) could be held to a short gain -- instead of trying to force the ball downfield and hope that the receiver gets a better semi-random catching animation than the defender. Maybe keeping the ball on the ground in the first and third quarters will speed up the flow of the game overall, offsetting the increased length of the quarters, and letting MUT players play more football while still keeping overall game length relatively short.

Maybe EA can experiment with longer quarters of 7 or 8 minutes in online and MUT games?

I would also recommend adding a small degree of variability to the accelerated clock. Perhaps it could tick off + or - 5 seconds randomly each play. Or perhaps it could tick off more or less time depending on how the previous play ended? A 2-yard run should allow everyone to get in and out of the huddle quickly, whereas a deep bomb should take longer to huddle up because all those big linemen need to jog 50 yards downfield just to get to the huddle. This variability could lead to the CPU team occasionally having to take a timeout if they're running out of time to make pre-play reads and motions.

Fixing game pacing is a lot more complicated than simply changing the quarter length and re-balancing the frequency of sacks and interceptions. Lots of changes would have to happen at virtually every level of the game's design. We would need changes to the way that defenses generate pressure, and how QBs react to that pressure. We would need better underneath pass coverage so that drag and levels concepts are not a free 8 yards. We would need a better fatigue system so that a ground-and-pound run game would have the desired effect on the defense. Not to mention a complete revision to how injuries work. And so much more. I'll touch on these topics, and more, in the subsequent essays in this series. I hope you'll be back!

Fixing game pacing would requiring adjusting how defenses generate pressure,
how defenses react to underneath passes, and many other changes.

I also hope that you'll consider supporting me on Patreon. I sincerely thank those who are currently supporting my content creation, as you help make these videos and the blog possible. If you've been paying attention to my channel, you may notice that I was much more prolific than usual during the COVID-19 lockdown. I was thankfully one of the lucky ones who was able to keep my job and work remotely from home. But eliminating the commute to and from the office added a good two hours to every weekday, which I was able to spend working on additional projects. I had been producing videos at a rate of about one every month or month-and-a-half, but between March 24 and April 25, I published four public videos and a Patreon-exclusive preview or two. Imagine how much more content I could create if the level of support was such that I could reduce my work hours and spend that extra time creating content for my loyal blog readers and YouTube viewers!

Patreon

Patrons will also have access to previews of upcoming content (including future installments in this "How Madden Fails to Simulate Football" series), early access to certain content, and the opportunity to provide feedback or vote in polls of what content will be created in the future.

Your support won't only shape my content. It may also help shape the future of these very football games! No, realistically speaking we probably won't (or can't) make a dent in Madden's design, but with the support of the community, we can help shape the indie games into the simulation football games that I know we all want. In fact, a few weeks ago, one of the developers of Axis 19 stumbled onto my critiques. He invited me to help troubleshoot some of the bugs that I had pointed out, and to provide feedback on a patch to fix those issues in Axis 19. That patch may already be out by the time you're reading this, and it will fix the bugs that I pointed in which kickoff out-of-bounds penalties weren't being enforced, and the coach's win/loss record not being updated correctly, among other issues reported by other players. So in some small way, my content has already helped to make that game just a little bit better.

Stay tuned, and stay ready for some football!

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Other How Madden Fails To Simulate Football

Quarter LengthQuarter Length
(06/05/2020)
Quarterback ProgressionsQuarterback Progressions
(07/27/2020)

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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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How Madden Fails to Simulate Football: Quarter LengthHow Madden Fails to Simulate Football: Quarter Length06/05/2020 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...

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