Madden NFL 23 - title

When John Madden was originally approached by EA about consulting with them on a new 7-on-7 football video game, he insisted that the game be "simulation football". He wanted authentic, 11-on-11 gameplay that could potentially be used as a tool for teaching the sport of football. It was the only way that he was willing to put his name on the product, and EA held fairly true to the philosophy of "simulation football" through the 90's and into the 2000's.

I think John Madden's last major contributions to the video game were around 2008, when he provided commentary and narration for the "Madden IQ" Skill Trainer. It wasn't long after this that EA's dedication to "simulation football" began to wane. A few years later, Ultimate Team was added to the game, Franchise Mode was gutted and replaced with a stripped down "My Careers" mode, and Madden himself stopped providing commentary for the game. Franchise Mode and core gameplay have been largely neglected in the years since, in favor of introducing terrible story modes, expanding the arcadey Ultimate Team mode, and adding even more arcadey game modes like SuperStar KO and 5-on-5 The Yard. The Madden video game series has fallen far from the goals and priorities of its namesake -- a fall that is made even more tragic and frustrating by an exclusivity deal with the NFL that bars any other company from producing an NFL-licensed "simulation" football game.

Madden 23 starts off with a tribute to the life of John Madden, who passed away this past December.

It's fitting that, with John Madden himself having passed away this past year, EA Sports and Tiburon seems to be trying to honor him by taking the video game back to basics and finally, after years of neglect, trying to address long-standing issues with the on-field gameplay, physics, and A.I.. Is it enough to satisfy the "simulation" expectations of John Madden, himself? Spoiler alert: NO.

Back to Simulation Football?

Madden 23 starts off well enough. The very first thing that the game asks the user to do is play through a tutorial of the new charge-up passing mechanics (largely ripped-off from Legend Bowl). Madden doesn't simply throw the user into a live game situation and expect new players to just know how to play -- though, expecting users to already know how to play the game from last year was always a sad testament to how little had changed in Madden from year to year.

After finishing the tutorial and deciding how difficult I want the passing mechanic to be, Madden 23 threw me directly into a demo "Legend Game". It's a Pro Bowl of All-Madden players from throughout NFL history, with 2 versions of John Madden coaching each respective team. The entire game is largely an excuse to let the commentary team of Charles Davis and Brandon Gaudin give a history lesson about John Madden's career and celebrate his accomplishments. My partner commented that I'd been playing for 15 minutes and she was already sick of listening to the game flagellate John Madden. Personally, I was more annoyed that the game defaulted to Pro difficulty, so scoring was relatively easy for me, and the CPU Tom Brady threw 3 interceptions. Each score and turnover interrupted the commentary about Madden's career, preventing me from hearing the unique dialogue, which the commentary team would not return to if an interruption occurred.

Madden 23 tutorializes its new mechanics before throwing users into a game situation.

Whatever. The game itself is mildly entertaining. It uses clips and graphics from older Madden games as part of its presentation, some NFL Films music, and it includes old commentary clips of Madden himself introducing some of his favorite players, from Brett Favre to Tom Brady to Tony Gonzalez. It's as good and fitting a tribute to the ol' coach and commentator as I would have expected to see in a video game, short of playing through some kind of story mode and re-living moments from his actual career.

But that's just the tutorial and demo game. Is the rest of the actual game as fitting a tribute to the man who demanded "simulation football" from video games bearing his likeness?

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Since Canuck Play shuttered its studio, canceled Maximum Football 21, and sold the Maximum Football IP to Modus Games, the other major simulation indie title, Axis Football, found itself without any major competition in 2021. There are other indie football games on the market, such as Sunday Rivals, but that is a more arcade-style game and isn't a direct competitor to Axis. I own the Steam version, but haven't played much of it yet. The only other real competition for Axis Football is the indie game Legend Bowl.

I've received several requests to play Legend Bowl and create content for it, including a request by the game's creator, himself. Don't worry King Javo, I bought Legend bowl during the Steam Fall Sale, and will be playing it more this holiday season.

In the meantime, Axis Football has been the only indie football game that I've played this year. So I cannot do my usual thing of comparing Axis to Maximum because there isn't a Maximum Football to compare Axis to. I could do a direct comparison between Axis Football 21 and Madden 22's supposedly-upgraded Franchise Mode, but I'm hesitant to directly compare any low-budget indie product to a billion-dollar licensed game from a major publisher. Maybe I'll revisit that topic later, if I get a lot of demand for it. In the meantime, if you're interested in my thoughts on Madden 22's supposedly-improved Franchise Mode, you can check out my video on that topic, or my full review.

So instead of comparing Axis Football to its direct competition, I've decided that I will instead focus on sharing my hopes and expectations for where the game goes from here. With EA releasing its college football game in 2023, and 2k presumably releasing its "non-simulation" game in 2022, Axis Football needs to take big strides in the next year or two in order to remain relevant and competitive.

See the full wishlists on YouTube!

This wishlist was originally created as a series video essays, which I encourage you to watch. I'm not going to replicate the entire transcript here, but will instead just summarize the content of the videos. I'm also going to re-arrange this written list a little bit so that each item is in the most appropriate category. If you want more discussion, details, and examples, please watch the linked wishlist videos.

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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.

See this blog in video essay format on my YouTube channel!

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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Madden NFL - title

I think I've finally decided to take a stab at some long-form video analysis and critique on Youtube. My first go at this came in the form of a nearly-hour-long breakdown of my frustrations with the Madden NFL video game series (broken up into 2 parts). For the benefit of my readers, I'm also transcribing the video onto this blog post. Though reading this post will certainly convey all the same points that I make in the video, I still highly recommend watching the video, as the video footage included will do a better job than screenshots of demonstrating the problems I report. The entire video is embedded below.

If you want to see more (better-produced) video content like this from me, then I invite you to support me on Patreon.

Watch the full video on Youtube.

EA's ethos of releasing a new Madden entry every single year has become a tremendous detriment to the game as a whole. Modern games have become very large, very complicated, and very expensive to create, and every game series that has relied on an annual release cycle has, in my opinion, suffered for it. Even companies like Ubisoft have recognized this, which is why the company has decided to end the cycle of annual Assassin's Creed releases, opting instead for a major release every two or three years, with some large-scale DLC and expansions to fill out the intervening period. Despite re-using the same game engines, the huge cost of creating a new game every year stretches the company's resources further than they can go. Though I still didn't think that Assassin's Creed: Origins was particularly great, the game still clearly benefited from the extra design and development time that the year's hiatus provided, and the general internet consensus is that the game is very good.

Assassin's Creed: Odyssey was released only a year after Origins, and it looks like a terrible, derivative, waste of time fueled by a grindy micro-transaction economy pulled straight out of a mobile free-to-play game, except with a $60 upfront price tag. We'll have to wait and see if Ubisoft follows through on its promise to "spend more time making fewer, better games", or if it goes back to milking its franchises with slapped-together annual releases.

EA's Madden game is in an even worse boat than Assassin's Creed was in. Not only is Madden an annual release, but it's internal resources are being stretched out between multiple, completely divergent game modes! EA has to chose how much resources to devote to each of these modes, and that commitment comes at the expense of the other modes. In addition to having to make general gameplay improvements every year, the team is also tasked with coming up with new features and improvements for Franchise mode, Ultimate Team, and now Longshot. They're basically developing three different games, and trying to squeeze them all into a single annual release cycle.


Madden's resources are divided between three divergent game modes every year!

Worse yet, one of these game modes clearly makes a lot more money than the others...

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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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A gamer's thoughts

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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