This year’s Madden is as controversial as ever. New modes like The well-received Longshot story mode and MUT Squads are juxtaposed by the relative lack of progress in CFM. It can be a fun game to play, but even after launch developer, EA Tiburon is constantly trying to find the right gameplay balance. I talked to executive producer Seann Graddy about the decisions behind the title and some of the things that are happening post-release.
The Longshot story mode is one of the game’s new features, and I was curious if you guys had any numbers yet in terms of how many people played it and finished it.
I won’t share specific numbers, but I will say that it has exceeded our expectations. We obviously looked at other story games within our company – the Journey in FIFA – and our own anecdotal evidence across the industry and how other story games play out, and we definitely exceeded our expectations relative to that comparison. The mode was designed to be that way though. Obviously, it’s a shorter, tighter experience. We described it as built like a movie, and most people don’t sit down, start a movie, and not finish it. We wanted it to feel like something that would get them to the finish line, so we’ve actually exceeded expectations in terms of people finishing it.
Are The Longshot writers, creatives, or even any of the voice actors coming back next year?
I can’t [say] at this time. The only thing I can say is that we want to do what the fans want us to do. That’s about as much as I can say.
What is your impression of how people are using the new target passing and WR/DB matchup moves? Are they being used more in certain modes like MUT Squads than others?
Yeah, I would say both of those features have been a bit more niche than I would’ve liked them to become. Target passing, maybe more so than the wide receiver-DB mechanic. It is difficult for some to use, and I frankly feel like, hindsight being what it is, we could design that better at the end of the day so that it has a bit more mass appeal. But we have a few people who’ve become experts in it and can utilize it. The wide receiver-DB mechanics I think have actually resonated quite well. That was, as you said, was kind of designed for MUT Squads, so that if you weren’t the ball handler – the QB or running back – that there were some mechanics to perform on both sides of the ball that felt compelling.
With target passing in particular, have you seen any of the competitive, esports people using that? It has a steep learning curve, but I imagine that on the competitive level there could be routes and situations in which you could use it to just kill people.
I haven’t seen it yet. I watched most of the Kickoff Madden tournament we had recently, and I didn’t see any competitors doing it yet. I haven’t heard even in the lead-in, qualifying events if anybody is utilizing it. Like that real expert that it’s in the competitive space yet. The guy that comes to mind, that seems like the primary candidate for it, would be Skimbo, who is our number-one player and won the last two belts. I mean, his whole game is a passing game, but I haven’t seen him use it in a competitive matchup yet.
You added the seasons format to MUT Squads post-launch – was that something you planned all along? Or did you want to do it at launch and for some reason it didn’t make it?
Yeah, it was something that we always wanted to do when we were putting the entire design together for Madden 18. It was one of the features that we talked about. Whenever we build a new way to play like that you want to have something that gives you a reason to come back and play multiple games versus just wins and losses or having fun with your friends, which I think it accomplished that. You want to feel like you have some end game in mind, so seasons was always part of the design idea. But as you get through developing a game, you’re always making some decisions. I’m just happy to see we could get that in via continuous development, and I think it’s being received pretty well. Actually I would say MUT Squads in general, in terms of its engagement inside of Ultimate Team, is something we were very excited to bring back because we knew it was something fans were very passionate about, but it’s another one that’s exceeded our expectations in terms of the daily engagement as a percentage of our total Ultimate Team users.
In my mind target passing and MUT Squads are features geared toward either the competitive players, or if you characterize a MUT player as someone who is a little bit more hardcore, is a little bit more willing to invest the time. As an overview of Madden 18 in general, I didn’t know if you would agree with the assessment that the game does tilt that way and if the was by design or if that’s just how it ended up on the balance sheet when all was said and done.
That definitely was not the design. If you’re saying we slanted our Madden 18 design more toward competitive players, the answer is “no.” I think Longshot would be the first case and point. I mean that was definitely geared toward more of a newer player, maybe a casual sports fan. That was obviously a big investment to make that happen, so that wasn’t driven toward the competitive. Inside the Ultimate Team space, I would even say that MUT Squads was not geared toward a competitive player. In fact, the head coach role was really designed for someone who’s less experienced with Madden and certainly less experienced with Ultimate Team. If I’ve got a friend who would like to play Madden with me and I’m the experienced one and I’m good at Ultimate Team, I could get them to come in and play that way with me and not feel as unskilled. So that wasn’t designed toward competitive.
But certainly the other thing is [creative director] Rex Dickson and those guys, who are really close to the community, are competitive players who’ll say, “Well, you design everything for simulation guys.” Our simulation guys will say, “You design everything for competitive guys.” And then there’s the more casual fan, who frankly isn’t on social media, doesn’t know how to connect with Rex. They don’t say anything to us because they just buy the game, but they don’t really communicate with us. The game styles were actually our way of trying to show all of our fans no matter how they want to play that we want to build a game that plays in the way that you want to play.
Have you tweaked anything about those game styles to make sure that they’re still sticking true to representing a certain type of play?
Rex and the guys have been listening to the fans. Like I said before, the simulation and competitive players give us the most feedback on their preferred play style. The tuning files that we put out into the wild every once and a while allows us to tune things per play style, so Rex and the guys will listen to feedback around percentage of passes dropped or QB action and things of that nature and will take tuning changes to a play style based on feedback from fans or from what they’re seeing in data over the course of time.
In terms of the new MUT levels, when I was playing it I found it very easy to get through the first five levels and start unlocking things like challenges. It didn’t seem like there was a super high barrier in the beginning. From a design perspective, was it meant to be pretty generous in the beginning and be more of a challenge later on for hardcore players?
Yes, definitely both. At the most basic level, people love to have high rank or a high level [laughs]. That’s true of every RPG. That true of World of Warcraft. Any RPG, you talk about, “What level are you? What level have you got? Have you gotten to max level yet?” So there’s that base bragging opportunity based on your MUT level. That was one element of the design. And, like you said, in the early part we really just wanted people to be aware of it because it was new. So almost everything you did would quickly give you a level up through the five or six levels. Longer term, we’ve made solos have a level gate. You have to be at a certain level and then if you do that, your rewards can be better if you’ve got a higher level. So we’re able to open up a bunch of different content that feels like it has to be earned.
Do you guys anticipate having to add new levels later on?
Just speculating, I think there’s definitely an opportunity to do that. Again, you see that in a lot of games. Your highest-end players get to the max level and then they want to know what’s next, so you have a new level cap that you open it up to. So while I wouldn’t commit to that happening right now, that’s certainly something we’ll evaluate.
One of the things MUT players have noticed this year is wanting to find good kickers. Is this intentional?
[Graddy deferred to MUT producer Jake Stein on this question] Stein: Punters and kickers are indeed a little more rare in Ultimate Team, and that’s by design. You get that rush when you find an elite QB or linebacker, so we want to bring that same excitement to kickers and punters. These guys are often overlooked out on the field, so we want to make sure they get their due in MUT.
In terms of updates, one of the things that you guys are constantly trying to address is passes. Could you talk about that ongoing process for something like dropped passes where you might think you have a solution and then you have to go back on it because you’re still trying to address it, and where you are in that process?
Graddy: The comment that I would have there is that we are always listening to our fans and we’re trying to do the right thing to balance the game in a way that’s authentic to the NFL, but also reacting to their feedback in terms of how the game should play specific to their playstyle, whether that’s competitive, simulation, or maybe even casual. We don’t always get it right and sometimes there are other variables at play that surprise us when they go into the wild. But the reality is we are absolutely listening. We’re in the forums, on the social media, we’ve got guys coming in that have the voice of the wider community, and we are always trying to do the right thing to make the game fair and balanced across the board.
Going over to CFM, I liked having more injuries and the way that affected my CFM. However, I personally didn’t see it as a year that the mode had a lot new in it. Was that due to the work you did on The Longshot or, one of the things that Rex talked about, which was tying Madden’s CFM to some of the work what the NBA Live people are doing. Could you talk about some of the reasons why it was a lighter year for CFM?
I was actually looking back at Madden 17, 16, and 15, and the CFM feature set, and they were long and deep. We’ve really been investing in that mode, quite heavily over the last three years. [In] Madden 18 we still had the draft board and coach adjustments. We had some of the authenticity things like the injuries you’ve described. I would [also] say commentary, [which was] heavily slanted towards the stories we would tell inside of franchise. So overall, we were pretty happy with what we were delivering in franchise this year, coupled with all the great features that we delivered going back all the way to Madden 15. But, just like every year, in a sports annual release, you gotta make hard decisions on where you can invest your limited time and dollars, and not every mode is going to have deep as a feature set as the fans that play that mode would like to see. But we’re typically going to have at least of the few of the top requests that we know fans of those modes want, and we felt we delivered that this year for franchise. We know how important it is for our fans. It’s absolutely one of our most-played modes, and we’re going to continue to invest there.
Could we see CFM affected by a post-release update?
Yeah, the potential is there, but just nothing I can specifically commit to right now.
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EA’S HYPOTHETICAL SPORTS GAME SUB SERVICE IS NOT THE WAY TOWARDS INNOVATION
EA CEO Andrew Wilson recently told Bloomberg that he envisioned a world were possibly the company wasn’t putting out sports titles every year, going to updates and a subscription model instead. While Wilson’s comments were not a concrete statement that EA is doing that, he wasn’t just shooting from the hip, either. “There’s a world where it gets easier and easier to move the code around,” Wilson said, “where we may not have to do an annual release. We can really think about those games as a 365-day, live service.”
Removing sports games from the yearly release schedule treadmill is often thought of as a solution to year-to-year feature stagnation because it would ostensibly give developers the time to implement all the features they would like without the compressed development cycle. It could also enable an a la carte payment method where consumers only pay for the modes they want.
Despite these possible positives, I think it’s more likely that a move by EA Sports to a non-annual, subscription-based system would restrict the feature set and inflate the cost for many users.
In your average subscription-based title updates punctuate the jumps forward that happen every three or four years. In the meantime users’ diet stereotypically consists of competitive multiplayer and the rinse-repeat cycle of working your way up to the ever-increasing level cap and placing yourself on the vanguard of the experience. Within this space developers create consumable and desirable items to keep players coming back and inching along. This is Ultimate Team in a nutshell. This model makes money for the company and keeps players interested, but apart from balancing gameplay in and of itself it’s not a fundamental driver of change and evolution. Thus, it’s an example of how a subscription model for games like Madden and FIFA could stifle needed innovation by simply subsisting on the hamster wheel of Ultimate Team.
This brings me to another danger of this model if it happens: I believe that the development teams want to fix and improve their game in all kinds of ways, but there are barriers like time and money that prevent them from doing so. While the time factor may be lessened with more time to create the next leap forward for the game (although the team will still have to spend resources simply keeping the game running and updated between expansions), money is still an issue in that I believe the subscription model would prioritize those features that can be shown to generate revenue for the franchise. Unless you can monetize Madden’s Connected Franchise Mode, or let players pay real money to automatically sign the next Sidney Crosby for their offline NHL franchise, Ultimate Team will be the EA Sports bell cow and would be catered to appropriately.
I’m also not a believer that EA is going to walk away from the $60 every year they get from millions of people currently (often over multiple EA sports titles) just to let you pay a monthly or yearly subscription fee that nets out to less than what they’re currently making on these franchises under the current yearly structure. And with microtransactions all the rage and already in Ultimate Team, your subscription fee is likely just to be just the beginning of what you can spend money on.
It’s conceivable that EA bundles multiple sports titles together for a flat subscription rate, and there is value in bulk somewhere along the line, for as we’ve seen with everything from buying MUT pack bundles to tiered cable packages, companies price things at different levels to get you to pay things you may not want in the name of overall value. But I would consider myself lucky under any new subscription model that comes out if I can dodge all the raindrops and only pay an appropriate price for what it is I actually want, to say nothing of paying less than I currently do.
It’s not that ditching the yearly sports model doesn’t have its positives, I’m just skeptical that the economical realities of the situation fall in favor with the average sports consumer who wants to feel like they are getting good value for what their money. This may or may not happen from year to year currently, but I’d rather my sports franchises live under the expectation that they must deliver a compelling, full experience every season rather than count sub numbers.
Madden NFL 18
NASCAR Heat 2
Pro Evolution Soccer 2018
FIFA 18 (shown)
NBA Live 18
Project Cars 2
Forza Motorsport 7
NBA 2K18 (Switch)
FIFA 18 (Switch)
Mutant Football League
Switch Racer GearClub Unlimited Gets New Trailer
The title is out November 21.
PES 2018 Data Pack 2.0 Includes New Licensed Kits, 2 Stadiums & More
Out for free on November 16.