Madden 2004 Interview madden 2004 madden 2004
By Tim Martin -- Reviews Editor/Staff Writer
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After conducting an hour-long phone interview with Madden 2004 producer Jeremy Strausser, I am as excited for the off-field improvements as I am for the gameplay.
This year's game seems to be part Madden, part Roller Coaster Tycoon and part Front Office Football. The ability to build your own stadium with a possibility of more than 16 million combinations of jumbo trons, seats, bathrooms, and skyboxes among other things, has me excited. Strausser said a relocation system, similar to the one found in the All-Star Baseball games, will be implemented.
Good-bye Arizona Cardinals and hello Honolulu Coconuts.
The interview transcript, which I apologize for not being Strausser's verbatim - I typed as I listened on the phone, most everything is OK, but don't go Nam if he has a syntax error or misplaced modifier - is very long.
There is some great information on there, but I don't believe there is any new, unforeseen feature or Madden factoid. I think E3 and the message boards have more or less exhausted any element of surprise. What I did was try to confirm some of the larger, more popular issue, and get some insight from the guy who has worked at EA Sports for eight years.
I don't want to spoil too much, but it seems like the biggest tunings or tweaks will be in the suction blocking and defensive back AI. There's some Strausser insight on the apparent cheating on All-Madden, his content with the speed rush, and his views on online play.
Jeremy seems to be a really cool guy with a great passion for football. It was fun interviewing him. SGN will be conducting a similar interview in the next week to 10 days with NCAA 2004 Producer, Jeff Luhr. I have been unsuccessful in contacting other football producers/companies, Sega Sports and 989 Sports. Hopefully we can get something set up with them also.
If you guys have any feedback, feel free to leave me a message on our forum.
Reviews Editor/Staff Writer
1. We hear about tweaks to a certain game aspect, like suction blocking, or RoboQB, but what exactly does that process curtail as opposed to revamping? Is it simply programming more responses?
You probably hit on a good distinction, the difference between tweaking or tuning as opposed to revamping. When you say RoboQB, believe it or not there is no special code in the game to make quarterbacks better when losing -- it's a function of the game where it's kind of kicking into play calling that's a little more aggressive. When a team is losing, it's going to pass the ball a lot more. On the flipside, (the RoboQB) may be due more to the pass coverage (which Strausser said need improvement).
It's pretty interesting to see some of those message boards. For those who played the game hands-on, they had a wide variety of opinions. It's amusing because a lot of people who picked up the game (at E3) for the first time, they could tell something was different but they couldn't put hand on it. We had some of our programmers go up there and play the game and explain some of those (tweaks) things.
The blocking is a little bit more of difficult one. We may have to revamp blocking in the future, but for now we've changed some little things around. What happens in a game that is animation driven, it's not a real physical simulation of the human body blocking. Suction blocking was the most disappointing thing from last year. This year we have tuned and tweaked things and worked on animations where defensive players will be able to move out of way of being blocked, which is something we have never done before. In the past, blockers and defenders would engage and somebody wins and the other falls down. This year, we don't want to make defenders or blockers always fall down (if they lose).
Without getting into too much (detail), when we tune or tweak something, it is adjusting the variables and creating new animations and writing whole new AI routines. All of those are parts of the tuning process, which is more or less implementing new systems or making a few additions that will work hand and hand with existing systems.
2. What significant "tweaks" have been made?
We do a lot of tuning that's one thing. I have always kind of prided Madden as having a finely tuned game. It's not just a programmer who goes off on his own in one area; it's a couple of programmers, designers and producers who sit in day in and day out and play the game over and over and over. I think that is one certain aspect that makes us better than other games, hopefully people notice our effort. That is what sets us apart is that education and tuning is done a lot more on a year to year basis.
I don't know at this point if we have the time to go through the entire list (of significant tweaks) - we're still going through and doing things to the list. But aside from the suction blocking and defensive back AI, we also extensively tuned catching. We thought last year there were too many dropped passes.
We also tuned the ability for the QB to be used as a running weapon, to kind of throw on the run. It's sort of the Michael Vick equation. He's changing the way football is played in NFL, and definitely is changing the way Madden is played. He's a big weapon in the game. Also to counter scrambling quarterbacks, we have to be able to see what's happened in NFL and put in some plays to stop them. In this year's game, we'll have a double spy play, which is something the Tampa Bay defense used against Vick where two people pretty much shadow him. We all know in the NFL, speed kills and Michael Vick is fast. It's scary because he's rated higher than last year's game, which is deserved after the season he had last year.
3. This is sort of a broad question, but something thrown around gamers is that you get the most realistic game at a Pro or All-Pro difficulty setting, and although All-Madden might be the toughest, a lot of people say the CPU resorts to cheating...i.e. the CPU isn't better or smarter, it's just faster and the humans are slower...the blockers aren't as good, etc. etc. Could you comment on that...and maybe make a connection if designing AI for the most talented gamer is something that online play should try and cover.
I think that's a good observation, although I wouldn't call All-Madden cheating. All-Madden is the most down right hard and difficult level. The goes out in the default Pro level, which is sort of our second hardest out of four. We do the majority of our tuning to Pro and All-Pro, the two areas people spend the most time with. Rookie is supposed to be very easy and All-madden very, very hard. There is a way to go about doing that without cheating and not just giving them your plays. But All-Madden really is boosting CPU awareness, speed, reaction time and how many times things get recalculated in a certain play. All-Madden is insanely hard and we make it that way intentionally. It's funny to see guys who play All-Madden all the time and to see how good they are against the game and head to head. But I've seen these same guys struggle with Pro because they are so used to All-Madden and overcompensating.
4. For the last couple of games, there have been complaints about the defensive back AI. Could you just comment how you program defenders to react to pass? And why sometimes they look like DBs from that movie, Little Giants.
I do agree (pass defense) is sort of difficult in Madden and it is something that we have approached with a lot of tuning and tweaking. I was pretty happy with Madden's gameplay overall last year and this year a lot of people so far have said they like to play the game. Certainly small things (like suction blocking and RoboQB) like that's where we do the tuning and tweaking (as opposed to revamping); places that already have something pretty good. When something is completely re-done, we rip it out and start over. In this case, for pass coverage the defensive backs play OK.
That said, we knew we could be doing better so we put DB AI on the agenda on our schedule to work on. Here at Madden we spend lots of time talking to coaches how stuff really happens. None of our programmers obviously ever played in NFL, so what we do is the next best thing and that is to talk to coaches and players. The NFLCA (National Football League Coaches' Association) provided us the opportunity to talk to a lot of assistant coaches about their technique and the kind of stuff that will be directly translated into the game.
I really like what we've done with pass coverage and we still have a month, month and a half before we finish. Our keys are putting guys in the right positions and having them react properly, which means a couple of things: it can mean that the defender attempts to swat the pass down, or where a defender goes for the interception or maybe it means the defender lets the receiver catch the ball and then hit them. The last reaction was new last year and we've done a lot more this year. If a defender is playing safe coverage and is giving up some ground, the defensive back is probably going to let the guy make the catch but pop 'em pretty good when he does. With good timing, the defender can jar the ball loose or lead to big hit. I think you see this a lot in the NFL.
5. Could you comment on how long you think the single player mode experience should last? I mean, if you play the CPU long enough, you're bound to find some loopholes. Is there a certain point where you concede that you won't have a perfect CPU, even if some people want that perfection, and maybe put more emphasis on your mini-games or online play?
What's exciting about online gaming is that it takes finding good opponents to a whole new level. Madden has always been popular with one on one play or with friends. Opening up Madden online on the PS2 is a great thing to get that level of competition and can open a gamer to a whole new realm of competition. It makes our job easier (by having another outlet for gamers to get stiff competition) because it gets you great opponents all the time.
One of the reasons we spend a lot of time on the franchise and owner mode is that we know lots of people play by themselves, so we extend replayability with all those modes. The mini-camp mode is meant for the new user, and I thought it came out very well. I hope that owner mode entails to a different group of people. The owner mode takes the game to a new level and it is a new way of keeping score. That really impacts your game by not only letting you move your guy around on field, but by also putting you in charge of running the team
6. Explain the role you think Madden will be having with online compatibility in the coming years? Do you think there will be a time when the emphasis and franchise mode is online not single player?
I don't know. Online is the future of gaming so to speak if you believe those (who back it). With a game like Madden that is very popular game that could support something like that multiplayer or franchise online mode. We do that on our PC game, we have an online tournament mode that can give you some of that ability. We also have multiplayer franchise available offline. It's not a lot of people, but it is tough to coordinate to get eight, 10 or 20 of your friends. We know how much fun that can be, it's just a matter of commitment from people to show up to play their games.
We had a very good experience and we learned a lot last year. Also things such as fair play settings and cutting down on the cheese play we saw will make online better. We have a lot more rankings and some other great online features so that we will provide a great place to play.
Online tournaments/franchise takes a tremendous amount of effort because programmers program them like game but build in server support, log-ins, and timeouts. It's actually one of the more complicated things we've run into.
7. How do you program crowd interaction? And why don't playoff games, aside from a few aesthetics like field logos, feel like playoff games?
I would agree that playoff games don't have that right atmosphere. That is something we need to do a better job in, and I think we do better this year. There are some things we addressed to be a little better, but I don't think we'll ever capture the playoffs at its root level because everyone gets that much more excited. Reflecting human emotion is critical and what try to do is a couple of things: We try to make commentators more into playoffs with specific commentary specific to the rounds. Something to the sound of what John Madden likes to say: "One team goes on and one teams goes home," incorporate that type of attitude and commentary team with crowd reaction and crowd sounds in the game
We now have specific sounds for the Super Bowl and playoffs only, but the audience level is also higher. You'll still get some very excited crowds in season, but we wanted something worked on for big games. I'm hoping if it comes together sounds really good. The levels of crowd sound and reaction in a playoff game with an interception in the first quarter is big deal. For a regular season game, you're probably not going to gett people to react as well.
8. How do you come up with new ideas for animations? How do you determine what gets in and what doesn't?
A lot of watching games. I won't lie, our guys live, breath and eat football. They really love football and it shows in our work with Madden. Every time we sit down and watch we're looking for stuff. Most people come back Monday morning with a page and a half of notes of things they saw...it's fun...we have way more animations that we want to put in the game than we'll ever fit, which is why we go spend three or four weeks with mo-caps and actors and get 400-500 new animations ever years.
We're amazed at some of the things we see players do every week. We have added some great stuff, but we're still tipping the iceburg: things like stumbles, being pushed out of bounds, tons of new catches, transitions for scrambles.
The decision on what to put and not put on the game is a collaborate decision. Everything we do is a collaboration of artists and designers. That particular process is a long drawn out one, and it's a really hard choice.
9. A few questions about the off-season. There have been a lot of gripes about the free agent signing being too easy with contract signings.
We hired a guy to solely concentrate on franchise/owner logic and engine. This guy lived and breathed franchise mode and has been doing nothing for anything else. He has been tuning things and added available options, computer behavior on how it handles free agents and trades. I don't know specifics, but we've added the real salary cap, the official trading block, trades with "minimum expected" which is sort of CPU initiated. I think they are all cool things that address the crowd who gets into that type of stuff.
10. Can you share some details in the Ownership mode aside from the ability to set ticket prices or whatnot?
Owner mode is a very cool aspect of game. We've taken the metaphor from "be the coach and GM" to "now own the franchise." We could have just easily added a menu to adjust hotdog and ticket prices, but we have taken it to a very deep level not just set prices. We have the exact number of seats per seat from the lower deck seats to the luxury boxes, whatever.
It is a symbiotic relationship and has a lot of factors: ticket prices, factor of prices overall, the simple factor of the stadium like how new/comfortable it is. There is a whole stadium builder tool that allows you to build upon your existing stadium, renovate, or even build another one and relocate as another team. The stadium building tool, no exaggeration, has 16 million combinations of building types of things, like scoreboards, press boxes all these different options, wall and a ticket places. It's awesome because you can then go and play in that stadium you made.
Owner mode is also comprised of setting prices, staff, assistant coach, training staff, facilities, building a new stadium. All that has a symbiotic relationship with prices, attendance, performance, and wins and losses.
11. So, could you hypothetically be the Cincinnati Bengals and have your typical 1-15, 2-14 record, but lead the league in attendance if your prices are insanely low enough?
Well, you could cut prices in Cincy, but if you are still losing every little aspect reaches another one, so at the end of the day if you do not bring in enough revenue from selling out your stadium, you're not gonna hve enough money to pay top coaches/players. Everything is sort of interrelated. You can now keep score beyond wins and losses, but if you have too many years in the red you can lose the team.
There are over 100 cities to re-locate to, which include just about every North American city that could hold a NFL team. Included in North America are of course Mexico, Canada, and the Caribbean.
12. I'm curious about the stadium builder. Does a favorable layout with great stadium accessibility have an impact on whether or not people come as opposed to one that is cluttered?
There is a whole section of amenities that play a bigger role, more so than civil engineering. It's more about "what do you got for me?" So fans are going to come to see the fancy jumbo tron or lots of bathrooms. The guys inside (Madden programmers, testers) jokingly called the game "Simowner," which gives a pretty good scope of how things are.
13. Could you go into some detail about the online fair play rules? How will they be implemented?
We're very big into reading the message boards from reading Maddenmail and EA.com. We've seen out there that people have unofficial leagues and rules they would follow, and we thought it was a pretty good idea. We wanted to have official set of rules people to play by. We'll have something like 5 minute quarters at this skill level with this group of settings first to play a straight-up game. But you can turn all the stuff off. If you want ranked games that count, you won't be able to turn the settings off. As of right now, it's just a group of settings and rules in and out of game that has control of gamers before and after the fact. We're going to see how people react and we may adjust the rules. We're looking forward to it; it should be a good way to keep everyone honest.
We have rules to the extent that we limit play selection (for guys who want to go for it on their own 7-yard line on fourth down). Gamers won't be able to select offensive plays in certain situations. We'll also restrict the guys who like to move players around. Those guys who take a WR and put him at TE and move him way out in a formation, or a guy who uses fast wide receivers on the defensive line. It's the non-standard stuff the game is going to restrict. But the game has some real creative guys and I have to hand it to them. They are really good at exploiting every aspect. What we try to do is take out stuff we can't normally see in a football game.
For those small handfuls of people who do not approach honorably, that's who can ruin the experience for a lot of people.
14. What were some of the oddest feature/gameplay things that you guys didn't get in the game? Something in the pre-liminary stages that fell through the cracks or was saved for another game down the road?
15. What's the status of the game right now? Are you having your testers look for bugs and making some corrections?
Most the stuff is in. We're kind of fixing things and getting stuff ready. A lot of consumers don't realize that we finish this game in July so that it comes out in August, which explains why rosters can be a little bit off. We try to do our best to project, but updated rosters can be retrieved online.
16. Over the last 14 years, Madden has attracted some true die hard fans that absolutely pick the game apart. It seems like no matter what is done to the game, there is always complaints about a stadium not having a skybox or a uniform not having a certain shade of burgundy...is that unattainable satisfaction something that you guys are aware of?
I love those guys. I can't get enough of the message boards, seeing people discuss the game. It's kind of funny that those are the people who love the game the most: they are very loyal and dedicated, but they complain about it like they would never buy the game. I think they strive for perfection and so do we.
We realized a long time ago that we'd never please everyone all the time. I think it takes a while to learn that in video games, but I think we're doing pretty well.
17. How do you appeal to the hardcore gamer that wants 27 face masks and 17 types of soft spiked shoes, as well as the casual gamer?
That's very difficult especially with a game like Madden. To some point we realize a lot of people who play the game aren't the ultra hardcore fans who post on the message board, but we'll stick true to our roots, which is gameplay and depth. I think that covers a lot of different groups. I think that's what really attracts big masses of people.
18. Comment on a trend that seems to award players who pass moreso than those that run the ball more often.
I don't know if I necessarily agree with that. The running game in Madden can be deadly if you call plays the right way, motion your blockers, and read the holes. I have seen guys in the Madden Challenges just run the ball with Jerome Bettis, Curtis Martin, or Shaun Alexander all game. They'll run the ball 9 times out of 10. I am most proud of the ability to not just run around on the exterior, but also the interior.
I think passing aspect is kind of representative in NFL, in terms of it is becoming more of an "air it out" league. Passing is a big part of game, but I do think the running game is there in Madden, you just must be committed to it. It's very easy to get stopped after a one-yard gain and never come back, but Madden is certainly not an arcade game.
19. Pass rushing has been a complaint in the past, be it because of suction blocking...but do you think the speed of a Javon Kearse or a Simeone Rice...two edge rushers can be accurately duplicated in a game without running the risk of that type of rush becoming automatic?
I think in Madden morseso than others...speed rushers have big impact on defense to the point where it can be too big of an impact. Some teams are having trouble containing the rush. We've put in some things with chip blocks backs to slow down. I think the speed rush is pretty effective. More of our engaged (suction) blocking, it's the interior parts of the line and it is in the open field so guys on end can do good job of making way up field. I am pretty happy with speed rush.
20. Is there any possibility of expansion capabilities?
No, we don't have any right now. You sort of have the flexibility to move around in Owner Mode, but we like the 32-team league for scheduling and playoffs. We didn't want to mess with it yet. Once expansion becomes more of a reality and when the NFL discusses expansion, you'll probably see us put it in in.
21. Will there be global or universal offensive/defensive playbooks?
Probably not. The answer for that is simple: it would be really, really too big and is more than PS2 or X-Box can handle memory wise. There are about 6,000 plays and something global would be too unmanageable and too big. This year's play list I am very proud of the nature of our plays and team specific formations they ran on the field last year. We also added more trick plays and new formations. Variety is very good. We do have a playbook editor, and I think it's about 80 or 90 plays. It's still a lot.
22. Is the chain gang there?
23. What equipment stuff can we look forward to?
The biggest thing is the real helmets. There are actually three brands, four different types of helmets including the new Revolution from Riddel that comes down lower to the chin and is pretty cool. If they are wearing it in the NFL, they will wear it in our game. We added a bunch of new face masks, accessories, half sleeves. Anything we see players, we try to put it in.
24. Will there be an in-franchise mode Hall of Fame?
We did not add that this year thing. We certainly talked about it for this year. We'd like to do if we could find a good way to do it.
25. Can future draft picks traded?
I know you can trade future draft picks, but I think you can only do it one year in the future. I think anything passed that would put limitations on the way we track things. So can you trade future draft picks? Yes, but draft picks two, three, or four years down the road...you can't.
26. One of the biggest gripes was the tracking of pancake blocks.
27. What about more gang tackling and will half sacks be tracked?
here will be no half sacks because the way the game works. Half sacks are a very subjective thing in the NFL. We kind of know who got the sack. I think that is where the NFL is being diplomatic I guess.
We actually added a handful more of gang tackling animations. I think you'll see more with playmaker control because you can move guys around pre-snap. I was pretty happy with gang tackling last year, but you shouldn't expect to see it every play. It's a reward for guys beings in the right place. There are a lot of animations in the game you won't see but once or twice a game.
I almost feel like our team is very proud of the game they put out there because the biggest complaint people have is about the pancake blocks. When you get to that detail, you know you did something right.
If I had to add anything on what we just showed at E3 ... the feedback is very good. We have already won some best of show sports awards and we're very proud of that. I'm excited about the game, and I hope it all comes together be an excellent game. I tip my hat to all the work on the game. A lot of people work very hard.
Thanks for your time, Jeremy.
No problem. I hope you and your readers enjoy the game as much as our team here does.
Please leave any comments about this interview on our forum. We may conduct a follow-up interview in the near future.
Preview & Screen Shots
Madden 2004 Cheats