Madden 10: Did EA press reset?

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Madden 10: Did EA press reset?
Senior producer Phil Frazier calls Madden NFL 10 a "reset." That's a tough buzzword to sell, especially for Madden, which is reappearing this August as its twenty-something-ith iteration. Despite its massive following, Joystiq has largely treated the series as uninteresting. Year in, year out, the process has grown mechanical: the annual announcement, followed by details of game enhancements, and then, of course, a look at those supposedly cursed cover athletes. Then, silence. The game's released. A few months later, news of its sales dominance. Rinse. Repeat. Reset.

It's difficult not to trivialize a game franchise that follows such a formulaic path from concept to destined bestseller. On the surface, it appears as if there are no surprises. There's nothing to be inspired by. Maybe there's a twinge of aliveness in seeing the first screenshot of the new season, in admiring the game's gradual transformation into lifelike football, in our brief exaggeration of that image as actually lifelike, before scrutiny sets in, and we identify it as just the new Madden.

Somewhere, certainly, there are discussion forums geeking out over the new look and tweaks and promises -- or passionately lamenting the next "QB Vision Cone." But here, we have not been moved beyond the mundane and have not trusted that an exclusive NFL license, a one-year development cycle and, dare we suggest, a "simple" sports game are keys to gaming innovation. An inner troll is nagging: Guys, you know it's just another "roster update."
Perhaps it was this mentality that we brought into our preview of Madden 10, in which we admittedly flubbed a few details (that will be righted here), and that muddied the message that EA Sports was attempting to broadcast: This year's is a "new" Madden. During a post mortem chat, we encouraged Frazier and lead designer Ian Cummings to respond to our preview, which EA Sports had criticized for containing inaccuracies and, in turn, inciting a negative response to the game. They readily obliged.

First, Frazier wanted to clear up the confusion about "The Emotion of the NFL," which we called a "presentation mode," implying it was part of an ongoing initiative to clutter the core game with worthless extras. "Emotion" is actually better described as a presentation coating, actualized in in-game moments (think: cutscenes), like a pre-game jet flyover or a ref prying players off of a pileup. It's cinema, really, attempting to "look and feel like an NFL broadcast," according to Frazier. "Emotion" isn't a mode you play or toggle on/off, it's simply in the game.

Where we questioned innovation, Frazier and Cummings fired back with: Pro-Tak. Madden 10's new gameplay feature, which has been advertised as "gang tackling," was described by Cummings as "very ambitious" within the traditional framework of the series. Pro-Tak isn't just, as we described, the technology to "dogpile up to nine guys on the football," in-house it functions as an umbrella term to define all of the new gameplay tweaks, including those to blocking, pocket creation and subtle rumble feedback (to alert the player of an impending sack, for example).

"Team play in Madden is probably the future."

The EA Tiburon development team, which has been reset this year, has taken the code base and trimmed it down, nixing past gimmicks like "Weapons" and "Lead Blocker Controls." The leaner game has allowed the team to "innovate in the sport," Cummings claimed.

Still, even as Madden evolves into a better football simulation -- call that "innovative" or not -- we're most disappointed that development hasn't taken any clear risks toward creating a truly team-based game. Essentially, Madden has thrived as a one-on-one game for years, despite the fact that the real game of (American) football requires many highly specialized roles to function in perfect tandem for success. The vast majority of these roles are automated by the game at any one moment.

We asked Frazier and Cummings if such a radical shift in Madden fundamentals was even possible given a one-year development cycle. Would the team have to branch off and devote a subdivision to creating something like "Madden Online" over the course of several years to completely redefine gameplay and, say, discover how to make playing as a wide receiver that gets a maximum of 10 ball touches during a single game compelling for an entire game? Or even, how to make playing as an offensive lineman (that might not get a single ball touch in his entire career) interesting for 60 game minutes? Clearly, these fantasies have played out in EA Tiburon's collective mind, too. "Team play in Madden is probably the future," Frazier admitted. "We need to take a step -- definitely -- in that direction." But when will that first step come? Maybe at E3, where Frazier teased new online features would be revealed that would satisfy both competitive and "cooperative" gamers.

Frazier, Cummings and the rest of the staff are frustrated by the repetitive criticisms lobbed at Madden. Frazier vehemently defended the integrity of this team, if not the integrity of EA Sports' exclusive right to use NFL licenses. "We found out about it the same day everyone else did," Frazier said of the deal. "I get that concern." But Frazier was quick to point out that EA has invested more money in Madden this year than any previous year, suggesting that at no level in the company is there a push to ease back on development initiative in the wake of diminished competition. "EA isn't trying to get lazy with this franchise," Frazier insisted. EA isn't trying to get overly ambitious either.

EA Tiburon has no doubt focused on improving upon previous Maddens, and there are still a few "goodies" left to reveal about the new game. But we're not convinced Madden 10 need be separated from its blurred lineage. It's not so much a reset, as it's simply the next down in a series; itself full of all manner of potential. Will Madden execute the ultimate highlight on the next play? Or just throw away the ball? There is, then, suspense in these moments before the moment and perhaps a reason to be excited at last.
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