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Op-ed: NHL 15 and the Case of the Missing Modes

Xav de Matos, @Xav

It would come as no shock to anyone, as stereotypical as it may seem, that I have been looking forward to NHL 15 on Xbox One and PS4. I am, of course, Canadian. Some of my chief complaints from the series in recent years have been its presentation, which has made a habit of reusing animations, commentary, presentation packages and more. I apparently wasn't the only one with these issues. By E3 2014, the language coming from EA was "We heard you, NHL 15 is going to pull out all the stops."

A brand new and impressive presentation package, in collaboration with NBC Sports, was created bringing the quality of the NHL series to heights that I haven't seen (or felt) since I watched an animated Ron Barr welcome me to a game in NHL '94. EA Canada also added a new commentary team to the mix, piled on new physics that brought the series closer to reality and seemingly shoehorned an impressive list of other technical ideas into a game that, on paper, seemed bursting at its seams (or laces, whatever floats your boat).

And then the shoe (or skate, perhaps) dropped.

Gallery: NHL 15 (E3 2014) | 5 Photos

This week, EA Canada revealed that a number of modes were missing from NHL 15 on Xbox One and PS4, including the EA Sports Hockey League, an online league mode where players can form clubs and compete in complete seasons in multiple divisions online. It added structure to competition and has been a popular staple in the series since 2009. How popular? The top player in the mode in NHL 14's EA Sports Hockey League played over 2,500 online matches.

After an interview with Operation Sports revealed the next-gen version of the game would lack the mode (and numerous others), EA quickly posted a blog discussing how important EASHL is to them and that it would be a fixture in future games.

But we're not in the future and future me isn't the one that's disappointed.

This is a consistent narrative with EA Sports. When NBA Live was gearing up for its second coming (or technically third since NBA Elite was canned), EA talked about how important the basketball game was to its strategy. It was easy to believe them at first. EA sent a message that, after canceling two other attempts to bring an NBA game back from the ashes, they were unwilling to release a game to market until it was perfect. It didn't work out. In fact, NBA Live 14 was such an abhorrent failure that EA publicly apologized. "This is just the first chapter in the NBA Live comeback story," NBA Live 14 Executive Producer Sean O'Brien wrote in the open-letter to fans, which began by saying his team "laid out a plan to make NBA Live 14 a better game as quickly as we can" in response to reaction from fans.

EA has a bad habit of hearing fan reaction, assuring them all is well and then promising they'll do better next time. They don't seem to learn from these errors and ultimately the games that have been released in the face of fan outreach have been inundated with technical complications.

Will you trust NBA Live 15 is the game they promise it to be?
Will you welcome a new entry in the SimCity franchise?
Will you be sure Battlefield: Hardline will work on day one?

My mind isn't made up about these questions, but there are valid concerns. These are the questions that come up in our own comments when we post news or media for these franchises.

When the Xbox 360 launched, EA brought its two behemoths to play: FIFA 06: Road to FIFA World Cup and Madden NFL 06. Both titles, along with NBA Live 06, however, were lambasted by fans and critics for being hollowed out husks. The games lacked multiple modes and offered little for the hardcore sports fan looking to immerse themselves in the next-gen sports experience they were promised.

For the Xbox One and PS4 generation, EA assured fans their launch sports lineup would see feature parity between previous and next-gen consoles. Maybe because it's not a launch game the same rule doesn't apply, but NHL 15 on next-gen systems certainly does not maintain the promise of parity.

NHL is an oddity for EA. The series has skipped the last two major console generation launches and is developed by EA Canada, the same development group behind the worldwide smash hit FIFA franchise. By all accounts, based only on what I've been told, the NHL series sells in the realm of about a million units per year. Compared to Madden and FIFA, that's not much.

All the narrative going into E3 2014 was that NHL 15 had it all, it was the game that EA Canada wanted to make and they were finally going to get it done. But things started to get strange, fairly quickly. EA Canada Producer Sean Ramjagsingh told me that the NHL 94 Anniversary Mode would be absent in the next-generation version of the game, saying: "When we started to talk about who would maybe be buying our game, if they haven't moved on to the next-generation of consoles yet, they could be more casual hockey fans." The implication, it would at least seem to me, is that the next-gen version was for the hardcore players – a questionable position now, as hardcore modes such as EASHL are absent from the next-gen version.

When asked about modes like Live the Life, GM Connected and EASHL finding their way in the next-gen version of NHL 15, Ramjagsingh told me that news about modes was coming soon.

"Soon," as it happens, was only a few weeks from the game's launch and only after an interview revealed multiple modes were missing in NHL 15 on PS4 and Xbox One. Ramjagsingh says that deciding to pull modes was a difficult one but had to be done. He has since told Operation Sports that GM Connected specifically, "was one of our lowest played modes."

"As of today, which is our beta date looking to get the game in the package-goods product for consumers to pick up on the first day, we had to make the decision that [Online Team Play] will not be in the game for launch. It was a very tough decision for us. Obviously we recognize that OTP and EASHL are huge modes for us. Our fans, our community are very invested in those modes, so it was a very tough decision and tough day for us. But the reality is, its not going to get there for launch," he told Operation Sports.

I may not like the outcome, but the reasoning is sound. The team just could not fit the modes in the game in time to meet their beta date. Fine. But EA's NHL series had no competitor, so what dictates the need to meet a specific launch date? I suppose the marketing and EA's own release calendar, which of course has financial implications, would say NHL 15 must be released by a specific date, but if the developer assures its potential audience that it wishes it could do something but just can't, is it impossible to give the team the time?

NHL 15 won the critics choice award for best sports game at E3 2014. It was the talk of the town during the event and seemed like an installment that could draw in new fans, coasting on a wave of excitement for new consoles. After the news this week, even the hardcore fans – the guaranteed sales – are upset.

Delaying NHL 15 is improbable. Not only has it already gone into its beta state where the game is being pressed and readied for distribution, halting that production and spending more time on the game now would cost money. As a journalist, I understand that, but as a consumer, I'd rather it cost EA the money to get right and not cost me $60 to get half the game I wanted. Or worse yet, pay $120 and get last generation's game as well, which does include the modes pulled from NHL 15 on Xbox One and PS4. That version, however, is missing presentation upgrades, the new physics system and a host of other next-gen only features.

The entire situation leaves an NBA Live-flavored taste in my mouth for the franchise I grew up loving.

EA Canada's stance seems to be: We're going to update NHL 15 regularly and we're going to make sure NHL 16 is fantastic. For now, the only way to get the NHL 15 game you want – the version of the game that features all the modes you've come to expect and technological upgrade they've promised – is to purchase both the previous and next-generation versions of the game.

Or don't purchase either version and see how NHL 16 turns out when it launches in September 2015.
[Images: EA]

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