Interview: Madden EP Strauser On How The Franchise Stays Fresh
Another year, another Madden -- today marks the launch of EA Sports' Madden NFL 2011, the latest in over two decades of the go-to football game franchise (and the only official NFL-licensed console video game since December 2004). At EA's Tiburon studio, where the annual franchise is a constant work in progress, making each installment refreshing year after year is a deceptively complex balancing act, franchise executive producer Jeremy Strauser tells Gamasutra.
In recent years, this mandate's gotten even steeper, as the team takes on the challenge of attracting new audiences outside the deep sports sim's traditional hardcore audience -- legions of football gamers who buy the game year after year. For plenty of those players, Madden is largely the only console game they purchase. After so many years, how does the team think about new players, and is it really possible to innovate on one of the industry's longest-standing yearly franchises, especially when it's bound to the rules and realities of the sport of football?
"The Madden audience tends to be very, very diverse," says Strauser. "From guys who are the tournament-type gamers who take any possible exploit and trick to win competitively, to guys who are sim-heads, the fantasy football type, they play as an extension of their sports fandom." And there are "dozens" of other audiences, including casual gamers alongside gamers of all levels who are casual NFL fans."
"Madden tries to be all things to all these audiences and that can be very challenging," he adds.
With the 2011 installment, Strauser says the team believes it's found a solution for the complete audience -- a feature called GameFlow, which effectively boils down to the option to play the game without its traditional play call book at the front and center. Instead of requiring players to page through a book of effective plays, an AI coaching staff can make the determination based on each individual situation that arises through gameplay. "It picks the play intelligently for you," Strauser explains. "It'll put it on the screen for you so you can see where players are going to go, and steps you through it a little."
The Benefits of Streamlining
Although the GameFlow system is entirely optional -- players can still play the game the traditional way -- its ease of use aims seem like they'd solicit all the usual core-market criticism of any feature designed to lower entry barriers. Even Strauser himself was skeptical. "I've worked on this franchise for the better part of 15 years; I started as a tester," he says. "The idea of playing Madden without a play-call book was basically shocking to me."
But when he gave GameFlow a try in an early prototype stage, he finished a game in about 20 minutes -- like real football games, Madden's tend to be much longer owing to the time between plays to choose the next move. The feature's aptly named; Strauser found appeal in the more fluid, action-oriented experience of uninterrupted play. "It was fairly rewarding," he says of the experience. "I thought, 'hold on a sec -- we might be onto something.'"
Allowing an "intelligent" coach to take over not only removes the need for players to comprehend the Xs, Os and football language ("the playbook can be complicated; you almost need a football PhD," admits Strauser), but it also adds authenticity, because plays are called the way real coaches would. And even hardcore players can play Madden more fluidly by using GameFlow to essentially customize their coaching experience -- they can explore the playbook, rank their plays and set preferences to shape what the system chooses.
"So not only can this system then play out for a novice that is learning about football, or who wants a kind of realtime experience -- but the hardcore guys can call plays like a real NFL coach, they can dig in and do custom game plans and things like that," says Strauser. "There's tons of adjustments that can be made along the way, ways to get back to the full playbook... and since you're not spending so much time in the playbook you're spending more time on the field, and it feels more like a continuous action game."
The aim of more flow and action to the gameplay was inspired by other sports, Strauser says. "We took our inspiration from games that don't break up the action so much," he explains. "Football is a very popular sport in the U.S., but it doesn't play well in Europe and the rest of the world where soccer is the ubiquitous game. And that game is always moving, there's not a stop and start after every play." EA Sports labelmate franchises NHL and FIFA were big inspirations, he adds.
One interesting question is what it takes for a team that's constantly at work on one franchise and one sport to remain dedicated and continue innovating. "It's very challenging," says Strauser. "It can work for us and against us in recruiting and retention. To make a great team, you've got to have diversity and the right mix of voices, and we have an outstanding mix of designers, technologists and engineers who love football and come in and replicate that behavior.
Surprisingly, though, "we have engineers who have never watched a day of football in their life. We have some designers who are more of the kind of sports guys, and some who are more video game guys. When you meld all those different perspectives and those different backgrounds, I think that benefits the game," Strauser says.
A diverse team helps appeal to that diverse audience, and help the team's core sports fans understand the accessibility of a feature like GameFlow, while the sports fans support the designers in building the depth of experience, asserts the executive producer. "It helps it not be too hardcore. It's becoming easier -- I would really credit that to the mass explosion of the video game industry. When you start to see degree programs out of major universities in game design, you're going to catch more different folks, including us, who like both sports and video games."
And as a result, GameFlow's been a crowd-pleaser, says Strauser. "The response has been outstanding," he enthuses, after reviewing the data on the game's demo, which launched July 27. "The nice thing about online, connected play is that we gather a lot of info on how the game is used, almost in realtime." Over a million people now have played the game's demo, and 84 percent of these gave the GameFlow mode of play-calling a try.
"About a third of our users are making custom game plans in the demo, and executing them in the game," he adds. "With those types of numbers, I'm very excited about the launch. We hope this will help put it back in the hands of people who thought Madden was too complicated or too long, or that they outgrew it."