Last year, the Madden football franchise celebrated their 25th anniversary by launching on next generation consoles Playstation 4 and Xbox One. What was promised to be the most authentic football experience to date was met with lukewarm reviews. Yes, Madden is still the best football game on the market (albeit the only one as well). However, when compared to NBA 2K and MLB The Show, Madden hasn’t had quite the significant improvements over the years as their gaming counterparts. But with Madden 15 on the horizon, EA Sports is ready to become the best sports simulation on the market. Life+Times caught up with Madden creative director Rex Dickson to discuss what a difference a year has made with next gen hardware, making defense fun again and why Colin Kaepernick’s tattoos will finally make their debut in the game this year.
Life+Times: Okay, forget the actual gameplay for a second, one of the biggest gripes with last year’s game was the fact that Colin Kaepernick’s tattoos were not in the game. It sounds silly but people were upset. What happened?
Rex Dickson: Here’s a little backstory: When The Hangover 2 released, Mike Tyson’s face tattoo artist sued the movie company and stated that he owned the rights to the tattoo and not Tyson. He won a settlement and the precedent was set that the tattoo artists actually own the rights to the tattoos designs and not the person who they tattooed it on.
L+T: The NBA 2K doesn’t have that issue though.
RD: It’s really up to the license holder how much legal liability they are willing to accept. I don’t know about the NBA or the NBA Players Association but I assume that they are more willing to allow that kind of stuff. The NFL is completely different. Our recent issues with the NCAA have made us especially sensitive to litigation hence why we don’t want to take any chances by getting sued for putting tattoos in the game that we don’t have the rights for.
L+T: Well, it looks like you guys were able to get Kaepernick’s tattoos into this year’s game. How did that come about?
RD: One of the guys from the NFL Players Association came down to the studio and he said Colin Kaepernick and he really wants his tattoos in the game. My reply to him was that as long as he owns the rights to the tattoos, we can put them in the game. But he has to secure those rights. So Colin actually went out and found his two tattoo artists and bought the rights from them. As soon as he did that, we were able to put them in the game. We told the league that if there’s any players who want their tattoos in the game, go secure the rights from the artists and we’ll put them in.
L+T: Now that we have the tattoo issue out of the way, what is the biggest change to the actual game this year?
RD: I kept hearing comments and reading reviews where people say they just simulate defense because playing defense is boring. We kind of knew we had to take a year and reimagine that entire user experience. What we learned is that most people that play Madden like to play as either defensive lineman or linebackers. So our first emphasis was pass rush. In previous installments you’d just start spamming the right stick and hope things would work out. I hated that control mechanic. So this year we’ve implemented power and finesse moves and you’ll see that when you’re on defense it will flash an icon above your head to tell you what your best available move is and then it will contextually choose one of the hundreds of different pass rush animations. It’s a much more effective way to rush the passer because you’re actually getting feedback as to why you are or aren’t successful when you try your move. The other piece of the puzzle is that we have a jump the snap mechanic. When you pull the right trigger at the snap you can get a bonus to your win chances against the blocker. But it does have the ability to pull you offsides so there’s a risk vs reward element to that feature.
L+T: What about defending the pass?
RD: Last year people said coverage is soft and you can throw for over 400 yards every single game. We took that to heart and brought Pittsburgh Steelers CB Cortez Allen and Buffalo Bills LB Steven Sylvester. They spent a few days with us breaking down film of the game and telling us everything we were doing wrong. They’d say “Flat zones don’t jump the flat, they split the difference between the flat and the curl and bait the quarterback to throw to either one.” So we started making all of these changes based on what NFL players were telling us. You’ll see that man and zone coverage is significantly better than it was last year. It’s more important than ever to make good reads on offense this year.
L+T: One thing about Madden is that there are certain plays you can run with success nearly 100% of the time. Will that be fixed?
RD: We have hired some of the top Madden players in the world to sit with us and find money plays and imbalances. As soon as they find them, we fix them. By using that process we are zeroing out all of the exploits. What everybody wants is an authentic simulation and any time one of those glitches exists, it takes away from that experience.
L+T: We’ve talked extensively about defense, what about the offense?
RD: A big change on offense is pass accuracy. Previously on Madden there were two styles of passes: perfectly accurate which would hit the receiver on the numbers or wildly inaccurate which would pretty much fly out of bounds. What we have added is the concept of slightly inaccurate but still catchable. That means you can miss out in front or behind a player and that generates hundreds of new catch animations and where a receiver will attempt to catch the pass. The accuracy rating also allows us to create separation between quarterbacks. So now being Tom Brady or Peyton Manning actually matters in the game. You won’t see people substituting Josh Johnson for Tom Brady just because he’s faster. When you play with Geno Smith on the New York Jets and you’re going to see four or five inaccurate passes per game. Sometimes when you are playing against Brady there’s nothing you can do as he throws lasers all game long. It makes a big difference.
L+T: I noticed that the game looks more like an actual NFL broadcast this year than before.
RD: We brought in Brian Murray, Former NFL Films Senior Cinematographer from NFL Films and award winning director of HBO’s Hard Knocks. Rather than have video game developer craft all these shots, we have an actual NFL cinematographer come in to craft the presentation. You’ll see the difference in post play where the shots are much more broadcast authentic and happening in real time. We have a new halftime and pregame show from Orlando-area Sports Director Larry Ridley.
L+T: This is your second foray utilizing next generation technology, how far away do you think Madden is from reaching its full potential?
RD: It was really about us making sure that we had a stable foundation for generation four. So now that we have that from last year we are able to build on it and maximize the potential of the hardware. We still have a long way to go until we maximize these systems but we’re really encouraged with how far we have come around in just one year. I’d say overall that we are in the high 70% range from where we want to be. We’re about a year or two away from that 90% range. But this year was a big step. If you play MLB The Show and NBA 2K, the bar is set really high. As the only licensed NFL football game, we have to compete at that level.