When the Playstation 4 and Xbox One released last Fall and EA Sports unveiled their lineup, there was glaring omission from their regular stream of sports releases. Unfortunately, for hockey fans, there would be no NHL title for them to sink their teeth into. Although EA remained relatively tight lipped on why NHL 14 didn’t make it to next generation consoles, one can assume that the delay can only be beneficial, as the developers have had an extra year to deliver the best hockey experience possible. Life + Times spoke with NHL 15’s lead producer Sean Ramjagsingh about the hiatus, what to expect and how a video game has ushered in a new generation of hockey fans.
L+T: When next generation launched, we saw just about every annual sports title except NHL. Was that year off necessary to fine tune the experience?
Sean Ramjagsingh: The year off allowed us to focus all of our energy on NHL 15 and it also allowed us to leverage the size of EA Sports to see what the UFC, FIFA and Madden games were doing. We could utilize all of that technology from those games and make development easier for us. A lot of the visual stuff you will see with NHL 15 is leveraging the technology from the EA UFC game and bringing that all together. We wanted to let all of the other games work out the complicated and technical problems so that we could focus on the cool stuff.
L+T: Hockey is all about physics. How will this be implemented with the power of next generation consoles?
SR: We’re the first team sport to have player physics in our game. Because of the limitations of previous consoles we could only have a few players interact at the same time without the framerate dropping. With the new consoles we can have all 12 players interacting at once. When you’re watching hockey you see the crazy scrambles and pileups that happen, we can now get that in our game because the consoles can handle it. It’s really changed the overall flow and intensity of the game.
L+T: What about player awareness? Hockey is an interesting game where you can watch it but don’t really understand what the players are thinking. What did you guys have to do to implement those tiny nuances?
SR: We wanted to start over with our own new tool that we created called “A.I. Vision” where we can visualize what the players are seeing and know and then we can change behaviors based on that. We can place people in positions, find the areas we want them to stay within and manipulate their behavior.
L+T: The gameplay presentation looks more like something we would watch on an NBC broadcast.
SR: We always focus on gameplay first because without great gameplay you have nothing. Our fans called us out for not pushing the limits with our presentation so we knew we wanted to go big with NHL 15. We partnered up with NBC sports network. They came through and gave us all of their assets, screen wipes and overlays. We studied their camera angles and how they shoot the game to get those authentic camera angles in each of the arenas. What you see on TV is what you will see in the game. The next part of it was changing our commentators. We locked in NBC’s Mike “Doc” Emrick and Eddie Olcyk. So now we have the top team from NBC and the NBC presentation. We also were able to lock in TSN’s Ray Ferraro. For the first time, we have a third person on the commentary team.
L+T: How will these three individuals interact with one another when it comes to commentary?
SR: We literally put Ray Ferraro into every arena on ice level so you can see where he would stand during a TSN telecast. Doc and Eddie will throw to him and he’ll give his perspective from ice level. Whether it be a tip goal, a deflection, a big hit or commentary between the benches he’ll deliver that perspective to us from his view.
L+T: The arena experience certainly must also be a benefactor with the increased horsepower of next generation consoles.
SR: We went big with our crowd this year with over 9,000 unique crowd models in the game. That’s the entire lower bowl with no repeats in it. We have the superfans, the annoying guy from the away team, the girls in the front row taking selfies and not paying attention to the game and then reacting to a goal being scored late. We have the vendors, security guards and everything you would see at a game. When you’re playing at a place like Madison Square Garden, which is very unique, the seating doesn’t come all the way down to the glass, the secondary characters walking around and cameramen are in there as well. It’s all about bringing the world to life. If you are playing with a team like Montreal that travels really well, you’ll see them take up half the crowd. If you go to Calgary, you’ll see a sea of red. That’s the kind of detail we are adding.
L+T: NHL video games often bring new fans to hockey. How do you cater to newcomers of the sport?
SR: We have coaches that tell us that they use our game to introduce the sport to kids. That’s huge. Hockey is such a great video game sport; there are no delays, no out of bounds, and lots of physicality. Hockey may not be the biggest sport but when we get them to play our game, we have one chance to hook them. If they pick up the controller and they struggle with it, chances are they aren’t going to pick it up again. We focused on simplifying the controls for new players who may not have played a hockey game before. With all the feedback we have received, it appears gamers don’t want tutorials in the game. They want to be dropped in there, start playing and be taught along the way.