EA Tiburon yesterday began to reveal some of what will be different about Madden NFL 13‘s gameplay. The big focus of this year’s title is the passing game, which makes sense both because the NFL is becoming more pass-centric and because my team (the Jets) is increasingly reliant on the rushing game. The changes sound good in theory, though as someone who still plays last year’s game a few times every week, I can’t help but take issue with the post-release support Madden 12 received.
A new Madden is released each and every year like clockwork. Call of Duty may be the target of gamers wanting to lash out at annual releases these days, but Madden was doing it more than a decade before Call of Duty 1 ever hit store shelves. Years ago it made more sense; while there have always been criticisms about too little changing from one game to the next, with no better way to get new rosters into the hands of players, a full retail release was the way to go. Nowadays that feels like an archaic method of delivering content to players, yet it continues to happen — and the game suffers for it.
Those concerned enough isn’t changed from year to year aren’t encouraged by EA owning the exclusive rights to the NFL license, meaning any competition has to come in the form of something like All-Pro Football 2K8. (Considering that is the most recent such title, the ’2K8′ should clue you in on how well that worked out.) It’s an unfortunate situation; ESPN NFL 2K5 was superior to Madden, and it was made available at launch for only $20. Following this, EA gobbled up the league’s exclusive rights — a move you can’t blame the company for, as it only made good business sense to do so considering it could have lost the ability to continue producing Madden — and the following year’s game, Madden 06, turned out to be a joke. Part of that can be blamed on the developer’s attention being focused on the generational leap to Xbox 360, although the past half dozen Madden games haven’t exactly reinvented the wheel. Many football game fans continue to cite NFL 2K5 as the best football sim of all time.
The direction of Madden 13 is being attributed in part to Tiburon’s new general manager, Cam Weber. Weber is said to have “brought with him a new philosophy stressing the importance of gameplay,” something you would think should have already been a top priority. Regardless, Weber’s hiring has led to the studio’s Core Gameplay Team, which contributes to both Madden and NCAA Football, doubling in size. The result of this is the team being “able to incorporate the most changes to gameplay thus far in the current console generation.” Of course, every year brings with it some promise about how the latest game will be the deepest/most realistic/most accessible/etc. entry to date, so a promise of more changes than the past seven or eight games means nothing on its own.
Luckily many of the changes being shared at this stage do sound good. An enhanced system for leading receivers with the left stick should provide you with a chance to complete a pass that would be batted down in the current game. New pass trajectories mean no more ridiculous, time-consuming lobs when trying to toss the ball to a wide open player in the flat. Additional control over the type of passes you throw will make it easier to loft a ball over the heads of linebackers who, in Madden 12, intercept passes at an alarmingly high rate. Shovel passes, revamped defensive alignments, improved pump fakes, receivers not always looking for passes to be coming their way, and easier user catches all sound like positives, too.
Some of the changes address my and many other players’ biggest problems with Madden 12. For instance, defensive backs no longer will swat away balls or make plays if they can’t see the ball. (As it stands, balls coming in their direction are routinely knocked down even when they should have no idea the ball is coming their way.) Play-action fakes will now play out more quickly. More importantly, players will have the ability to abort the sequence in case a blitzing defender gets free and is barreling towards the quarterback. (In Madden 12, opting to use play-action is almost a guaranteed sentence to be sacked, thanks in part to an inability to break out of the excessively long animation that plays out before you assume control of the QB.) And Madden’s control scheme will no longer be at odds with NCAA‘s — the pump fake and throw away buttons will no longer be assigned to opposite buttons in the two games.
Many of the improvements Tiburon is talking about — 430-plus new catch animations, for example — are the sort of things you’d expect to find in a sequel. Other issues Madden 12 players will be excited to see fixed are things that should have been resolved in a patch for the current game. I play in an ongoing league where we’re forced to have rules in place so the game can’t be abused. Quarterback sneaks, which are an all-but-guaranteed way of picking up a first down in short yardage situations, can’t be used excessively. Banned outright are nano blitzes, a defensive tactic many consider to be an exploit that ensures the defense gets an unblocked player running at the QB.
Keep in mind these aren’t measures put in place in the weeks after the game’s release until an official fix can be delivered. The game came out in August and these are problems which remain as we approach May. A fix isn’t coming for nano blitzes, psychic defensive backs, linebackers being far too capable of crazy interceptions, or even the illogical control scheme disparity with NCAA Football 12. It’s an accepted fact that many of the problems Madden suffers from each year will go unresolved, and at best all you can hope is for a fix to be included next year. And that’s wrong — players should not see something terribly wrong with a game and think, “Oh, I guess I’ll have to pick up next year’s game so I don’t have to deal with that anymore.”
This is not some niche game made by a few people who can’t afford the costs of updating a game. Obligatory roster updates aside, only two title updates were released for Madden 12. That lack of long-term post-launch support makes it difficult to feel good about dropping $60 on the game every year.
It’s a point that has been made in the past, but it bears mentioning again: in this digital age, is it really necessary for a boxed version of Madden to be released every year? Guitar Hero and Rock Band eventually learned their lesson about annual releases, and the latter is living on through the release of downloadable content. It would make a lot of sense for Madden to come out less often and be supported through downloadable content and title updates in between releases, at least from a consumer perspective. Rosters could still be kept up-to-date and each new release would be far more substantial. The reason EA doesn’t go this route is obvious: it’s far more profitable to have a $60 product out each year. The built-in excuse of coinciding each release with the start of the new real-life sports season only makes it less likely EA, or any other sports game maker, will stray away from this schedule.
However, if Madden ever does move to a sort of subscription model where players pay to play a constantly evolving game, I could see that helping to make the game much better. Rather than buying a new game each year that receives fixes and improvements for only a few months after launch, we could instead have a Madden that is being iterated upon year-round — not one which is forgotten by the time the Super Bowl is over, if not sooner.