Take control of your game — Madden NFL 19 interview with Ben Haumiller and Clint Oldenburg

I got to sit down with two powerhouses behind the Madden series to learn more about Madden NFL 19. Producer Ben Haumiller and designer Clint Oldenburg laughed as they proudly proclaimed, as they do every year, that this is going to be the best Madden yet. Of course, this time they have a whole lot of new features to back that declaration up. We settled in to a noisy back room during EA Play so I could get the scoop on what’s new, what’s improved, and what’s changed in Madden 19.

So, let’s start with an overview. What’s the big focus for Madden 19?

Haumiller: So, Madden is all about control; one of the biggest things we heard from our players is how they wanted to have more control. Well, now they will, they’re gonna have more control over everything that they’re doing. So, real quick, we’ll talk about Real Player Motion and gameplay, and the control that they’re gonna give you there. We’ll talk about how, in franchise mode, you have more control for the user when they’re in franchise, to how they want their franchise to work out, from editing a draft class, to what they want their bookings to look like, to how they progress their players–the new progression system. Ultimate team–there’s ways of controlling there. Player upgrades–how you’re upgrading players inside of ultimate.

Replacing players when you get a better player coming along, but how do I make the guy, that may be my favorite player, how do I make him better so I can keep him? That’s my guy! That’s who I wanna use. So yeah, it’s kind of a theme of control all throughout.

Even with the PC, being on–shipping for the first time in ten years, uh, having mouse and keyboard controls! So, if you don’t want to play with a controller, still having the control of, ok, a virtual thumbstick that we created with the mouse, that really is very intuitive, um, to feel like you aren’t losing any control by playing with a keyboard and a mouse. This just isn’t the way you would traditionally play a sports game, but it’s still very intuitive, and I don’t think you’ve lost a lot when playing that way. So it’s kind of a fun way of playing on the mouse and keyboard, so, for us, with that, PC’s not just like a port, it’s fully featured and we really treated it like a console title for us, and we treated it the same exact way. But also, it’s even better, in some respects, because visually, you’ve got the ability to–assets are kind of held back in console; in PC world, it’s the power of PC, really, and all those other things.

The game just looks visually stunning on PC, so we’re really excited about that. Let me let Clint go into gameplay a little more, that’s the more interesting part, as far as the control and the Real Player Motion.

Oldenburg: So, Real Player Motion, like Ben said, is all about player control. We want our players to have control over every position on the field, so we have–it starts with our locomotion system. We’ve completely revamped how our players run, a nice balance between responsiveness and visual authenticity. We have some ball carrying controls, called “Hit the Hole” and “Push the Pile” and “One Cut,” and all of those give you the ability to make highlight plays on the field and keep control of the player. And then we made a lot of visual improvements with our animation upgrade. This is the year that we made our biggest animation upgrade in Madden’s history.

What kind of changes did you make with these upgrades? Are they microdetails, are they much bigger, what differences can we expect to see?

Oldenburg: There’s a little bit of both. So, like I said, the mechanics, um, let’s focus on two of those: Hit the Hole and Push the Pile. One area of our game where our players told us they felt like they lost the most control was when they were trying to navigate through the line; tight spaces with a lot of bodies in it. So we went after that and took that as an opportunity to build some new mechanics, so with that, more … Push the Pile and Hit the Hole, where you can interact or avoid linemen, so that you never trip, stumble, push, get snagged in the physics. And we use technology that other games in our label were already using. So we took some stuff from Battlefront, and we said “Oh, we can make that work for Madden!”

So we seamlessly get you through the line of scrimmage so you can get back to what you wanna do, which is make really cool moves. That’s where the locomotion and the One Cut comes in. Additionally, we also worked on transitions, so we have a system in place with Real Player Motion, where we can seamlessly transition from, let’s stay a tackle, to falling on the ground, to getting up off the ground and going into a celebration. And celebrations is another big feature for us, you can do a user-controlled celebration now. It ranges from big and impactful to small and visual just to say yay.

Haumiller: Yeah, and one thing, with the celebration, we saw in the NFL last year they were allowed to celebrate a little bit, and we saw some of the personality of these players come out. They would go into these team celebrations–they would do things like, the guys that were doing the whole bobsled, it was so much fun for us every weekend to see what these guys would do next. And so that was the kind of the celebration of… we scored a touchdown, how do you wanna celebrate? Do you wanna do a team celebration? Signature celebration? Something like Cam Newton does with the Superman, he’ll do that if you go for the signature one, you’ve got slapping the ball, a dance, all those different sort of things. So, how do you want to celebrate a sack? Or a touchdown? All those different kinds of things. So we were able to bring that in and now you’re controlling how you want to celebrate. So, all those different pieces, and then when you think about catching, as well.

Some of the work that we did on catching was about control, is uh; in Madden, when you’re going to catch the ball, you have an option of what type of catch you want to do, we’ve had that for a little while. You can do an aggressive catch, or a rac catch, which is kind of turning up field, or uh, an aggressive catch, an over-the-top and a highlight style catch, but you have to make that selection in a certain time window before the ball is there for that catch to trigger.

Through Real Player Motion and what we’ve done this year with some extra work… that window is much [larger] now, to where it respects your choice a lot later into the cycle than it had previously, so you now feel like you have control. You could get into situations last year where you wanted to do an aggressive catch, you pressed it, but that window, unbeknownst to you, had already closed, and it gave you a different type of catch. And you thought, “That’s not what I wanted!” That problem has gone away, because now you have much more time before that ball hits to make that selection. So it feels more organic, and it feels like, okay, what I’m asking the game to do, it’s actually doing.

How much modding and customization are you going to support with the PC release?

Haumiller: Well you know, the wonderful world of PCs, you can try and safeguard things only so much, because it’s gonna happen. So, um, we expect, it’s a PC title, and we know what happens with PC titles, but we wanna offer some sort of flexibility and customization with what we allow you to do. We’re looking for some features to help broaden that PC experience and give you a little bit more of that control and customization, but for now, you know, we’re gonna ship with the launch title as it is, but that’s the beauty of PC! Our first time back on it in ten years, we’re going to explore and learn some new things that we’ve never done.

Ten years ago, when we stopped making it a PC title, the world was a very different place. We’re watching our friends who make FIFA, which has been on PC for a while now, other EA titles have definitely well versed at being on PC, so we’ve got a lot of friends in the industry where we can share… what’s working for you guys? What are the safeguards you guys have put into place? You know, Ultimate Team, how do you protect your economy in the world of PC? Which is very different than how you protect things in console. So, yeah, a lot of things for us to be on the lookout, for sure.

So now I’m waiting for the Madden Sims skin.

Haumiller: You never know! You never know what it’s gonna look like, and that’s the beauty of it. The Internet never loses, right? They are undefeated. They will find a way, it’ll be great; it will probably be both funny and embarrassing, but it’ll be great.

Circling back to celebrations, can you over-celebrate and be penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct by stringing too many together?

Haumiller: No, so, there are actual rules in place in the NFL for what celebrations are legal and which are not legal, and all the celebrations we have are completely legal. So there’s no way to get a penalty for over-celebrating.

Oldenburg: We work closely with the NFL, we know the rules that they have, they, you know, being a licensed product of the NFL, they want us to… “Okay, you’re doing celebrations, that’s great, we love it, but if you have some that you think are borderline, let us see it.” They’ll let us know, if they feel that’s over the line or not. Because, even, sometimes, a celebration that we see on Sunday doesn’t draw a flag, but later down the line draws, you know, a fine. They say like, ok, well, we didn’t get a flag, so, “We understand why you wanna put that in, ’cause it looked to you like it was fine, but it actually got a fine for that, we rather you not do that one.” “Okay, no worries! This one’s out but the other ones are in. It’s a nice working relationship that way.

Haumiller: What’s important to note about the celebrations also–the QB Signatures is a new feature; animation content, we’re gonna keep updating that all year long, to make sure that the most up-to-date and the coolest celebrations in the NFL season are gonna show up in Madden. We, actually, at our booth [at EA Play], are capturing fan celebrations. Every fan who comes by and plays Madden has the opportunity to record their own celebration, and then we’re gonna pick two or three of those and put those in the game as well.

Oldenburg: If you think about it, too, going back to the world we live in these days, you can’t wait a year to see something that somebody did a year ago. Like, you’ve gotta be more recent than that, and try to be as up-to-date as possible. We do that with roster updates, we do that with commentary updates throughout the year, and now we’re getting into more assets and celebrations, and other things like that. But, we’re not gonna be at this point yet, where you see it on Sunday and it’s in game by Thursday; we’d love to be in that world, but we’re just not there yet.

But yeah, we’re gonna be able to update throughout the year so that if you see something on Sunday, we get it mo-capped and dropped in, and you’ll be able to see it later, so that, you know, within a reasonable timeframe, you’re going to see things that happened that season show up in game. Which is huge for us, we’ve never done anything like that. So, again, it’s that evolution that… everyone talks about being a live service, these are parts of what it takes to be a live service for a sports game. It happened, so when do I see it? It happened over here in real life, so when do I see it over here in the game? So that’s our question, what’s the best way that we can get to where that’s as seamless as possible, and as quick as possible, and what steps do we need to take to get us there?

You’re releasing on three different platforms, one of which you haven’t touched for a while, that’s no easy feat. What were some of your biggest challenges?

Oldenburg: That calendar doesn’t change. Every year–we can’t tell the NFL, “Hey, can you delay the season a few weeks?” That doesn’t quite work out so well. The challenge every year is, okay, what are we gonna do, like we talked about initially, to make this game stand out? What are the big pieces we’re gonna do? How do we fit that into a development cycle that’s not flexible? How do you also run this live service–how do you support last year’s game as long as possible, make that the best it possibly can be, give that the longest life you can, while then working on this one..? And then you’re working on the next one, and you’ve finished this one and you’re working on the next one… How does that evolutionary cycle fit into how we’re working on building games? So it’s really, okay, how do we get the most into every–and that’s the biggest challenges I can come up with.

Haumiller: One of the things… we’re very close to our community, and they’re very vocal about what they want to see. They’re very passionate and they let us know, and they have a laundry list that’s a thousand things long–and a lot of times, it matches our laundry list, that’s a thousand things long. It’s really about what can we get to that year? What’s going to be the most impactful that year? Maybe–what is right for that year? What kind of story are we building around control? Okay, so what are the features that need to go in to help reinforce that control narrative? So, this feature over here might not make it in this year, but that doesn’t mean.. So what does that mean? It means we can build a bigger theme, but does that fit in? And we build a bigger piece around that.

And the philosophy about how to develop a sports title that comes out every year that we’re in our 30 years this year? The Madden institution, it’s not just a guy, or it’s not just a commentator, and most people don’t even know that Coach Madden originally was a commentator, or a coach–or even a player! Right? They just know the name “Madden.” So the question always is, “How are we going to make something newer and bigger every year?” And that is the challenge for us.

On the other side, too, it’s all changes. I’ve been working on this for 18 years now. A lot has changed in these 18 years! When I started, you finished with a game and you were done. Oh, we had a bad bug and we had to live with it for a year. Now, it’s like, you get a bad bug, you can live with it maybe a week or two, and you’ve gotta get a patch out there and fix that. It’s such a more interesting time to be a gamer, because you’ve got all these different updates and things that can happen, and they really extend the life of the game beyond what comes on the disc.

Do you have a personal favorite new feature?

Haumiller: They’re all my favorite!

That’s such a PC answer!

Haumiller: I know, no, no, no, I know! I think my favorite, I think, would be the concept of dropped balls. Like, drops and catches. Because, for us, that’s always been a thing where… the receiver would go to catch the ball, and you didn’t really have that end animation, when it was dropped, that made it convincing that it was a drop. Sometimes, the ball would just fall and you’re like… what? Was that a drop? Was that the game just messing up? What happened there? Sometimes the receiver would even have his hand like this, like he thought the ball was in his hand.

So, now you’re going to see the players actually emote properly when they do drop the ball, to where, you know, he might grab his head, or he might throw his hands in the air, or other things like that. Or you might see the defender celebrating, because he knows he just dropped the ball, and so it sells a little. It’s not an immersion breaker; you don’t get pulled out of the game because you’re wondering “what happened there?” It feels natural, because you’re seeing natural motion.

On the franchise side of things, for me, I’d say the draft class upload. The chance to go in and create anything you want as a draft class, and be able to share that with other people. So there are 450 players in every draft class, and you can edit every single detail about them, or if you just want to go in and just change one person’s name, if that’s all you want to do, being able to have that in your draft class, in your franchise. Or you can utilize Madden Share to share with the community, so you can download someone else’s hard work. That’s the beauty of it; if one guy wants to create content, everyone else can benefit, and that’s a great thing.

Oldenburg: I’d say One Cut is my favorite. That’s gonna have the most impact on Madden, especially the online players. It’s a really powerful feature, and it’s gonna be a new skill in determining between precision runs, where you can make sharp cuts, and using the acceleration burst, which, generally, our players have held that down because they always want to run fast. But One Cut is going to give you the ability to strategically choose when you want to activate that speed boost, and really carve through the defense.

Haumiller: But then also, too, the nice part is the counter on defense for that. So, if you’re playing against somebody who does a One Cut on you, you can do it… you can do a strafe, and then accelerate out of your strafe to be able to counteract that, so you’re not gonna feel like you’re on your heels and you’ve got no way to beat a guy who’s doing that. You have your defensive counter to be able to shut that down as well, so it’s kind of a nice balance there.

Can you tell me a little about Ultimate Team?

Haumiller: Let’s talk about Ultimate Team! Some new changes there, so I mentioned briefly the ability to upgrade your players. You build your equity in your favorite players, and you can build them up, so you don’t just get the base version of them and then trade them out when you get a better version along the way. The piece is, last year we introduced squads, which is our co-op play, so 3 vs 3. But a lot of our fans, they liked the competitive aspect, but a lot of people just want to play the computer. But they wanted to play that co-op experience but against the computer, now we have squads vs the CPU, so three people can team up to take on the computer, so they don’t have to go against other users. It’s a nice addition there.

Squad Battles is another addition that allows you to take on other community members’ teams. So you can do a solo challenge type experience against the computer, but you can go on and end up playing against my team that week. So you’re not playing against the Giants, or the Jets, you’re playing against an Ultimate Team that’s made by somebody in the community, or maybe a member of the NFL, or maybe a celebrity, or whoever is the host for that time period. It’s a new way of playing those solo challenges, and it’s an interesting way to go–ok, how did this person build this team? ‘Cause some of our best competitive players have their teams up there, and you can now feel what it’s like to go against them even though you’re not actually playing, but these guys are real.

Oldenburg: Longshot is back! It’s called Homecoming, and again, like Ben started with, control is the story, and that’s no different from Longshot’s. The biggest piece of feedback we got from our players was they wanted more gameplay and they wanted more NFL in there, and that’s exactly what we’re gonna bring this year. 10X more gameplay scenarios, and you get to choose between taking Devin on his journey to win a Superbowl in the NFL, or Colt’s journey–who we actually hung out with and had dinner with last night–Colt’s journey on either pursuing an NFL career as a wide receiver, or going back to his high school and coaching them to the state championship. And then, when you finish, you can continue their journey in Madden Ultimate Team or Franchise.

Is there more storytelling this time around?

Oldenburg: Yeah, another year to continue that story. The first year ended on draft day, and then you’re kind of following the path of these two hopefuls, and we’ve picked it up, and it’s a year later. You know, what happened in the story? Where did they go? How does Devin make it in the NFL? What is his life like, now that he’s no longer a reality TV star and he’s actually on a team? How does that go? What is Colt’s storyline gonna be? And your choices along the way are gonna determine where they go. And a bunch of appearances by socially relevant people. There’s Youtubers, there’s streamers, actors and actresses.

Haumiller: and some really cool cameos from NFL superstars.

Oldenburg: Yeah, so, definitely excited about that, as well.

Madden 19 will be available for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC on August 10, 2018. Be sure to check out Gaming Trend’s E3 hub for more interviews, previews, and videos from the E3 2018 convention floor!

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