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EA Sports determined to win gamers' approval with 'Madden NFL 23'

On an afternoon in late July, Clint Oldenburg sits in his parked car, stares into his phone and delivers the honest truth about Madden NFL 23.

"We don't want to have to sell it ourselves," Oldenburg, gameplay producer for EA Sports' Madden NFL series, says during a Zoom call with me. "We want our players to sell it."

The newest annual iteration of the series is often accompanied by a marketing push, boosted by the allure of another real-world NFL season on the horizon. But even the largest promotional campaign in history wouldn't be able to generate the kind of organic buzz Oldenburg hopes will build around this year's edition of the long-running, oft-criticized title.

"We want the players that played the game and get the earliest copies of the game to tell all of their friends, 'I love this game. You have to get it because I want to play it with you,' " Oldenburg said. "Ultimately, that's the biggest compliment we can get: players telling other people, 'You have got to get this game.' "

When Madden NFL 23 is released to the public this Friday, the game-playing world will get to render its judgment. Before that happens, I dove into the state of this venerable series -- and the steps producers took to make radical changes to the latest edition.

Pushing Madden forward

After a decade and a half as the only NFL-licensed football-simulation video game, the Madden series clearly needed a kick in the rear.

Recent editions of Madden have been the target of fans' online ire. Over 5,000 reviews have been left on the site Metacritic of the PlayStation 4 version of Madden NFL 21, resulting in a user score of 0.3 out of 10; the PlayStation 5 version of Madden NFL 22 has drawn 518 user reviews, resulting in a score of 0.6. In July 2020, gamers frustrated with stagnation in the series' Franchise Mode, which is a bedrock element, vented on Twitter until the hashtag #FixMaddenFranchise began to trend, as recorded by The Philly Voice.

I have been an avid player of the Madden franchise since Madden NFL 98, and while I saw some fans' complaints as being driven by nostalgia for older versions of the game or, perhaps, the desire to generate internet clout by piling on, I can say that some releases deserved the criticism they received. The game had grown stale in many areas, and while the visuals improved (often dramatically so), the mechanics and functionality did not advance at the rate one might expect, especially as video game consoles have continued to evolve.

Over the past few years, EA Sports has been making changes to Franchise Mode, overhauling the scouting element and adding features such as a playoff picture, an online league history page and updated trade logic. The Madden series is the only licensed NFL simulation game on the market, and according to the numbers provided by EA Sports, plenty of people still seem to buy and play it every year: per the company, through December 2021, it was the "best-selling sports property in U.S. video game history," while players collectively log 10 million-plus seasons and 340 million-plus touchdowns annually. But if the series is to accomplish the kind of word-of-mouth success Oldenburg is hoping for, boosting its reputation will be key.

I had the opportunity to play both a beta test version and the final-release version of Madden NFL 23. And to me, the game shows the series making a needed leap to take advantage of the latest generation of consoles.

If Madden NFL 21 played like EA Sports' step into the shallows of the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S pool, and Madden NFL 22 played like a cautious walk to shoulder-high water, Madden NFL 23 feels like an ambitious dive into the deep end.

'That was a big one for us that we wanted to tackle'

Recent Madden releases tended to include new features that didn't quite live up to the promise suggested by their flashy, buzzy labels.

The difference with Madden NFL 23, though, is noticeable from the opening snap.

The central feature of this year's edition is FieldSENSE, a brand-new gameplay system upon which every on-field action is built across all modes. Players have more control than ever before.

Player models look remarkably different. They're completely redesigned and move with more precision and agility, thanks to a movement-control function called 360-Degree Cuts. Hit Everything is a feature that allows defenders to contact ball-carriers from multiple angles with multiple players, increasing the chances of forcing a turnover or stopping an opponent from gaining additional yards. Skill-Based Passing gives players the ability to place balls where only their targeted pass-catcher can reach them. Branching animations boost variance across the action, increasing the chances a Madden player will never experience the same game twice.

Most importantly, the game plays much more like real football.

"One of the biggest things that we heard from our fans was that they felt the game was, in their terms, animation-based," Aaron McHardy, Madden's executive producer, told me. "What we interpreted [from] what they meant by animation-based ... is that they feel like, a lot of the times, the game felt pre-determined, because you were locked into canned animations. That was a big one for us that we wanted to tackle."

Throw a pass toward a receiver with a defender nearby, and you won't be able to predict what happens. Gone are the all-or-nothing outcomes -- an interception or a completion, with little room for anything else -- produced by these interactions in previous years. Instead, defenders have multiple viable options: go for the pick, swat at the ball or attempt to jar the ball free from a receiver's grasp. And these moves are all finally effective.

Facing third-and-goal and interested in throwing the same back-corner, pylon fade you see your favorite NFL quarterbacks complete every Sunday? In Madden NFL 23, you can do just that.

"You've never really been able to throw that route in our game," Oldenburg said. "Skill-based passing is gonna allow you to do that, plus a lot more."

'We listen to our players'

To understand why these significant changes weren't made in earlier editions of the game, one must consider the nature of the development cycle of an annual sports simulation title. As McHardy said, it's like "squeezing blood from a stone in a short amount of time." And it doesn't leave much room for the kinds of massive improvements players often expect.

The development team wasn't ignoring the Madden community's requests and criticism in recent years. In fact, to hear McHardy tell it, that is what drives much of the planning.

"We listen to our players, we're scouring Metacritic, we're scouring forums, Reddit," McHardy said. "Like Clint said, we've got to be thick-skinned, because some of it is scathing. We know that's because people love the game so much, so we're able to be thick-skinned about it and try to find those nuggets of truth. And we collect all of that up and ask ourselves what we know about the game and what we think we can improve, and we put all that together and make lists. 'OK, what are all the things we can go after this year with the amount of time we have?' ...

"We know we have ideas beyond what we can accomplish in a single year, so how do you get to a complete picture, and what of that is the most impactful that is going to please the most people in a single year? And make sure we're not firing blanks anywhere. That we know that everything we go after is going to make a meaningful difference."

To compound matters, in 2020, the Madden team ran into the same all-encompassing roadblock as the rest of the world: the COVID-19 pandemic. As operations shifted from the team's Orlando, Florida, office to remote, the challenges only increased in scale. Add in the industry's anticipated shift from the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One generation of consoles (Gen Four) to the PS5 and Xbox Series X|S (Gen Five) later in 2020, and the climb grew steeper.

Due to supply-chain problems, Oldenburg even found it difficult to procure a game development kit (hardware and software that developers can use to help them create games for new consoles) to work on the next-generation version of Madden NFL 21.

"When we initially started working on Gen Five, I think we had like six kits total on all the Madden teams, and it slowly grew," Oldenburg said, while noting nearly every game company was dealing with the same challenge. "To get my test kit, just for me to test the console version of the game, I had to go into the office … and I saw our IT guy had a Gen Five test kit sitting on his desk, and I said, 'Can I take that?' And he's like, 'Yeah, OK.' And that's how I got my Gen Five test kit during COVID, because they were so hard to find."

If the aforementioned challenges weren't enough, the Madden team had another hurdle to clear: They were tasked with simultaneously developing two adjacent versions of the game that could be played on consoles from Gen Four and Gen Five. Thus, Madden NFL 21, the first to be available on Gen Five consoles, didn't feature any revolutionary changes. Neither did Madden NFL 22, save for the implementation of M Factors, which personalize the home environments of all 30 NFL stadiums by delivering specific effects based on momentum shifts.

The Madden team wasn't just resting on its laurels, though. FieldSENSE has been in the works for a while now, and the Madden team created it as a new foundation upon which the game's home will be built and upgraded for years to come.

"You can see how this all works together," Oldenburg said of FieldSENSE's impact on the gameplay changes coming to Madden NFL 23. "One thing that Coach (John) Madden always cared the most about was the fundamentals of the game. Something like FieldSENSE pushes forward on the innovation side that every game needs. But for our players and our game, that's just as important as the fundamentals."

John Madden, the Hall of Fame coach and broadcaster, remained deeply involved with the development of the game that bears his name from its inception in 1988 through this upcoming title, sharing many conversations with Oldenburg about the game's direction and other details. Madden's passing in December of 2021 gives Madden NFL 23 an additional air of importance to those creating it.

Madden's face was regularly on the cover of the game until Madden 2000, after which the company began picking an NFL player to feature up front. For Madden NFL 23, Madden's likeness returns. The game will also include a "Madden Legacy" feature, which will allow players to use past All-Madden teams in the original Oakland Coliseum.

This is not just another Madden release -- it's intended as a way to honor the man who fostered within millions a love for the sport.

Based on my experience, EA Sports is on its way toward accomplishing that goal.

The development team heard a number of complaints about issues in Madden NFL 22, from overpowered quarterback scrambling ability to zone coverage deficiencies that didn't match what can be seen on NFL fields every Sunday. In response, they added elements to properly execute coverage in Madden NFL 23 according to established real-world rules. They also tuned down the special abilities of players, to make their immediate scramble attempts less effective, and they upgraded pass-rushing to shorten the time available to release a pass. As real-life edge rushers and cornerbacks increase in importance in the NFL, so will their virtual counterparts, and they'll play the ball more accurately.

"That's huge," McHardy said, "because when you think about how people played the game last year and before, it was try to get to the quarterback, and when the ball went up in the air, you're switching and trying to look for the interception, which is not really what should be happening when you think about it."

The goal of all of this is simple: adjust and improve the game to make it play closer to real-world football -- and give players the control they desire to decide the outcome on the virtual field.

"To be able to make that change, to give defenses the ability to find different ways to get off the field, that was one of the goals when we talked about agency and control ..." McHardy said. "It really changes the way that you're thinking about approaching defense, which also reflects in play-calling and a lot of other things and brings a lot more of the strategy and chess match into the game."

The improvements in gameplay around off-field action are trending in the right direction, too. EA Sports is including additional scouting upgrades in Madden NFL 23. Free agency has been given more depth and variety; amateur general managers must contend with individual A.I. players who now carry motivations that stretch well beyond the dollar. The development team reduced the size of playbooks -- some had come to include as many as 440 plays -- in order to improve A.I. play-calling and execution.

And with NFL teams bucking precedent and conventional wisdom by swinging blockbuster trades that rock the league's landscape, Madden is aiming to keep up via another improvement to trade logic.

"Some of these NFL trades that get made, there's not, like, a chart for anyone to follow to understand what the logic is," Oldenburg said. "So as real life keeps evolving, franchise mode is going to keep evolving right along with it."

Evolution seems to be the key word moving forward, especially through Madden NFL 23's life cycle. Collaboration could be another, considering EA Sports has opened a hotline for gamers to dispute ratings of their favorite players. EA Sports told me they've fielded over 7,000 calls from players disputing ratings, opening another line of dialogue between company and consumer.

'The rest comes in the proof in the pudding'

Unlike in past years, based on what Oldenburg and McHardy told me, EA Sports is not going to sprint to the mountaintops to sell Madden NFL 23 to the world. The company knows the player base is too wise at this point to take the copy printed on the back of the box as canon. Instead, they'll inform their players of new features and leave the verdict to them.

"We have made an effort to start to decrease the hyperbole that we use in our comms, in our messages about what we're building," Oldenburg said. "In the past, we got kind of in the habit every year of writing, 'This is the best X ever,' or, 'This is the best in franchise history.' We've made an effort to say, 'That's not for us to decide; that's for the players to decide.'

"Just tell the players exactly what it is you're delivering and let them decide how good it is for them, and I think that is starting to pay benefit, as well. Because if you come out and say, 'This is the best thing ever,' the only thing anyone can really say better is, 'No, it's not.' "

"If we continue to do that year over year, then when we tell people about what we're building into next year's game, we're hoping that they'll get excited about it," McHardy said. "The rest comes in the proof in the pudding."

It's still a video game, so things aren't going to be perfect. There certainly will be release-week bugs (which certainly will be captured in viral videos), and there will still be areas from which players want more. But after years of review sites lamenting the lack of significant, potentially transformational changes to Madden, the newest iteration finally delivers on at least some of these desires.

Now, as McHardy and Oldenburg put it, it's up to the Madden player to decide if this game actually lives up to the hyperbole of the past.

"They should go get this game because it's our tribute to Coach Madden," Oldenburg said, "and it's going to play completely differently than anything you've come to expect in the last couple years of Madden."

Follow Nick Shook on Twitter.

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