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NHL 14: Videogame Hockey vs. Real Hockey Stuck
Posted on August 27, 2013 at 05:57 PM.

Something I've been thinking about recently, especially in relation to the feedback about the NHL 14 demo, is the realities of an actual sport as compared to what is actually "fun" when played in a videogame. Everyone has their own concept of what is real, what is fun, and what should be represented in a videogame. People often use qualifiers of how much hockey they play or watch in order to weigh-in on the particulars of the on-ice product. It seems to some users that if something happens in the actual NHL, it should be slavishly recreated in the EA hockey product.

Now, I'll be the first to say that I have issues with aspects of the NHL franchise. I agree with many that the presentation is incredibly dated and bland, and I also feel that the new modes (Live the Life, NHL 94 Anniversary) show a lack of resources and inspiration in their execution. I also have lingering problems with certain CPU tendencies as well as some other odd on-ice quirks. With that said, I feel there is still a lot of fun to be had in this franchise, and I've enjoyed the new hitting engine, the vastly superior fighting, and some of the other alterations to gameplay (poke check, puck shop, skating, goalies, etc).

I think there ends up being a disconnect between what certain users perceive as a failing in the NHL franchise -- whether it's a CPU issue, an animation routine or a gameplay quirk -- and what is necessary to create a fun product for a broad range of possible players. This was something that was briefly touched upon in some answers from the NHL dev team in the most recent Press Row Podcast. While none of the devs outright called out users on this disconnect, the idea was certainly floated.

To my mind, there is something to this, as some users feel that certain features or gameplay traits are lacking because they aren't allowing them the freedom they feel would be afforded in the real sport. Take the new hitting engine in NHL 14, for example. I've pointed out before that the new hitting is nowhere near as comical as the "big hit" button of years gone by, but it is indeed quite exaggerated and impactful. However, this system also better represents the follow-through on hits and allows for a greater amount of control fidelity when delivering the hit.

It seems that some users are annoyed by the increase in physicality, as they feel the game will become wildly out of control. This is where the reality of real hockey meets the realm of videogame hockey. The developers have to contend with the ability of a user to deliver a hit at any given moment. When playing NHL 14, I can deliver a hit when I want and how I want. The developers can't control that. Real hockey does not have nearly the volume or type of hits that you would find in an EA NHL game, but the developers have to plan for all situations (human vs CPU, CPU vs CPU, human vs human). They have to balance the sped-up clock and gameplay of a videogame and the nature of real hockey. By allowing the option for bigger hits, they are going to alienate some users who feel it should be reigned in. If they were to take them out, it alienates an important component of their user base who allow the franchise to gain some level of financial success. For all the bluster that some people have about going all the way simulation, the reality is that that wouldn't necessarily translate into a marketable or saleable game.

The new fighting engine brings up similar issues. I haven't encountered too many silly fights in the demo, but I have had Jonathan Toews fight a few times when he really shouldn't. Some users are getting quite upset by the frequency of fights and also the participants. I agree that EA should better throttle the amount of fights in a game and who takes part in the scrap, but I'm also aware that this was likely pumped up for the demo only. Also, people often get comfortable playing with the first line and laying out big hits with these players, hence some of them are going to have to answer the bell with the new fighting system. The problem becomes that EA has to allow for the possibility of someone like Jonathan Toews fighting. Are they just supposed to put something in the game code to prevent him from scrapping? A fight between him and Ryan Kesler, for instance, would be seen as much more logical, but the game has to appeal to a wide variety of audiences, so a Toews-Chara scrap is something that can happen.

None of this is to say that the new hitting or fighting are perfect systems and don't require iteration, but I think users have to realize that the sliders are there for a reason, and this gives them the latitude to tone down aspects that rub them the wrong way. Again, it's a situation where EA has to account for varying play styles and comfort levels, and the simulation needs to cater to demanding groups across the spectrum. This means that certain decisions get made to please the widest possible audience, and that ends up at odds with those who want a purely sim experience.

One longstanding request that fits this discussion perfectly is the possible implementation of stick-on-stick contact. EA has long resisted including this in the game, as they have said that it cuts down on the fun of gameplay quite dramatically. I'm certainly understanding of both sides -- the users who want the feature in and the developers who have to balance it for fun and playability. I'd definitely like to have the option to at least try for myself, but then I have to realize that the NHL dev team is small and isn't going to waste resources on something that might be used by only a fraction of its user base. This is an area where I put some trust in the development team in that they know that adding this feature might actually hurt other areas of the game that are well-liked (skating, deking, etc).

I also totally respect the complaints people have about the AI issues that continue to crop up in the NHL series. I myself have similar gripes, but recently I've realized that while people may want to see AI defenders step up on them all the time and box them out, that might end up curtailing the smooth skating and half-boards play that users have become used to. It could be balanced for sure, but if a CPU was stepping up on you with a hit on almost every play (especially if EA used some lock-on routines for the AI), it could get frustrating the other way, and users would demand more free space on the ice. This, again, is where the sliders and settings come into play and allow users to create a game style that more fits their tendencies and enjoyment level.

The business reality is that EA has to make a game that isn't entirely simulation. If they want to appeal to a broader audience (again, the sales of the franchise have slipped a tiny bit over the generation), going full simulation isn't going to do it. This is why there's been an increase in speed, aggression and goal scoring. These are areas that excite casual hockey fans and general videogame players. I realize that certain "simulation" features have to be cut or curtailed for this reason, but I also realize that certain aspects of real hockey just wouldn't make sense in the game world, no matter how much certain users may demand it. It really is a problem without a perfect solution, but I do think some players have to reconcile what happens in an actual NHL game as compared to a videogame that allows full user control.


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# 1 scottyo60 @ Aug 28
My problem with the NHL series is two parts deep. In 2010 I started going to hockey games a lot, but lately it's only been one or two a year. So by no means am I in the hardcore crowd. I do recognize glaring issues though. For one, there is no offense setting up usually. On the power play they should cycle the puck, work in the zone for a shot. Too many times I'm just sitting there watching the AI just run up and down the ice for break aways. I routinely win possession by almost triple because I set up an offense.

My second issue is the puck. I know there is a slider set for it, but the puck on default does not play like a real puck. It's a little too perfect. Almost like the automatic passing in madden. That can be fixed some with sliders, it's just frustrating its not out of the box like so. There has to be a fun element, but to me you can't stray too far from the real elements.
# 2 GlennN @ Aug 28
Answer the bell for a hit? Kronwell will have to retire! In all seriousness, though, the article brings up a great point about where fun and realism come together. The beauty of modern gaming is the addition of sliders, which I think is the single biggest advance. Each user can adjust their gaming experience to their desire. Reduce fighting, speed up or slow down the game, increase or decrease offense, etc. A well-designed game can please most users (no game will please all users).
# 3 Dolphins88 @ Aug 28
I think the game can be made for realism out of the box which it should " if it's in the game it's in the game". Then a gameplay selection .. Nhl 94 version - more up and down hockey can be played
# 4 savoie2006 @ Aug 28
My thought is if they are gonna have it one way out the box, we should be able to tune it with sliders the other way. We can't really at this point because the sliders aren't as effective as they should be. That and there could be more of them. This for the offline players who have to deal with the wash rinse and repeat methods of the Cpu. Online play is EA really has to find that balance, but sadly for the hardcore fans will likely suffer due to being outnumbered by those that just want to win at any cost.
# 5 Scribe1980 @ Aug 28
Excellent read, OP. Well-crafted.

Agree it is a tough balancing act. Also agree the sliders as we've known them (I have not played 14 demo yet) have not been as effective as they could be. Improving in this area, at least for upcoming gen, might help make EA's job a bit easier.
# 6 Hockeynut99 @ Aug 28
Nice write up. I still would like to see it harder to get the puck in the offensive zone. And a 5 man hug.
# 7 actionhank @ Aug 28
My frustration with the game is that i can't pick if my player fights.
If i get a good hit with Taylor Hall, i don't want him fighting whoever runs over.
The idea is cool, but seeing Jonathan Toews run over to fight Taylor Hall for a big hit, when Carcillo is still on the ice is annoying.
I should be able to not fight, and potentially draw a penalty.
# 8 speels @ Aug 29
Excellent article!! It's a tough call to make, but if EA could get the AI to play a proper game and the sim engine to produce even somewhat reasonable numbers, then I think a lot of people would be fine with the game. I think where EA fails is not giving us the options to make the game play the way we want it. I truly feel that next gen hockey will improve simply with the increase in CPU speed. Right now a high sticking penalty will be called randomly, but on the next gen, the CPU should be able to look at where the offending player is, the angle the stick is coming into the other player, if anything would obstruct the stick traveling to the other players face, and the force at which the stick is traveling. Right there, that makes penalties more realistic and EA should be able to open up that penalty because the user has more control. Like I said, right now it's based on the roll of a die because the CPU can't "see" what is going on, but I think the next gen will be able to predict the future and see many more variables.
# 9 kicker @ Aug 29
One of the biggest problems I know of and is easy to fix is the big rebound off a goalie's pads after a wrist shot. All EA has to do with this is when a shot hits the pad, make the puck react as it would in real life. By this I mean the puck would not just slide perfectly across the ice onto another offensive players stick for an easy score. The puck should be fluttering/bouncing as it bangs off the pad which would cause an offensive player to whiff on a put back or at least make him control the puck first before making a follow up shot. By having to first control the puck (as most do in real life games) the player would be delayed in putting the puck in the net for the big cheese goal which would give the goalie a split second to get into position for a save. If EA fixed this, I would have no complaints.
# 10 Storm12 @ Aug 30
Great article, I find that simulation games sometimes are not fun for me because I get in the mindset of wanting it to be almost exactly like real life. And when that happens I can't play a "realistic" sports game, thankfully there are still arcade games I can buy where I don't have to worry about realism.
# 11 FBeaule04 @ Aug 30
Look at every, I mean every single sport titles from EA Sports. There's none who is a sim like and make the game feel like the real one.

Something happened over the years at EA making them believe that there's no way to replicate reality in a game and sell more copies. So they do an arcade like game, had goodies and useless mode, so they attract casual hockey games who are then happy with the game and play it for a while.

In the end, there's no difference between the 70$ I pay for the game and the 70$ a guy who don't know nothing about hockey pay for the game. I've seen something from EA a few years ago. Someone from the company said that a proof the game was good is that the numbers of games online are going up each year. At that moment, I raised the white flag and stop having illusions about it.

As happy I was in 2009 when they came out with the EASHL, today, I would just hope they woudn't. In 2009, EA was getting pushed a bit by 2K on the hockey side. You had a feel they we're that close on shifting the gamers choice for hockey. With EASHL inception, 2K never got up after beeing knocked out for the count.

Since then, EA's has the only game of hockey on the market and to me, that's my opinion, it's been going towards mediocrity each year with inaptitude to resolve small problems, to get rid of things people we're liking, to had things they previously had in the game and saying it was brand new, and on top of it, adding tons of new useless modes while not fixing those who we asked to be fix.

In the end, it's not real hockey, but who cares, there's people at EA making money and who I'm sure, have no clue what a real hockey game look like.
# 12 savoie2006 @ Aug 30
EA has never really been about realism, other than having the licensing for the respective leagues. Madden 2005 and one of the MVP titles I believe we're the closest there has ever been in realism from EA. The NHL series has always been on the arcade side, which is why 2K did so well from 2K3-2K5. Sadly 2K took the fun before realism route as well and we know what the payoff was
# 13 Storm12 @ Sep 1
savoie I think your talking about MVP 2005, I actually have a copy of nhl 2k5 as well... Have not found sliders for it, but it is pretty fun to play out the box, even if the controls are a bit complicated.
# 14 Majingir @ Sep 1
I think EA Sports should have a survey for their NHL video game fans and see what the fans think. See what fans want added into the next years game, what they liked/didn't like about recent NHL games and so on. The game is being made for the fans, so why not put stuff in the game that the majority of fans want?

I have to realize that the NHL dev team is small and isn't going to waste resources on something that might be used by only a fraction of its user base.
MLB The Show does it, and their fans like them for it. There's like 3 or so diff interfaces for users to select in all aspects of the game. Pitching,Batting AND Fielding have diff controls people can select. Because the developers know that not everyone likes the same controls, so they gave people options. You could have analog hitting and analog batting. Analog hitting and pulse pitching. Zone hitting and meter pitching. Among other diff combinations.

NHL games really need to give users options not just on controls, but the game itself. Let there be a way for diff types of hockey gamers to enjoy it. If people want to play a more arcade style game(with crazy hitting,insane puck control ect.), let there be options to do it. If people want to play a more realistic game(Where goalies SV% are realistic. Where the amount of penalties each team gets per game is realistic. Where the bumps,puck control,physics of players/puck are all like they are in real life) then allow them to do that too.
# 15 La Verite @ Sep 1
Tried the demo and wow was it fun. I actually appreciate the 94 anniversary controls. I'm not the hockey fan so I have nothing to compare this too. I mean, I wish EA FOCUSED on Madden like they do the hockey as far as player control. Anyways I actually may buy this. Loved that it fights with today's technology. Last hockey fighting game was ice hockey and blades of steel. Again, my experience with hockey games. 94 controls should be simple for all games.

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