Changing the Game - EA's New Approach for NHL 16
Submitted on: 09/09/2015 by Glenn Wigmore
To an outsider, it feels like it must have been a strange offseason for the folks at EA Canada who shepherd the NHL franchise. After NHL 15 was generally lambasted by critics, they still had to plow forward, developing the next iteration in the series without much of a breather to take stock of what happened. However, that does not mean they have not "rebuilt on the fly." In my time visiting the developers up in Burnaby as well as checking out the game at E3, it’s clear to me that the team has taken many steps to right the ship.
This is not to say that any of these moves guarantee a successful product this year, but they at least demonstrate an awareness by all levels of the development team (design, presentation, marketing, post-launch support) that things need to be different going forward. I was one of the many who felt disillusioned by last year’s product, as it seemed to want to reset expectations for content while finally improving the long-stagnant presentation. This resulted in a game that started to look the part of a next-gen game, but it didn’t have the content to back it up. Gameplay was buffed by some new parts under the hood, but they were clearly first-year efforts -- with puck physics and collision physics being the focus.
Even with the black eye of last year’s release, everyone on the team has a good poker face. There’s still a quiet confidence in the Burnaby office, as it’s a core group who experiences very little turnover and who has, by and large, done right by the NHL brand. But one thing is clear: NHL 15 is not a product that represented what that team is capable of, and those folks have taken many steps to change the language of development, add accountability to their staff and reconnect with all types of fans.
Sean Ramjagsingh, a producer on the NHL series, has been at the tip of the spear for the NHL franchise for several years now, helping shape the product and coordinate all of the moving parts on the relatively small (by today’s standards) development team. The group he’s overseen has experienced some exceptional highs with Hockey Ultimate Team, the EASHL and Be-A-Pro driving interest in the series in the last several years.
But with NHL 15, the team had to deal with new hardware, which required an adjustment period and some acclimatizing to the concerns of first-party partners as well as technology that had only been somewhat explored by the UFC team (who is also part of the same business unit). Ramjagsingh puts it this way: "Some things took longer through the development process, just fighting first party, fighting the consoles a little bit, which causes you to sort of change direction a little bit, change your scope of what you deliver year to year. Our ship date doesn’t change."
In talking with the team, it’s also clear that they only had 12 months on the NHL 15 product, no matter what was said or interpreted by fans or the press. The UFC team was able to do some reconnaissance in a way, working on presentation for the new consoles and then sharing that tech with the NHL team. But there were hurdles, as there are in any development cycle, that didn’t show up until later in process, which is something Ramjagsingh wants to avoid going forward.
“As we reflected on NHL 15…why are some of the hurdles that we encountered not getting caught during pre-production? So from a technical perspective, why was stuff surprising us as part of the console transition? What could we have done differently there? Also, we focused on how we can start the development process earlier.”
This earlier process (more on this later) would likely have mitigated some of the feature omissions that happened last year, a fact that is not lost on producers like Ben Ross or Sean Ramjagsingh, who put it this way: “The console transitions are tough for every single game, said Ramjagsingh. "So we learned a lot. For us we had to focus on the foundation of our experience. If you don’t have a great gameplay experience, nothing else matters. We knew that we had to nail the gameplay experience and the presentation, leveraging the power of the consoles. And then we were literally rebuilding seven years of work and starting fresh for all of our game modes, and our depth and breadth.”
It’s one of those catch-22 situations where the fans have a certain expectation at this point about what will be on a disc when the buy it from the store, but the development team is going to have challenges meeting those expectations. For fans, none of the development issues really matter to them, nor should they. At E3, Ben Ross said the team “absolutely understands” the reaction of fans to some of the omissions and expectations with last year’s product, but it’s also necessary for the team to cost out time and resources to get the game done. A uniform message from several on the team is that they always want to make the best game they can, but the schedule doesn’t change.
The EA Sports Hockey League was the most painful omission in NHL 15 for many hardcore fans of the series, and that’s a fact that is not lost on the development team. Says Ramjagsingh: “When we made the announcement of the EASHL not being in, I think we knew...we know how passionate our core fans are about the EASHL, so that would result in some of that backlash. Unfortunately, we didn’t announce it till late. We were pushing like hell to get it in. Literally pushing to the last day to see what we could get in, understanding the importance of it.” Users were treated to a bit of a mea culpa with the inclusion of Online Team Play in a post-launch patch, but the half-baked nature of the feature might actually be the clearest indicator of NHL 15’s difficult development cycle.
What’s clear from talking to the development team is that the only way to address a lot of these issues is to add more time to the development schedule. Since there seems to be no appetite from upper-level EA management to add more people to the team, and the release date is the same each year, the new approach is to start earlier. In fact, Ramjagsingh even stated that pre-production would be starting on NHL17 roughly in May. This earlier approach for NHL 16 and beyond is meant to mitigate some of the late trouble that bounced certain features from NHL 15.
Of course, starting earlier doesn’t mean anything without accountability, and that’s something that seems to have drastically changed for the NHL dev team. Says Ramjagsingh, "Instead of having all the onus on the producer when we go through pre-production...when we say, ‘here's what we want to build, and you’re responsible for it,’ it’s like ‘all three of you guys -- producer, project manager, SE [software engineer] lead -- are all accountable for this. You guys are signing off that you’ve done all your due diligence on all the process, all the tech pieces of it, and that you can deliver in the time that you say you are going to deliver.’”
The thinking behind this new development accountability model is that it gets everyone to work as a team and take ownership for features that don’t materialize when and how they should. Ramjagsingh says this has helped in meetings when an idea might be thrown out but with little research to back it up. “When situations come up, when you get a hurdle on the tech side, or on the project management side or the creative side, how are you going to handle those situations and navigate around them and navigate through them? Have those conversations early,” he says.
Accountability also extends to fans, and the NHL team has done some research to identify (or just confirm what they already know, as Ramjagsingh says) key groups of people who play the NHL series. This involved play sessions at players’ houses, watching how and when they play NHL. Some of these player types include the social gamer who wants to play with his friends, the competitive gamer who will win at all costs, the ex-athlete who views the game as an extension of his experience on the ice, and the fantasy player who likes to go for the Cup in offline seasons or the like. The producers used the example of Frederick Andersen of the Anaheim Ducks, who plays the EASHL to stay in touch with his buddies back in Denmark. It’s an interesting example, as I certainly know friends of mine who also play the NHL games that way -- as more of a social extension where the hockey is almost secondary.
By identifying these groups and sort of binding them to individual producers, the developers are hoping to add some clarity when features are being added or omitted. Ramjagsingh admits that it’s a vocabulary that the team is still learning when to deploy, but he feels it has a lot of value to development. “You’re representing that group of people, which from our data is X amount of people. If we don’t do this, or do something for them or have a direct way of appeasing them, then we expect them not to be happy with it. So that’s how we’re starting to learn and use it right now.”
Changing The Game
A new part of reconnecting with the fans and augmenting the development of NHL comes from the GameChangers, a group of fan-voted representatives who will help shape the final product by participating in play sessions. Ramjagsingh says these people were not “hand-picked” by EA because the team wants candid feedback to make the product better. The initial scope of the GameChangers was to inform development of the EASHL, but these people are so versed in the game that their input actually contributed to other modes as well. Ramjagsingh says that there is even a dedicated Skype line for the 12 GameChangers to communicate directly with the dev team when they are off site.
Having watched the interplay between the developers and the GameChangers representatives, I can certainly say they were getting down to the nitty gritty. Individual stat values were discussed for EASHL player builds, and more complex systems like the new goalie controls were being mulled over. Producer Ben Ross, and several other designers and programmers, would watch the GameChangers during play sessions and then debrief about specific game systems. By whiteboarding these ideas on the spot, it allowed the team to implement smaller changes right away to see results, but it also allowed them to be frank about the resources needed to make certain changes.
These 12 individuals are meant to not only be liaisons for the community but also, one might assume, advocates for the development team. One of the first things the NHL team had the GameChangers do was participate in a development exercise, costing out various casual and hardcore features that could possibly be added to a future NHL game. Even though popular options like GameFace or All-Star Weekends were floated, these ideas had to be budgeted, and designers and programmers would come in and tell them how feasible the idea was and how long it would take. The point of the exercise was to demonstrate the finite resources a development team has. Feature creep and development hurdles are par for the course in game development, it seems.
The GameChangers have been brought into the studio several times, and the idea is for this to be an ongoing fixture of the NHL franchise. Ramjagsingh says that when some of these people move onto other things, they will refill the spots with new representatives. “The goal was for it to be a long-term relationship that we can leverage year in, year out, and kind of build that relationship,” he says.
A key piece of the NHL 15 enigma was the deafening silence when it came to PR and fan communication. Even Ramjagsingh admits that that EASHL omission was announced “late,” which likely exacerbated the emotion that people were already feeling about a product that meant a lot to them. As I’ve written before, how you message and when you message can be its own message, and it appears that the NHL team agrees.
For NHL 16, the producers have been very active in answering questions on the EA site, allowing fans to vent, learn about the process and a put a face to some of these names that they see in trailer videos. Of course there is always going to be some sanitizing of these sorts of exchanges, with some topics not being discussed in a completely fulsome way, but the candor has been surprisingly blunt about the realities of development and the passion of the dev team.
As an example, one user asked: “In NHL15 online team play is plagued with too many player collisions. Has this been identified as an issue to be fixed for NHL 16?” In response, Ben Ross said, “Yes, with the return of EASHL, there has been a big focus on balance and behavior making the game fun to play from every position in an online multiplayer space. Part of this has been tuning core gameplay elements/factors such as player physics and collisions. We have not only tuned the balance of how prepared players are in different situations for collisions but also added more variety in reactions at lower levels so that even when players do collide, they don't have to be as extreme as they were in NHL 15. Small stumbles have helped these incidental collisions as well as allowed big power forwards to protect the puck when turning their back to a defensive player to absorbing impacts better.”
Users have been able to ask questions about all aspects of the game, and the fact that more than one producer is responding to questions (Andy Agostini and Clement Kwong, both associate producers, have been quite active) certainly helps provide some level of transparency that was missing from last year’s PR cycle.
NHL 16 has been seen in the wild a couple of times now, with the E3 build as well as a beta for the returning EASHL mode. The E3 build was one of the more complete builds I’ve ever seen for NHL as the game was fully unlocked and running at a very smooth frame rate. Not all teams were present, but every mode was available for play.
An important piece for NHL 16, according to the team, is the concept of onboarding new players. Ramjagsingh describes this common E3 scenario: “At E3, we see people picking up the controller right away, and they’re pressing the A button and they’re bringing up menus and doing stick lifts as opposed to passing the puck. So it’s teaching them the basic controls, and then also the next step of it is teaching the contextual situation of when you want to use it and direct them through. So you have to go over those controls and when to use those controls.”
The prompts and guidance that now show up around your player provide a new approach for teaching new players, and everyone at E3 was noticing or talking about it, one way or the other. Anecdotally, I’ve heard some players who rarely interact with hockey games mentioning how the feature is actually helpful for them, reminding them what button to press and when. My concern is that having the right context for those actions is still incredibly important for advancement, but the dev team seems aware of that going forward. As always, the feature can be turned off, but one gets the sense that the developers might explore this idea further in the future.
The EASHL Beta was another change in the PR for NHL 16, allowing fans an early taste of the popular mode while putting the 12-player action through its paces. While it was great to see the mode return again, some users did experience input lag while playing, and the revamped goalie controls felt like a work in progress. But seeing that mode in action again was a treat, as it serves as a reminder of how fun cooperative sports can be.
Ramjagsingh feels this is absolutely true of hockey. “For us as a franchise, we always talked about hockey being sort of the ultimate sport for video games because of the speed of the game, the skill of the game, the physicality of the game, no out of bounds. All six players, which makes EASHL so great. All five skaters on each team plus the goalies are involved at all times, as opposed to FIFA where a small subset of people are involved in any given play.”
The Waiting Game
For now, the work on NHL 16 is done, and the work on NHL 17 has certainly already begun. It’s a bizarre rhythm for a development group to be living in the shadow of one game, hoping for success with their new one and then planning out its successor. But as Ramjagsingh says, “The job needs pressure.” No doubt. While the lack of competition in the hockey space has required the NHL group to find motivation in other ways, this year might just have been the spark the team needed to find its way on the new hardware. Time will tell.