Connor Dougan knows games need something big when Madden NFL 21 drops for next generation consoles. Dougan, the creative director at EA Sports, has been working on this specific version of the game for about two years — “a souped up PC” made it all happen, he tells me — and on Dec. 4, things will come to fruition when the game drops for PlayStation 4 and Xbox Series X.
“One of our goals was, okay, so we’ve got next-gen for gen five coming up internally,” Dougan told Uproxx Edge over Zoom earlier this week. “And it was like, what are we going to do to reset our players expectation and really push the next console transition like it started on a strong note and change the way that the game is played and perceived? And we thought, how better to do that? I mean, we obviously did a bunch of investigation just on Next Gen Stats, but our first instinct was, okay, how do we get motion right? Player movement right?
“And then through our partnership with Next Gen Stats, we did some investigations and some initial prototyping, and then it just snowballed — captured thousands of animations, wide receiver routes, all players were driven by Next Gen Stats, movement parameters, and here we are now,” he continues.
As Dougan mentioned, Madden NFL 21 was powered in part by a partnership with Next Gen Stats, which informed the way that players move on the field in a way that is more similar to how they move in real life. Animations in the change are new — sidelines are more full, stadiums and sounds are more realistic — and changes like a new playcalling screen are coming in, but Dougan and his team were determined to make the debut version of Madden on next-gen consoles feel realistic above all else.
Dougan spoke to Uproxx Edge about the game, how Next Gen Stats played a crucial role in things, and much more.
What are some aspects of this particular version of Madden that was just not possible on current generation consoles?
Let’s start from a gameplay perspective, and then if I miss some other aspects, go ahead and just jump in. So in order to do next-gen player movement, first of all, we had to import thousands of Next Gen Stats like NFL player pass into the game, create a new padding model. And in order to do that, like a movement model, the costs on the CPU side of things is more expensive. So it makes it very difficult to import it back or to do that in gen four.
And then even more importantly, or one of the things that hold us back from doing this on gen four — or enables us to do it on gen five — is the amount of animations that we needed to make it look realistic and feel realistic and follow those NFL players’ paths at various speeds, directions of cutting. We just needed more content, more animation content variety and there’s no way we would’ve gotten the memory to do that on gen four.
And then when you talk about sidelines, having 80 players on both sidelines, crowd enhancements, better player lighting, more body types, muscle jiggle, all of those items were at near the end of the gen four console transitions and were tapped out. So in terms of performance on the GPU and CPU and in terms of overall memory, it enabled us to do a lot and we certainly couldn’t have done that on gen four.
Before we get into this game specifically, I want to ask about the reception of previous versions of Madden. I don’t think I’m saying anything controversial when I say that there have been gamers who believe there were aspects of the past games that they didn’t always enjoy. How did that feedback inform whatever you strive to accomplish in this game?
I think when we talked about Madden and what we wanted to do, moving to the next generation of consoles, is we wanted to — and this is from our core players — we wanted to build the most authentic representation of NFL football. And that sounds like very, I don’t know, press-y, but that’s what we wanted to do. We wanted to create a true NFL simulations and really driven from what our players want, from a core game play perspective. That’s where my skillset and expertise is in. And how better to do that than using real NFL player movement data to power the experience?
And then at the same time, part of it is when I play gen four Madden — and I play it all the time and I have fun — it’s just the pacing of it is very quick, very fast, and not necessarily true to life. And when you start to play gen five, the pacing of the game is much more realistic, but at the same time, it still feels good, it looks good, and it’s almost better for a gamer like me anyway, where I can see the plays develop, watch the routes or see a hole, hit a hole, or line up to make a one-on-one tackle, because a lot of the times, the pacing of gen four Madden is so fast that it’s almost so responsive, it’s unresponsive, if that makes any sense. You know what I mean?
No, absolutely. And off of that, everything with the game is presented through the concept of “Next Level” in just all forms and fashions of it. But at the end of the day, gameplay is the big one. It can be a beautiful game, all that stuff could be great. But if the game doesn’t play great, you know as well as I do that’s what people…
It doesn’t matter, right?
Right, exactly. It seems like you guys put a ton of emphasis on that and particularly player movement. Is that fair?
Next Gen Stats = Next Gen Player Movement
— Madden NFL 21 (@EAMaddenNFL) November 20, 2020
Yep, 100 percent. Player movement, then some of the corresponding systems that we also wanted to improve that are just, I mean, they’re kind of related, but they’re not related. So if we talk about tackling, we wanted to make tackling easier to control, look better, get you in a position where if you’re in the open field as a defender and you have to make a one-on-one tackle, you don’t just 90 percent or 80 percent of the time, at least for me, run by or let the CPU control it.
You want to create a game where you can put yourself in a position and didn’t feel like you were potentially putting yourself at risk for making a play on the ball. So there’s that system. And then in creating a whole new movement system, we had to almost retune and/or fix up a lot of the different core systems in terms of, okay, players move slower, our animation system is completely, not slower, but more authentic. Our animation system is now different on gen four. So our ball prediction or where the pass is going to be, pass leading, defensive player pursuit. The timing for blockers and pass rush. There’s all the timing for a quarterback, making his reads. All of that stuff had to get adjusted because of the next-gen player movement.
So what role did Next Gen Stats play in building out this entire game and how will gamers get to experience that on both sides of the ball?
So when we looked at Next Gen Stats, we started, we were like, “Okay, we have this partnership with Next Gen Stats. Then they track all of their player movement, we want our player movement to be realistic.” We took a route and then we showed all the green lines, which are representative of all the speed positional data movement facing. That was our initial look at, okay, what does real human NFL movement look like? Then we had to say, “Okay, well, if we take our animation system, our paths and our movement model was nothing like that on gen four.”
So we take a human, a very fast athletic human, going at full speed, running … I don’t know, let’s say like a deep crossing route. So how do we emulate that? How do we make it look one-to-one like that real NFL player? And so that’s how we started down the animation motion side of things to make our players look realistic. And then once we got our receivers going, we started looking at ball carriers, quarterbacks, DBs, linebackers, and then linemen, and took a new approach on how to make our players move like human beings.
I’m glad you mentioned route running because it seemed like that was the entry point into everything. So just going off of that, can you give gamers an idea of what to expect on how route running in particular will feel a little bit different and then how that ended up informing running the ball, blocking, playing defense, quarterback, all that.
Speed never felt so real…
— HJR III™💎 (@__RUGGS) November 18, 2020
So when we started on gen four Madden, on all versions of Madden, it’s like, can a receiver run from point A to point B to point C? Whatever the route was, right? It’s like, go here, go here, go here, go here. And that’s all we had.
But now we have, okay, what does Davante Adams look like on this deep post route and analyzing all the data. It looks nothing like our CPU generated paths. So we had to say, okay, because it’s like it’s very nuanced in terms of how they accelerate off the line and then how they prep for their cut move and then make their cut. They decelerate slightly before they make their breaks. And that was the piece where it’s like, “Well, couldn’t we just tie a bunch of routes to Davante Adams and using his real world routes?”
And then we figured out ultimately how to do that. And then you have this one smooth path, but then we had to get a bunch of animations, capture a bunch of animations in motion capture to make sure that it looked like an NFL receiver running around, right?
Because we didn’t have that variety of speeds coming off the line, different turns at different angles. So that was how route running started. And then we basically took the same approach for, let’s say, running back. We started looking at a bunch of different data for different players. Running inside, running outside, how quickly they hit the hole when they cut back. How quickly did they do it? What does their path look like when they do it? And then we modeled those paths and then again, went to go capture thousands of animations to support it and make it come into life.
And it’s interesting because at the same time, you don’t want that to be something you put all your time and energy in, because if you do, playing defense in the game becomes impossible. How were you able to find the balance between, we want the routes to feel more lifelike, we want being able to run the ball feel more life like, all that stuff, without sacrificing the ability to do much of anything on defense?
So we had to basically take that same concept. And I think one of the more challenging things throughout development is we always started with offense, for whatever reason, because you have to get an offense, and then you get a defense to play against the offense. We started with the offense, got that looking good and then, shortly thereafter, we started working on defense, and it’s very reactionary and it’s actually more of a challenging problem because they have to be so much more reactive to whatever route, whatever the ball carrier is doing.
So we wanted to make them look smooth in terms of their backpedals, their strays, how they attack the ball, how they break on ball, but we also wanted it to feel good. So it was a combination of making it look cool from a human defensive player movement, linebacker, DB standpoint. But then we started working on pursuit and how a play a pursuits the ball and then we had to figure out tackling, tackling was the big piece that was missing.
So, I got to get this player into position to make a tackle. And that’s where we built this new tech that helps us predict, start a tackle before it’s even in contact and then if things change, things change and we break it, we don’t even launch the tackle. But if all things stay the same and two players are meeting in this path, we can ensure that we can start a tackle on a defender without ever pulling the ball carry in so it doesn’t feel suction-y. And then it also makes it more consistent for a defensive player to make a tackle or get in position to make a tackle.
Just generally, what’s your favorite thing about this version of Madden? Because it seems like it’s been this gigantic labor of love that you’re seeing come to fruition — it could be something that we’ve talked about already, something we haven’t talked about, whatever.
I mean, for me personally, it’s really difficult having worked on, and I’m obviously biased. So take it with a grain of salt. Having worked on gen five, mostly. Going back to gen four is really tough because it’s just not as smooth, for lack of a better term. You don’t feel like you have as much control. It’s a little bit, for lack of a better term, twitchy. So I think overall the control and the pace of the game is what I love most about it and what I think players are going to like most about it as well.