New Life On Next-Gen: ‘NHL 16’ Producer Tells Us What We Can Expect This Year

September is officially upon us, which means hockey season is just around the corner, and with it comes EA Sports’ latest title in their popular NHL franchise. This year’s NHL 16 release is EA’s second on next-generation platforms and follows up the less-than-satisfying NHL 15, which was basically a shell of the game fans were hoping for.

While NHL 15 took some significant strides in both gameplay and presentation, it was missing some of the game modes and features that core fans had come to love over the years, most notably the EA Sports Hockey League.

This year, however, NHL 16‘s producer Sean Ramjagsingh promises to deliver a more complete next-gen product. We got a chance to speak to him prior to Tuesday’s release of the game, and he seems confident that this year’s title will help fans forget about any sour taste left behind by NHL 15.

With it being the second title on the newer platforms, did you feel additional pressure to deliver the next-gen experience? Especially considering many fans were disappointed with things that were missing last year?

The first thing I want to say is that I think we feel extreme pressure every single year just because of working with our fans and understanding the expectations, which grow every year. But, to your point, after NHL 15’s console transition, we didn’t have the depth and breadth that we would have liked to.

The foundation of any game experience – sports or non-sports – is the gameplay itself. For us, it was critical that we nail a next-gen gameplay and presentation experience as a core for everything we do after that. If we were to have all the game modes in [NHL 15], but not have great gameplay experience, we would have failed and not be set up for the future. I would say I’m very happy with where we got to, setting up our gameplay and presentation as a foundation, but I understand some of the feedback that the fans had just around the lack of depth and features.

Tell me a little bit about the game’s new features.

One of the important things with NHL 16 is that it’s our second year on the new consoles – PS4 and Xbox One – and when NHL 15 came out, we really took it as an opportunity to work closely with our fans, who said we were missing some of the depth and breadth of some of our modes.

Right from the start, we knew we wanted to work very, very closely with our fans. We did more research than ever before – we did polls with our core EA Sports Hockey League audience to understand what they wanted from that experience. We created a GameChangers program, which are 12 guys – the majority of them nominated by their community – that can be our conduits to the community and help filter what the community wanted. That was an important part of the process for coming up with the features that are in NHL 16.

When we started talking about the features in ’16, first and foremost was our gameplay. We wanted to make sure there was balance and [we aimed at] refining the action, making it fun to play from every position – whether you’re playing a forward, a winger, a defenseman or a user-controlled goalie. Balance was a key thing for our gameplay.

For our modes itself, people have different motivations for why they play our game. As much as you’d like to think that people are going to pick up NHL 16 and they’re going to play every single mode, that’s not the way that people interact with our games. They typically pick one or two games modes and play those. So, it’s important for us that we deliver a new way to play in each one of our key game modes. That was a big focus for us.

What’s new with ‘Be A Pro?’

For ‘Be A Pro’ this year, not only did we re-allow you to start back in the CHL and work your way through to live out your NHL career, we also added a brand new player progression system that is new to the franchise. Much like real life, how you play on the ice and what you do on the ice is going to shape how your character progresses throughout your career.

So, if you go out there and you’re offensive-minded – you’re out there trying to score goals or trying to set your teammates up for goals – your offensive stats are going to go grow. If you go out there and you’re really physical, taking the body everywhere, starting fights and leaning more towards the physicality elements of the sport, you’re going to grow in your physicality traits.

What you do on the ice is going to shape your character and you can gain XP for doing stuff, and you can also lose XP if you’re not doing other stuff in other areas and you’re not balancing yourself out.

What’s new with ‘Be A GM?’

For ‘Be A GM,’ we added a new player morale feature. We really wanted to capture that next level of interaction with players. Your job as the GM is to manage the locker room and the happiness of your players, the morale of your players. If you don’t, the players get upset and the morale is low and it impacts how they play on the ice.

The things that impact morale are, like, if you’re a first-line player and you’re only getting fourth-line minutes, the player is going to let you know he’s not happy with the ice time he’s getting. You, as a GM, have options of how you want to deal with that situation. You make your choice and you’re going to see the results immediately. Sometimes it’s going to help the situation, sometimes it may not. You also have the option of holding team meetings to help the overall chemistry of your team and the morale of your team.

What’s new with Hockey Ultimate Team?

Hockey Ultimate Team is our most-played mode. For a lot of people, it’s a great managerial type of experience, but there are a lot of people out there who don’t enjoy going online and playing the games.

So, we wanted to make sure that people could enjoy all the great things from Hockey Ultimate Team but we added offline seasons. You can enjoy all the features of HUT, but play your games offline with the offline seasons.

What about Online Team Play & EA Sports Hockey League?

This was the big one for us. Online Team Play, first of all, came back partially as part of one of our updates last year for NHL 15, but it didn’t have the ability to play as a goalie and it didn’t coordinate with your friends. OTP is coming back where all six players can be user-controlled and you can play with your friends.

That’s the leeway to the big feature, which a lot of our core fans were upset wasn’t in NHL 15 – the EA Sports Hockey League. The EASHL is where you and up to five of your friends can take on other teams (up to six players). It’s a very competitive league and mode. Our original vision for this mode when we put it in back in ’09 was just a virtual men’s league, where you and your buddies fire up NHL 16, match up and take on opponents from around the world and see how high on the leaderboards you can get.

EASHL was an important mode for us in terms of working with the fans. We asked them early on how they wanted us to shape and re-imagine that experience. When you go to a new console that’s a great opportunity to reset everything, but unfortunately it’s not a copy and paste from previous generations. You have to rebuild your modes from scratch. Three things that came out very clearly from the research that we did when we talked to our GameChangers was they wanted user-created characters, so they didn’t want to be playing with Alex Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby – they wanted their name on the back of a jersey.

The second thing, and this is why gameplay was so important, is they wanted that competitive balance. They wanted it to be more skill-based. All these guys feel like their skills on the controls are better than the next guy, and they wanted to be able to play with and communicate with their buddies as a cohesive team. That’s why an even playing field was so important. We added player classes, so if you’re playing as a forward you can play as a power forward, a sniper, a grinder, a two-way forward. If you’re playing as a d-man, you can play as a two-way defenseman, you can play as an offensive defenseman or defensive defenseman. We also have different player classes for the goalie, as well.

The third thing our fans told us for the EASHL was that they wanted lots of customization because they’re playing with user-created characters. This year, we’ve added lots and lots of player customization, from how you tape your stick, the color of your equipment, the goalie equipment, the visors, the helmets. We really just loaded up our customization this year.

You mention loading up on customization. I’ve noticed there’s more attention to detail on actual players, as well – such as Alex Ovechkin’s yellow skate laces, and things like that. How much of an emphasis was placed on that?

Good observation, first of all. Not only did we want to boost the customization, but also the authenticity of the players. That’s sort of the philosophy we’ve taken with our customization. We want to make our star players as authentic as possible because that’s not only for core fans, that’s for casual fans, too. They want the game to look like what they see on TV or what they see the players wearing when they go to the rink. That’s always a big focus for us, being grounded in authenticity.

The way that we accessorize each one of those players, we do it in a way where we can pull it out and add it to our customization. It’s something that we’re going to continue to do, we want to make it more and more robust and make our players more and more authentic. The two for us go hand-in-hand.

When you look at the star players in the league and you look at Patrick Kane with the ear guards, that’s something we had to have in there. You look at the different visor types players are wearing right now – like a P.K. Subban with the aviator style visor – so we have that in there. You have guys like Phil Kessel, who has a candy cane-type tapejob on the shaft of their stick, so we have that in there, as well. The different types of tape on the blade of the stick – like the Ovechkin toe tape. So, all these unique things that players are starting to do (or have been doing) are important for us to bring the authenticity.

I’ve noticed that, in the past, there have been some authentic goalie masks, but not all of them. Is there any reason why you can’t get all of the authentic masks and art?

We work as closely as possible with all the equipment manufacturers, and I’d say about 90 percent of the time we get stuff before it ever hits the market or fans ever get to see it, which is great for us in terms of authenticity. But there are some things that come in after our deadlines for locking down the equipment or the art in the game, and sometimes those things just don’t make it in. I think there’s always one set of goalie pads the equipment companies come up with a little bit later than our deadlines work for, and then we either have to update those later on or save them for the following year.

Goalie masks, specifically, are interesting because it’s about getting the contract in place, but then the second part of getting it in the game is figuring out who actually owns the rights to those goalie masks. Is it the goalie that pays the artist to create it for him? Does he own the rights? Is it the artist himself, who took the liberty to create that piece of art? That’s where some of the gray area comes in. We’ve been fortunate enough to work closely with some of the companies that create the masks, but the reason we don’t have all of them is because of contractual purposes.

The second piece of that is that a lot of the unique goalie masks that you now see in the NHL will have characters that we’d need to get a secondary license for, which makes it a little more difficult. A good example would be Jason LaBarbera, who has Metallica on his mask. If we were to get the rights from the artist, we’d still need to get the secondary rights from Metallica to have them in our game, as well.

How are the player rankings decided? Madden has a “guru” who helps them with the player rankings. How do you guys decide on them?

We have a professional scout that has worked for a couple of teams and works for a lot of the broadcasters, and he handles all of our North American ratings. He’ll sit with us early on in the year and help us understand what we need to change and what we need to achieve. He’ll go out there and he’ll scout all the players for us – the NHL, the AHL, the CHL, all the players in all the North American leagues. We also have five European leagues and we have guys over there, as well, sending us ratings for their leagues.

What we need to do is calibrate those across the entire game, which is a bit of a lengthy process, but it’s important to get the balance right. You have a CHL guy like Connor McDavid that ends up in the NHL, and you want to make sure that he’s relative to that world and he fits in in the way people expect him to.

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You guys yanked Patrick Kane off the cover amidst the rape allegations surrounding him. How difficult of a decision was that and how much work did it take to actually make the change?

It was something we had to do just given the ongoing investigation. We had to make the call because of where we were in the development cycle and decided he wasn’t going to be a spokesman for the product. The work is the work, but we had to make that call. Patrick Kane won’t be on the cover and he won’t be a spokesman for NHL 16.

Last year was the first year that Doc Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Ray Ferraro were involved in the presentation aspect of the franchise. Doc is such a high-energy guy and he goes along with the peaks and valleys of actual gameplay. How difficult is it to get that to translate to a video game?

When we had them in the studio, we did a lot of sessions with them. And because Doc is so energetic, you can’t have him at that extreme level for an eight-hour session. So, we had to pick and choose our spots with him, but he’s such a pro.

What we’ll do is bring some feedback and bring examples of what people expect it to sound like, and then he’ll sit there and spend as much as he needs to nail it. Both him and Eddie and Ray Ferraro are fantastic to work with and are extremely open to all of our suggestions on different ways to do things. You gotta remember that when we put these guys into a studio, that’s not their natural environment. They’re used to watching the play and naturally commentating on it. When we put them in there, they need to visualize that situation and then be able to deliver with the same sort of enunciation and same sort of emphasis that they would in real life.

It’s a different situation for them, but those guys are such pros. Doc himself will go home at night and practice so that he’s better the next day. He’s such a pro to work with.

On the topic of presentation, one of the things I’ve seen is that the arena atmosphere and detail has been made a priority.

Yeah, last year was all about getting all the arenas in the game and authentic as possible. This year, our focus was about trying to replicate what you see on TV at each one of the unique arenas, pulling out the unique elements from each one. First and foremost was getting the goal horns so that when you score a goal, you hear the horn that you’re used to hearing on TV or in the arena. We have over 20 authentic goal songs, as well, including “Chelsea Dagger” in Chicago.

For the unique elements in each arena, if you’re in Vancouver you’re going to see the Green Men there sometimes, you’re going to see the LED stanchions, you’re going to see the banners and projections. In Columbus, you’re going to hear the cannon go off after every goal. In Tampa Bay, you’re going to see the coil up there. For all the teams that have mascots, we have mascots in there, as well. It was really about just pulling out the three or four unique things from each arena and make sure we showcase them to add that next-level authenticity.

What’s the craziest glitch you’ve seen during the development of this game?

There have been so many good ones along the way. We had one where Zdeno Chara got hit by the players’ bench, got hit over the boards, and physics took him in a way where his stick ended up underneath the bench and he literally got stuck and was hanging there, struggling to get out. He never got out but he slowly made his way sliding down the boards and then a line change happened and the door opened, which allowed him to get out. Physics provide a lot of entertaining moments that we need to tune out before we ship the game.

What about mini-games? Is that something you’ve considered bringing back?

I think it’s definitely something that we’ll look at. For us, we’re going to see what the feedback is on our on-ice visual trainer in NHL 16 where we basically try to teach people the basic controls and basic rules of the game. The extension of that might be to take that to mini-games if we feel that our fans think that’s the best way for more casual people to discover the basics of the game. If we do mini-games, I think the emphasis will be on teaching fans the basic controls and basic rules of hockey.

How soon do you guys shift your focus from this year’s game to next year’s product?

With annual sports titles, we pretty much know we’re putting out a release every September so, what I tell my team is, every day we’re not working on ’16 or ’17 is a day wasted. Before NHL 16 even hits the shelves, we’re probably a month and a half into planning NHL 17, just so that we can be as efficient as possible.

We want to have high-level thoughts and ideas in place as early as possible so that we can have discussions with the engineers and start that early planning. The earlier we can do things, the more stuff gets in the game for the following year and the more we deliver to our fans. It’s an ongoing sprint, but it’s a fun sprint.