Discussing Longshot Story Mode And New Passing Mechanics With A ‘Madden 18’ Producer

Every year we get a fresh iteration Madden with more features and updated graphics, but this year, Madden 18 truly seems to be bringing a new level of changes to the football game that tries to please millions of unique fans that yearn for the features only they want.

EA Sports has divided up the gameplay into three distinct play styles: Competitive, Arcade, and Simulation, while also introducing something never before seen in the series: Longshot — an interactive story mode in which you guide a player from high school to the pros.

On top of that, Madden 18 has transitioned to the Frostbite engine, which powers the likes of Star Wars: Battlefront and Battlefield. With a plethora of legacy issues being fixed, player locomotion being more realistic than ever, and a more nuanced approach to passing, Madden 18 could be one of the best releases in years. As they say in the industry, it’s “feature rich.” And we haven’t even got into Madden Ultimate Team’s changes.

To parse through the massive amount of new info surrounding this year’s release, we spoke with executive producer Sean Graddy.

Creative Director Rex Dickson said Madden 18 was the “Year of the User.” Could you explain that?

I think what Rex is implying there is that we’ve been listening. Rex is probably one of our best at being on the forums and twitter and listening to what the fans are saying specifically about gameplay and delivering a feature set. We’ve got big back-of-the-box features, if you will, with Longshot and MUT Squads this year, but he’s acknowledging that we have done a ton of work in the gameplay space with blocking mechanics, tackling mechanics, the wide receiver DB coverages, all that type of stuff, which is really focused on what our core users want. That’s what we mean when we say “Year of the user.”

A lot of those mechanics in tightening up legacy issues – does that come from making the transition to the Frostbite engine?

That is really independent of the Frostbite engine. The Frostbite engine helps the game holistically, but its biggest impact in year one is going to be what it means visually. I’m sure you saw the trailer we released back in April, which was kind of our big reveal and our announcement for Frostbite. It just focused on what the visual impact is from the engine.

It also adds to the physics, correct, or am I mistaken there?

No, there is not a physics package inside Frostbite that we’re using right now. It’s an updated version of a physics package that we previously had. That said, with EA Play and with our influencers and our Game Changers that have been in, that have been playing the game, they’ve noticed an improvement in the feel of the game and the way that our physics engine is driving the animation. Our goal with the transition to Frostbite was to make everything feel better, to look better, to play better as best we could. Even though the Frostbite engine isn’t driving physics per se this year, we did make an attempt to make the core gameplay feel better holistically.

Could you expand on that a little bit more? Not only holistically, but could you give me a few words on how the gameplay feels in a visceral sense? Is it harder hitting? Do you feel it more as far as the blocking on the line? What are the users gonna take away from this in the first few minutes and be like, “Wow. That just feels very different.”

From what I saw at EA Play, just watching people as a bystander behind them, the language that I was hearing — I ultimately want the fans to decide how it feels versus my soundbite, but what I was hearing the fans say was that it felt more fluid, that it felt more intelligent. That tackling, as an example, using the hit stick on the actual stick versus on the buttons felt better, felt “right.” My sense is that the fans feel like it is feeling more the way that they want it to feel as opposed to bigger hits or something like that.

Maybe a little bit less like a video game and almost more like simulation on the field?

Certainly, when you play in a Simulation playstyle, we’ve got a few play styles now, but when you play in the Simulation playstyle, it’s going to feel more like a simulation than ever. That’s kind of been our core focus is making it feel like a simulation, an NFL simulation game and I would say more than ever this year, when you play on the Simulation play style it’s going to feel that way, and that’s true from the blocking to the tackling to the run game. It feels “right,” I think, for lack of a better term.

So you have the three different gameplay styles this year: Simulation, Competitive and then Arcade. Is this something that you guys have been working towards for a while? Making clear divisions in how Madden is played depending on the user?

It’s funny. We’ve been talking about it for a couple of years now, and it came to a head last year as we introduced the pro circuit and the Madden Majors, and there was a sense from our simulation community, which is kind of our bread and butter, the guys that have been buying the game every year and have been around for a while that love Franchise, and may not love Ultimate Team… Their sense was that we were starting to tune the game for our competitive players.

On the flip side, our competitive players were saying that it’s too “sim” and there are too many dice rolls, too many penalties, too many injuries that are actually taking away from their skillset as a pro player. So, the narrative was that both audiences were feeling like the game was tuned for the other one.

And then you even have what I would say is maybe a younger generation. I have a 10-year-old son who plays Madden and he kind of wants to march up and down the field and just win. He wants to see the big plays, the big catches, the big runs, and do it in more of a simplified way. He doesn’t really understand simulation football yet. So, we came to this conclusion that, you know what, we almost need to tune the game for each of these different audiences, and the way to do that is to set up a different set of tuning files that, you know, for the pro players, it takes some of the dice rolls away and just let their skills play out on the field. Take away some of the chance if you will.

And then on the simulation, you want injuries to occur. You want penalties to occur. You want some of your lower-rated quarterbacks to be more inaccurate. And then for somebody who’s younger, or maybe even an older guy that just wants a more casual, fun experience, we created the arcade experience. So, it’s actually been in our heads and we’ve been discussing it for the last couple of years, but we decided really to pull the trigger and make it happen this year.

Can you still adjust sliders to change different nuances of the gameplay within those pre-set playstyles?

Yes. You can.

If you could clear this up for me: In the Competitive mode, are all the stats equal?

No. Stats are still going to be relevant. They’re just going to be tuned in certain scenarios. I’ll give you an example that we hear from our pro players quite a bit, is that sometimes a linebacker, let’s say, is wide open and a ball is coming towards them, and he’s going to make interception, but because of the dice roll that occurs on his catching ability, he may drop that ball. In Competitive play, we’re not gonna look at more data that says, “what was around him? What offensive players were close to him that maybe would have prevented him from making that interception?” And if he’s clearly wide open, he’s gonna make that interception regardless of the time, if he’s at the higher end of the ratings. So, in that sense, the ratings still matter, but we’re taking into consideration a bit more detail to take some of the chance out of it, is the best that I can say.

By doing this, not only are you delivering the experience each hardcore sect of gamer wants, you’ll be able to get Simulation fans over to Competitive Mode, and Competitive Mode players over to Simulation Mode since there’s a little less pressure.

I hope so. I hope that people out there actually experiment with all three modes because they are noticeably different. And they’re fun and interesting in their own unique ways, so if you’re traditionally a simulation player, I hope you do spend some time with Arcade Mode, and I hope you spend some time with Competitive because I think you’re gonna like some of the aspects of that mode. They’ll make sense in the context of where they’re mandated by us, if that makes sense.

Competitive style is going to be our default mode when you’re playing online head-to-head, and say Ultimate Team or Draft Champions or something of that nature, and then Simulation Mode is gonna be the default that I think most people will play with say, Franchise Mode, solo or with their friends. But you could also play, and something I do, I do with my son, is you can play in arcade play style inside of a franchise. If you just want to have that experience where your guy’s like a god and he’s blowing up the league and making all the stats, that can be fun too. And that to me is kind of a classic video game experience that I think some people want. So I hope that all the traditionalists, whatever style they’re used to playing, and they’ll experiment with all three of them and enjoy some of the aspects of each of them offer.

But now across all three modes, passing is quite different. Could you discuss that?

So passing is the same in the sense that we have introduced a new, advanced target-passing mechanic. You don’t have to use it, and if you choose not to, passing is going to feel the exact same. And that was important to us because we don’t want to rock the boat too much for our traditionalists, our consumer that’s been playing for a while.

But, we introduced a new passing mechanics where, with the left trigger, or L2, once you hike the ball, now you’re in the pocket, you’ve engaged this mechanic by holding L2 or clicking L2, and you’re gonna see this little targeting system that will pop up on the field, and it’s gonna be moving, and it’s gonna be moving with your primary receiver for that play. You can now move that targeting icon with the left stick to any position on the field and throw the ball to that exact spot.

So, the risk-reward here is that once you’ve engaged that mechanic and you’re moving that targeting system around with the left stick, you’re no longer moving your quarterback around. You’re only moving that system. So, you’ve obviously got a window of time where you have to get rid of the ball or you might get sacked because you’re not mobile anymore.
Now the reward here is that you can pinpoint a very specific spot on the field, so if you see an opening in zone coverage, let’s say, and you want to kind of call a receiver back to that exact spot, you can pull that off now. If you want to throw to a very specific corner in the end zone for a fade route or something like that, you can very specifically pull that off.

We’re finding internally with our best players, guys that came from the competitive circuit, this will be used in certain plays and certain coverages to figure out where it’s best utilized. It creates a skill gap for our players to really figure out how to use it. It’s definitely not gonna be for everyone, but those that figure out how to use it will have a lot of fun with it and I think it’s gonna elevate their game.

It seems like it’s situational. It almost adds a cherry on top of the skill gap.

It’s 100% situational. There’s no way you’re gonna be using this every drop back. I don’t know. Maybe somebody will figure it out and will surprise us and use it every play but I think it’s very situational. One of our guys internally, a common one that we see, that he likes to use it on, is where he’ll put his running back out into the flat where they’re running towards the sideline and he’ll make a read on the outside cornerback. Has that cornerback been manned, kind of covering the receiver, or is he coming down to pick up that running back that’s in the flat?

If the cornerback goes and covers the receiver, he’ll use the advanced targeting mechanic to lead the running back upfield so it’s not just running to the flat on the sideline. He actually can get a couple extra yards on that route, often times pick up a first down, and that’s fairly successful. So, the situations like that where you gotta figure out how to use it.

We talked about a crazy idea. What if we had our pro players only using the advanced targeting mechanic? That would be quite interesting. I don’t think we’re gonna do that anytime soon, but that would make for an interesting passing game.

I would love to see that on Twitch, just to see what happens. Maybe around launch day you guys can do that.

That’s a good idea. Just get two of our pro players together on Twitch streaming and they can only throw the ball with the advanced passing mechanic.

Longshot, your story mode. Is it going to be like a Telltale game, or is it gonna be more like how Fight Night went in and out of cut scenes and then action and then cut scenes and then action?

It’s more like Fight Night, but Telltale is definitely a good reference as well. I’d say you probably hit the nail on the head with the two games that were most similar to —Telltale-style games and Fight Night. And us being a sports title, obviously, there’s some relevance to FIFA‘s The Journey, and the fact that The Journey was about a specific character, in their case Alex Hunter, in our case Devon Wade. There are some similarities there, but I’d say for sports, we’re pretty unique. We’re pretty different. We approached it as this idea of a movie-quality experience that you can ultimately lead and play through for this one guy’s journey to the NFL. We did that through branching dialogue that has a bit of urgency and a bit of putting the tough decisions to make on the player. Whatever that dialogue decisions that you’re going to choose, you make might impact your best friend Colt, or you might impact something with your coach or something downstream in the story. And that’s very Telltale-esque, which is one of the references you made.

But then as you’re playing through this kind of movie-quality experience, you are gonna get dropped into traditional Madden experiences. 11 v 11 football and some of the high school background of Devon Wade, but also some unique things that we haven’t had in Madden in some time or ever. You’re gonna play some 7 v 7. You’re gonna play some kind of mini passing games where you’re targeting areas on the field and throwing the ball at targets and things of that nature. You’re gonna call plays, call like an NFL quarterback.

So, we wanted it to be varied and different. I think if there’s one thing we learned from our brothers on FIFA and our competitors in 2K and other titles that have had a career-mode kind of story is they can get grind-y or too consistent. You see a scene, you play a traditional game, you see a scene… And so we wanted to give you a little more variation as playing through the story to hopefully keep you engaged and get you all the way to the end of this journey. We think the end of the story is really good.

Can you confirm for me that there are multiple endings?

There are multiple outcomes here. We said it’s an origin story of Devon Wade and the ultimate goal is you’re playing up to draft day. The way that the draft plays out can end in multiple ways. Devon can get drafted. He may not get drafted. His best friend is trying to get drafted. He may get drafted. There are multiple ways for the story to play out.

When all of that’s said and done, and I know Wade is going to be in MUT, will he make any appearance in Franchise mode as a character that you can draft?

Not as a character you can draft, but there is a way to play him in Franchise, and I’m glad you asked that, because this isn’t really out there yet, and as we’ve talked to our Game Changers who play a lot of franchise, they said, “You know, I want to continue that journey. I want to play with him in the NFL.” Go into Franchise, create a player and then select an undrafted or a late-round quarterback that is a mobile QB, the default player we set up for that scenario is, in fact, Devon Wade. So, you get his name, his background. You get his look. It’s him. And then you can actually go into any team you want.

So, you could decide which team you got, or you could understand you got drafted by and you can go onto that team and kind of continue the NFL story. It’s kind of cool. I’m a big Bucs fan and I’ve been taking Devon Wade onto the Bucs. I love Jameis Winston, but I also like taking Devon Wade in the NFL and seeing where I can take him.

I was initially a little disappointed to hear that Longshot just kind of ended at the draft, so hearing this, that you can bring Wade into your franchise and play is great.

The thing that’s gonna come later, that isn’t there right now, is you don’t hear a ton of richness around the commentary in talking about his backstory. That will come. It won’t be there at launch, but I have found it’s still fairly rewarding to play as Devon Wade in Franchise and see him on the field. You’ve got the whole story you built through the Longshot campaign mode and then just to continue in Franchise, it feels rewarding to me.

By the way, you can also continue Colt’s journey. If you go as a late-round or undrafted speed wide-receiver, the default guy is also Colt Cruise, and again, I don’t think anybody knows this yet. You’re the first person we’re telling. So, you can take either of those guys into Franchise and continue the story.

Are you working towards a more involved Franchise mode where maybe the players don’t get along and that affects personnel decisions?

I think longer term, there’s probably something there. We’re not doing anything like that in Madden 18, but that kind of idea of team chemistry is certainly one we’ve bounced around in pre-production as we’ve thought about our feature set for Franchise. I think that’s something that’s long-term, just not anything we’re doing for Madden 18.

Is Longshot a way to appease college football fans while there’s no proper NCAA game out?

I think the taste of college football is going to make some happy, but I do want to be clear that the only two teams that are in this mode are Oregon and Texas and it’s kind of more about you understanding the journey of Devon Wade and what his college career meant to him on that journey. And he was a Texas five-star high school football recruit who went to the University of Texas, so we wanted to pay that off and make it legitimate and authentic with two big schools that actually play in each other in the time frame that this story played out, but it is a small taste of college football that we think our fans are longing for, but we didn’t in this case license a bunch of schools.

Are there any influences to Longshot’s story that fans might find surprising?

I don’t know that there are any influences that people would find surprising. Mike Young, who is the writer and director of this talks about many, many sports films that he’s a fan of. He’s a die-hard football fan. He’s a Rocky fan, a Rudy fan. I think really what people will be surprised by, less about maybe the influences, but just how, I think, emotional this story is. Virtually everybody that has played all the way through it has said to us, “Wow! I didn’t expect to be that connected to Devon Wade. I didn’t expect to feel that much emotion at the end of it.” There’s definitely a father-son relationship here, so if you happen to be one of those, which obviously any guy is, you’re the son of somebody. Or if you’re a father, there’s certainly a connection that I think resonates with a lot of people, and I think they will be most surprised by the power of the emotion in the story.

In Connected Franchise, will there be any new options for people who run their teams for many years to see past team data or see older stats? For example, if I look back at my player card and I simulate a year, I can’t look back and see the number of games played from a player if they were injured.

We don’t have that this year, but that is something that’s on our radar for future years. I’ve heard that idea before.

The ability to do that was in Madden 06, I think. It seems like you’re constantly trying to evolve and push boundaries, but also you have millions of fans that want you to be stuck in the past and do everything that used to be there, so I can only imagine how difficult it is to develop a game like this.

It’s one of the challenges of a 29-year-old franchise that has a fan base, or at least a percentage of our fan base, that has probably been playing it for 20 of those years, and they want it a certain way, but at the same time you’re trying to get new players in the front, or that are getting different experiences with other games, so we want to offer those same experiences in our game. You hit the bell on the head. We’re trying to satisfy a pretty wide audience of NFL fans and video game players.

With that said, the “Play the Moment” was a great addition for people who wanted to simulate games. However, there are times when the opposing team will drive maybe 85 yards down the field and then you’re stuck only defending in the red zone. Have there been any improvements to where you can possibly stop a streaking offense, like after three or four plays, so that way you’re not with your back against the end zone and it’s do or die every single play? Has any nuance been added?

We did not add nuance on that example that you gave there. The guys I do believe just looked at the underlying logic and tuning of Play the Moment, but that specific example I don’t think we tuned that one.

Give me the bottom line here: If I bought the game last year, why should I buy the game for the second year in the row, or the third year in a row, the fourth year in a row? What makes Madden 18 absolutely a must-buy this year?

I think the two stand-out features or things that you’re gonna want to see, the first one, of course, is Longshot. I think we did something very unique, very compelling. Certainly never been done in the history of Madden. That’s number one. You gotta come in and check out this experience and I think our fans are really gonna find it compelling and fun. The second one is the fact that we’re on the Frostbite engine. Madden 17 was a really good-looking game visually. It had good presentation, and we were like, “boy, our challenge is to beat what is already a really strong visually-looking game,” and the Frostbite engine allowed us to do that, and frankly allowed us to build Longshot. We couldn’t’ve done what we did without that engine. So, I think those two are the biggest things that jump to mind.

If you’re more of a social player, you like to play with your friends, you like to play online, I would say MUT Squads, which we haven’t talked about. The ability to get online and play with two of your buddies against three other human-controlled players and merge your lineups. You know, if you’re an offensive juggernaut, your buddy’s a defensive juggernaut, you can now merge your lineups and play together. EA Play showed us that that is gonna be a really big, successful socially-connected mode. It’s kind of a runaway hit. I think maybe that’s the third one.

What makes someone like me, a huge franchise and simulation guy, want to head into MUT? You’re saying that MUT squad, huh?

I think MUT squads might be one of these. If you’ve got friends that are, maybe, they like Madden and they like the NFL but they’re more of a casual player, a cool thing about MUT Squads is now you can play with your friends, but because there’s three roles, there’s the offensive coordinator, the defensive coordinator, and the head coach. The head coach is kind of the role for experts. Because the offensive coordinator is gonna bring in their offensive lineup for MUT and the defensive coordinator will play their defensive lineup and offense will call up offense, the defense will call up the defense. The head coach role is just really controlling a player on the field on both sides of the ball, but they don’t have to make any big decisions outside of calling a time out or accepting a penalty. I think it’s a way to get your friends online and why the games are a bit more casual. I think a guy like yourself, a Franchise player, you might want to go check that out.

The other thing I think you might want to check out in Ultimate Team is what we’re calling “Longshot Chronicles.” You can play more high school football there and you can play the Oregon-Texas game like I mentioned, so a little bit of that taste of college football. I think that might get some of the players over there, as well.

I can’t tell you exactly why, but one of my favorite things in the old NCAA games was playing in high school, and I just don’t know why. I just liked it.

Me too. The Road to Glory fans, that was what that mode was called, where you played high school up to your college career — they’re certainly gonna have a little bit of nostalgia when they play in Longshot. I immediately was like, “Oh! This has got a little bit of a Road to Glory high school feel to it.” But better. Certainly updated.

So you’re now 13 iterations past the 2K5 series, but it still comes up. I guarantee you, when I post this article, someone’s gonna put it in the comments section. Are you guys sick of being compared to NFL 2K5?

Sure. A little bit. It’s funny. I agree. We put our trailer up and it’s the first… It’s one of the top 10 comments you see on YouTube or whatever. It was a good game. I’m willing to admit that 2K5 was a good game, but there’s no doubt in my mind that we’re a better, deeper, richer game. It’s just nostalgia at this point. So, it is what it is. It’s funny.