Beat on a quarterback for 45 minutes of an NFL game and you'll see a different guy in the fourth quarter. Some start forcing every throw. Some will run like hell. Some go catatonic.
But in Madden NFL, you'd see the same guy after four sacks that you saw in warmups. Players, especially CPU-controlled players, came off robotlike no matter how the game flowed, their behavior and execution governed entirely by their ratings in a well known set of physical attributes.
"Ratings are good for capturing raw skills, the stuff you get the scouting combine," said Mike Young, Madden's art director. "We want to capture a player's intangibles, his heart and mind, how he reacts to certain situations."
Young helped design Dynamic Player Performance, Madden NFL 12's new system of traits and scores that, coupled with the long established ratings structure, strives to deliver players who are identifiable by their performances—in times good and bad—and not just by the numbers on their back.
In a way, it creates a two-pronged approach for measuring a player's skill. Ratings, more or less, show his probability of executing something—catching a ball, hanging onto it while he's tackled, bringing down a runner. But traits show how he's more likely to apply his skills, and how he's going to respond to success or failure.
To give an example, Young uses Ben Roethlisberger, quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"We spent a lot of time on Big Ben; I never felt like he really played like Ben, to be honest," Young said. "But now he's got a trait—'senses pressure'—and it's set to ‘oblivious.' He will end up taking so many hits and sacks because he's now sitting back there playing the schoolyard ball he likes. ‘Tuck and run' is another trait, and Ben's is set to ‘sometimes,' so every once in a while he will take off on a broken play. It starts to feel like it's Big Ben, not just a large guy who doesn't play like Ben."
Another Steeler, safety Troy Polamalu, will play very aggressively, going for "hit stick" tackles and interceptions that can change the course of the game. On the flip side, that puts Polamalu at risk of over-running a play or getting dusted when his try for the pick-six comes up empty.
Players have a base set of traits but they will be turned on or off within a game to reflect how he's been performing. "At the pause screen, you can see how any player has changed throughout the game," Young said. "If you get a bunch of licks on a receiver that makes him drop the ball, he'll end up with the trait ‘Drops open passes,' because maybe he's hearing footsteps from the defender and he's scared about going over the middle."
This also funnels back into the player's ratings, making them fluid from game to game. Improvement or decline in his attributes will respond to on-field success or failure and will be governed by a new rating, consistency.
"Each position has a fantasy-football style expectation," Young explained. "If you're rated like (Cardinals receiver) Larry Fitzgerald, that kind of player is expected to get about 90 yards receiving and a touchdown. If he gets 150 yards and two touchdowns, that would be a hot performance. One catch for 15 yards and a fumble, you'll get a cold Larry Fitzgerald."
The next game on the schedule, Fitzgerald will have either a hot or cold icon, indicating he could play beyond or below his base overall rating. Players like Peyton Manning or Tom Brady will not have wide swings, and when they're on a cold streak, their lows won't be as pronounced. Another trait, "clutch," will be the rara avis of player characteristics; fewer than 30 players will be graded clutch when the game ships. These are the proven big game performers who will shine in those situations in Madden
But just as in in real life, you may not know what Jay Cutler is going to show up for the Bears—the one who tosses three touchdowns or the one who chucks three interceptions. Madden wants to deliver Cutler on that swing, as opposed to one who simply grades out to the median of those performances.
Strategically, this presents another level of engagement for a Madden player. Noticing that Cutler's on a cold streak in his Franchise season, a guy controlling the Chicago Bears may shift his offensive gameplan to running back Matt Forte. A player opposing the Bears might direct his defense at the running game, forcing Chicago to win with a cold Cutler.
For those saddled with a shellshocked superstar, know that you can play your way out of his misery. Feeding delicate receivers with soft catches early in a game can build their confidence for crunch time, for example. "We won't punish people who have a bad game, the punish them the next game and they have another and it's a downward spiral," Young said. "You can play your way out of this stuff. If it's early in a game and your QB has gotten rattled, maybe he's hearing footsteps, if you can bring him into a good rhythm, he goes the other way, and you'll see he starts getting more comfortable and effective."
Other sports games have introduced dynamic player ratings. Rightly or wrongly, this next level of player creation hasn't seemed very transparent. To many players, it's a background-calculation crapshoot they just cope with in moving on to the next game on the schedule.
Young's aware of this, and promises the Madden team, led by ratings czar Donny Moore, has been refining player traits and attributes so that the swings in performance make sense and are identifiable when they happen. During a game, the pause menu will expose changes in player traits and ratings at the root level, Young said. The commentary team of Gus Johnson and Cris Collinsworth will note differences in play. It's up to the gamer to pick up that information and act on it.
"I don't know if Madden with Dynamic Player Performance will be any harder, but to win, you will have to pay attention." Young said. "Do you really want to let Michael Vick run on you? You'll see these emerging week-to-week decisions, and to win, you can't just be the guy who's mastered one player or technique. It should make you a more full player, so in that way, it's more challenging."