In any discussion of the greatest video game athletes, the Michael Vick of Madden NFL 2004 always makes the cut, and is usually the most recent name on the list. In the eight years since his appearance, sports simulations have fine-tuned their realism, closing the era of logic-defying performances by the likes of Griffey, Roenick, and Tecmo Bo Jackson.
This year, Madden ‘04 Vick returns as a special player available for use in the Ultimate Team mode of Madden NFL, but only for those who pick up the game's Hall of Fame edition, which comes in at $30 more than the retail version. Vick accompanies a dozen other legendary players, available only for use in Madden's online card-collecting dynasty mode, which has developed a diehard following in its two years of existence.
"We rated Vick with that in mind," said Donny Moore, the Madden "ratings czar." "He's as fast has he ever was in the game, with, what, 98 throw power? Now, some of how he played was because of how the gameplay was tuned way back then. But he's gonna be pretty sick."
Vick's reappearance, and a slew of other NFL legends seeding the card packs available in the main game this year, shows how EA Sports has had to get creative with Madden Ultimate Team for a year in which a lockout threatens to cancel games in the real-life season.
Madden Ultimate Team's robust card collection, which during the NFL season features at least one new specialty pack per week, is heavily dependent on real-world events. Top fantasy football performers have been a popular update; players who have breakout performances will get special issuings; longtime veterans with comeback performances get younger versions of themselves inserted into Ultimate Team packs.
"It's a mode geared around live updates and support throughout the season," Moore said. "Around the Pro Bowl, we'll have special Pro Bowl cards. We had a special (Breast Cancer Awareness) edition. There are 50 card collections on the disc (for Madden 12), and we can add 50 more post-launch, but you might see more historic ones. It will affect the updates we can do."
With potentially no NFL games, Moore and the Madden crew must keep their population interested with more evergreen themes. In the offseason, Moore has put out packs like "the NFL's Fastest Man Collection," or players who came from the same college. One, the "Ratings Czar Collection," was based on the NFL jerseys Moore himself owns.
The big, lockout-proof development in Ultimate Team cards for Madden 12 will be the "Legendary Pack," which surpasses the "Ultimate Pack" for overall player quality. It includes a mix of the game's highest-valued cards, plus a shot at landing one of thirteen super-rare players (but not Vick, or any of the the ones in the Hall of Fame edition) Again, these players are available for use in Ultimate Team gameplay.
On top of that, Ultimate Team will this year add the ability to trade these cards. In the past two years, cards could move among players only through an auction system. Now, players with valuable duplicates can swap among friends or others to diversify their lineups, rather than auction them, take the proceeds and then acquire a new pack, hoping to get someone better than they just released,
"This is the No. 1 community requested feature," Moore said. "Now, me and you, we can work out a deal, say I've got double Peyton Mannings and you have a Chris Johnson, we can just do that swap. Trades are good for anything, players, coaches, stadiums, playbooks."
The only limitation is it's a 1-for-1 card swap. "We considered multicard trades, but we erred on the side of not wanting the trading features to be something exploited, or something that screws with the game's economy," Moore said.
Trades may also be offered and searched according to several conditions, such as position, or overall rating, rather than just throwing something out there and getting spammed with useless offers. "We don't want people to be getting offers like Manning for [Manning's backup] Jim Sorgi," Moore cracked, "like you do in fantasy football."
And, Moore said, the card collection's odds will be adjusted slightly to the favor of players. "Last year, most of the great cards were found in the Ultimate packs," he said. These cost the most in "Madden Coins," the virtual currency earned in gameplay (or acquired through an outright cash transaction).
"This year, we're spreading out the chances to get the great cards in the lesser packs," Moore said.
Unfortunately, Ultimate Team progress remains non-transferrable from one edition of the game to the next, meaning players must reset their collections if they pick up the new game. Moore has said that longtime players will see a boost in the starting card collection they receive, something to acknowledge their status as power players.