I had to laugh when, in the high school preamble to NCAA Football 14's Road to Glory career mode, I audibled to a draw and watched this skinny white kid slice the defense like Sonic the Hedgehog. "36 YARD TD BY ALEX HOWELL," said the game. Huh? Alex Howell? He was a walk-on at Auburn. He's also an EA Sports designer.
Ben Haumiller, the game's producer, laughed too. "Alex Howell runs better in this game than he ever wished he could in real life."
Howell is one of several names familiar to me in the high school phase of NCAA 14's Road to Glory—a mode he designed. In it you create yourself as a blue chip quarterback, or linebacker, or running back, and embark upon a big-man-on-campus career that begins with earning a scholarship from your favorite school. For the past two years the high school rosters you play with and against in Road To Glory have been stocked with members of the EA Tiburon development team who make the series.
You might have sensed it this week when your running back peeled off a 41-yard catch-and-run from a pass from Steve Merka. That is a highly specific name, conspicuous enough to seem like it's an Easter egg. It is, sorta. Merka is also a designer on NCAA Football 14.
Since 2011, Road to Glory players have been able to create and import team names and uniform designs from the game's TeamBuilder web application to build out a high school schedule involving their alma maters and all their local rivals. But since last year's version, the rosters have been stocked by an on-disc data file. And all of your teammates—and nearly a quarter of everyone you face—are named for someone who helped make the game.
It's one of the coolest and most subtle credit sequences in video gaming, sports or otherwise. First of all, it comes at the beginning of your campaign, and it also presents the names to you in a situation where you're likely to actually remember them, rather than as a text scroll from the game's "Extras" menu that you're unlikely ever to read.
Once NCAA Football added a regular season to Road to Glory's career mode, Haumiller explained, there needed to be a continuity to go along with it. A favorite receiver for your quarterback. A free safety to assist your hard-hitting cornerback. And the guys you played against couldn't repeat their names, either. The surest way to pull this off was to create a roster file that, spread across the dozen or so high school games you may play, looked like it was populated by real people. So, real people were drafted.
"It's open to anybody on the game's development team, and also to anyone who has worked on any aspect of NCAA—like an artist in central [development]," Haumiller explained. "It's a chance for some folks to see their name in lights a little more than they would, normally."
Once the core design team made the decision to stock the roster with real names, they circulated an internal memo: Hey, if you want to be in the game, see us and give us a preferred position. A bunch of guys asked in with their high school or college position and number. Rodney Washington in QA, for example, was a defensive tackle at Western Kentucky, and is a real ballbreaker in this game. Clint Oldenburg, who came to EA Sports from Colorado State, is a former lineman who designed the new blocking intelligence. He plays his same college position, too: left tackle.
"Larry Legend is one of the quarterbacks in the game," Haumiller chuckled, referring to Larry Richart, a gameplay designer on the core team serving both Madden and NCAA. Richart played quarterback at Florida under Steve Spurrier. Yeah, mmhm, that's real nice. In Road to Glory, he's my garbage-time backup. PS, I never played a down in real high school.
"You had to be smart about which position you took," Haumiller said. "Oh, you want to be a quarterback? Yeah, well, guess what: nine out of ten users in Road to Glory are creating themselves as quarterbacks."
What about Haumiller? He was a high school lineman who fielded attention from Texas A&M but went to Florida State, where he chose not to walk on and get the hell beat out of himself in two-a-days. Is he on the Road to Glory roster?
"Oh, no," groaned Haumiller, with a tone that implied the "hell". "I get blamed enough for the problems of the game. I don't need to be the receiver who drops the touchdown pass that causes you to lose the state championship."
But he's right in that you do form a connection to your teammates. Howell, for example, I know I can hand that guy the ball on any down and distance and get my ass out of a crack. Alex, thank you, I promise we are going to go to Auburn together. Or maybe not.
"We've talked about it, the idea that you can be recruited with your teammates to the same college, or play against them when you get to college, but it hasn't happened yet," Haumiller said. For now, the high school roster is discrete. Any position not occupied by an EA Sports developer is populated by two names from the random roster library. Once you get to college, though, that's it. You won't see any of the Tiburon guys in your lineup.
With this kind of fungible immortality at stake, I asked Haumiller if people lobbied to have their ratings changed. "You do have people who are like, 'Oh come on,' I want to be this or that." he said. "Some of it is in good natured fun. It's a competitive atmosphere, we're sports guys. You have people asking, 'Wait, why am I second string? What do you mean?'"
That still doesn't account for the superhuman ability of Howell, Road to Glory's top designer, in that mode. I'm not kidding. You have to be playing quarterback or wide receiver to see it, because Howell is hardwired to the user's high school team in Road to Glory. At running back, Alex Howell is a greater destructive force than fellow Auburn alumnus Vincent Edward "Bo" Jackson.
Haumiller said he didn't think Howell had any direct authority over the high school roster's ratings in Road to Glory. "But, would I be shocked or angered if I found out he went in and said, 'You know what, I'm gonna make this guy just a little bit better'?" Haumiller said. "No."
Here is the entire roster of NCAA Football 14 development team members who appear in the game's "Road to Glory" mode:
- Peter Arisman, RE (Core Graphics Supervisor)
- Joshua Bandy, LOLB (Audio Artist)
- Damion Banks, LT (Dev Director )
- Maurice Bennett, TE (Animator)
- Frank Breen, LOLB (Software Engineer)
- Christian Buhl, C (Technical Director)
- Nick Bullock, CB (Software Engineer)
- Andrew Burch, ROLB (QA)
- Daniel Caldwell, DT (Software Engineer)
- Andres Cantor, FB (Dev Manager)'
- Telly Concepcion, CB (Designer Intern)
- Paul Connors, DT (Software Engineer)
- Rex Dickson, ROLB (Gameplay Creative Director)
- Eddie Dorsey, QB (Dev Director )
- Brian Engel, SS (Software Engineer)
- Brandon Ferwerda, WR (Designer)
- Kyle Freeborg, MLB (QA Project Manager)
- Narayan Glick, FB (QA)
- Hector Gonzalez, HB (QA)
- Thomas Green, CB (Dev Director)
- Malcolm Gruber, LT (Software Engineer)
- Rex Harris, DT (QA)
- Roy Harvey, K (Executive Producer)
- Andrew Hayford, HB (Software Engineer)
- Alex Howell, HB (Designer)
- Chris Husein, WR (UI Artist)
- Seth Jacobson, LE (Software Engineer)
- Nathan Jansen, RE (Software Engineer)
- Michael Jonstone, RT (Software Engineer)
- Rob Kyle, TE (QA)
- Kolbe Launchbaugh, LE (Creative Director)
- Jen Liston, P (Software Engineer)
- Brian Manson, CB (Software Engineer)
- Michael Masterson, SS (Software Engineer)
- Christian McLeod, FS (Designer)
- Steve Merka, QB (Designer)
- Sam Mirabal, RT (QA)
- James Mirvil, LG (QA)
- Donny Moore, CB (Ratings Czar)
- Matt Murphy, WR (Software Engineer)
- Thien Nguyen, WR (Software Engineer)
- Clint Oldenburg, LT (Designer)
- Jeff Ostergaard, CB (Art Director)
- Craig Ostrander, WR (Sr. Producer)
- James Pestrak, LE (Business Analyst)
- Jordan Peterson, RE (Designer)
- Ben Ramsour, ROLB (Dev Manager)
- Larry Richart, QB (Gameplay Designer)
- Rowdy Riemer, RG (Software Engineer)
- Felix Rivero, WR (Software Engineer)
- Leo Rodriguez, FS (Dev Manager)
- Justin Rogers, DT (Animator)
- Glen Royer, LG (Animator)
- Geo Sarria, WR (QA Project Lead)
- Eric Saunder, RG (Producer)
- Brandon Smith, MLB (Software Engineer)
- Dale Stump, MLB (Sr. Audio Artist)
- Mark Taylor, SS (Dev Director)
- Adam Thompson, C (Designer)
- Andrew Tremblay, WR (Software Engineer)
- Mike VanDerMeulen, QB (Software Engineer)
- Kamau Vassall, WR (Software Engineer)
- Rodney Washington, DT (QA)
- David Webster, DT (Animator)
- Michael Weisbecker, TE (Designer)
- Bill Wilson, HB (Dev Manager)
- Darren Wilson, HB (Software Engineer)
- Joel Young, DT (Development Director)