When Madden NFL 11 released last year with a virtually unchanged Franchise mode, Josh Looman expected to hear about it. He just expected to hear it on the message boards.
"I was hearing it in the grocery store," said Looman a longtime designer on EA Sports' bread-and-butter series. "If I wore a Madden t-shirt to the store, it'd be ‘Hey man, are you guys changing anything in Franchise? Are you bringing in expanded rosters?'
"It's crazy how many people play Franchise," said Looman; internal figures peg the user base of the multi-season campaign mode at 90 percent of those who play the game. So when the team at Tiburon first met last year to discuss Madden 12, a laundry list of upgrades, many of them community requested, topped the discussion.
"Because of the emphasis on GameFlow and features like Ultimate Team [in Madden 11], and those are features that take a lot of time to get into a game, we all agreed we wanted to do much more in franchise mode last year, and we all agreed this year we really had to," Looman said.
Indeed, many of the additions and changes meet longstanding community requests. The biggest change, however, is a dynamic player ratings system that will reduce the robot-like consistency of performance seen in players in past years. It was nice to rely on with performers like Peyton Manning, but dispiriting to play a franchise with a young talent like Detroit's Matt Stafford and rarely see-or contend with-the kind of breakout performance that makes every week so compelling in the NFL.
Other sports simulations have implemented the dynamic ratings concept, notably MLB 2K11. In Madden, players ratings will fluctuate from week to week, their swings governed by a new consistency rating. A common example is Philadelphia quarterback Michael Vick, who had a number of highlight reel performances last year, mixed with games in which he looked rather ordinary. "One week you might see the 90-rated Michael Vick, another you get the 70-rated Michael Vick," Looman said. "We want to make people feel like the players aren't robots. They have bad games, good games, and this carries over from week to week."
Streak performances, good or bad, will be limited to three games before the player re-sets to his original ratings, to keep players out of distorted upward or downward spirals. Consistency will be a new trait managed by Madden ratings and roster czar Donny Moore, and while talented rookies may enter the league with a low consistency rating, there is the potential for them to improve in successive years. Veterans will be less likely to change.
The next Madden will also expand rosters to 75 players, their pre-season limit, Looman said. This will create a deeper player-management experience in a couple of ways. "In franchise mode, it makes the preseason worth playing," Looman said. Armchair GMs will be evaluating prospective players on a week-by-week basis, unlocking portions of their ratings and attributes after each game, ultimately making a decision whether to keep or cut the player. (This system of concealing and unlocking ratings is also how rookies will be scouted prior to the draft.)
Expanded rosters also mean that Madden can include pure role players, such as Minnesota long snapper Cullen Loeffler, rather than leave them off the game's roster in favor of a skill position player who may be fighting to make the team. But the key solution expanded rosters provides will be in the game's injured reserve system, which diverged greatly from reality in past versions. With a limit of 55 players, at most one or two injured players could be held out on reserve. Multiple injuries would require releasing players to the free agent pool to make room for replacements.
With an expanded roster and the expanded injured reserve list, not only are gamers spared from the choice of dumping players, they also gain the benefit of keeping replacements close by if they've performed well, once the injured player returns. On the other hand, with a more accommodating injured reserve, the chance for players to be injured will increase.
"It fixes a lot of complaints and issues," Looman said. A truer injured reserve system was a longtime community request, he said. Many other features answer such requests, among them:
• Player Roles: Last seen in Madden NFL 07 on the PlayStation 2 and Xbox, roles such as "quarterback of the future," "mentor" or "fumble prone" provide a quick thumbnail of where players fit in on the team and, more importantly, alter their attributes accordingly. Mentors provide an attribute boost to younger players, while deep-threat receivers make their quarterbacks more accurate, for example. Roles fluctuate, and are won or lost during every offseason. There are 20 different roles.
• Changing Teams: Before the offseason begins in Franchise mode, you can switch the team you're controlling, or take control of multiple teams up to all 32.
• In-Franchise Practice: In Madden NFL 11 and past versions, practice mode existed solely outside of Franchise, where rosters and depth charts were different. Gamers had to export their team out of Franchise mode if they wanted to practice plays with it. Now, at any point during the preseason, regular season or playoffs of Franchise mode, you may practice with your team and its up-to-date roster.
• Trading draft picks: Another huge community request, future draft picks (up to one season in the future) will now be a consideration in making player trades.
Player management forms much of Franchise mode's appeal; it will become more sophisticated in Madden NFL 12 through new logic applied to the annual draft and to CPU-controlled teams' offseason personnel decisions. Drafts will also be less repetitive thanks to 30 seasons' worth of draft classes, created from scratch for Madden 12, with randomized names and numbers for all draft candidates (another community request).
AI-controlled teams will now draft according to identifiable franchise preferences (for example, the Oakland Raiders' penchant to draft for speed). Additionally, they will apply overhauled logic to their existing personnel in the offseason. In re-signing players, they'll evaluate his potential more realistically, and whether the team can do better drafting his replacement. In the past, a player like 49ers quarterback Alex Smith would be perpetually re-signed if the team had no other option on the roster.
There will also be a "cut dead weight" logic for players under contract, who in prior Maddens would be kept on the roster until their deal expired. In Madden 12 the Redskins may judge Donovan McNabb to be over the hill and release him before his contract is up.
The upshot of these changes is the free agent pool in the second and succeeding years of Franchise mode will be a lot more varied and useful to players trying to solve deficiencies in their roster or take a chance on value-priced performers. They'll be signed through a bidding process lifted from the old NFL Head Coach management sim of four years ago. That will make free agency go a lot more quickly - three minutes, versus the 15 minutes it took in Madden 11.
All that and more will address Franchise, but there was another mode many felt was neglected in Madden NFL 11: Superstar. The game's singleplayer career mode has gone three years with few, if any, major changes. While it doesn't sound like Superstar will be overhauled in Madden NFL 12, it will gain a role-playing-game style means of acquiring experience points and using them to build out your player. In versions of Superstar up to now, player attributes and advancement was handled purely by a background calculation.
"When we looked at that mode, we felt like that was the thing most missing," Looman said. "You just had no control over your superstar, and you were at the mercy of the system to tell you how good you are and what you did best." In the new Superstar mode, players will begin as a 60-rated rookie and will earn experience points based on how they perform individually and how their team does during the season.
As Looman ticks off the features, there's almost a sense of relief in his voice. He has worked on this game since Madden NFL 04 and is very familiar with the game's famously demanding community. It feels good to sell features that gamers have asked for, explicitly, in addition to the ones the Tiburon team developed on their own. And it feels good to be able to tell people in the checkout line that, yes, Franchise isn't going to sit idle for another year.
"When we sat down at the beginning of the year, the biggest thing was ‘Let's focus on giving the community what they want, and all of those things they've requested over the past couple of years," Looman said. "It's really making this all about them."