The development team didn't need to read a dozen reviews, all saying the same thing, to know where NCAA Football stood. A single presentation, in a creative debriefing shortly after the game's July release, said enough.
Four screenshots were shown, from NCAA 10 in 2009 to NCAA 13 this year. Guess which one comes from which game, the presenter asked.
He didn't get an answer, and he didn't need to. They all looked the same. And NCAA 13 was, frankly, more of the same, rather than anything truly new. Still playable, still good, still recommendable on those merits, sure. In sports, consistent performance year-to-year is a virtue. In sports video games, it's almost the worst thing that can be said about you.
"It was a pretty powerful demonstration," Ben Haumiller, the NCAA 13 producer, told me over the weekend. "We kind of knew where we stood right before the reviews came in, but seeing that really made the point."
On this console generation, NCAA Football has been one of the most even-keeled and deeply replayable series offered by EA Sports, especially coming out of a Tiburon studio known for badly missing the last console shift in 2005 with Madden NFL and struggling to find traction since.
This year, video game football's big brother gave little brother a noogie. Madden suffers heavy forum abuse by virtue of an exclusive license that critics say keeps the series complacent and lazy. NCAA Football has run unopposed since for a decade, but that's because 2K Sports, then under Sega, gave up on college football after College Football 2K2.
Yet this year Madden rolled out two huge changes—finally introducing a real-time physics engine, and then a multi-modal career setting that has no imitator in another title.
"It was hard," Haumilller said, "when Madden came out with a game that had two very new things [physics and Connected Careers], and we had one new mode [The Heisman Challenge] and then a lot more of what people saw last year."
Last weekend, Haumiller showed up in Raleigh, my old stomping ground, to do some in-person asset-gathering for NCAA 14. That's a fancy term for attending three college football games—at North Carolina, Duke and N.C. State—all on the same day, to capture crowd audio and also judge the stadium's atmospheres more holistically.
Haumiller was under strict orders not to discuss any specific features for NCAA 14, especially this far away from release date. Real-time physics are definitely coming to the college game next year—that much has been said by EA Sports' general manager for American football. But even if NCAA will get the "Infinity" physics engine after a year's worth of tuning, weeding out some of the more comical animations and post-play pile separations, that will not be enough to distinguish next year's game.
They're not going to be able to do it just with a new mode of play, either. "Heisman Challenge" this year demonstrated that. It was the first time named college football players appeared in the game, on the disc, at release. As I understand its inception, though, it was borne of a remark relayed by a marketing partner back to EA Tiburon, largely outfitted with existing plans the team had for its Road to Glory singleplayer career mode—including the bullet-time mechanic introduced this year.
The prominence of Heisman Challenge in this year's edition was almost entirely because of marketing, and, no doubt, a label looking to recover the money it spent paying more than a dozen all-time greats to appear in the game. And some intriguing interview moments notwithstanding (including, as I have heard, a mammoth tale involving a Big Ten school that had to be cut), it all just didn't stand up. NCAA 13 was too much like NCAA 12.
If the game isn't going to offer new modes of play, and Haumiller was tightlipped about all of that, then it has to play to two unique strengths: The tremendous variety of gameday experience offered by more than 120 teams, and in the compact four-season career it offers in "Road to Glory," the game's singleplayer mode.
Next year will likely be the last one to see NCAA published entirely on this hardware generation. That doesn't put the series in much of a position to try dramatically new things, because whatever is innovated next year must be recreated on another piece of hardware.
This may be why, when I pressed Haumiller for specifics, he offered vague comparisons to EA Canada titles like NHL and FIFA which have completely different menu presentation, meant to get you into the action faster. NCAA is probably the sports video game most weighed down by menu sludge, considering the time one spends in its recruiting simulator. This in no way sells a game, but considering the amount of time you spend in menus in NCAA, and how that homogenized experience can reinforce the feeling of playing the same game year after year, an overhaul there is in fact necessary.
The sameness of experience doesn't stop in the menus. When games feel the same—outside of pregame runouts and commentary—across 120 different venues, that's deadly. If the slam on NCAA 13 is that it felt too much like NCAA 12, then at least it has ten dozen stadiums, all with different cultures, to broaden the experience. That's about double the real-word stadiums offered in FIFA. And even though I went to one of the universities on Tobacco Road, I can tell you that only seeing three games, back-to-back-to-back on the same day, impresses on you the difference in how much football matters to each school. Yet outside of the field markings and the fight songs, you don't really feel that in NCAA Football. Not this year, anyway.
A year ago, in my review of NCAA Football 12, I wrote that the game was showing signs of something approaching the point of diminishing returns on the current console generation. NCAA 13 definitely overshot the mark, and now must retrench for one final year before Microsoft and Sony remake the landscape with new hardware offerings. I would not expect anything dramatically different in gameplay. But I wouldn't expect something that looks, sounds or feels like the past four years, either.