When the demo for Madden NFL 11 was released, there was a clamor and din rising from veteran Madden gamers on Internet forums, primarily centered around the addition of the “Strategy Pad”, a new way of making pre-snap adjustments within the game.
Without belaboring the point, the complaints generally fell into a select few categories:
1. I liked it the way it was.
2. I don’t want to memorize something different.
3. I can’t make a dozen changes in five seconds like I could before.
Now, of course, Madden is often the poster child for Internet forum-dwellers that complain that yearly sports games don’t innovate enough, so these complaints are fascinating at the very least. The dirty little secret with Madden’s pre-snap adjustments over the years - to those who play online, anyway - is that far too many gamers use their memorized button patterns to “nano-blitz”, among other exploits, to ensure victory against less experienced - or more scrupulous - players.
Now, it’s perfectly fair to say that repairing these holes in Madden’s engine that allow these exploits should be a priority for the developers, and the advent of the Strategy Pad - which reduces the number of possible pre-snap moves simply due to the mechanism itself - may provide little more than a cover for those holes, but it’s also worth noting that it’s more realistic.
In the NFL, even the wildly gesticulating Peyton Manning doesn’t have time to get to the line of scrimmage and call three hot routes, change his blocking scheme and flip the play direction. But in past Maddens, gamers could. And frankly, it was a little ridiculous. The Strategy Pad would have alleviated that and added to the game’s realism, all while making the game a bit more accessible to new players.
“Would have”, because EA Sports caved in to the squeaky wheels once more, and cut their own innovation off at the knees.
Madden’s creative director, Ian Cummings, while rather clearly pointing out why the Strategy Pad was created and why it’s a better system going forward, finished his blog post with this: “We do believe that this change is for the better, and that in the long run it delivers a much more positive experience to the gamers that are willing to try and adapt. Due to the overwhelming feedback however, we will be providing the old-style button commands as an option that can be enabled. We are currently targeting this change to be released around the first week of the NFL season as it will take some time to get through third party approvals.”
I understand Cummings’ dilemma. Here, even before the game is released, you have a vocal minority of rabid fans ripping the game’s demo before it’s even released, and you feel a need to compensate. I can sympathize. But it’s still unwise. Here’s why.
First, How many of the gamers that are complaining now would have actually chosen not to purchase the game? What other options do they have? There are no other NFL games on the market - and they’re obviously huge Madden fans. I’d be willing to bet that very few, if any, sales would have been lost by sticking to their guns and allowing the game that they believed in during its creation to see the light of day, unaltered.
Second, how many new customers would have been lost had EA Sports not changed the command scheme to allow the Strategy Pad to be bypassed? Any? The system was complicated and generally only benefited veterans of the series, and any of those folks who tried to explain why new gamers should skip a purchase due to not being able to press Y, then X then flick the right stick up for a fly pattern would have likely been met with blank stares. Again, no discernible loss in sales there, either.
Third, EA Sports did the same thing with the latest iteration of their boxing sim, Fight Night. Instead of sticking with their intuitive, innovative controls, the publisher patched the game to allow button-mashing after caving into the howls of the forum mobs, killing the flow and nuance of the title and resulting in a toxic mishmash of performance that cratered in the marketplace and left copies languishing on the store shelves.
Essentially, there was nothing tangible to lose by keeping the faith, by trusting in the developers’ judgment; something EA Sports did during Madden’s entire design process. And there was much to gain; a chance for increased realism, an improved track record of innovation and an opportunity to move the series forward quickly. Instead, by allowing themselves to be cyber-bullied by a disorganized group that would have had essentially zero effect on their bottom line, Madden has already missed on these opportunities, giving back the exploit powers to the would-be cheaters and encouraging intellectual sloth among their users.
And all this before the game’s even been released. It’s like training for year to run a marathon, lining up at the start, and then leaving right before the starter’s gun goes off because someone in the stands said they didn’t like the color of your shoes.
To EA Sports, I offer only this - while feedback and focus groups are wonderful tools, have a little faith in yourselves, too. Give yourselves a chance to succeed before declaring yourselves a failure, because the road to hell is paved with good intentions.