Category Archives: Sports

Red Steel 2 builds arm strength

I’m writing a story on Red Steel 2; I can’t tell you what kind of story because it’s classified. Seriously! The crazy thing, however, isn’t the type of story I am writing. It’s what Red Steel 2 is doing to my physique, my body. After three days of playing it, not one but both of my arms are ridiculously sore. Red Steel 2 is giving me a workout and it’s making my shoulders (deltoids) and back muscles (laterals) more sore than rowing on my home-owned Concept Rower 2. If you’ve ever rowed on a rowing machine, or rowed on a competitive team in college, you know that is saying something.

For example, today against several heavy duty bosses in arenas where other ninja types joined into the fray, I worked up a serious sweat fighting them all off. I pushed away my chair, stood up and felt like I was in a boxing ring (only with a sword). I moved around, got in a bent-knee fighting stance, arms sustained in air, grim determination on my face. In these particular fights, I had to employ all of the techniques the game had to teach. I swung hard and wide, delivering upper cuts, and slashed the sword down vertically in hopeful, knock-down attacks. There are certain foes you have to slash the armor off; they require multiple horizontal slashes, and then follow-up attacks. Others, like the guy above, you’ll have to avoid, strafe, and attack from behind.

I swear, afterward, I felt like I had been to the gym. Yes, you say, I must be out of shape. Ah, true that. I am no triathlete. But I’m not in terrible shape either. I walk, row, run, and bike. So, you know, this is the real deal. I know Ubisoft isn’t going to sell this game as a workout regimen,  but gamers who play Red Steel 2 will not feel like coach potatoes when they’re done, they’ll feel sore and, strangely, better.

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The Monetization Game: Moore calls current gen a burning platform

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This past Saturday I had the chance to moderate the keynote panel at Play: The Berkeley Digital Media Conference, an annual Haas Business School conference that covers a variety of tech, media, and business issues. It was a gorgeous day to be back at Cal where I graduated, and in a nice added touch, Cal stomped UCLA down in LA.

The keynote panel was entitled “The Monetization Game,” and the panelists included Peter Moore, president of EA Sports, Neil Young, president of ngmoco, and Kai Hwuang, co-founder of RedOctane, plus little ol’ me.  The topic was as broad as they come: How is the video game industry changing the way it’s monetizing the sales of games?

I brought an outline that ranged from discussing the emergence of social games, smart phone games, retail versus digital distribution, next generation consoles, the recession, death of the music genre, and more. we had one hour to discuss it all, and we covered almost everything in front of a 90% packed auditorium. IGN, Games Radar, and Kotaku covered it.

Here are their stories:

IGN: EA: Core Business Model a ‘Burning Platform’

Kotaku: Talking Points Brought to you Mostly By Peter Moore

Kotaku: Guitar Hero, Madden, Eliminate Play the Money Game

GamesRadar’s page was broken tonight. I’ll update their link when it’s back up.

There should be video of the conference available in a few days, too. I’ll post the link when it’s ready.

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SSX Originally Designed for Dreamcast

Electronic Arts’ original boardercross game, SSX, was initially designed for the Dreamcast, not the PS2, Bing Gordon told me in a phone interview for the story, The Rise and Fall of Dreamcast, live at Gamasutra.com.ssx3_boxboxart

SSX’s original executive producer, Steve Rechtschaffner (SSX, WCW Mayhem) and creator of the EA brand BIG, re-affirmed Dreamcast was the game’s original home and added he was sad to see it leave the Dreamcast.

“Our team was designing SSX towards the Dreamcast and was extremely bummed when the word came down that we weren’t going to support the platform,” said Rechtschaffner. “I guess in the end, the PS2 was a better place, for a myriad of reasons, for SSX to call home.”

On a personal note, SSX was one of my favorite “extreme” games of its kind, along with the first three iterations of Tony Hawk and the now defunct Z-Axis rollerblade game, Aggressive Inline.

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NHL 2K10 Preview on GamesRadar

In 2008, Visual Concepts found itself in the unenviable position of picking up the 2K hockey series in mid-development, with only five months to build and complete NHL 2K9. The critics assailed the game with an average Metacritic rating of 6.8.

NHL2K10_image

In response, the company took the beating, focused its new team and built a deep, impressive-looking follow-up that packs a massive array of visual upgrades, customizable options and online features. NHL 2K10 looks like the developer’s most feature-rich game in years.

To begin with, Visual Concepts wanted to lock in distinct offensive and defensive moves so that gamers could feel like they had more control. On defense, using the Y button on the Xbox 360 (triangle on PS3), you can lift your opponent’s stick in to get into the other player’s space and flick the ball away from him.

Check the full preview on GamesRadar.com.

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Modern Warfare 2 Debut Trailer

Yeah, you'll be wanting this in November.

Yeah, you'll be wanting this in November.

In case you missed the LA Lakers getting “whooped” (LA guard Kobe Bryant’s words) last night by the resurgent Denver Nuggets, Activision debuted the second trailer from Infinity Ward’s shooter Modern Warfare 2 during the NBA Western Conference Finals.

Infinity Ward continues to show its remarkable technical prowess with Modern Warfare 2, as shown in this 30-second trailer, and from what I can tell, most of the footage was scripted in-game footage.

But, it really doesn’t matter: we know what Call of Duty: Modern Warfare looks like, and this looked similar if not a little better. Activision’s ace developer has taken EA’s WII shooter, perfected it, and moved it into the new world, ditching not only World War II, but the Call of Duty franchise altogether, apparently leaving that for Treyarch to handle. Thankfully Treyarch, which cranked out a really crappy COD 3, stepped up to the plate with COD 4: World at War, providing gamers with a stalwart single-player game and a addictive multiplayer game, to boot.

Go watch the trailer. Modern Warfare 2 ships November 10, 2009 on Xbox 360 and PS3.

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Fight Night Round 4 Impressions

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Muhammad Ali connects with a left jab. Note the additonal musculature and definition.

At Electronic Arts’ EA3 last week, EA Montreal demoed what can only be described as an extremely intoxicating, heart-pounding new version of Fight Night: Round 4.

Like any good developer, they listened to fan, critics, and reviewers, and determined how to approach FN: Round 4.  And while it almost sounds like a cliché at this point, when developers re-tool their physics engines, the games usually do look and play better.

Following EA Chicago’s 2006 next gen debut of Fight Night Round 3 on Xbox 360, FN: Round 4 takes what was largely an eight-point body model, and has created what is essentially an infinite number of boxing options. Where boxers could connect in a few parts of the head and body before, this physics engine enables, for instance, a powerful punch by young Mike Tyson to push through the block of a defender, enabling Tyson’s power, strength, and targeting to determine the punch’s damage. (A lot, btw.)

The engine also takes into account all sorts of other factors. Glance a blow off the opponent’s head and it won’t count for as much as square, direct punch, or a punch to the temple, of a punch to the eye. In other words, the angle, power, and directness of the hit are all taken into account in tallying the punch’s damage.

Roy Jones, Jr. leans out of harm's way.

Roy Jones, Jr. leans out of harm's way.

Associate Producer Michael Mahar was on-hand to fight with me in a match that suited the times, featuring Manny Pacquiao versus Ricky Hatton. This was exactly my kind of fight. I like light-weight boxers who are able throw many punches, are able to weave and react quickly, and who peck away with their irritating, constant jabs. While chatting, he said his team had gotten rid of the parrying ability for various reasons. The main one, however, was because parrying just didn’t cut it during major fights. It’s a non-factor and something that didn’t make sense in this new model.

Just like FN: Round 3, FN: Round 4 is full of great visuals and sound effects. Graphically, boxers show accumulative facial damage, with darkening under the eyes, a growing palette of purple and red colors coloring the face, and registering with swelling lips, cheeks, and eyes. When you stun or come close to knocking out  an opponent, the camera zooms in a touch, the crowd grows in volume, and while vulnerable the opponent looks fazed. If the same happens to you, you’ll get dizzy and lose control for a second: you’ll see your boxer stumble or let down his gloves or just look blankly into the air. If you do get knocked out, getting up before the ref calls it quits works differently than before. You’ll follow a quick set of rhythm-based arrow patterns with the analog sticks. Do it right and you’ll stagger up. Miss the beat, and you’ll be out.

The controls have remained relatively the same. Players use the dual analogs for nearly everything. Aim the left analog for the left hand, right for the right hand. Hooks, jabs, uppercuts, roundhouses–all are handled the same. Press the right shoulder button (R2) for a haymaker, and R1 for defending high or low, and L1 for leaning out of harm’s way.

"Frazier connects with a devastating right hook! Oh my!" Sound familiar?

"Frazier connects with a devastating right hook! Oh my!" Sound familiar?

The audio portion was just as “crunchy” as previous builds. A direct uppercut or a hook to the face will result in what sounds like celery or a carrot crunching. It’s over the top, but the visceral effect works. Additionally, EA has done a great job with the crowd which reacts to momentum changes and sense upcoming knock-outs.

Before his descent into weirdness, Tyson was a ferocious, unbeatable brute. EA tries to capture those days in FN: Round 4.

Before his descent into weirdness, Tyson was a ferocious, unbeatable brute. EA tries to capture those days in FN: Round 4.

There are dozens more little details to reveal, like players’ ability to simultaneously handle their boxer in the corner in between rounds, speeding up the game from the cool-looking yet tedious manner in which your cut man would handle his boxer. One more thing, Mahar says FN: Round 4 has more boxers than any previous Fight Night iterations, sporting a roster with more than 50 boxers all told, not to mention the deep create-a-character functionality that’s improved from FN: Round 3.

Fight Night Round 4 is due on Xbox 360 and PS3 this summer (probably June).  I’ll have more before or during E3 2009.

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The Best of Madden

In light of sports commentator John Madden’s retirement from the booth, coupled with the summer release of Madden NFL 10, a sudden overwhelming feeling made me stop and think: Which Madden rules over the rest?

The question is subjective in nature. There is no empiric evidence that points to a clear winner during the last 21 years of EA’s Madden series. The question itself might even be considered questionable –Does there have to be a best Madden? And, who cares?

Sports fans do. They rank and compare the numbers on everything. Given the series’ immense history, EA’s annual output of a new Madden, and the series’ evolution from 1989 to the upcoming Madden NFL 10–an evolution that itself is an insight into the video game industry–delving into the series makes a lot of sense.

But if there isn’t a single “best” Madden, which ones stand out from the pack? There are Madden games that have risen above the rest in each era, from the 16-bit Genesis games to the knockout 2000 PS2 launch title. Which ones stood out graphically? (What about them virtual polygons?) Which made the biggest tech leaps? Which ones failed?

THE ROSTER

I’ve interviewed Madden specialists, including a handful of select journalists, each of whom has followed, played, and reviewed the series (and many other football games) for more than a decade.  I’ve interviewed a Madden competitor, a guy who’s appeared on Madden Nation and who runs a Madden fan site. I’ve included interviews with Tiburon’s producers to get a deeper look at the series from the inside. And I’ve included an interview with a former Visual Concepts producer and designer.

These folks include ESPN host and analyst Aaron Boulding, Game Informer’s sports experts Matt Bertz and Matthew Kato, and former long-term EGM sports writer (and current Insomniac community manager) Bryan Intihar. I also grabbed some time with EA’s Steve Chiang, senior vice president and group GM of Tiburon Studio, and Jeremy Strauser, Tiburon’s executive producer, each of whom have helmed the series through countless iterations. For a counter-point to EA, Dave Zdyrko, I spoke with former gameplay producer/designer at Visual Concepts and current lead designer at Quick Hit, Inc. And finally, we spoke with Raymond “Shopmaster” Goode. He was a contestant on Madden Nation (the TV show) and runs the fan sites Maddenwars.com, MyMaddenPad.com.

THE PROS’ ANSWERS

In email interviews with the aforementioned group, I asked the same set of questions, which is the best overall Madden game in the series? What is your top five list of Madden games? Which made the biggest improvements graphically? Which versions made the biggest gameplay advancements?  Which was the worst version? And which gave you your first “a-ha!” moment? For the purposes of this article, I pared down their answers to their favorite game, plus their top five all-time favorites. For the full set of individual interviews, click on the names of each contributor.

Which Madden games made the pro’s top choices?

Aaron Boulding is a host and analyst for ESPN.

Aaron Boulding is a host and analyst for ESPN.

Aaron Boulding (ESPN): Madden NFL 92 (Genesis: until Madden NFL 10)

“With the exception of Madden ’06, which was an insult to video game football fans everywhere, the best version is always the most recent version,” explains Boulding. “All of the lessons, mistakes, improvements, enhancements and innovations of previous games are put to good use in the game that’s out right now. Even bad ideas like the quarterback vision cone (Madden 06) went to a halfway house in subsequent editions of the game before being banished forever (Madden NFL 10).”

Boulding’s Top Five

1. Madden NFL 92 (“Genesis: It had ambulances on the field thanks to Randall Cunningham’s brittle ass,” said Boulding. “JJ Birden and Neal Anderson were unstoppable.”)

2. Madden NFL 2005 (Xbox)

3. Madden NFL 09 (Xbox 360)

4. Madden NFL 08 (Xbox 360)

5. Madden NFL 2001 (PS2)

Matt Bertz is the content manager for Game Informer magazine.

Matt Bertz is the content manager for Game Informer magazine.

Matt Bertz (Game Informer): Madden 99 on Nintendo 64

“‘Best overall game’ is a tricky term when you’re talking about an evolving series,” said Bertz. “One the one hand you have to go with the latest version, which features most of the gameplay improvements and innovations that made the game great over the last two decades. But if you use the term ‘best overall game’ to point toward the version that introduced the most innovative ideas I would have to go with Madden 99 for the N64. I think the debut of the franchise mode is the pinnacle achievement in the series history, and Madden 99 also marked the series transition to 3D and motion-captured animations.”

Bertz’s Top Five

1. Madden 99 (N64)
2. Madden 04 (PS2)
3. Madden 94 (Genesis)
4. Madden 01 (PC)
5. Madden 95 (Genesis)

Matthew Kato is the senior associate editor at Game Informer magazine.

Matthew Kato is the sr. associate editor at Game Informer.

Matthew Kato (Game Informer): Madden ‘06 for the PS2

“Madden ’06 had QB vision, Superstar mode (where you get to control one player on and off the field), and was a fast-playing title that had honed some of the series problems through the years,” said Kato.

Kato’s Top Five

1. Madden ‘06 (PS2)
2. Madden ‘04 (PS2)
3. Madden ‘94 (Genesis)
4. Madden ‘99 (PS)
5. Madden ‘96 (Genesis)

Bryan Intihar is the former sports writer for EGM.

Bryan Intihar is the former sports writer for EGM.

Bryan Intihar (Insomniac): Madden NFL 2001 (PS2)

“Even though the later PS2/XB/GC iterations continually improved gameplay, Madden NFL 2001 (PS2) will go down as my personal favorite,” said Intihar. “I’ve already commented on the visuals, but it was one of the first sports games that really started concentrating on the subtleties. No matter which NFL team you were a fan of, you knew the players—from their body proportions to extra gear—were going to be unbelievably accurate.”

Intihar’s Top Five:

1. Madden NFL 01 (PS2)
2. Madden 92 (Genesis)
3. Madden NFL 05 (PS2/Xbox)
4. Madden 93 (Genesis)
5. Madden NFL 08 (Xbox 360)

Dave "Z" Zdyrko is the lead designer for Quick Hit Football.

Dave "Z" Zdyrko is the lead designer for Quick Hit Football.

Dave Zdyrko (former producer/designer, Visual Concepts): Madden NFL 2001 (PS2)

“I wouldn’t necessarily call them the best, but my fondest memories are with Madden ’98 for the Sony PlayStation and Madden ’94 for the Sega Genesis,” said Zdyrko. “My level of enjoyment with Madden typically came from playing with my boys and these two versions happened to garnish some of my all-time Madden moments.”

Zdyrko’s Top Five

1. Madden NFL 2001 (PS2)
2. Madden NFL ’98 (PS)
3. Madden NFL ’94 (Genesis)
4. Madden NFL ’93 (Genesis)
5. Madden NFL ’08 (Xbox)

Steve Chiang, image courtesy of Jim Carchidi

Steve Chiang, sr VP & Group GM, EA Tiburon (image courtesy of Jim Carchidi)

Steve Chiang (Tiburon): Madden NFL 2004 (PS2)

Excluding current PS3/Xbox 360/Wii, Madden NFL 2004 for the PS2 with Michael Vick on the cover was a great one,” said Chiang. “We had an awesome feature set with Playmaker control, Owner Mode, and things like the EA SPORTS Bio, which was an EA SPORTS version of the Xbox 360 achievement system… we tracked achievements for all of your EA SPORTS titles.”

Chiang’s Top Five:

1. Madden NFL 2004 (PS2)

2. Madden NFL 2001 (PS2: it took the franchise to the next level)

3. Madden NFL ’96 (Super NES: first football game made by Tiburon)

4. Madden NFL ’97 (PS: first 32-bit football game, and when Tiburon took over future versions of the game)

5. Madden NFL ’99 (first version with Franchise mode)

Jeremy Strauser is the executive producer on Madden at EA Tiburon

Jeremy Strauser is the executive producer on Madden at EA Tiburon

Jeremy Strauser (Tiburon): Madden NFL 2004 (PS2)

“This is a tough question,” pondered Strauser. “It is like asking to pick our favorite child.  If forced to pick just one, I would have to say Madden NFL 2004 for the PS2 and Xbox would be it.  The graphical and gameplay engine were in its fourth year, which is about what it takes to reach peak capability, online play was going strong, we had a solid base feature set and then added two huge things in Playmaker Control and Owner Mode.  Madden NFL 10 has the potential to be that version for our current generation of engines.”

Strauser’s Top Five: 1. Madden NFL 2004 (PS2)

2. Madden NFL 2001 (PS2: this launched Madden into a new level)

3. Madden NFL 09 (Xbox 360/PS3: Amazing graphical engine, feature set filled out nicely)

4. Madden NFL 96 (Sega Genesis: My first credited Madden game, for purely sentimental reasons)

5. Madden 93 Championship Edition (Sega Genesis: classical best gameplay, top historical teams, cool and rare cartridge)

Jeremy "Shopmaster" Goode runs MaddenWars.com

Jeremy "Shopmaster" Goode runs MaddenWars.com

Raymond “Shopmaster” Goode (Maddenwars.com): Madden 06 on PS2

“I would have to say that last year’s Madden 09 for the XBOX 360 was one of the best Madden game in the series,” said Goode. “Madden 09 had made so many strides from 08 that it was hard not to like the game. Running a close second has to be Madden 06 for the PS2.  Madden 06 with McNabb on the cover was a very good game also because it introduced the vision cone, which was a good in my opinion but wasn’t as well received by the community.”

Goode’s Top Five

1. Madden 06 (PS2)

2. Madden 05 (PS2)

3. Madden 09 (Xbox 360)

4. Madden 03 (PS2)

5. Madden 92 (Sega Genesis)

The Pro Winners: It’s a three-way tie between Madden NFL 06 (PS2), Madden NFL 2001 (PS2), Madden NFL 2004 (PS2).

THE AGGREGATE SCORES

While aggregation sites like Metacritic.com don’t always accurately reflect media outlet scores, they do a good job of providing a baseline average. The best average score on MetaCritic is Madden NFL 2003 (with Rams running back Marshall Faulk on the cover) for PlayStation 2, with a 95 overall ranking and which collected 10 perfect scores.

Tied for second place are Madden NFL 2002 (with Daunte Culpepper) and Madden NFL 2004 (with Michael Vick) on PS2, both of which scored an average of 94, the latter of which collected 11 perfect scores from media outlets.

GameRankings.com‘s top accumulated Madden review is Madden NFL 2004 on PS2 (91.75%). It is followed by Madden NFL 2002 on PS2 (91.66%), Madden NFL 2004 on GameCube (91.54%), Madden NFL 2003 on PS2 (91.40%), and Madden NFL ’96 on the Sega Genesis (91.25%). These are all aggregated scores from select media outlets.

Metacritic.com “winner”: Madden NFL 2003

GameRankings “winner”: Madden NFL 2004

MADDEN BY THE NUMBERS

Publishers use NPD’s TRSTS data to track unit sales in North America. Sales numbers help publishers determine whether to create a sequel. For Madden, that’s not really an issue, since there is always a sequel! Sales numbers aren’t good, however, for determining which games are best. If quality was equal to quantity than Britney Spears (a Mousekateer) would be a talented goddess of dance and song, instead of a popular pop singer who stole all Janet Jackson’s dance moves.

Sticking a wrench in evaluating sales numbers is the fact that newly launched consoles have poor installed bases. When the Xbox 360 arrived in fall 2005, EA could only sell as many Maddens as there were consoles in homes, and that’s assuming that every single Xbox 360 owner bought Madden NFL 06 (which they didn’t). To make up for early systems, EA also made Madden on existing systems (PS2, GameCube, Xbox, PSP, etc.), which is why the numbers (below) look they way they do. Also remember that Madden NFL 07 arrived in summer 2006, and it probably sold more units on PS2 than on Xbox 360.

Still, looking at Madden’s best selling games helps us determine the most popular Madden games in the public’s eye. The best selling Madden titles in North America across all SKUs (systems) are:

1. Madden NFL 07

2. Madden NFL 08

3. Madden NFL 09

4. Madden NFL 06

5. Madden NFL 2004

Some other interesting facts–according to NPD, year to date:

–Madden NFL 09 is the third highest selling title across all SKUs combined

–Madden NFL 09 is the fourth highest selling Xbox 360 title

–Madden NFL 09 is the second highest selling PS3 title

–Madden NFL 09 is the fourth highest grossing title across all SKUs combined

–Madden NFL 09 is the fifth highest grossing Xbox 360 title

–Madden NFL 09 is the second highest grossing PS3 title

Sales “Winner”: Madden NFL 07

MAKING SENSE OF MADDEN

The Madden NFL franchise is a remarkable series in the history of video games. It’s popular; very, very popular. It’s developed an incredible brand name; many gamers know “Madden” first as a game, second as an announcer. It’s not always the best football series, as early versions of GameDay and a handful of NFL 2K versions have shown. “Madden ’06…was an insult to video game football fans everywhere,” Boulding explains.

Furthermore, many gamers see EA’s exclusive NFL licensing as a negative. “Whether it was Tecmo Super Bowl, NFL Gameday, or the 2K series, competition has always made Madden better,” says Bertz. “A rivalry-based league like the NFL should realize that competition breeds success, and I hope they lift the exclusivity agreement when the option presents itself.”

But  since 1989, EA has cranked out a new Madden game each year, every new version full of new feature sets, improved gameplay and production values. “I think the series usually does a good job of trying to including things–like franchise innovations, superstar mode, QB Vision –that go beyond just being a yearly sports title that non-sports fans thinks is just churned out with new rosters,” says Kato.

To wit, Madden NFL 09’s player IQ feature is one of the more intriguinig features in years because it’s useful for both new and veteran players: it teaches players where they messed up and how to improve their game. The improvement to the game’s online functionality, added leagues,  and Tiburon’s constant focus on improving player control push the series each year to a potentially better game.

By looking at sales numbers, aggregate scores, and the pro picks, there was no clear winner. If any game surfaced to the top, Madden NFL 2004  was among the bigger favorites. Can Madden NFL 10 top them all?

Perhaps Boulding put it best. “With the exception of Madden ’06, which was an insult to video game football fans everywhere, the best version is always the most recent version. All of the lessons, mistakes, improvements, enhancements and innovations of previous games are put to good use in the game that’s out right now. Even bad ideas like the quarterback vision cone (Madden 06) went to a halfway house in subsequent editions of the game before being banished forever (Madden NFL 10).”

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Let me know what your favorite Madden games are (and include your top fives).

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