We had the opportunity to talk about NCAA Football 14 and how the game is programmed to make things more "real", especially on the Terp side of things, with producer Ben Haumiller. What follows is a partial transcript of the interview, with emphasis placed by us.
Testudo Times: I assume every year, as a person who works with sports video games, the common complaint that you get is 'How is it different from last year? How is it not just new rosters and all that?' What did you guys to do to make sure that this game is significantly different from last year's version?
Ben Haumiller: I think that is something that a sports game developer, especially of an annual title like ours, does have to answer every year. It's a common question, the first question - 'what's new this year? What's different?'. So, for us, it was very important to set this year apart from the previous years' games. I think, we'll be the first to admit, the game was beginning to show a little bit of its age. The game was starting to feel a little bit too similar year in and year out. We wanted to come in this year and make a big update, from the visual look the first time you jump into the game and just hit the main menu for the first time to every other aspect that goes along with it.
So gameplay-wise, it was adding in the Infinity Engine 2 so that we have physics applied to gameplay. That was a big change for us - Madden had that engine last year, it wasn't quite ready for us to grab last year. The six-week difference between when we shut down versus when they shut down was enough time for them to add the polish to make that engine ready to go. For us, we kind of considered it like a raw athlete that comes on to campus and needs to take a redshirt. He wasn't quite ready to step on the field.
So you've got the physics added in, which adds a big impact as far as the look of the game, as far as how players interact with each other. The Force Impact system was a new feature for this year to apply physics to things like stiff-arms and the Hit Stick and the Truck Stick. With the physics, with a stiff-arm, where the player makes contact, where the ball carrier makes contact with the defender, will determine how the player reacts to it. The size of the player, the ratings of the guys involved, all of that will determine how much of an impact that move will have.
Then you can continue on talking about gameplay and the option game. College football fans love the option, it's what college football's all about. You look at the NFL, they're just starting to bring in wrinkles of the read option with Kaepernick and RGIII and guys like that, but in college, it's entire offenses that are built around that read option concept. So, we wanted to really make sure that the option game was a lot of fun to run in the game, so a lot of work went into blocking and getting the pitch relationship correct so that the pitch man never strays too far out of the way, and just making it a blast to run something like the read option. I added in over 30 new different option types. I just made it so that the ground game is a lot of fun to run just traditional run play but also the option play. On top of that, making the CPU so much better at running the ball then they ever have been before. That's one thing, when people look at what's different between this year and last year, you know if you're playing the ACC schedule and you've got Georgia Tech on your schedule - if you're not prepared to shut down that option, they're going to put a ton of yards on you, unlike previous years, maybe, where you'd be able to shut them down pretty quickly and make them one-dimensional. It's been a fun part for us, seeing long-time fans of the series give up 300 yards on the ground to a school like Oregon and smile about it - they'd never had that happen to them. It's almost sadistic in a way, they're just like 'I can't believe it! I'm getting beat by the computer on the ground!'
TT: I read a piece where Owen Good at Kotaku interviewed you, and you guys talked about some of the parts of Road to Glory, and some of you guys being involved in the game on that level, but it seems like a lot of the programmers played college ball, played pro ball, and stuff like that, so how much did that go into what you guys are talking about all year this year, 'keeping it real'?
BH: Yeah, you know I think that's a great aspect for us to have. A couple years ago, we started an internship program, a fellowship internship with the NCAA, where former players that didn't go on to the NFL or are out of the NFL...to have these guys get involved in helping to make the game. It's great for us to have a guy like myself who is a huge college football fan and knows a ton about the sport, but I never played. My area isn't really about the Xs and Os, my area is more about knowing how the sport of college football functions, you know schedules and things like that, and I guess the more business side of things. The Xs and Os, that's where these guys come in.
TT: On our mind is conference expansion, so what kind of stuff do you guys have in mind there? Will Maryland automatically move to the Big Ten in a year or will the user have to manually do that?
BH: That's something that we definitely keep a heavy eye on, obviously, with all the changes that have been going on. I think I read a stat recently that, at the start of this season, I think it's one-fourth of all FBS schools will have moved conferences since Nebraska went to the Big Ten. It's just been a crazy change in the landscape of college football. You guys are definitely going to be a part of that, as what seems to be the last wave...at least for a while. Building in a feature like the custom conference feature allows us to give the flexibility to make changes in the future, based on whatever happens, we're not locked to whatever is known at the time we release the game. We don't really hard-code things in for future changes. Boise State was a primary example, back a few years ago they were talking about going to the Big East...and then that never materialized. If we had it hard-coded into the game that in Year Two Boise State...was going to the Big East, then we would just be factually inaccurate, and we'd have to come out with a patch and stuff like that. So we just give you an option through the Custom Conferences so you can set it up your own way, and you can adjust it in the offseason each year. When you get to Year Two, you can make those moves, you can put Maryland into the Big Ten, you can change the conference schedule in 2016 to nine games played instead of what's currently being played. So you can kind of make adjustments to future-proof yourself in the game, and that kind of takes the burden off of us having to figure out six years in the future, what should everything look like? And if you wanted to, as a Maryland fan right now - 'I want to be in the Big Ten right now, we can win it this year with me at the helm, knock out Ohio State and take the Big Ten crown this year', you could do it.
TT: You've talked about the physics engine, but I've heard there's a lot to do with the crowd and the stadium experience. How are Maryland fans going to know they're playing at Byrd Stadium?
BH: I think a lot of that is us trying to capture that pageantry of college football, that unique atmosphere that each stadium has. Every year we go out to a number of stadiums and capture crowd audio from those games, to be able to replace the chants that we currently use, that were recorded from a bunch of testers back in like 2003...we went to the rooftop of a garage and just started to belt out the chants for every school. That's been great, it's served us for a while now, but it's not as good as the real thing, that's why we started going out to these schools and going to the games and staying on the sidelines with these recorders and getting these cheers and these chants and we're trying to harvest some great material from these games and so when you go in I think you'll hear crowd audio that's more authentic than you've ever heard before in that we've really amped up how loud the crowd can get and fixed some issues in the past where there were lulls in the crowd...and just make it feel alive. We've added in some other things too, songs like Seven Nation Army and Zombie Nation - they're two songs that have kind of become synonymous with all of sports. If you watched the NBA Finals, down in Miami they were doing the Seven Nation Army chant during the game. It's kind of a unique one in that it's not just played during TV timeouts or just as filler, it's the crowd over top of a song that can be played at third down, it can be played at kickoff, it can be played at a lot of different areas. So if you have a song that's school-specific for a specific portion of the game, you will get that specific chant. But if you don't, if you don't have anything that's key for your third down stop or for your kickoff or whatever it is, you have the chance of having these songs play. It just sounds very organic and very natural, because these are things we captured from games that we were at. And so, we were just adding everything we could to make sure the stadium feels right, and to make sure that Byrd feels like Byrd in real life. It looks like it does in real life, too...
You look at the uniforms. That's another huge part. The boom of uniforms that past few years has been something unlike we've ever seen. Maryland has a great relationship with Under Armour, Kevin's doing a great job that you guys have everything that you possible could want, and for us it's working with Under Armour to make sure that we have all those details and all those plans as early as we possibly can, so that we can release those uniforms either with the game or, if they aren't revealed and ready to go in time for the game, we can release those later in the year. For Maryland, the jerseys aren't up-to-date right now, but that is something that will be fixed in the upcoming free DLC pack that will be coming out, I don't have a date for that just yet but it should be in the next couple of weeks or so that that will be ready. I know SVP, as soon as he got the game, he hit up a good friend of ours in marketing and was like 'C'mon man. What's going on here? You don't have my Terps looking right!'
Many thanks to Ben and the whole team at EA Sports for taking the time to talk to us. NCAA Football '14 is in stores now.