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As Long as We Remember...

May 16, 2008

Mad At Madden

Edward Lulie III

Back in the 1990s, John Madden, former coach and aspiring broadcaster, gave his name and efforts to design a computer game about football. Thus was born the Madden line of football simulators which have become part of our culture and even influenced the National Football League.


Recently EA Sports, makers of the game, announced that they would no longer be making a PC (personal computer) version of the game. In the future it would be solely for Xbox 360’s and all other console platforms.


So, with one announcement they infuriated tens of thousands (if not many more) hard core fans who helped build their product into what it is today. The anger of the irate fans has just started; most haven’t heard the news yet.


Why are we (and yes, I’m a fan, or was) so upset? Well, unlike the vast majority of console players (teens to mid 30s) who master the quick reflexes and techniques to play the game online live or against friends, the PC players tend to play the game differently. They obsess. They play in Coaching mode, they call plays and watch them being run, but they don’t operate the players as many Madden players do.


What do I mean by obsess? They play the game in Franchise mode, and they Coach. They plan plays, build teams and manage cap budgets. They carefully plan drafting strategies, and then go through the computer generated draft day complete with “Houston is now on the Clock!” announcements and Artificial Intelligence generated draft day trade offers being made. They keep notebooks of player stats and constantly update their work with NFL news, traded and retired players. They know injuries, and they all have favorite teams.


After the recent draft, they sat down on their computers and worked tirelessly adding the new rookie players to their teams, calculating their likely abilities into numbers, and then edited rosters.


Want to know how the Baltimore Ravens might fare this fall? Well, there are already game simulations being run with Joe Flacco as the starting QB (unlikely as that may be in reality) and games are being played.


Fanatics perhaps, but also loyal Madden fans who ordered the game months in advance and eagerly await the new season. They have been forgiving during the past few years of EA’s graphics mediocrity and errors.


Errors? Oh, take the bug where the animated Coach is supposed to be reviewing plays with two players on the sidelines, only just the floating clipboard and players were to be seen; the Coach was invisible. Or the graphics where the Coach’s images appear to be badly-done molds that didn’t quite fit and the line between front and back is glaringly visible. My favorite was the Gatorade being dumped by players on a successful but invisible Coach.


Now it’s all gone. Madden 2008 (running at around $10 in many stores if you can find it) will be a collectors item. There will be no Madden 2009 (for PC). Yet Madden 2008 will live on, supported by a vast net of web-based fanatics who will continue to make rosters, adjust player stats and create images of the players so they can continue to watch and play football long before the real games ever take place.


Are the simulators accurate in predicting games? I doubt it. Football has so many variables that it is very hard to make accurate predictions; it isn’t something as simple as calculating the dynamics of solar and planetary climate modeling used by Al Gore and others to “prove” Global Warming.


A hand calculator and notepad should do it, right? Well, no. There are so many variables, what plays are called, how well they are executed and how the opponent reacts, all these things have major effects on game day.


So, if you hear John Madden being booed this fall, now you will know why. And does EA Sports have a reason for dropping the PC versions? Of course, any guesses?


Money. The console games all have a single graphics engine, the PC versions has hundreds. It costs money to hire those programmers. So, why not save the money?


So, what if you anger the old crowd that built your product? What are they going to do, not buy?


Yeah. They won’t buy. EA Sports is counting on the younger crowd to keep them solvent. But I recall a lot of NFL players at training camp playing the game on their laptops. What will they say? Will they care? Will enough disgruntled fans start complaining to the NFL?


You know all the hype about draft day? Do you know that in part, at least, it was that old bunch of PC Madden fans that made it popular? That they were eagerly waiting for the results solely so that they could use the data and build next seasons rosters? So, they could start the 2008 season in May, rather than in August?


Has anyone told John Madden what they did? Count on it! He will hear. So will EA Sports. Will it make any difference? Probably not.


That generation of business school execs taught “to loot for profit and ignore the long term product and viability of the company” has struck again. They will get paid a bonus and the balance sheet will look great, for awhile at least. They sell out the foundations of the business and count on inertia to keep it standing long enough to cash their checks and move on.


This, too, shall pass. Perhaps the fan base will keep it alive, much as the Star Trek fans did to resurrect that series for a long and profitable movie and spin off run.


In the meantime the fall football season is already underway; only now – when the title screen flashes and the voice announces that “EA Sports. Its In the Game!” – there will likely be unflattering comments uttered each and every time it plays.


For now, EA Sports is NOT in the game.

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