It's odd to talk about EA Sports' Madden franchise, with the features it's touting in the 09 release, now making itself more of a social gaming experience. For the better part of two decades it's been one of the top titles to play with friends, offline or, lately, online. But the pattern of features that were added, upgraded or unchanged from last year points to a major push that'll expand the game's social appeal, especially to demographics well outside the paunchy, balding thirtysomething. In other words, EA is going where the growth is, and its marketing of this game absolutely tips that hand.
In theory, the idea that the game's variable difficulty settings will make the game more accessible to someone like my mother is somewhat appealing. And then I think a bit and it's not. When I toast Mom's secondary for my sixth TD, I doubt I'll get up, dance around, and mime like I'm teabagging her. But after nearly 20 years at this, beginning with Madden 93 on the Genesis, it's almost an instinctive reaction.
I also seriously doubt guys' girlfriends are going to be interested in one of the game's great diversions -- creating 6-11, 300 pound solid muscle running backs of all-99 ability, and giving them names like "Ass Raper." My buddy David, from the Rocky Mountain News, and I did that on his Gamecube in 2003. (A.R.'s alma mater was Yale.) David brought him out against Jim's Seahawks and paused every replay so Jim (another RMN pal) could read the guy's name and number aloud. Jim responded the next week by creating his entire family as 99ers. His dog caught eight touchdowns.
In the new big-tent Madden community, you won't see things like Spite Bowl, Late-Hit Bowl, and Halfback Option Pass Bowl, complete perversions of the game that can only be dreamed up by two guys, playing on the same couch, at equivalent levels of skill and sobriety. Spite Bowl pits two guys playing as their friend's biggest rival teams. The object is more "do not lose to those overrated sons of bitches" rather than "I want my team to win." The 49ers and Dolphins are a hideous matchup this year -- unless they're being led by Bills and Raiders fans.
Late-Hit Bowl, the object was to get flagged for as many late hits as possible and if the other guy ended up on the one yard line or scored on the drive, you got his points. Halfback Option Pass Bowl was a game invented with two other friends in Oneonta, N.Y., on the Playstation version of Madden 98. The only play you could run was the option pass and the only defence you could call was a prevent. Naturally, when you employed drinking-game rules this game became a lot more fun.
And while you might be able to have an online league with 31 of your closest friends, who the hell is going to buy the Taco Bell? There's no league I could play that will top the Friday Madden League in 2004, with three other co-workers from the Rocky. Four-way, in-person cooperative play tells you just how strong your friendship is when your pal does stupid shit like whiff on three straight kickoffs. It forces you to invent your own hand signals and decoys. You dream up celebrations and end zone dances that didn't depend on motion capture, quicktime, or moving to an endzone hotspot and pressing the right button.
None of this is to say I won't enjoy Madden 09, and it's silly to resent others for enjoying it in different ways. But the tone of the game experience seems to be changing. Madden 09's new AI is meant to tell gamers of all skill levels that there's no wrong way to play the game. But my friends and I delighted in playing the game the wrong way, and I'm sure we weren't alone. Doing stupid things together online doesn't have the same appeal, and it no longer provokes the same reaction from the game. It's a little like your parents giving you permission to cuss all you want. After a few willful minutes on your own, you give up, and join polite company as a well-adjusted participant.