A major change to a technical - but essential - component of calling plays had hardcore Madden gamers howling with complaints within hours of the demo version's release on Tuesday. But the new "Strategy Pad" controls are here to stay, like it or not.
At issue is the new method of pre-snap adjustments. EA Sports has unified that command set on the directional pad, whereas in the past shoulder buttons and Y/triangle were used for such things as shifting the line, assigning hot routes or player audibles to receivers or defensive players, or altering the pass coverage.
A shoulder button or Y/triangle brought up the personnel group's command set, which were then activated with a directional command on the pad or the right analogue stick. So now some commands are a double press on the D-pad, or D-pad and the stick.
The new D-pad activators might appear easy enough to remember on paper and the commands after them are consistent with previous versions of Madden. It looks like it's meant to be easier for newer players or to keep hardcore players from making an unreasonable number of adjustments to exploit a play.
The problem is the game's long-time veterans had an almost unconscious muscle memory and methodology for it built up over the years. Further, many also play NCAA Football, whose pre-snap adjustments in this year's game remain the old set of shoulder buttons and Y triangle.
By mid-morning East Coast time, blogs and forums such as GoMadden and Operation Sports already were jammed with comments from hardcore players feeling alienated and complaining that they have less time before the snap to make changes on defence.
It's almost impossible to say if that's really the case because it's so situational. I informally put a stopwatch on both Madden 10 and the Madden 11 demo and found pre-snap times (after the break-the-huddle animation) as short as three and four seconds in the case of both games. A lot of it depends on opponent's play style and how the AI's managing the clock.
Madden NFL's creative director, Ian Cummings, said via Twitter today that "the CPU snaps quickly, so it will be tough to adjust. Have patience." I think the perception of less time to make adjustments is fed largely by people feeling lost in the commands and verifying them in the on-screen menu.
That said, Cummings in the same tweet acknowledged that "Strategy Pad has a steep learning curve". On defence, yes. On offence, it takes about two possessions to get used to.
Answering "Why did we change to strategy pad?" Cummings said, "For usability. Too many inconsistent buttons before... people would get 'stuck' and they couldn't snap it."
Still, there's also the feeling that this new command set comes as a total surprise, even though Strategy Pad has been known since before E3. I dropped the ball on this; you won't see it anywhere in my impressions and I honestly can't remember using the Strategy Pad. A lot of the coverage and impressions coming back from E3 focused on features like new cooperative team play or GameFlow, the new system that streamlines playcalling without scrapping the old method, if that's still your thing.
For many, though, the key to winning football is how you exploit what you're seeing on the other side of the ball and only know are people realising this is the law of the land. In an email this afternoon, EA Sports confirmed that there is no way to switch back to the old command structure. Turning off Strategy Pad is an option but that only deactivates it in your pre-snap view, it doesn't change any functionality.
For myself, I don't like Strategy Pad although, admittedly, I've never been much of an expert on pre-snap adjustments and have made a lot of them by knee-jerk decision. I'm not going to condemn the entire game for it. But on this feature, EA Sports gambled and lost.
In trying to make an aspect of this game more accessible or understandable to those disinclined to use it anyway, the Madden team ran a big risk of alienating those who did already understand and use the commands with second-nature familiarity. They're also the ones most likely to raise a stink big enough to be noticed before the game's release. And they have.