A league licence rebranded it as Quick Hit NFL earlier this month, trading some of the football strategy simulation's upstart rep for establishment cred. For many on the game, it was an arrival. For some, it was also a return.
Many on the team that developed this game, a browser-based, free-to-play, pay-to-upgrade title that also relaunched with 3D presentation earlier this month, are veterans of console sports development. Some of them went into exile from their football projects back in 2004 when EA Sports became the exclusive licensee for NFL products on game consoles.
Whatever their origins, six years later, they've come back to build something with more than a million users, and perhaps most importantly, they're again carrying The Shield.
"The biggest thing was the addition of the NFL licence," says Brandon Justice, the game's director of design, who worked on four NFL 2K titles, including the revered NFL 2K5. "It's gone from us being an upstart to a place where we represent the league, presenting a new product and upping the authenticity. And just, what that's done for the swagger and the attitude for the development team."
This June, Quick Hit became the latest of just three current video games with a league licence - Madden NFL is the first and most obvious; GameLoft's NFL 2011 on iPhone is the other. Among North American sports leagues, the NFL is the most desirable licensing partner, by a country mile. Among global brands, it's up there with the likes of Coca-Cola and Disney, something that does a tarnish-proof business year after year.
Securing that deal was a bellwether moment for Quick Hit, which began in 2008 in offices a stone's throw from the New England Patriots' Gillette Stadium, rode out the crash of the economy as a startup company and still launched last year as an unbranded unknown with generic teams and a top-down view that somewhat resembled electric football.
In the game, players control a football franchise with decisions more aligned to a coach, general manager or trainer, rather than a running back or linebacker. Players are acquired and playbooks are developed with attribute points earned in competition. Players are trained and improve similarly. And in games themselves, users pick the best play for the situation and let the action play out on its own. It's a blend of the sports management niche and fantasy football and is compatible with more utilitarian presentation.
But if the public treats something more seriously because it has an NFL deal, console-style visuals definitely get the gamers' attention.
"Last year, when we were a top-down flat game, I was showing it to my little cousins, and they stuck their nose up at it," laughed Trevor Stricker, Quick Hit's director of game systems, who was Justice's roommate back when both worked for Visual Concepts on the 2K line of sports games. "I just wanted adulation from the younger kids in the family, instead we got into fanboy wars. But for kids like that, when they've seen what we've done in 3D, they think it's amazing, especially that it happens in a browser."
The handpicked nature of the team helps give the project a "getting-the-band-back-together" camaraderie. Justice, the design director, came aboard in May 2008, soon after bringing in both Stricker and Dave Zdyrko, the lead designer, responsible for Quick Hit's gameplay and artificial intelligence. Both are Visual Concepts alums - Zydrko on NHL 2K, NFL 2K and its successor, All-Pro Football; Stricker on the acclaimed NBA 2K, including its first version.
Lead engineer Henrik Holmdahl is also an NBA 2K veteran, spanning 2K2 to 2K8. Derrick Levy, the senior game systems engineer, and Jeremy Stein, the senior designer, are football veterans, both working on Madden NFL. Roger Morrison, the lead tester, has credits in Madden, plus EA Sports' NASCAR and NCAA Football series.
While the league licence is important, it may be the game's 3D animations that most bring the game's designers back to their roots, despite the fact this is a very different game. Quick Hit was designed for casual accessibility - stick skills are unnecessary after all. When its user base offered up its wish list in forums, "Can you get the NFL?" was a question often asked.
But 3D animations were also something the community wanted, as much for the game experience as the idea that they had backed and were playing a winner. Message boards continuously pegged the development team for hints or updates that such a mode was coming. Quick Hit had been working on it since last year's 1.0 launch. "We were biting our tongues," Stricker said. "It was the hardest secret in the world to keep."
"One thing the market's made loud and clear over the course of video game history is that people are continually driven by visuals," Justice said. "Graphics matter. They matter to me, dude. I bought a 720p high-definition television, I literally went out and bought a 1080p TV the next year. I'm a gadget guy; why wouldn't we want to be 3D?"
And the presentation also certifies that although they know they never left it, to most game consumers, they're "back in the game" with Quick Hit.
"Those of us who spend our lives making video games, yeah, we want to make stuff that matters, that's important and that people have heard of," Stricker says. "A lot of us had other opportunities; that's why we're here. We think we'll be big, we'll make a game that is important and will really matter."
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears every weekend.