EA Sports’ ‘Football Czar’ Opens With A Two-Month Drill

EA Sports’ ‘Football Czar’ Opens With A Two-Month Drill

In the two and a half months since he traded Canada’s weather for Florida’s, and titles like FIFA for Madden, Cam Weber has read that he delayed Madden’s release for three weeks because of the NFL lockout.

That he’s adding some kind of social network to the game, like Need for Speed’s Autolog; and that he is at the same time doubling the size of the Madden team while presiding over a massive brain drain within it.

None of that is true, Weber says, understanding that just because he says it isn’t, hardcore fans might be inclined to believe it more. Regardless, he is now the chef in EA Sports’ football kitchen, where rumours flare like grease fires and are just as hard to extinguish.

“I’ve had a small taste of that this week,” admitted Weber, when asked if he knew what he was getting into when an organisational shakeup after the collapse of NBA Elite 11 tabbed him as the “football czar,” directly reporting to Andrew Wilson, now EA Sports’ second-in-command.

Before taking over two months ago, Weber, 37, logged executive producer experience on FIFA and, most recently, Fight Night Champion, among the most critically acclaimed in the EA Sports catalogue. He’s trading that for Madden, the division’s flagship product but also a game that takes more forum abuse year-to-year than any – sports or otherwise – that comes to mind.

“Before I came down here, I spent hours combing through forums and reading what people say. There’s a lot of negative response to a lot of things,” Weber says. “But when you think about it, you’ve got a really engaged community there. Maybe they’re angry about certain things, maybe they’re frustrated about certain things, but they’re out there, they’re passionate, and those are the people you want to build a game for.

“I’d rather deal with a passionate fanbase than one that doesn’t care,” Weber said.

It’s a diplomatic attitude, but one almost immediately put to the test since Weber came aboard in February. Even before NFL owners locked out their players, EA Sports had been sending repeated assurances that a full Madden NFL 12 would publish this year. Of course, said sceptics. EA poured a lot of money and promotion into a fan vote for this year’s cover, pulling in some 12 million votes. Gimmick, said the cynics. Then came news that Madden 12 was moving from its traditional early August release date, to a week before the season opener. Ah-hah! Said everyone.

Though EA Sports insists it planned to move the date all along, to align it with the league’s ever growing gala week celebrating the new season, and this would be the new release window for future years, comment boards and forum posters took it as EA throwing in the towel on a lockout year.

Though analysts have said a lockout threatens Madden’s sales by up to half their usual total, Weber is adamant that, if there really is no football in real life, that makes 2011 the year to focus hard on game development, not to take a pass.

“If there was a year to produce a Madden for the hardcore, this would be it,” Weber said. “In a year of potentially no NFL, the guys who are going to come back are the hardcore fans.”

EA Sports has a tightly programmed set of reveals for Madden – again, a campaign meant to underscore the full-version treatment for Madden 12 regardless of labour strife in the real world. Weber wouldn’t budge on specifics until it was pointed out that every Madden, ever year, seems to make the same appeal to the core.

“Fundamentally, you’ll see improved collisions, and significant improvements to the defensive AI,” Weber said, and indeed, the AI tuning and these collisions – less of the “suction” tackles caused by certain animations – have been touted for Madden’s Tiburon sibling, NCAA Football, which Weber also oversees. “We’ve also done a lot of work on how players perform throughout the game; we’re diving deeper into how they perform as the momentum of a game changes. You’ll see a ton of improvements in our Franchise and Superstar modes. And we’ll have a new feature in how our players play the game online as well. But I can’t get into more detail than that.”

The online feature, Weber said, is not some type of “Autolog”, the social networking feature of Electronic Arts’ Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit which, among other things, helps players compete asynchronously – i.e. they don’t have to be online at the same time to beat a friend’s best time. Weber, at last week’s “Season Opener” event in San Francisco, complimented Autolog’s innovations, and suddenly that meant Madden was getting the same thing this year, if not at the expense of something gamers wanted more.

Weber said he was only reacting to a question that directly mentioned Autolog, and that Madden, broadly speaking, will begin serving more ways for gamers to compete online than simply head-to-head games with friends, or finding strangers in an online lobby. As for what is coming in Madden 12, “I wouldn’t compare what we’re doing this year to Autolog.”

And then came the mention of the Three Year Plan, something that didn’t land gently on ears when it was first mentioned at Season Opener. EA Sports has in the past publicly committed to long-term development goals to rejuvenate certain series – FIFA and the dormant MVP Baseball most notably.

With Madden, the title most stung by “roster update” criticisms, on the boards this sounded more like “Wait until Madden 14 comes out.”

Weber showed up in February, halfway through Madden 12’s build. What a three-year plan is, Weber says, is a comprehensive focus on football gameplay – “whistle to whistle” as he says – that’s meant to keep each year from being purely reactive, so that future editions going forward all have identifiable long-term development behind them. In so doing, he offered that Tiburon’s core football gameplay team would double in size. Though this crew works on the engine used by both Madden and NCAA, that became “Madden’s team is doubling.”

Weber reiterates: Twice as many people will be working on core gameplay for both games. Madden and NCAA retain their own teams of designers, producers and animators, focusing on the features that differentiate them.

“We’re going to focus on building from the core out,” Weber said. “It’s something we’ve seen in the FIFA franchise. Our FIFA team had very large, dedicated and high performing central gameplay team that formed the core of their business. So, our NCAA football team does amazing job of delivering the sights, sounds, tradition and pageantry of college football. Our Madden team focuses on the NFL experience. We will let them focus on those things while having a high powered, heavily funded team driving improvements, from the core out.”

Thing is, such long-term plans were often mentioned in the past by the series’ creative director, Ian Cummings, who kept close contact with the community. Cummings, however, departed last week after 11 years with EA Sports. And that’s where Weber and Tiburon have had to whack the next mole, that the studio is battling a mass defection of his best and brightest, fleeing over philosophical differences.

Cummings and Tiburon’s former chief technological officer are headed for Row-Sham-Bow, the casual games studio headed by Philip Holt – who had been EA Tiburon’s GM until the shakeup this winter. Weber stressed the departure was amicable and, in any event, only those two have left, not the droves of senior design members as had been rumoured.

“Ian got a new oportunity, and even after he resigned, he finished off the tuning and the features he was working on,” Weber said. “Madden is in an alpha stage; its feature set is complete, at this stage, all that is left is polish and tuning. It’s tough to lose a guy like Ian, but even for every guy like Ian in creative development, there are three or four chomping at the bit to step up and take the opportunity.”

That’s a hell of a lot of inside baseball for a former college quarterback, to manage in 60 days. Weber, a Vancouver native, called signals for Simon Fraser University from 1992 to 1996, the only Canadian college playing American football in the NCAA. He comes to his job as more than a designer or a fan, but someone who can judge the exploits and hazards presented in an opposing defence and whether or not the game lives up to them.

“My passion is football, and this is the opportunity to come work on the sport I love. I’m a hardcore football guy and football fan. I know the pressure is there to deliver for those hardcore fans, and deliver the game they deserve,” Weber said. “To me, it’s a dream job.”

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