At EA Sports, developers lug their consoles into conference rooms like you would with a laptop at your job. Larry Richart plugs in his, loads up a build of NCAA Football 13 and picks a game mode. Fittingly, we head to the practice field, the setting where he saw most of his action at quarterback in the 1990s.
Richart picks a basic triple-option play to demonstrate the tuned position of the running back, and the more natural exchange between a quarterback and his halfback on the toss. "Going back to the Charley Pell days, are we," says Ben Haumiller, a producer and Florida State alumnus, invoking the Gators coach of the early 1980s, run out of Gainesville by scandal.
"Oh, then I guess we should be on probation in this game," Richart snorts.
Recruiting isn't his job, however. Gameplay is. And if all goes well, you'll be more like the quarterback Larry Richart wants you to be in NCAA Football 13, which is more like the quarterback he wanted to be at Florida.
Richart, who saw limited action as a backup to Jesse Palmer in 1998, was solid enough to make the Gator varsity at a very demanding position under Steve Spurrier (whom Richart imitates very well). He set his high school's record for longest passing play, a 97-yard bomb for Orlando Bishop Moore in 1991, and retains an innate understanding of the position, refined by his time as a designer for EA Sports.
But setting up in the pocket as well as throwing on the run has had its share of frustrations in NCAA Football — and in Madden; Richart is a producer on the core gameplay team serving both titles. While passing animations themselves may not have been laboriously slow, other quarterback behaviour was, and it led to a lot of frustrating sacks right as the user was whamming on the button for an open man downfield.
More than anything, Richart and his team wanted to wash out that sludge, and give you a passer who can stand tall and examine his options, or roll out and find his running back or tight end without getting driven into the turf.
The list of upgrades, on its face, would seem to heavily favour the passer and threaten the strange balance EA Sports' football titles have acquired over the years, in which all-seeing defensive backs shut down a lot of downfield passes, but can be countered by winging the ball at a similarly omniscient tight end three steps into a 15-yard streak route. This year, Richart vows, players are going to have to see the ball before they can react to it, on offence and defence.
For defenders, that means the end of the so-called Psychic Defensive Back, a promise that seemingly is made every year. Though I got hands-on time with NCAA in a visit to EA Sports last week, I didn't see a large enough sample of instances to say they've delivered on it yet. That'll come out in the wash of the review, and if the Psychic DB is still there, EA Sports knows it will be judged harshly.
What I did see is a game in which the quarterback should have much more time to let a play evolve, whether running the option, throwing to a runner out of the backfield, or managing the play-action. All of these slow-to-develop plays, all of them staples of the modern college game, have been difficult to execute, and their success was largely determined by guessing correctly before the ball was even snapped, which defeats the purpose of a play designed to have a fake or an option.
For starters, there are 25 new passing trajectories in this game, covering all types of speed and distance. Weaker arms will have a higher loft on their deep balls, for example. So while the downfield bullet, an advantage to the quarterback, is gone, so is the infuriating moon-ball on swing passes to the running back, whose hang time made this play a total loss. I ran it repeatedly on Richart's practice field, leading the receiver to turn the pass into what it should be: a play that starts with your best runner turning upfield, skipping the preamble of eluding tacklers behind the line of scrimmage.
That's right, I said leading the receiver. That mechanic has returned to the game, on the left stick. Quarterbacks can now throw the ball into an empty space, or try to place the pass high or low. Leading receivers, plus the new lob trajectories, will help in playing keep-away not only from psychic DBs, but also their infernal cousins, the robo-linebackers, who had preternatural leaping ability and swatted plenty of passes that were intended for nowhere near the middle of the field.
I asked Richart if it really does eliminate Robo-Linebacking to put it on a user-controlled quarterback to throw it out of that defender's range, rather than simply nerfing the defender's awareness or leap ability. Richart countered that the pass trajectories should take care of that, while still allowing for linebackers to take care of errant tosses or poor decisions. A throw up the middle on a post route isn't going to be the kind of line drive that a linebacker could get to in the past, he said, and a quarterback should be able to lob the ball over his receiver's back shoulder now, commonly seen in the real game. That's if the receiver is looking for the toss. The offense's security blanket in past versions was the ability to hit your man at a point in his route well before he would have expected the pass in real life. Fair enough. I've slung the ball at the back of a flanker's jersey and had him catch it as sure as if it was Lester Hayes in stick-um slathered apparel.
In NCAA 13, receivers will start with faded-out passing icons. When they become fully lit, you know the receiver is expecting the ball, though it doesn't necessarily mean he is open or uncovered. Richart added that receivers will recognise blitzes and expect the ball earlier, so a cornerback leaving his man will tip the wideout off to look back for the pass, even if he's on a vertical route. You may still throw it at a greyed-out receiver, but you'll have to take control of him and make a user catch to complete the pass.
Catching also has been tuned to allow users to take control of a receiver and move him into better position without completely leaving the route or overrunning the play. I'll believe that when I see it; user catches (and interceptions) have been inscrutably tough in past years, and those who pull them off are known to be longtime expert players, especially in multiplayer. Richart said receiver (and defensive back) control as the ball is in the air has been slowed down, as novices tend to deflect the joystick wildly trying to lunge for a pass.
There's another stick behaviour the game is trying to condition out — the huge dropback. Players instinctively lay on the left stick, down, after the snap to get their quarterback out of the way of the pass rush. In NCAA 13, automatic drops of 1, 3, 5 or 7-steps have now been plugged into the game, and your quarterback will proceed through them automatically — without throwing the ball, of course. (In the past, taking your hand off the sticks to let a quarterback go through his dropback could result in the CPU auto-passing the ball unless you took control at the right instant.)
The programmed dropback is most apparent in screen passes, which have rarely worked well in either NCAA or Madden. Now, the quarterback's drift really does suck the defence in, while still giving him time to hit the running back, who is now set up behind all of those linemen who let the pass rush through. Because of poor tempo, passing animations and trajectories in past years, you were forced to complete a screen pass before the blocking was set up, or eat a sack. In NCAA 13, I ran screens repeatedly and saw a total difference in their execution, from the first one. It's a very welcome development.
Moreover, pump fakes have been built into some of these dropbacks. While some human opponents in multiplayer might recognise the designed pump-fake dropbacks, they can't control every player on the field . Some will still bite on them.
As to that, Richart and his team tuned the "window" in which defensive backs will bite on such fakes, making that more of an option. Quarterbacks can now key fakes by holding the left bumper button and the receiver's icon. The generic pump-fake on the right analogue stick is gone — unless the quarterback has run outside the pocket.
Inside the pocket, flicking the right stick now controls a quarterback's sack avoidance dance steps, a more finely tuned motion that keeps a player from running completely outside of his protection. In exchange, the quarterback's tempo behind the line of scrimmage has been dropped considerably. Yes, he'll still be able to take off and scramble at a run equal to his speed rating. But fades and drifts had been as fast as 78 per cent of that speed, and with a very fast quarterback, he could outrun slower defenders without even running.
On the run, right stick will continue to be a pump-fake, probably because many legacy players will continue to go to that command as they're being chased down. But no longer will a quarterback set up to throw when he's running — that is, square his body, look at the receiver, and unload. That long process is what led to so many sacks once the defence broke through the coverage. Richart and his crew added in dozens of throwing-on-the-run animations — including the Brett Favre underhanded snow-shovel pass seen in dozens of highlight reels — that will be executed contextually, depending on the distance between passer and receiver. Throwing in a direction opposite your momentum still is dangerous and risks a weak pass that can be easily picked off.
Finally, a new option to abort a play-action pass — and send your running back into pass coverage without the handoff, has been implemented. This command is executed on the right trigger before the handoff exchange, and it can be pre-loaded before the snap if you spy a cornerback cheating up on a blitz.
But it's in the player awareness where Richart hopes you see a more authentic passing game, and teams defending it. Defensive backs will have to see a pass before they can react to it, and will have to see a receiver making his cut before they can follow it.
In my review of NCAA Football 12 last year, I wrote that we may be seeing a point of diminishing returns for this game, now in its seventh year on this console generation. Consistently well rated, when NCAA Football is dinged for something it's typically not the core gameplay. At this stage, that process is more about removing pet peeves and narrowing the gaps in player behaviour, particularly in the defence, that simply don't reflect reality.
Still, it's an animation-based sports video game, though last year's edition, thanks to an emphasis on the core gameplay unit serving both NCAA and Madden NFL, weeded out the suction-blocking, roller-skating and player warping that frustrated gamers and shattered immersion. NCAA Football 13 looks like a game that wants to give your quarterback more time to think, to place his throws, to bail out and run, or to simply do his job, which is get the ball to the correct man. But how this will affect a user-controlled defence, particularly in multiplayer, bears watching.