It's true: a real-time physics engine will debut in Madden NFL 13. The wait is over, the disappointment is over, and along with it, the era of animation-based gameplay in one of the most visual of sports video games.
EA Sports formally announced today that the "Infinity Engine" will drive the collisions and outcomes of this pure contact sport in ways the series could not with technology now more than a decade old.
If the Madden development team can execute on these promises, it could be the story of the year in sports video gaming. If it dissolves into glitches, bugs and comical YouTube videos, it could be a gut-wrenching setback. Not only is the Infinity Engine meant to give gamers something they've always wanted at last, it's supposed to be a foundational piece of technology for many years to come.
"It does carry a risk," said Cam Weber, the group president overseeing all of EA Sports' American football products. "But, we wanted a game changer. We don't ever want our game to feel stale. We want people, in five years, to look back and say, 'This is when they introduced the Infinity Engine.'"
The gameplay was getting stale. Each year you'd hear it from the community, and the truth is that animations and preordained outcomes could only be tuned so much. Madden had tried to cope with this by adjusting player speed and running posture, but in contact, it was still largely the same. Blocking and play along the line was one of several weaknesses.
When EA Sports got to work on Madden 13, Weber wasn't sure the Infinity Engine would make it into this year's game. When the possibility emerged that it could, he says, the team took a hard look at it and decided to go all-in now.
"We made a very calculated, well thought-out decision to put real-time physics into Madden," Weber said.
The elephant in the room is NCAA Football, which will get real-time physics next year, Weber said. It ships seven weeks before Madden does, and when the football group decided to go for it and bring physics to this year's game -- Weber said he came into this year's game unsure if they would -- it was too late to properly integrate with NCAA.
At a media briefing in April, writers were shown several highlight clips of the Infinity Engine in action. In one, LeGarrette Blount of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers dragged Sherrod Martin of the Carolina Panthers a good two yards, nearly hopping on one foot the whole way. Alex Smith of the San Francisco 49ers, was snagged by the shoulder, stumbled forward, and was then absolutely drilled by a defender.
Long-time Madden players know that sort of thing would usually be a down-at-first contact outcome as the animation played out under the old engine, even with the incremental refinements meant to move a pile of gang-tacklers or let a running back fight for extra yards. The lack of real physics made blocking rigid and sapped variety from the running game, probably accounting for the greatest reason the game had begun to lose energy. Madden was still operating with something that was cutting edge about eight years ago.
A deeper discussion of Madden's new Infinity Engine with designer Victor Lugo, hosted by ESPN NFL analyst Mark Schlereth.
"Pre-determined outcomes are history," assured Victor Lugo, a designer on the gameplay team. "Blocking and tackling will be more dynamic now. If your runner falls on another person, you can roll off him and continue going. You'll need to fight and continue to work."
The critical piece of the Infinity Engine, and how it will execute, would seem to be in the tensions and muscle strengths that will be assigned to the limbs and joints of the athletes. Madden's ratings are a nonstop water cooler topic, for better or for worse, but now the game's designers will have to rate what the strength and mass of a running back like the 49ers' Brandon Jacobs really means against varying levels of defenders. Extreme or dissatisfying outcomes are sure to be seized on and pointed out.
But the team appears willing to take that risk because of what it means in opening up the rest of the gameplay. "There has been a tendency," Lugo said, "where you see the play, you know the play, you follow that red line and you have success." Now gamers will have to react to stumbles and recoveries from them, on offence and defence. Tight or wide turns will have more meaning, Lugo said. Theoretically, it should mean the total end of suction blocking, something that has been promised forever.
In a hands-on gameplay session after April's briefing, I saw one area which may be problematic unless or until it is tuned out. A receiver making a one-handed grab, then going to the turf while still maintaining control. The outcome seemed driven more by rating than physics. Lugo said once a receiver puts his hands on the ball and establishes a catch, he then becomes a runner, exposed to the physics engine. How the physics will handle fumbles when the ball is exposed but in a runner's possession -- a shoulder spun free by an arm-tackle, for example, will be something to look for.
Still, in the rest of the game, Madden behaved smoothly and, for once, predictably. Coupled with gameplay refinements mentioned before, such as new passing trajectories and release times, something like a screen pass to Jahvid Best looked very good and played out in a very entertaining way. Matt Stafford sucked in the defence, Best was camped out behind his blockers and he fought ahead for five yards.
In other words, in last year's Madden, contact is where things would end. In Madden NFL 13 contact is where things will begin.