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NHL 13: Changes, development and the future [Interview]

10 Sep 2012  by   John Robertson
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Launching later this week, NHL 13 is one of the year’s most anticipated sports games thanks to years of innovation and gameplay of the highest quality. It’s no exaggeration whatsoever to describe the series as one of the finest sport-based videogames have ever seen.

We were lucky enough to talk to NHL 13 developers EA Canada to discuss this year’s enhancements, the development process in general and the lack of competition in the ice hockey gaming space.

A guide to the interviewees:

  • Andy Agostini – Online Producer
  • Gurn Sumal – Assistant Producer
  • Ben Ross – Gameplay Producer
FYI, our review of NHL 13 can be found here.

IncGamers: How closely do you work the other EA Sports development teams? Similar features (such as Moments and Connected GM) span various EA Sports franchises.

Andy Agostini: We at EA Sports are always looking at ways to help each other. With features like GM Connected and NHL Moments Live whether its inspiration or actual technology we talk to each other. For GM Connected some of the back end technology we use has been used by other EA Sports teams for their online features. For NHL Moments Live we talked with FIFA to see how they did their feature and determine what we can do moving forward. Our goal is to work together and try and create as much synergy between the sports teams as possible.

IG: For someone new to the sport, the NHL series can be initially daunting. How much effort do you put into easing new players into the game, whether they have a hockey knowledge or not.

Ben Ross: We definitely get a lot of fans playing our game because of how much they love the actual sport but over the years, it has been exciting to hear from many people that have said they became fans of the sport because of their experience with our game. Our game is definitely an easier entry point than strapping on a pair of skates and stepping on the actual ice and as a fast paced game, it translates to a video game really well.  It has been great working closely with the NHL – they definitely see our product as a strong tool to promote their game.

A key goal for EA Sports is always to make our games easy to pickup but difficult to master.  To accomplish that, we try to make our control scheme very accessible, have in-game interactive and video tutorials, multiple levels of skill adjustment, on ice visual guides for where to skate and position your player and while still keeping it authentic to the sport, we even have the commentators give insight into things that may or may not be working to give people playing the game some tips that may help them learn.

IG: Goalies seem to be able to deal with two-on-one situations and passes across goal much more effectively this year, how difficult is it to program an AI system that takes into account so many possibilities and multiple players?

Ben Ross: The great thing about working at EA is that we have extremely talented engineers that never shy away from a tough problem.  We are always trying to make the game as realistic as possible so it is always a great challenge.  Goalies are no different – It is one of the most dynamic and demanding positions in professional sports in the way they move around and what they have to be aware of at all times.

To translate that into AI, it starts by breaking down what a real world goaltender is thinking of in the numerous situations they will encounter within a scenario  (do I have support from my defense? Is the player on his forehand? Is the player with the puck a great shooter/passer? What did they do last time? etc.) and prioritizing each of those decisions, hopefully using multiple answers to qualify their next move.  This way, in a split second they can make the best decision on plays such as the ones you pointed out regarding two on ones and passes across the front of the net.

IG: In our minds NHL is (along with NBA 2K and Fifa) part of the golden trio of sports games. Given that quality of gameplay, do you worry that adding/changing an element will disrupt that balance you’ve achieved?

Ben Ross: Thanks very much, we really appreciate being in that company.  It is always a concern when starting on the next iteration.  When things are going well, you sometimes don’t want to disrupt the balance too much but at the same time, the team has been successful over the years due to their passion for the sport and their motivation to continue to innovate.

We also listen very closely to our very passionate and vocal community.  The internet is a great thing – you hear when you are doing things well but you often hear even more when there is room for improvement.  We take all of this very seriously and continue to run focus groups throughout the course of the year on all of our new features and adjustments to previous parts of the game with both brand new gamers and experienced veterans to our franchise.

Some of the questions and discussions afterwards specifically curtail to asking if we are better, worse or on par than our previous installment.  We are constantly doing those checks and balances to ensure we are moving forward.

IG: With Connected GM you can play as a coach and manage/play as the whole team or you can play as a single player. How do you balance the AI to make sure everything is fair across members of the league?

Gurn Sumal: A great user experience is always something we strive for and  GM connected is no different. We continuously play the game in different scenario’s to see how the AI reacts in different situations,  whether it’s 2 users playing the CPU or a user is just coaching his or her team we are always looking to make the best user experience possible. This just doesn’t stay in the realm of gameplay we also try to find the best balance for all aspects of the game whether it’s Be A GM or Be A Pro or anything else in NHL 13 this is something we take pride in doing.

IG: How often will you be adding new NHL Moments? Will you add Moments featuring every team in the league in a bid to keep fans happy, even if a particular team lacks exciting moments week after week?

Gurn Sumal: Moments will be made available throughout the year but not necessarily on any set schedule. We try to keep all our fans happy, but there isn’t a specific set of guidelines we have for our moments other than if a team or a player does something that captures the hockey world, and you wake up the next morning and it’s on the front page of sports section of all media outlets. Those are the kinds of things we look for when finding a moment to create.

IG: Into the nitty gritty of franchise mode… I’m a New York Rangers fan and have a certain pride for how Henrik Lundqvist has managed to turn himself into one of the league’s finest goalies after being drafted so low. How do you go about incorporating that kind of surprise progression into the game and its draft system?

Gurn Sumal: Player Progression has been completely re-written this year for NHL 13. The new system allows players to have a target they grow to but not every player grows at the same pace. You can have late bloomers, early growers and players that grow at a constant pace. Players can also surpass their targets so that a late draft pick can really become that diamond in the rough just like Henrik Lundqvist is.

We have also added a feature that was requested by a lot of fans. Statistic based growth will be in NHL 13. This allows players to grow based how they performed in the previous season and gives them an added attribute boost for the next year. With our New player growth and the all-new GM Brain we are providing one the best Franchise modes around.

IG: What do you think about the lack of competition in the NHL videogame space? Is it a good thing, or would you prefer other games to benchmark yourselves against?

Andy Agostini: The NHL team, are a bunch of very passionate hockey fans so our biggest competitor is ourselves. We always want to make the game better so not only our consumers get to play the best hockey game possible but so do we. As for benchmarking ourselves against something, we consider every game a benchmark as we are all competing for the time of a consumer. Our goal isn’t to be the best hockey game or sports game but the best video game experience out there.

IG: Why no PC version?

Andy Agostini: We are always looking into new formats and experiences for our users. We have been on PC in the past and it is something that is discussed within our team but that experience still has to be figured out as PC gaming has changed a lot in the last 2 or 3 years. We will continue looking into new experiences for our fans and if we have a timeline we will definitely be letting our fans know.

IG: Is there much more you can do with the game on this generation of hardware? Would you prefer to be working on more powerful machines already?

Andy Agostini: The game can always improve as there are many things that this current generation of hardware still has the potential to do. Obviously we are excited about the future but with a leap like we took this year with the True Performance skating engine, EA Sports Hockey IQ, GM Connected and NHL Moments Live you can see that there is still lots of improvements we can still do to take the game to another level on the consoles we currently have.

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