NHL 19 is Aggressively Doubling Down on Attracting Casual Fans to the Series

NHL 19 is Aggressively Doubling Down on Attracting Casual Fans to the Series

INTERVIEW | We talk to the developers about NHL's aggressive pursuit of casual fans, the Winter Classic, GM Connected, and more.

If any sports sim needs to expand its audience, its NHL. Hockey fans are famously devoted to their sport of choice, but even the staunchest fans won't deny that it's a niche interest outside of Canada. So NHL is expanding its horizons.

In speaking with creative director William Ho about the direction of the series, he returned again and again to the important of wooing hockey fans of all types: rec league fans, old NHL 94 fans, even gamers who don't know much about hockey at all. He hopes that the series can be a big tent, with Ones, Threes, and the World of Chel serving as the entry point.

I talked at length with Ho about this strategy, but also issues that are of interest to hardcore fans, including gameplay balance, Be a Pro, and the long lost GM Connected. Here's what he had to say.

Okay. So, my first question is, NHL has kind of been going in a decidedly different direction from other EA Sports games. Last year, you had Threes, which was kind of arcadey and goofy. This year you have World Of Chel. Why this direction?

William Ho: Yeah, you know, I think we have really devoted fans, such as yourself, right? I mean, you're a true hockey fan, right? You'll always expect NHL to deliver an authentic hockey experience and we'll always do that. But what we've also found is that a lot of the people who are fans of NHL in many years past, they've loved it too. Not because they were fans of the NHL, but because they love hockey, and they love that hockey is a social game, and it's a great game for couch play, a great game for online.

So I think that it's really worthwhile for us to try to get those fans in so that if they are playing more casual modes, like Threes or the new Ones, they're able to earn casual gear and customize their players. Then they will have players that they can relate to because it's themselves. And then, if we can get them playing as themselves, then they might try some of the more core modes. Then we can make hockey fans out of non-hockey fans.

Did Threes match your expectations from last year?

William Ho: I think we weren't sure what the expectations were. I would say that, even in the studio in Vancouver, a lot of people were wondering whether people would want an arcade-inspired mode. And I think where it did meet or even exceed expectations is tons of people tried it and a lot of people gave us positive feedback on it. I would say that what didn't meet expectations is that people didn't play it as much, right? I think there were certain limitations with NHL Threes and 18 and so we've addressed a couple of those.

One is that we have a new Threes campaign which gets you playing against bigger stars in the NHL right away and also going up against NHL legends so you don't have to work your way through minor league teams to get to the good teams. And then another thing we've done is, in NHL 19, you can just drop in and play online with players across the world who love arcade-inspired hockey. So, those are two of the things that we hope will keep fans playing Threes longer.

And what are your hopes for Ones?

William Ho: Ones is one of those things where, you know, we really wanted to go after something that will really surprise people. You know, how can we go back to our roots and have something that is just inherently gorgeous and cool and has a really fresh vibe to it. So we think that people are going to love nostalgic pond hockey. Not everyone grew up by a pond, right? Not everyone grew up in Vancouver or Toronto or in Minneapolis, right? So not everyone can relate to it, but when you go into Ones you just see this gorgeous venue.

It's not just a pond hockey tournament, it's this big party. There's outdoor music that plays during gameplay, you've got the crowds, you've got gorgeous vistas, so I think this will attract more people who maybe think that NHL looks exactly the same and feels exactly the same every year. That's what Ones aims to do. It shows that there's a lot more to hockey than just being in a NHL rink.

What surprises me is that you went for this kind of free for all approach. Which is interesting, but you would expect, for example, that you would have something more akin to, I don't know, like 5 on 5 pond hockey but with customized players and with more of a casual drop in, drop out. Why didn't you go in that direction?

William Ho: Well Ones is only one of the outdoor experiences in the game. It's one where we really wanted to lower the barrier to entry. So if you don't know how to play in a team, or if you don't want to play a particular position and you just want to practice skills, there's no shortage of depths to the skills that you need to use in Ones. You still have to dangle yourself to aim your shots, you still have to take a hit or give a hit. So those core skills are still on display in Ones. It's only the first outdoor experience and we're hoping to bring the outdoors to other modes, so that if you want to have a club experience, you want to drop in, you know, in a five on five or six versus six outdoor situation, we're hoping to deliver that in a future update.

I think a lot of people are wondering why you haven't implemented Frostbite yet.

William Ho: That's a really good question. Really, we have so much invested in what's built in Ignite. And right now we feel that we don't really want to go into a transition year where... well, in our last transition year, a lot sort of had to be left on the cutting room floor, right? We didn't deliver to our fans expectations and so right now we've got a critical mass of different modes where people are investing in them, they're playing them. They want the franchise modes as it is and we've added scouting. They want Threes. It runs in the current engine. We're building out more modes. We built our customization in it and so, right now, we're trying to deliver to more fans expectations. I'm not sure that transitioning to Frostbite right away would actually deliver what our fans expect.

How often do Mike Emrick and Eddie Olczyk come down to record new lines?

William Ho: We did a pretty big refresh. I think it's something like 6,000 or 8,000 lines. I don't remember the exact number, but our crew went to Chicago and met up with Doc and Eddie and what we did was look up the lines that were sort of more frequently trafficked. So things like passes and things like goals. Any context which is frequently called by Doc and Eddie, we really wanted to deepen those contexts. So, I think what players are going to hear in NHL 19 is a lot more variety. We didn't refresh the whole thing because people love Doc and Eddie as they are, but we did update the most heavily trafficked areas in our voice-over. I'm trying to remember how many sessions we did, but we tried to meet up with them whenever their schedules allowed. It's a bit like stars aligning where our crew is available and then Doc and Eddie are actually in the same city as well.

It feels like Be A Pro, as a mode, has kind of been allowed to lay fallow for a long time. Why is that?

William Ho: Be A Pro is actually one of my favorites. I love going to Be A Pro and playing several games like really, really quickly and seeing my player evolve. We feel that the core experience is actually quite solid there, but we wanted to give you more options to evolve your Be A Pro player, so we added our trait system. I think that layers in an extra level of strategy that I think refreshes it. It's not the biggest update, but I think that people who are in to the fantasy of Be A Pro ... it sort of doesn't put in this level of artifice that isn't convincing, right? Because it is very immersive fantasy working your way through the minors, getting drafted, signing the bigs. So I think it's just that extra layer of strategy that I think Be A Pro fans will take to.

I find it interesting that you guys are making a big push toward outdoor hockey again, but that you guys have just left the Stadium Series and the Winter Classic out completely.

William Ho: Yeah, the special events that the NHL puts on, we love watching them, but we have to weigh what gets the most bang for the buck. So something like an outdoor environment where we have these daily tournaments and people have like dozens of matches in a day, right? Or as we expand that to other modes, they are gonna get a lot of traffic and people are gonna play them a lot. With something like the Winter Classic or the Stadium Series, if we were to build this football stadium or that baseball park, that would basically be played once, right? So we try to weigh what our players are going to play more and place more of our time and effort towards that.

Is EASHL still your most popular mode?

William Ho: It is, yeah, and that's why we put EA Sports Hockey League in World of Chel. It is the pinnacle, or the crown jewel, of World of Chel. The people who love EASHL, they're completely devoted to it. We look at our leaderboards, and we look at our clubs, and they're playing like hundreds if not thousands of matches in a year. And so we want even more players to experience that mode, which is why we sort of built a bridge from Threes, Pro-Am, and Ones to get more people to acquire the skills, acquire the experience to go full on, and join a club in EA Sports Hockey League. Because we recognize that's not the easiest experience to go into, but if you take it one step at a time, it actually takes something that's pretty monumental and makes it really accessible to more players.

We're in year five of the current generation. Looking over the course of the current generation, how much of a success would you say this current generation has been for NHL?

William Ho: Yeah, I think the success of the NHL franchise for EA Sports almost mirrors the state of the league and of the game in that it often goes up and down. And we have certain stars that come to the forefront retire; certain clubs come to the forefront, and then because of the parity in the league, they tend to fall away and make space for other clubs.

I feel this generation got off to a bit of a rocky start, but incrementally year over year, we've added different experiences that our fans have asked for. Plus, I think we've brought some new experiences like Threes and Ones that haven't really been seen before. or not in the forms that they take in NHL 19.

So I think we're actually entering a new generation. We feel we have momentum here, we feel that we're building up to something that no one has imagined for NHL yet. And we'll see where that takes us.

What's your overarching goals for the rest of the generation?

William Ho: I think it really is bringing more fans into hockey. I think we recognize that not everyone who loves the qualities of hockey and how great it is to play on a hockey team ... Not every one of those players is a fan of the league, or knows that it actually is something they can play and something that they can succeed at.

So if we can aboard more players, if we can bring in players through something like Ones, through something like Threes, through customization, self-expression, playing different roles, right? I think gamers in general want to play roles these days. If we can get people in through those sorts of mechanics, then I think we can bring more fans into NHL in general.

I find it interesting that you guys decided not to do a story mode like FIFA or Madden.

William Ho: Yeah, that's something that we are often asked about. It's something where we have to wait and see. I don't think that we would serve our fans just by putting all of our time and effort into a story mode at this point.

I love playing The Journey. The onboard went really well, so I really like those story modes, but I think we have to wait and see what kind of story would actually serve our fans the best. I'm not sure that giving them full-on cinematic story mode is what they are asking for.

I don't get that particular question a lot, but certainly players love a narrative, people love goals, people love a narrative of achievements. So, that's something that we're looking into for the future.

From a gameplay standpoint, I mean, you guys have done a lot of work with RPM and like the way that they skate and everything. What about AI and that kind of thing?

William Ho: Yeah, we've done lots of little AI tweaks this year. We've looked at defensive positioning, we've also looked at goalie AI. Previously there would be lots of glitch goals that were happening, and people would let us have it.

We've also tweaked things like that you wouldn't normally associate with AI, such as player switching, with automatic player switching. And then for the people who want more manual control, we've added manual player switching. But overall we feel that it's not time for a rewrite or an overhaul, and we have this enormous backlog of things that people wanna see and our players want tweaked.

The position we've taken with NHL 19 is, "How can we polish the current experience for our current fans?"

So, my personal experience with NHL is often that, when I'm playing against good players, they are going to play this extremely aggressive, pressing style of gameplay where they basically try to force two-on-ones, which concludes with them dangling the puck around the goalie.

William Ho: Yeah, really strong possession is what you encounter.

It makes the game feel a little one-dimensional to me, especially when I'm playing against other people. What are your thoughts on that?

William Ho: Yeah, I think what we've seen in our community is there are certain players that favor a really strong puck possession game, which actually kind of mirrors some of the dynamics in real hockey as well.

You know, I think what we see in our community at large is that when you actually have multiple players, multiple styles... I don't think there's a single type of player that becomes like that sort of silver bullet strategy. So yeah, I'm not sure it's a big pain point, but certainly something that we love the feedback that comes from players like you.

What about the tactics, because I've spent a lot of time tweaking the settings, and I find that it kind of funnels you into a particular style.

William Ho: Yeah, that's something that we really want to improve going forward. We're not sure that players are actually playing to what they've selected, right? Also, all of our teams have different default strategies, so unless you actually are familiar with them or change them yourself, you may actually be playing counter to that strategy. If your team is playing overload and you're not actually sending your forwards to the net and crashing the net, it may not be successful. I like to ring the puck like around the boards, I like to play the perimeter, and so if my team is set to overload or crash the net, then I'm actually not going to see success. So I think there's a bit of player education that we need to look to in the future.

So GM Connected went away when this generation started, and you guys have been pretty clear that it's not really a priority. Has that changed at all as you've moved through this generation? Have you given any consideration to bringing it back?

William Ho: I think any time that we hear over and over that fans want a particular feature or mode like GM Connected, we never ignore it, right? We always weigh it against what we have to achieve for a particular year for the audience that we want. So we haven't deliberately ignored it or said that we'll never do it, or that we don't see value in GM Connected. I do think that there are a lot of little bits and pieces and atomic parts to something like GM Connected that we have to align if we're going to do it properly.

FIFA just updated its presentation to include Champion's League and Europa League layers. When can we expect you guys to refresh your presentation? Are you going to stick with NBC for the time being? Like that just general look?

William Ho: Yeah, for the time being. People like the NHL on NBC Presentation. I always get feedback that people love Doc and Eddie. Doc's voice is incredible, right? He's got that authority. What some of our fans may not know is that Doc and Eddie and Ray Ferraro ad-lib most of their lines. So to have guys who are that knowledgeable and that passionate about the game, especially Doc, who has been around forever and is still just as passionate about the NHL as he's ever been. So, that's why I've sort of stuck with that and fans have told us they really love those guys in the booth. So, for the foreseeable future, we're sticking with them and we'll see where that takes us.

What about puck physics? Have you changed those appreciably on top of the RPM?

William Ho: Puck physics largely have remained untouched. There is an exception to that statement and that is, we have fixed puck pickups. We've spent a lot of time analyzing the issues that we've had with our puck pickup, and where we've landed is that you shouldn't ever skate up to a puck and not pick it up.

There are exceptions to that rule ,and I want some of our fans to be aware of them, that if you are poke checking, if you're deflecting, if you're actually dangling... extending the twig... there will be some situations where you do not pick up the puck. But in those situations, you're actually not trying to possess the puck. So, I just want fans to be aware of that. But in general, if you skate to a loose puck, you are going to pick it up.

Do you ever anticipate dump and chase being more feasible now?

William Ho: Oh, probably. Right, yeah. Because if you dump it in and you're trying to pick it up and then you don't that's a failed strategy. So, I play dump and chase a lot. I like to play below the goal line a lot, and I'm able to actually work a low cycle when I play the game. So in my mind, in my experience, that should be addressed.

We're gonna probably have new consoles in a couple years. What do you think that will mean for NHL.

William Ho: Well, that's a good question. I mean, until we know what those new consoles are and if they come out, then we can't really address any specifics. But for me personally, I love customization, I've made a large part of my career making games that enable lots of customization, so I think we'll see a lot more on that front, and we'll see a lot more sharing of creations.

We'll see a lot more community creations and I think we'll also see creations not just visually in player customization, but also, how can we share modes? How can we share experiences? How can we exchange different rule sets? How can we share rosters? How can we get people who are super passionate about hockey to share their hockey fantasies? And so I think that's the general direction that we'll push in the future.

So you're ultimate goal for NHL is to get new fans in? That's the number one priority?

William Ho: Absolutely. All kinds of fans. We want new fans who have never played hockey, fans who love hockey who have never played a hockey video game, and players who have played hockey every year, and players who played hockey 20 years ago and want to play hockey again. Those are our audiences for NHL every year.

So not just the typical hardcore who are playing Franchise or EASHL, but people who are in a rec league but don't watch the NFL?

William Ho: Absolutely. If someone's playing in a beer league and they think they're not good at video games and therefore they're not going to play a hockey video game, we want to prove them wrong, because clearly they have a passion for hockey. They've probably been playing hockey for like 20, 30, 40, even 50 years in their lives, but how can we get them playing hockey in their living room?

Kat Bailey

Editor in Chief

Kat Bailey is a former freelance writer and contributor to publications including 1UP, IGN, GameSpot, GamesRadar, and EGM. Her fondest memories as a journalist are at GamePro, where she hosted RolePlayer's Realm and had legal access to the term "Protip." She is USgamer's resident mecha enthusiast, Pokemon Master, and Minnesota Vikings nut (skol).

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