NHL has had a tough time breaking out from the shadow of FIFA, Madden, and NBA 2K this generation. Since launching a year late on Xbox and PS4, it has struggled to garner the same level of notice from mainstream fans. One result is that NHL has mostly opted to go its own way, introducing the more casual World of Chel more in 2018, and continuing to refrain from transitioning to EA's Frostbite Engine (which has arguably been to its benefit).
NHL 20 sees EA doubling down on Chel while also continuing to refine the gameplay improvements introduced last year. Chel in particular is a window into EA's philosophy for the series. Originally seen as way to get fans comfortable with online hockey, it's now seen as a legitimate multiplayer mode in its own right... for better or worse.
But what about the fans who like single-player? And those who are concerned about the loot boxes found in Hockey Ultimate Team? And the long neglected Be a Pro mode, which has been basically ignored while similar modes have enjoyed roaring success elsewhere?
I posed these questions to creative director William Ho, who talked about where EA is with the series and what fans can expect from this year's entry. Here's what he had to say.
USG: Last year I perceived kind of a pivot with the introduction of World of Chel. Could you kind of condense your overall strategy for the series into a few sentences.
William Ho, NHL 20 Creative Director: What we feel is that hockey is the best online multiplayer experience. There's no game like it online. With World of Chel, we've come up with multiple modes to get people to experience the thrill of online hockey, whether it's EA Sports Hockey League 5v5 or 6v6, or just getting online with Ones. They're all fun to play online.
But you guys won't do online franchise?
[laughs] We get people asking us about this a lot. It's not the smallest feature we can implement, and it doesn't have the biggest userbase. I have the conversation with my team every year whether we can tackle that. But you know, stay tuned. Keep asking, Kat.
You specifically frame NHL as a competitive game, but a lot of people also enjoy the solo experience. What would you say to the people who feel they are being left behind?
The offline experience is actually something we don't want to leave behind. For instance, last year in franchise mode we added some pretty major features, particularly scouts. This year we wanted to continue that mission with coaches; so now you have eight different coaching slots in your organization, and you can fill those slots with 200 something coaches, all with different attributes that affect your team's morale and performance. Also there are line chemistry so that your players will actually fit your coach's scheme or not. So what do you do in that situation? Do you acquire players that fit that coach's philosophy, or do you acquire a coach that fits your current roster? So we've added quite a bit of depth to franchise mode to double down on that aspect of that game.
If you don't mind me being blunt, it feels like Be a Pro has been left fallow by NHL. NBA 2K has shown that you can have amazing success with these kinds of modes, and Madden is beefing up that mode as well. Why isn't NHL following suit?
It's not like we don't have fans of Be a Pro like yourself. What we've found is that, when it comes to the upgrades Be a Pro needs to feel substantial, we haven't been able to bring it to the level of quality that we wanted. We did start work on design and development for an upgrade to Be a Pro this past year, but it wasn't going to be up to the expectations of fans like yourself. So we're going to keep churning on that, and the next time we talk, I hope I have something for you on Be a Pro.
World of Chel Enters Its Second Year in NHL 20
What did you learn from Chel last year?
What we learned is that we believe that EA Sports Hockey League is the best online multiplayer experience, and we still have people going into that mode. But what we found was that around certain parts of the year, people really migrated to Ones and Threes again. What we thought was that it would just be the onboarding mode before people eventually moved to 5v5 and 6v6, but what we found was that people really loved those "casual modes." So we decided to double down on those modes with Eliminator, which is intended to be, if I'm being honest, our "battle royale mode." What we find in internal testing is that it amps up the stakes with each game. No one wants to lose the three rounds they've won and go back to Round 1. It ramps up the intensity of all of those matches online, and our internal testing has shown it will really sing in the wild.
So ultimately Chel was a success for you? It did everything you wanted it to?
Oh absolutely. We looked at the high number of people who went back to World of Chel, we looked at the high number of people customizing their players and equipping items at a regular clip. So we're going to stay with that. We're doubling down on that.
What was the one thing that you felt really needed to be improved from last year?
World of Chel was really valuable for the people who knew what they wanted to do. It was a free ecosystem for them to live in; they could play modes Ones and Pro-Am, earn XP, get hockey bags. But it was a largely self-motivated experience. You had to know what you wanted to do on a given day. Now we have something called Weekly Chel Challenges, which provide 15 different tasks or objectives that refresh every seven days. If you complete all 15 of those objectives, you get a rare vanity item. Weekly Chel Challenges help people to get to the fun and the rewards faster.
I feel like puck pickups have been an issue for a really long time. Why has it taken so long to get to this point?
Something we couldn't do was make puck pickups more reliable without having a magnet or making them snap to the stick. We didn't have enough coverage for the players to accurately pickup the puck, but now that we have in-motion tech, we actually have way more coverage. Not only can you reach forward to pickup the puck, we also have new animations for reaching to the side, and even reaching back to pickup the puck.
So it's really a matter of animations, and we couldn't do it before without [Real Player Motion] tech, because RPM lets us transition seamlessly between thousands of animations. It can also transition in the middle of an animation. Before if you were skating and the engine couldn't transition to a puck pickup animation fast enough, you just wouldn't pick it up. But now as you're skating you can actually pick up a puck mid-stride. You'll also see that with a lot of the shots, before it was either all windup, or no windup. Now we can also do a half slapper that it transitions to seamlessly.
So it seems like you guys still haven't gotten to Frostbite. Why is that?
It hasn't been an issue for us. We've had a lot of people ask, but we haven't seen the benefit yet. So if there's no benefit, why would we migrate our entire game from one codebase to another? Maybe someday there will be a reaosn, but up until this point we've been able to add innovations like RPM without going to a different engine. Our primary goal is to make the game more fun, and we don't want to incur a development cost where it becomes less fun before it becomes more fun.
You guys had an awesome beta with NHL 19; a great launch; fan feedback was very strong, but then an update came and it changed it for the worst. What happened?
We make incremental changes to our gameplay all the time. That is based on fan feedback. So we're always releasing new tuners and updates, and those come with not a small amount of fan feedback. So if it continues to incrementally change, and it arrives at a place where fans are not satisfied, what do we do? Do we just roll it back? Or do we roll it forward? So what we did was a weeklong test with a different tuner set that simulated what the original tuner set was. The fans spoke and said they wanted something closer to the original beta, so we made that change and moved forward from that point. We felt that we did the right thing when we did that A-B test between two different tuner sets. We hope we don't end up in a situation where we have to do a test like that again, but if we are, I'll do it again without hesitation.
As you know, loot box legislation has become a major point of conversation, and games like NHL and FIFA have been central to that. What's your contingency plan if legislation like that goes through?
That's a really good question. We deliberately do not monetize in World of Chel, so all of our casual gear is just a grind. The more you play, the more stuff you're gonna earn. With Ultimate Team, we'll see. We know a lot of players are devout Ultimate Team players. My brother is one of them. I think he would be really disappointed if he couldn't play it anymore. But we'll cross that bridge when we get there.
NHL 20 is out September 13. Check out the rest of our NHL 20 coverage here.