We've known for a bit that EA was working on a story mode for Madden 18. But it wasn't until today that we were really able to grasp the full extent of what EA is trying to accomplish with their flagship NFL franchise.
As EA revealed during their press conference, Madden 18's story mode will in effect be an adventure game: a seamless interactive movie in which you influence your choices through branching dialogue. There will be no NFL games in this mode, but Madden's core mechanics will manifest in other ways, such as through high school football, drills, and quicktime events.
We talked about its development with EA creative lead Mike Young, who goes in depth on Longshot's genesis, why they're going in this direction, and the challenges of building what amounts to a new game from scratch.
How long have you been working on Longshot?
Mike Young: I've personally been working on it for about four years. There's about a year and a half of just story development before we brought on 10 more people, then we developed pre-production for six moe re months, then we've been building it for the past two years.
Four years ago was 2013. So this was something you envisioned as the next step for the current generation.
Young: Yeah, I've always been a big story and gaming fan as well as a sports fan. Really my dream getting into the industry back in 1999 when I was in NBA Street was a sports game borrowing from other genres. Even when I got my first job my demo was an RPG whiffle ball game on the Game Boy. It's always been my passion to mix genres.
Why haven't we seen a story mode like this up until now?
Young: You know, from being so close inside the industry, I think gameplay and authenticity are always king. The graphics and technology you need to even pull off a story of this cinematic quality and the tech to allow the characters to actually express themselves. So it was a little bit about allowing the tech to catch up, and personally for me as a sports gamer, I feel like sports were scratching the competition itch or the fantasy of control, but maybe wasn't delivering the emotional investment I'd get from playing a Last of Us or Telltale Game. And I think as we caught up with graphics and presentation and gameplay, it was kind of looking at what's the next frontier. And to me story is universal, which is why we're starting to see sports games try this stuff.
Did you kick this off concurrently with FIFA's The Journey, or were these two things that started separately?
Young: It was kicked off before The Journey had decided to do a story mode, actually. I had met with their people and actually pitched this idea to all of the EA Sports teams this crazy idea of Longshot, and I had been pitching a campaign mode for sports. I'm pretty sure without Frostbite we really couldn't do it, and that's one of the things that held us back from trying to execute this thing, and they were getting Frostbite first. In the meantime, I think they were seeing some of the other sports franchises go down this path and have some success. So I think everyone will assume that Madden saw The Journey's success and followed in its footsteps, but we've had our own path to get to this point.
I find it interesting that you've been working on this since 2013 but you weren't sure it would work without Frostbite given that the Ignite Engine was initially positioned as EA's next-gen sports engine.
Young: When you've worked on something so long, I think there's some naivete at the start. I don't think we always believed that it couldn't work without Frostbite. We'd had some success with the Madden 15 intro, and I remember even yourself having some nice comments about that and how you'd love to have that quality of presentation throughout the Madden game. That was kind of us proving that we could do it and achieve high emotional content and storytelling both from cinematography and the acting.
But we really struggled to do anything off the field, we struggled to have convincing lip sync... any lighting condition that wasn't on the field with football players and pads was a real struggle. Frostbite is such an amazing content engine, shaders look amazing, we were able to build a world for Longshot that has such a diverse cast on and off the field. There are more than 45 actors in this thing of all races, shapes, genders.... padded, unpadded. And that was the stuff that was always so difficult. I used to be an art director in Madden, and any time we wanted to do something like the NFL Combine, we were usually blocked by how hard it is to create convincing-looking players without pads. That's why I think we were held back from doing something of this quality.
The story mode stars Devin Wade as a prospect who was out of football for a couple years but now wants to try and get into the NFL. That really is quite the longshot.
Young: Well, when my journey started four years ago, I partnered with NFL Films to try and tell a story that everyone could relate to. I didn't really want to go down the path of unlocking cribs and agents and the superficial side of being a player, but I wanted to go back to the roots and inner dreams we all had about the superstar we wanted to be, and why we fell in love with the game. I wanted to go back to that emotional space.
One thing I did to give the pitch some running legs was to get people emotionally engaged was to partner with NFL Films and partner with a couple producers. We went to a couple regional combines and followed a few guys from that all the way to Draft Day. It was a really big inspiration to see that there were people out there who were genuine longshots because they ended up at a Junior College, or they dropped out, or they were second string behind a much better player. There's a lot of scenarios that led people to believe that they could do it if they were given a chance. I do think that it's going to stand out though because most of the story-type content is play along with a season... and it's the drama of a locker room, playing time... coaches office drama. Our story is more of a relatable personal journey.
So it's not necessarily going to be a story where you pick a team, get drafted, get on the field... it's going to be much more about the journey up to the combine?
Young: Yeah, our story starts at the 2017 NFL Regional Combine and takes you all the way up to Draft Day, so there won't be a single NFL game played in this mode.
It strikes me as incredibly risky to abandon your core gameplay like that. What are your thoughts on that?
Young: I suppose it's risky, but I've felt like telling the best story... it's about football, it's about passion, it's about a dream of playing in the NFL. There are NFL personalities throughout. There's a sense that you are a part of the NFL through the story, with people like Bill Cowher commenting on your career, with Dan Marino being your mentor.
It's not just an Entourage story, you're spending time with Dan Marino, playing catch, hearing his stories, connecting on more of a personal level. You're very integrated into the NFL Draft itself. So it's definitely a risk, but I didn't want to just follow some formula because I think you ultimately end up with a cliched, boring experience. For people to really care they have to have surprises, they have to really connect to the people, to not just be, "From Zero to Hero. I'm going to win a Super Bowl." We've had that. So I hope people will really give it a shot; but so far with our playtesting people really relate to it, and aren't missing that. And I think that it's because they have stuff like the NFL Combine, things they've wanted in Superstar Mode for so long.
Can you give me an idea what the actual structure of the mode will look like? How you're going to progress, how you're going to advance, that sort of thing?
Young: Yeah, I'm really excited about this. We've built it like a playable movie, so it's going to flow from scene to scene with no loading. You'll have no sense that you're really in the game. There's no menus, no assigning XP... you're just immersed in this story that you're interacting with. I think it's more like a format of a campaign mode than a career mode with cutscenes, so the journey is... the play is so various. You have things like branching dialogue, you have quicktime events, you have high school football games, you have padless football games, you have multiple ways to throw, you have classroom things.
Devin's background is that he was a spread QB, he was a star coming out of high school, he flamed out in college, but to get to the next level he has to have the growth that Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota had to have. They hadn't taken snaps under center, they weren't calling plays in the huddle, they had to get much more advanced in reading defenses. So Devin Wade has to go on that journey to go from undraftable to draftable. So we've made a lot of these classroom and learning experiences feel like something where you're on the hotseat on a TV show like Gruden Camp. A super old-school reference, but the Bully videogame where you have to go to class to keep your grades up and learn different things. So I feel like as you go through the mode, it's not this repetitive game, practice, 90 second story sequence... there's a lot of variety to what you're doing.
On the subject of Bully, is this football class? Is this school?
Young: I'll say that Devin has to go on a journey to learn how to be an NFL QB and not just a high school QB. Imagine watching the All-22 and having to identify the safety, calling out the different formations, or learning read progressions. So there's stuff on and off the field that's essentially training, but you feel like you're in a movie montage. There's no screens, no "Hit three targets to progress." You're just in this story with this coach, and you feel a lot of stress about these decisions. All of it is being reported on your scouting report. So games like Fallout have... if you're playing along you might make a choice and it'll say, "Piper liked that." You feel like there's some kind of system behind the scenes driving your choices and meaning something. Our version of that is the scouting report where things Devin does on and off the field can alter the story.
Tell me a bit about the high school experience. My first thought was NBA 2K's college scenes. Is it something like that?
Young: Yeah, I'm really proud of this. When we made the First Interactive Experiences in Madden 15, 16, and 17, I loved that we tried to make the story scenes feel seamless with the on-field presentation. Custom commentary with the gameplay moments, and custom camera banks, we wanted to keep that same quality through the story scenes and the gameplay. That was our target here, which was to go even beyond what you said was impressive in 2K. First of all, why we go to high school is to get to know our star, the player potential he had, and the man we want him to become again. So we go back to high school and we're in a small town in Texas, it's Friday Night Lights-style football, the fields will look genuine... and they will look genuine because they are.
We went to real locations in Texas. We have custom commentary for that mode-- different commentators, different audio mix that makes it sounds like it's coming from the local airwaves, they'll even call the games with a different style. These guys don't know football as well as the pros, but they know stories about players because they've been in the town for years. It's kind of like Grand Theft Auto where you're driving and hearing story being dramatized on the way to missions, you're going to hear a lot of storytelling from these commentators. There will be bands, cheerleaders... it will feel like authentic Texas football.
It reminds me a bit of Heavy Rain. Is that a good analogy?
Young: It is. I think we're more interactive, but Heavy Rain is definitely one of my early inspirations. Telltale, particularly the Walking Dead series, is definitely an inspiration as far as meaningful choices. I think a lot of sports games in the past have been in the world of cliche nice guy, cliche bad guy, or don't take a position at all. I want true conflict in the choices, with the lesser of two evils being a factor. Multiple things will be at stake with your answer; there will be a timer, there will be a pressure. Obviously we're not talking about life and death with zombies, but in any good story scene the character is in conflict, and your choices reveal who they are... and who you are. So in that way we're taking Telltale and Heavy Rain and trying to make it all playable. We don't want scenes where you're not touching the controller. I think this will have more influences from non-sports games than previous sports story modes.
Can you tell me more about the Combine?
Young: Well Devin Wade is a quarterback. Him and his friend Colt, who was his high school best friend and wide receiver... he's kind of like a Danny Amendola-type as far as talent and size, heart, speed. They're headed to this Combine, and there's a mix of quicktime events, there's a mix of this new way to pass--we have a version that's inspired by a new core Madden mechanic--there are things like pocket movement drills. It definitely sets up the rest of the story, but what's pretty cool to me is that people wanted this type of experience, but you're going to see padless players in authentic Combine outfits doing authentic drills, and you're going to be in control of it. You will feel like Devin is being watched and judged on everything he does there, whether that's a branching dialogue choice, or his ability to react fast, or his ability to follow directions. It's a pretty cool mix of stuff, really.
Will this be totally separate from the classic Connected Franchise?
Young: They're going to remain two separate things. There's still a huge value in being able to create yourself, pick your position, and have that more sandbox experience. We're treating this as more of a campaign mode in length and value to the product. It's one of the best things to do first when you come to the Madden game. It's going to do well with lapsed gamers or younger gamers who love the NFL, love games, but feel intimidated by Madden because of the playcalling or the button complexity. I think we do a good job of ramping you through things you're probably already familiar with: quicktime events, dialogue choices, things that any gamer knows about, and ramping you up to full playcall. And because Devin's story is really about learning and getting up to NFL calibur, gamers are going to accidentally learn more about football than they had, which will empower them more when they're in playcall in games. They will have learned a few basics about why things are done the way they are, what playcalls mean, what routes mean, which I think will be a side benefit. So Superstar Mode will absolutely carry over.
Will features introduced in Longshot carry over into the rest of the game? Combine Mode, for example?
Young: One thing we will have right of the gate is a really strong Ultimate Team connection throughout the mode. Even 15 minutes in you will be unlocking content in Ultimate Team. We will have fictional characters, but we will also have recognizable players like Chad Ochocinco and Dan Marino that you can unlock as well. There's stadiums, uniforms, and one thing that's really cool is that, if you love the Longshot story, there will be ways to play something that got mentioned in the story that got mentioned but you never got deep into. So a way to get more of the story through solo challenges in Ultimate Team. So I think that crossover will be pretty cool. And, of course, if you love having an Academy Award winning actor Mahirsha Ali and he's the father of the main character and he's one of the coaches that you can unlock in Ultimate Team, that's pretty cool, too.
Can you elaborate on the multiple endings?
Young: The goal of the mode is to get Devin drafted, but his best friend is also on a ride with him. So the choices you make on and off the field will have an impact on the potential outcomes. Whether Devin gets drafted, whether Colt gets drafted, and you will definitely feel responsible for the outcome based on the choices you make. There's direct feedback in the moment, you will have a real sense that people are watching. But there's also a great mystery: What matters? What doesn't matter? I don't want to give too much away for the ending, but they are really cool and have really interesting surprises. But we wanted to have different experiences. I'll just go back to a personal experience with Walking Dead Season 2: for a week I was bummed out because I made a choice that sent Kenny off to die. I kind of wanted to go back and replay it, but that was the real choice I made. So if you can get people to second guess themselves, I think you're being successful with games that have choices. You want people to feel like their journey is special
Well it all sounds extremely different from FIFA's The Journey or what NBA 2K has done in the past. That said, did you learn anything from FIFA's rollout last year?
Young: Yeah, we're great partners, and our team spent a lot of time with them on tech, Frostbite, their learnings on what was hard to close out. But as a creative, I had read their initial script and followed along as they built it, and I was curious about how fans reacted to it. I talked to the creatives about how successful they thought certain parts were, or where they would potentially take it in the future. Everyone is going to perceive this as a sports story mode, so it would have been foolish not to pay attention and think about what they're doing. I don't know necessarily that we changed anything based on what they made.
But one thing that's interesting when you're a big company and someone is successful is that you're asked, 'Well why aren't they just like they are?' So you do have to put a lot of thought into why you make different choices, and I ultimately think we're really strong and right for our audiences. What people don't want is a copy of something else. Instead of a pitch, it's the field! People get bored by cliches, people get bored by the same emotional journey, people get bored by the same thing over and over again in sports. How many boxing movies have been a rehash of Rocky? You don't want to rehash the same emotional arc over and over again. And from a play standpoint, it's definitely interesting for sports, but what we're making is a story mode that just happens to be about football.
I find it interesting that in taking this approach you kind of neatly sidestep a lot of the problems that other games tend to face. For example, you're meant to feel like you're in the shoes of a player who's trying to get into the NFL, but if you're too good, it's kind of immersion breaking. Which is why you have QTEs, minigames... why you're sidestepping stats... is that fair?
Young: Yeah it's completely fair. That's why I keep going back to the world 'relatable.' I've been on sports gaming forever, and NBA Street's career mode worked because anyone could imagine going on a street ball court and holding their own. When you imagine yourself as an NFL player who's 280 pounds of muscle, and you're a 40-year-old broke down guy sitting behind a desk, that fantasy is a little bit gone. But in the territory we're in most of our audience has played Pop Warner or high school football, and they had those dreams, and they can relate to Devin.
It's not just emphasizing with a guy who's not getting enough playing time. You're talking about a guy who's chasing a dream and is struggling possibly with confidence. A persona story for me that connects to Devin is that I switched high school when I was a sophomore, and I was afraid to try out for the baseball team because I was afraid I would embarrass myself. I think a lot of people would rather not try than be embarrassed when pursuing a dream, so I think there are some nice relatable themes where you're not having to jump that believability gap. That's why I love this territory of this origin story.
Story modes have kind of become the future of sports games. Why are they trending in this direction?
Young: We've reached this point where the technology has caught up to a point where, yeah there's awesome graphical leaps, yeah there's 4K coming, yeah the AI gets better. But people are buying so few games. They buy kind of the top ten as far as the big blockbuster console games. I think you see that people want more out of the sports games like FIFA and Madden because it might be the one game they buy all year. And people have different motivations for playing. I think story is one area where we're the furthest behind--an emotional connection.
I think it's a really fascinating place to be because there's a lot of ways to attack this, and ours is a very different take. I see a lot of other interesting takes on creating yourself and what that could mean. It's just an under-developed area. If you think about career modes, you sort of feel like you've done that territory over and over and over again. You add better and better features, but personally I think people feel like they don't add those really exponential leaps that reinvigorate them. I don't know, it's a tough question.
You mentioned people who were feeling alienated by Madden. It makes me think of a football writer saying that Madden felt like rocket science to him. There's this growing gap between casual fans who just like football and the hardcore people who are playing every year, experience MUT, and really understand the game. And it seems to me that Longshot to me is a way to bring Madden back to the masses.
Young: Yeah that's really important to me. You wouldn't believe how many NFL coaches I've spoken to who can't play Madden because their stick skils are too daunting, and their kids will kick their butt. You can see they're genuinely embarrassed because they're head coaches and should dominate, so it's not just 'casual' in terms of people who barely care about the sport. There are people who deeply love the NFL, it's one of their favorite pastimes--they have six fantasy teams, jerseys, season tickets. But they're still not coming to Madden. People have to take notice this year because the game has so much for everyone. Beyond Longshot there are really cool modes as well that will let more people in the door. It's definitely not an anti-core year--I think the core will love Longshot for a lot of the NFL fantasy stuff that's part of it--but that story layer is what allows more people to join in and be part of Madden.
Do you see Devin Wade being a long-term fixture for Madden, or is this more of a one-off thing?
Young: We wrote it as an origin story, and I think our hope is that people will want to see more of these characters, particularly Devin and Colt. It's kind of a buddy film in that there's these two characters you're rooting for and this really deep relationship with a lot of emotional range. I loved making this thing more than anything in my entire career. The team is so excited about the places we can go with this. We have 45 sets: small-time American roadsides, VFWs... just the whole spectrum. We wanted this to feel epic. There's cinematic transition shots, and establishing shots. There's stuff that took a month of development time that's literally in a 10 second shot. There's so much cool stuff here, and we love building it, and hopefully the audience wants more.
I was going to say how wild it is that you built so many assets for this thing. That kind of explains why this has never been done before. You have to build so much.
Young: Yeah. Back in the day it was painful because we love the fans, but they'd say, 'Why don't you put in X, Y, and Z?' And you'd be like, 'I'd really like, but it's literally impossible to make a guy in a suit look good. It'll take half a year to do that.' We had a really high bar for Longshot. A lot of the early sports games were like two guys in a poorly lit hallway. There's such a lack of sets, everything takes place in a bedroom, a locker room, a hallway, field, GM office, back to the bedroom.
There's an epicness to Longshot: 45 different characters, women and children, which was nearly impossible to build in Ignite. All different races, all different ages, all different sizes. It's so cool. We never wanted this cheap scene with just two people talking. We wanted amazing staging and blocking that meant something to scenes. I think the acting is really, really strong, I'd put it up there with anything in games. So I'm really excited for people to see it. People are expecting The Journey, which is awesome, but since we're trying to do something so different, I think there will be a surprise and delight moment of how it actually is.
Will there be DLC?
Young: I can see a world where that's possible. We do need to see how the audience responds to Devin and Colt in particular and this kind of storytelling. I'm very hopeful that they demand that there's more of these guys, whether that's episodes, or a new season. I do know that we feel that there's more story in this world that we created, and I'm personally preparing as though we are. I can't wait to see in August if the audience feels the same.
I'm just genuinely amazed that you're building what amounts to an entirely new game and bolting it on top of Madden.
Young: Yeah it is kind of crazy now that you say it out loud like that. We do want it to feel like you've gone in this special portal. We never could have done it without 29 years of the awesome Madden engine, because that drives the action sequences. If you didn't have that, you couldn't just do something like this. I think it's a good partnership, and worse case you've gotta take notice because it's definitely interesting.
Madden 18 will be out August 25. Check out our complete listing of everything we know for more info.