If you want to get a feel for how split fans are on Madden 19, you should check out a thread on Operation Sports, one of the largest sports gaming sites on the internet, which is titled simply: "Madden 19: yea or nay." The 18-page thread was posted nearly a month ago, and it's still going as fans debate everything from the franchise mode to the merits of the new Real Player Motion engine.
That's where Madden 19 stands some two months after its initial release. The entry that was supposed to refine the animation and greatly upgrade the gameplay has instead been bogged down by bugs. I described it as "ragged" in my review, and since then, fans have found more and more to complain about. While it has a reasonably healthy score of 80 on Metacritic, its user score is an anemic 2.4.
Because of these issues, poor word-of-mouth has dogged the 2019 version. Even random NFL threads on Reddit will occasionally feature some passing complaint about Madden 19. The general consensus within the community is that this year's version could have used another few weeks in the oven.
What went wrong? Are these issues overblown? And if they aren't, can Madden 19 right the ship? The answers are complicated, and may say something about the series going forward.
Madden 19's Year of Refinement
This was supposed to be what you might call a refinement year for Madden. Following on from the big transition to the Frostbite Engine and the introduction of Longshot in Madden 18, this year's version was meant to smooth down the rough edges and build upon the new foundation. Hence the introduction of Real Player Motion, or "RPM:" a brand new animation system intended to make Madden 19 "play the way it looked in the screenshots."
My initial impression was that the effect was fairly subtle, but that the gameplay was definitely smoother. Given more time, I was impressed by the more refined player interactions. Offense and defense in particular felt more balanced than they had been in a long time.
Once Madden 19 was out in the wild, though, the problems started to emerge, as they often do. The Madden subreddit was flooded with gameplay bugs. NFL players such as the Houston Texans' Christian Covington complained that their in-game models were a little bit... off. And new features, like automatic screengrabs, didn't always work.
What was supposed to be a refinement of the already solid gameplay instead felt distinctly unpolished. Even now, after a handful of updates, blockers will just freeze for seemingly no reason. CPU ball carriers will turn away from open lanes and run right into defenders. Some players won't even animate at all.
These issues have been exacerbated by lingering frustration in certain segments of the fanbase. Franchise players in particular continue to feel like they are getting the short end of the stick, as even the newly overhauled progression system doesn't quite bring Madden's franchise mode to the level of what's in NBA 2K or even NHL. They look back longingly on the days of NFL 2K5, which featured overlays from ESPN and even an authentic highlight show featuring famous sportscaster Chris Berman.
Madden in general tends to get a shorter leash due to EA infamously shutting out the competition with its exclusivity deal. Even when it's good, as it was last year, people often grumble about EA's monopoly on football video games. When it struggles, the naysayers are loud and extremely negative.
With that in mind, you sort of have to take some complaints with a grain of salt, but that doesn't mean they should be discounted entirely. One prominent community member, whose opinion I trust, characterizes the CPU side as being "stuck in slider hell," a reference to the community's constant tinkering with gameplay sliders. And it's been bogged down in constant animation issues, he says. He still think it's a strong game, but he won't deny that the bugs, as well as factors outside of EA's control, have hurt this year's version.
Wherever you stand, it's clear that this isn't quite the refined version of Madden that EA was hoping for. With the narrative now set that this year's version is a disappointment, fair or not, it will have to work twice as hard to make up lost ground.
Madden 19's Strange and Tragic Year
It hasn't helped that it's been a weird and tragic year for the Madden series in general. Not since Madden 12, when a large chunk of the development staff abruptly decided to depart near the beginning of development, has there been so much uncertainty in key positions. And that's on top of weathering a tragedy that shook the Madden community to its very core.
It began with the sudden departure of Madden creative director Rex Dickson back in May. Dickson had been a key voice in Madden's development, guiding it out of the troubled Xbox 360/PS3 period while establishing a firm foundation for the current generation. He was also a well-known figure among the community, often reaching out personally to both journalists and players and sharing his vision for the series.
While members of Madden's development team have assured me on more than one occasion that they have a firm plan for the next several years, Dickson's departure nevertheless left a vacuum near the top of Tiburon's power structure. The Madden team was further shaken up by producer Seann Graddy's move over to NBA Live, after which he was replaced by Carlos Guerrero.
Guerrero's hiring was meant to be a significant one for the series. Having played a role in the development of Overwatch, he was well-acquainted with the requirements of developing a long-term gaming platform. But less than a year into his new role, Guerrero was suddenly fired for "behavior that is against EA policies, including our Global Code of Conduct & Respectful Workplace policy." Graddy has since returned to the Madden team, where he is now pulling double duty as executive producer for both Madden NFL and NBA Live.
Developers at Tiburon continue to downplay the impact of these changes, emphasizing that they are a veteran team who have a clear idea of how to navigate an annual sports game cycle. But it's difficult to imagine these changes not having at least some impact.
The same can be said for the Jacksonville shooting, which will go down as one of the most horrific events in gaming history. The attack, which saw one Madden competitor shoot two other players, had a visceral and painful impact on developers and the community alike. Less than a month after Madden's release, several members of the development team flew to LA to mourn and help raise money for the victims. This unspeakable tragedy has left a cloud hanging over Madden 19.
These events come on top of all the usual trials of working on an annual sports sim: the burnout from long hours, the sometimes-venomous community, the heavy expectations of publishers. Taken together, it's not surprising that this version of Madden is less polished than usual.
Wait til Madden 20?
None of this is to say that Madden 19 is doomed and thus entirely skippable. Sports games are extremely fluid these days, and EA has already released a handful of title updates, adding in retractable roof stadiums among other new features. By the time Black Friday rolls around, Madden 19 is apt to feel like a very different game.
As I wrote in my review, I appreciate how much the gameplay has evolved over the years. Players complain about the "scripted" nature of plays, where animations guarantee a certain outcome, but it's a far cry from the frustrating and broken entries of years past. As one fan mentioned in the Operation Sports thread mentioned above, man coverage actually works now.
But there's a larger question of where exactly EA is trying to take Madden. We're on the downside of the generation, and this is traditionally the period in which a sports sim should be peaking. So what does EA want to accomplish in the period leading up to the PS5?
The past few years provide a handful of clues. Going back to Madden 15, the series has put a tremendous amount of emphasis on gameplay, with an eye in particular toward catering to hardcore competitive fans. This strategy has coincided with the attempted development of a legitimate Madden esports league, as well as the push toward co-op modes like MUT Squads.
To draw in new players, Tiburon has developed the ultra casual Longshot story mode, which is intended to teach the basics while telling an entertaining story. It's also been pitched as a kind of prestige mode—a unique piece of storytelling intended to push Madden outside of the usual sports game bubble. Mostly, it's a gateway into Madden in general, and Madden Ultimate Team in particular.
Looking ahead, certain members of the Madden team are pretty adamant that co-op and teamplay is the path forward for the series. The prevailing attitude is that franchise mode has a consistent base that almost never changes from year to year, so it's better to focus resources on refining the core gameplay. In such an environment, it's difficult to imagine any kind of franchise mode overhaul on the level of what fans want.
So if you're hoping for any kind of massive overhaul for Madden 20, you might not want to hold your breath. For better or worse, the course for Madden is set for the foreseeable future. The biggest question right now is how EA will approach Longshot next year, and whether it will kick off a brand new story, or will be dispensed with entirely.
In the shorter term, Madden 19's retail performance remains strong, with launch month sales being the strongest since August 2013. For better or worse, Madden has an established fanbase that will support even the weaker entries. In that respect, at least, EA can claim 2018 as a successful year.