Sports games are the unsung heroes of the video game industry- they come out every year, and after a while, we grow desensitized to them, so that we fail to appreciate all the effort that goes into making them as fun as they are while also innovating each year, and while staying abreast of all the developments in the sporting world.
It can be especially unfair when the game in question is as ultimately great as NHL 17 has turned out to be- this is a game that’s loaded to the brim with content, which is fun to play, which is authentic and faithful to its sport, and which manages to innovate and go far beyond any of its predecessor. NHL 17 is the kind of game, in other words, that deserves to be celebrated. It’s the kind of game where we as fans of the medium owe it to ourselves to try and learn more about it- even if we don’t care about hockey, or sports games.
Which is why we were so delighted when we had the chance to talk to Sean Ramjag Singh from EA Sports about the development of NHL 17, and what all goes into the making of a good sports game. Buckle in.
Could you first please introduce yourself for our readers?
Yeah, my name is Sean Ramjag Singh, and I am the lead producer for NHL 17.
Alright, thank you. And coming out of NHL 16, what did you feel were the most important aspects you wanted to improve upon this year?
Yeah, I think coming out of NHL 16, we had a really solid foundation for us to build on, and that solid foundation has allowed us to build a really big year on year leap, the biggest we’ve delivered in many years, at least in my time on the franchise. You know, when you look at the ways the features come together with NHL 17, starting with new experiences, some fundamental leaps, new ways to play our games, new modes with the World Cup of Hockey, which is the international tournament that takes place on September 17, a few days after we launch the game, to our Draft Champions mode, to you know taking the learning from FIFA and Madden and applying it to NHL– it’s you know, a really fast and fun way to draft a team, a different way of selecting a team and taking them to the ice, and playing small tournaments with them and as you progress, you take them to the Hockey Ultimate Team.
And another new experience for us is the Franchise mode, which was formerly Be A GM. And adding the element of owners, and really going big with it, so you have to manage your team and be successful with them, but also manage your revenue and profit, and the business side of it- so great new addition for Franchise mode. And then also, we talk about the package as a whole continuing to build upon previous iterations. So fans who traditionally play Be A Pro can continue to add to that with new Moments feature, celebrating the moments throughout your hockey career. We are going big with our customization feature this year- player customization, team customization, and our arena customization for the first time, which is being leveraged in Be A Pro for your character, it’s being leveraged in Franchise mode, if you decide to relocate your team, you can build up your brand, take your logo, your uniforms, and how they will look, and customizing your arena. And leveraging this in the EA Sports Hockey League mode too.
And gameplay is the foundation of every gaming experience, so we are really pushing the boundaries of our gameplay, focusing on control and balance and also adding a new goalie mechanic, and for fans that maybe haven’t played NHL in a couple of years, focusing on the visual online trainer, which is really a tool to allow all of our fans, not just new players, to really learn the basics of the game, how to shoot and skate and pass, that kind of stuff, to teach you the adaptive system and the more advanced controls- really allowing all our fans to get the most out of the experience and get to having fun fast.
… okay, that’s a massive list of changes and additions!
I told you! There’s a lot, I just wanted to reinforce the point that we’re really proud of the package we are delivering this year, and it is the biggest year on year leap we’ve had.
"Ignite is that solid foundation that we are able to build on, without having to battle technology along the way, per se, that allows us to work on features as opposed to overcoming technological hurdles. And the end result is, just more features for the fans at the end of the day."
Yeah, you weren’t kidding! It’s definitely one of the more substantial year on year leaps that I can remember in a sports game.
Yeah, we are excited about it.
So, how would you say – you are still on Ignite engine this year, right? I know FIFA switched to Frostbite, but you’re on Ignite, right?
How would you say Ignite has helped this year’s design goals for you?
I think any time you move engines, whether its Frostbite or even a console transition, just the unknowns that are involved with the new technology just inherently add curveballs to the development process. And so for us, we are talking about building on a great foundation with NHL 16 and 17, Ignite is that solid foundation that we are able to build on, without having to battle technology along the way, per se, that allows us to work on features as opposed to overcoming technological hurdles. And the end result is, you know, like I said, just more features for the fans at the end of the day.
Definitely, I can definitely see the benefits of that. But do you plan on moving to Frostbite any time soon? Or do you think Ignite is good enough for you to stick with it for the time being?
For us right now, we are watching FIFA, obviously a lot of great learning is coming out of FIFA. You know, I’ve said this a bit over the last couple of years, but every year we get better and better at this process. We have one team, and working with the Madden team closely, working with the FIFA folks right here in the building to take the learnings from a technological, development, and design perspective, understanding what’s working and where the opportunities are. So for us to be able to watch FIFA transition to Frostbite is great learning for us, and we’re gonna take that learning and see what it means for NHL in the future. So no commitment yet on what our Frostbite plans are, but you know, there’s lots of learning for us to take into consideration as we make our decision.
Yeah, each franchise has its own needs and necessities after all.
So, this is the first year that NHL is not going to be on Xbox 360 and PS3, right? I think you did have a Legacy Edition last year.
So what prompted you to drop the last generation systems this year?
Uh, we want to be where our fans are, where the majority of our fans are, and the majority of our fans have now migrated to the new consoles. And for us, you know, it speaks back to the feature set that we have this year, and by not splitting focus among multiple consoles, we were able to deliver more to the end consumer.
Alright, and I actually want to talk about that feature set and that content that you listed now. So- what is it like having all 27 ECHL teams be playable for the first time this year?
Ah, it’s fantastic, it’s – again, we’re talking about trying to reach as many hockey fans as possible. The great thing about East Coast Hockey is that it’s the third professional league in North America behind NHL and AHL. And you’re starting to hear stories – you know, Alex Burrows is the perfect example here, Vancouver player who started in the ECHL, now having a very successful career in the NHL. And you are starting to see more and more of that.
So the other thing about the ECHL is that it takes us into the market that we haven’t been in before. So fans whose favorite or hometown team hasn’t been in the game before, because they don’t have one in the NHL or the AHL, but who do have one in the ECHL, it allows those players, those fans to play as the players and teams that they are most familiar with. So it’s great for us in terms of getting into new markets.
Yeah, you’re gonna catch a lot of people who wouldn’t have jumped in otherwise, I’m assuming.
That’s- hopefully! Hopefully people will see their favorite players and teams and uniforms in the game, and that’s incentive for them to purchase the game, and also check out all the other features that we have added this year.
"For us, as producers it’s our job to understand what’s going on with sports games, and also what’s going on outside of sports games, and to try and figure out whether there are mechanics that people enjoy in other genres that can be brought back to sports games."
Alright. And how is Hockey Ultimate Team going to be changing this year? What can players look forward to with this year’s edition?
Yeah, some really cool changes this year with Hockey Ultimate Team, which is actually our most played mode, and the biggest one we’ve made is really around our Synergy system. The Synergy system is a replacement for the Chemistry system that we have had in the past- the great thing about Synergy is that it’s only additive, so your players are only going to get better, you’re not penalized if you don’t utilize the Synergy system or if you don’t maximize the efficiency of Synergy. And the way that it works is, we basically, it’s like a matching game. So we take players that have a trait, and for players that have that synergy, we set a threshold, let’s say, four players. Then those four players and anybody beyond those four players, will get a boost of 1, 2, 3 point ratings boost to that ability.
And the same thing to the team synergy. We set a threshold that you get enough players on your team to get requirements of that synergy to unlock it, and then all players on your team will get that boost to the ratings that are applicable. So it really leads to some interesting choices. If we say you need four Dirty Danglers to get that big boost, and you only have three Superstars on your team that have it, you may choose to pick a lesser rated player that has that Synergy, to get the additional benefit of the Synergy. So it’s a great new mechanic there that adds more depth to the decision making as you build your team.
The second major feature for Hockey Ultimate Team is Dynamic Sets. And the way that Sets work is, throughout the year we’ll have sets available at launch and throughout the year we’ll have additional ones. So think of it as a crafting system. People that have items as they are starting to build their teams and they’re collecting for their collection, they will take those items to make sets. And as you complete sets, you can turn in that set – so you lose those items – but you get a higher valued item in return. As an example, let’s take a World Cup of Hockey set. And the set can contain a captain from each World Cup of Hockey Team. And as you get those items, you put them into your set, and once you complete your set, you may get a higher valued World Cup of Hockey specific pack that contains the best players for World Cup of Hockey.
So it’s really a crafting system that allows you to leverage the items you are not using for your collection, use those items, turn them into a set, and trade them in and get a higher value item.
It sounds a lot like mechanics found in loot games, like Destiny or Monster Hunter, where you use the lower leveled items to get the higher leveled ones.
Exactly, yes, exactly. And you know, for us, when people always ask us where we get our ideas from, and do we ever run out of ideas, and for us, as producers it’s our job to understand what’s going on with sports games, and also what’s going on outside of sports games, and to try and figure out whether there are mechanics that people enjoy in other genres that can be brought back to sports games, to NHL in this case. So, I don’t want to take credit for that idea, it’s really from what we’ve seen working in other genres, what we’ve seen our fans enjoy, that we’ve brought back into NHL.
Okay, so I wanted to talk about the new Franchise mode, which it is my understanding is the evolution of the new Be A GM mode.
Okay, so could you please explain what’s changed, and what kind of appeal the new mode will carry for the average Be A GM player?
So Be A GM in the past has really been about being a GM with the team, trying to assemble the best team possible to lead to victory. So it’s really about the overall performance of your team. And what we’re doing this year, and the reason we rebranded it to Franchise Mode is, we added owners. So now each owner has an expectation from you as the GM, and his expectations will be different based on what team you are the GM of. So if you’re a rebuilding team, his expectations are going to be different than they would be if you were a cup contender. And so based on his expectations, he will give you a budget to work with. And it’s your job as the GM to manage how you will spend that money, do you spend it on player salaries? Do you spend it on marketing and promotions? Maybe your team isn’t doing very well, and you want to run a promotion, like a free T-shirt night, or a free scarf night, help bring fans back? You decide how you want to set your ticket prices for each of the tiers of ticketing, you decide the pricing for everything in the concession stand and the team store, you decide if you want to spend your money on upgrading your facility and increase the overall fan appeal or experience… so really, you have lots of different options available to you to try and drive as much profit as possible to ultimately make a profit with the business itself.
And you know, the cool thing with the mode is, first of all you can see lots of analytics within the mode itself, see how you are performing relative to other teams in the league. And also if things don’t work out and you can’t turn a profit, you can actually propose relocation to the owner and start brand new in a new city. And if you propose relocation and your owner agrees, then you can negotiate with the city you want to move to. So we have several cities available that you can choose from, and there’s a negotiation process involved. Part of it is revenue sharing, as in who will pay for what as you establish yourself. And the deal that you cut when you decide to move to a new city will let you either make a higher profit, or it could hold you back- so that deal is really important when you start fresh.
And then leveraging the customization that I talked about earlier, you can start fresh, build a new brand identity for the team. So pick a logo, pick your primary and secondary colors, pick what your uniform will look like, from the pattern of the jerseys to the pattern of the socks, and also leverage the arena creator, pick the arena you will play in as well, how that will look- you can color literally everything and customize everything. From the seat colors, the wall colors, the railing colors, the Jumbotron and the effects that come out of it. The fire, the entrance music, the entrance props, the goal sounds, whether or not you salute the crowd at the end. So all these customization elements will be available when you relocate and start fresh and rebuild your identity.
So it’s basically a full-fledged business simulation metagame inside the traditional hockey game.
Absolutely, yeah, it’s really bringing the business side of hockey into the Be A GM mode.
And that actually sounds really fascinating. I can see that appealing to people who wouldn’t otherwise be interested in sports games. Just because of the deep business simulations aspects.
I agree, yeah!
So could you tell us about the World Cup of Hockey Mode? You mentioned it earlier, and it has us intrigued. Is this going to be like an eSports style of mode?
Well, the World Cup of Hockey, you know, a fantastic new joint venture between NHL and EA, and it’s really our first step into international hockey. This time the tournament kicks off on September 17, so when our game launches on September 13, the mode will be fully playable. We’re going to have the tournament represented accurately with the tournament format, and the teams will be represented authentically with their uniforms, because we have the rights to those now. We’re gonna have the rights to all the players and teams. The great things with the players is that even players who are not part of the NHL, those players will also be part of the mode. So for us it’s a great thing, and once the World Cup of Hockey is done, and it finishes in real life, those players and teams will be available for you in other modes. So it’s an exciting mode for us, it will be a big part of the game, especially with the World Cup, so it was important for us, and we are glad we have that available as part of the experience for NHL 17.
And could you tell us about the Draft Champions mode, and how it differs from Ultimate Team?
Yeah, Draft Champions is again us working with the Madden and FIFA team, like I mentioned earlier. For us, we want it to be a really quick, fun, fast way to pick a team in a different way than you do in a Play Now or Versus game. So to make you comfortable with assembling a team based on players as opposed to set rosters, and then playing with that team through a series of four games and earn rewards you take into Hockey Ultimate Team.
So the way this will work is, it starts off with a theme, and the theme is the pool of players that will come up as your draft class. So if you get a World Cup Hockey theme, the players that become available will be World Cup players. And the way that this works is a lot like Madden, you start with a roster filled out with average players, and then over the course of twelve rounds, more players are going to be proposed to you that you need to upgrade from, so you are essentially selecting twelve players to pick to your roster. It’s an interesting minigame there, you need to figure out as you pick the players that are coming up, it’s also about managing your strengths and weaknesses- do you start to build a mode offense heavy tea and sacrifice your defensive side? Or do you choose to be more defensive, and sacrifice your attack? Do you focus on the first and second line, and sacrifice your third and fourth ones a bit? So, you got lots of great depth there, and as I mentioned, as you proceed through the games, you get some rewards that you can take to Ultimate Team to get a jump start or to accelerate your progress in Hockey Ultimate Team.
So the two modes tie into each other and build off of each other.
Absolutely, and Draft Champions really gets people familiar with building teams in different ways, similar to what you would see in Hockey Ultimate Team, getting used to seeing players represented as cards, and hopefully that brings you into HUT, and that’s the mode you like to play the most.
Okay, so this is actually a question I’ve wanted to ask developers of sports games, and I am glad I am getting the chance to now. For any sports game developer, authenticity is naturally always key. But at the same time you want to ensure that the game remains fun to play as a video game- so how do you approach balancing these sometimes conflicting goals for a game to be fun and for it to be realistic as well?
Yeah, that’s a great question, and it’s really a fine balance between those two things. You know, we, EA Sports as a whole are grounded in authenticity, so our games are not over the top arcade games that are unrealistic, we need to be faithful to the sport itself. But to your point, it’s a video game, so we need to maximize the fun factor. It’s a piece of entertainment, so we want to entertain people.
For us on the design side, it’s important that we take into consideration both aspects in everything that we design. And I think the best example is the pass around- the authenticity versus the fun factor is, sticks going through legs. So a lot of times you will see in our games, the player will pick the puck up, and the stick will actually go through another player’s leg. And obviously that’s not authentic to the real world or hockey. But the reason we keep that and allow it in the game is because we tested it with full collisions, so everything collides with everything all the time, and the reality is we don’t have the fidelity in out controls right now, and I’m not sure that we actually want that level of fidelity anyway, to actually control your sticks and maneuver around every single obstacle on the ice, to be able to get through multiple sticks and players, we just don’t have that kind of fidelity in our controls, and it’s not fun having to play with all collisions enabled, and having to navigate around all objects on the ice. So, that’s a good example of somewhere we take liberties with the authenticity to allow for a game that’s more fun to play.
We had guys who’ve actually been asking us to fix sticks going through legs and goals for years, and we brought them to the studio, and we allowed them to play with those settings turned on, and very quickly they realized that it turns more into a frustrating experience where you’re more focused on managing the puck than on playing hockey or focusing on hockey and having fun. So I guess the answer to your question in shorter form is, it’s a complex process. Every gameplay design decision is bounded in authenticity, but we make sure it’s got fun factor too.
"Every gameplay design decision is bounded in authenticity, but we make sure it’s got fun factor too."
Yeah, cause I can definitely understand the game getting frustrating and the flow and the pace being broken up if it’s too realistic, it can become too frustrating to be fun.
So NHL 17 has a new creation zone, right?
Okay, so could you tell us more about that? Specifically about the new Arena creator, which I know you brought up when you were explaining the Franchise mode.
Yeah, we’re really excited about the depth of the customization that we’ve added this year. You know, as far as all the depth, it was important that the feature we were pushing so hard, we were able to leverage it throughout all the modes in the game. So like I said, with relocation, you can customize everything to build your brand. With Be A Pro, you can change your character and the look of your character itself. With EA Sports Hockey League, our online team play mode, we are leveraging al, the customization elements we put in there because of the depth that we added. So as your tea progresses, you unlock deeper and deeper customization elements for your team and for yourself. So as I said, more options for your team.
For your team, we have all the different jersey canvases and a color wheel that allows you to choose the colors on the jerseys and the pants and the socks, and you can color each zone independently to create some pretty unique designs. We have logos you can choose from, including retro and historic ones, we have some fonts in there you can choose from for your logo. Again, you can color all the different elements so you can make it- you can actually select the arena template, the geometry, the structure you want to use as your base, and then customize everything within that arena. You know you pick your primary and secondary colors, used throughout your logo, uniform, and the arena, throughout the seat and the railing, and the walls, the presentation element as well, from the intro to the music, to what the LED fights are going to be doing, whether there will be any smoke or fire, whether or not there will be any props, picking your goal horns, some authentic, some off the wall, the behavior of the spotlights, leading into the end of game presentation as well, what kind of music plays, to whether or not you salute the crowds. So just lots and lots of customization, we’ve put a lot of effort into it, and you know, the feedback we’ve gotten coming out of it is that people who have experienced the customization for the first time find it fantastic and are excited to get their hands on it.
Sounds like it’s extremely minute and granular, the amount of control you are giving your players.
Yeah, the goal was to go really deep with it, because we want to leverage it for so many different modes and in so many different ways. It was important that we have the depth there.
I also wanted to discuss the multiplayer- what changes and improvements have you made this time?
So EA Sports Hockey League, our online team play mode, which is where you and your buddies can take on teams from around the world on your console… some big changes there as well as one based on fan feedback that our fans have been asking for, which is the progression mechanic which leverages customization for your character and your team. The second thing we wanted to do is focus on our drop in feature, which is when you’re not playing with a team, and just want to play a game with random people, make it easier for you to get that experience, the taste of what EA Sports Hockey League is all about. So Drop In lets you select the position you want to play, and if you have no buddies online at the time, just press Go, and you’re matched with other people who are looking for the position that you chose. So everyone gets into a game, they’re playing their preferred positions, and hopefully once you get into the game, you’ll have good camaraderie and good collaboration and communication. And what we are doing now this year is sort of build that community, build those relationships, so once you finish the game, of you had a good experience with those players, you can have another game with those people at another time. So, the goal there is for a single player without any friends playing to play with other people they really enjoy playing with, and then play a second or third game, and then they start enjoying playing with each other so much, we decide to start playing Hockey League together. And if you have a buddy, then the two of you can still play with randoms, so you are playing with your buddy and randoms around the world, and hopefully build those relationships for the EA Sports Hockey League.
So it’s a good advancement around our Drop In feature to funnel people into EA Sports Hockey League.
Yeah, it sounds like clans and guilds in shooters and MMOs.
Exactly, again, you know, we are learning from other sports games and also other genres, and we are pulling it all back into NHL, and the online mode, which I think is one of the more engaging online team play modes out there.
"Any time there is new hardware announced, it is exciting for the industry. So I share that excitement with all the fans out there."
Alright, so now I wanted to talk to you about some of the recent trends and developments in the gaming industry. For instance, what is your opinion as a developer on the upcoming PS4 Pro and Xbox One Scorpio? Could we expect you to support these two machines going forward, for example?
Uh, first of all, I think any time there is new hardware announced, it is exciting for the industry. So I share that excitement with all the fans out there. And same thing, I think that all of us at EA Sports are working with Sony and Microsoft to build a better understanding of what it means for us. And for us on the development side, we are having conversations about how we can best leverage the new conversations that come as part of these consoles. And speaking for NHL specifically, we’re going to try and learn as much as we can and see what we can do in the future.
And as developers, do you prefer the more conservative approach that Sony took with the Pro, or the more radical jump ahead that Microsoft had with the Scorpio?
I think both approaches are interesting, and like I said before, for us it’s really about understanding both approaches, understand what they mean, and see how we can maximize both of the for the NHL franchise going forward.
And how about Nintendo’s NX?
Very much like the other new hardware, we are very much in a position of excitement for a new console. And we’re just waiting to see what kind of information filters through, and we will go from there.
Okay, so back to NHL 17 for now, will you be hitting 1080p on both, Xbox One and PS4?
Yes, we’re on 1080p on both platforms.
Okay, so this is probably going to be the third or fourth year that you are developing on Xbox One and PS4- so you probably have overcome any difficulties in developing for these consoles, but were there any to begin with, especially for Xbox One, where the ESRAM is supposed to have been an issue, do you think?
No, I think we are able to leverage the experience from throughout the entire company, and we got on to the new consoles the year after some of the other franchises, so we were able to take the learnings on the technology side and the design side. So working together with the other teams, and the fact that we are on Ignite, which is a stable engine… all of this really allowed us to not have any trouble developing NHL 17, it allowed us to focus on adding features and content instead
It definitely sounds like sharing of technology and common development pipeline that EA Sports as a whole has is a huge development advantage to you.
Absolutely, yeah. Any time we have questions, whether it’s on the technology side or the design side, we’ve got everyone within the company a phone call or email away, and we can leverage their expertise. And that’s the great thing we are doing right now, we can leverage our size and be as efficient as possible.
You know, for us, when we make sports games, there is an expectation that one will come out every year. So it’s an aggressive timeline, and for us to be as efficient as possible is important to deliver the better end result for our fans for whom the product comes out.
Lastly, I wanted to ask you if you have ever considered a PC version for the series, and if you ever plan on doing one for the future.
Yeah, PC falls into discussions about new hardware. For us the goal is to reach as many hockey fans as possible, to experience what we offer with the NHL series. So just like any other console, it’s something we look at every year, to understand how many people are asking for a version on PC, what the market already looks like, and how many people asking for a PC version also own a console or ae playing the game on the console. Because very much like the Xbox 360 question e talked about earlier- the more platforms we develop on, the more we spread ourselves thin. So if there is a case to be made for developing on PC or any other hardware, we are going to do it, because our goal is to reach as many fans as possible.
And is there anything else you would like to tell our readers?
We’re really excited about NHL 17. The leap we’ve made is a huge one, and the feature set is one of the biggest ones we’ve ever delivered, so we’re really proud of it, and we’re excited for fans to get their hands on it on September 13.
Well, all the best of luck for the launch and I am looking forward to seeing how the game plays out!
Thank you very much, I appreciate that.
And thanks for your time and for answering our questions!
Thanks, it was great chatting with you!