Gaming, HCI, Simulations, Usability

GameFlow and Gameplay in Madden NFL ’11


As a fan of football games, going back to the days of classics like Tecmo Bowl (NES), we were excited to play this year’s redesign of the successful Madden NFL series. We can report that Madden NFL ’11 is the most realistic, graphically stunning, and holistic football simulation to date. However, the new “GameFlow” play calling system has many hardcore Madden fans up in arms, due to the departure from classic play calling in football games. We will discuss some of the new features in Madden NFL ’11, why GameFlow is a step in the right direction, and some features that could be improved for next year’s release of Madden NFL.

Better Videos, Music, and Graphics

Upon loading the game, it is immediately evident that EA Sports put a lot of effort into the game’s videos, which do a lot to motivate the game player. How so? In the style of Hans and Franz, they “pump you up” to play by showing the player highly dramatic scenes from previous NFL seasons. The game utilizes scenes from the dramatic, highly emotional victory of the New Orleans Saints in last year’s Super Bowl, presenting game players with a true sense of the meaning of victory and triumph for players in the NFL. Cut-scenes before the game highlight excited fans, busy food stands inside the stadium, as well as scenes of coaches and players getting fired up to play.

The game’s music / soundtrack were equally impressive. Music from well-known, popular artists added excitement to the game. I can remember old games where players would swap out the game disk with a CD of decent music after the game loaded, in order to play the game to decent music. In Madden NFL ’11, this is not necessary, as the game has hits from artists like Bush, AC/DC, Ozzy Osbourne and Guns N’ Roses. Some of the team’s fight songs are included as well. As a lifelong Chicago Bears fan, I enjoyed playing to “Bear Down Chicago Bears” – it made the game all that much more realistic.

Game audio (sound effects) and game visuals are the best to date. Gus Johnson and Chris Collinsworth are commentators in Madden ’11, adding realism through pinpoint comments that are based upon the player’s situation. The faces of players and coaches are becoming recognizable in the game, although there is room for future improvement. I would personally like to shake the hand of the designer of the game’s football helmets:

While difficult to tell from the picture (a picture of a TV), the reflection and attention to detail in the football helmets is unbelievable. Madden ’11 really pushes the envelope with visual fidelity in current-generation games a whole. However, particular scenes with lots of activity would occasionally chop (we played on an Xbox 360), suggesting the console might be pushing its limits. Choppy video was a bit jarring, breaking player immersion during gameplay. It is hard to imagine that the powerful Xbox 360’s hardware limits are being reached, but more powerful hardware might be required to continue the trend towards higher visual fidelity in upcoming years.

GameFlow

The “GameFlow” system in Madden ’11 represents the largest change to core gameplay over the successful franchise’s history. Through the GameFlow system, EA Sports has redesigned the way in which plays are called and executed. As to not alienate players accustomed to traditional play calling, it is still possible to pick plays by choosing from various categories (such as formation, play type, etc.). However, the GameFlow experience helps to raise player ‘flow’, or a feeling of becoming immersed in the game. GameFlow cuts down on the time in-between plays, and players spend more time executing plays than choosing them.

While GameFlow has upset many of the hardcore Madden NFL players by changing the core user-experience, it was a necessary redesign. In years past, many have used the Madden NFL series as an example of increasingly complex gameplay that successively catered to more advanced (hardcore) players. Gameplay was somewhat difficult from having to know so many different controller buttons (although improvements such as the removal of the ‘turbo’ button have been made, this is still somewhat true), and hampered by the need to choose from among hundreds of different plays each down. While advanced players could customize plays and learn a particular team’s playbook to more efficiently pick plays, the play calling system was overwhelming for novice players in years past.

GameFlow in Madden ’11 breaks down barriers for new players, and allows more advanced players to create custom playbooks much as a NFL coach or coordinator might do. This allows playbook customization outside of play (allowing players to strategically choose their weapons of choice), while encouraging faster gameplay during actual games. In years past, negative flow, or a break in immersion, could occur as a result of the long amounts of time spent between downs choosing a play. With GameFlow, some of the burden of choosing a play is alleviated, allowing game players to focus on play execution with less of a role switch (to coach / coordinator) between plays. While GameFlow allows playbook customization, it is not necessary: novice players can have intelligent plays chosen (by the GameFlow system) for them to execute. More importantly, these plays usually make sense, and are explained to the player by the GameFlow system: thereby teaching players football strategy.

One measure of a good game is its ability to scaffold for players of different abilities: something easy to learn but difficult to master. Madden ’11 and its redesigned GameFlow user-experience helps teach new players about football strategy, while allowing advanced players the ability to create custom playbooks, players and teams. When paired with online gameplay, the sky’s the limit when putting these strategies to the test against other players.

Gameplay

GameFlow on the Xbox 360 utilizes the controller headset, which simulates the way in which coaches radio plays to quarterbacks in the NFL. This can be done out-loud (without headsets) during single-player mode, which effectively shows the play that is about to be executed on the field, and explains why the play was called. However, GameFlow cannot announce plays in two-player (versus) mode in the absence of headsets. This results in plays being chosen and not revealed to the players: thereby creating a chaotic gameplay experience. In this case, traditional play calling should be used (which slows gameplay and recreates many of the problems that the GameFlow system solved). If you plan to play in versus mode, be sure you have two headsets!

As mentioned, some improvements to game controls were made, such as the removal of the ‘turbo’ button. In years past, players would quickly tap the turbo button to go faster, which could detract from learning other controls. Madden ’11 utilizes the right analog stick on the controller for ‘juke’ and power moves, which can be learned more efficiently without jamming on a turbo button. However, player controls are quite complex, with almost every button on the controller having a purpose for both offensive and defensive roles. This is still a bit overwhelming for new players, but occasional suggestions pop-up to help learn the array of controls (these suggestions can be turned off; a nice feature since advanced players already have an idea what they want to do).

Real-time strategy is incorporated via the game’s “Strategy Pad”, which allows players to call audibles or make changes in strategy on the fly while waiting for a play to start. For example, while playing defense, a player can call out shifts for their defensive line or defensive backs, or change a portion of their defensive coverage. Similar controls are possible on offense, such as setting a receiver in motion or changing strategy based upon the defensive formation. However, in practice, the Strategy Pad is somewhat difficult to use with the increased gameplay speed associated with GameFlow. A single operation such as a line shift requires three button presses, while multiple operations require further button presses. With the increased speed of play, these small strategy changes often cannot be executed before the ball is snapped.

Physics and game AI (artificial intelligence) in the game is good; however, some aspects might be improved. For instance, while playing a game (on defense) and down by a touchdown at the end of a game, a defensive player chose to ‘bat down’ a long pass that could have been intercepted (an obvious choice in strategy in a real game would be to get the ball back by intercepting). Occasionally, while throwing a pass to a crowd of players, the ball would bounce off players repeatedly in an odd manner, suggesting some physics or border detection in the game were slightly off. However, as a whole, game physics and player abilities are more realistic than in years past. In particular, running with the football is much improved, resulting in a more balanced game where passing the ball does not have to be the default behavior.

We would like to thank EA Sports for providing us with a copy of Madden NFL ’11. Overall, it is a fun, engaging game with a radically redesigned core gameplay experience that was much needed. We recommend picking up a copy, and we would love to hear your thoughts on the new GameFlow experience. Please leave your feedback and comments below!

Written by: Matthew Sharritt
Posted by: Situated Research

5 Comments

  • Madden NFL ’11 is a great gaming experience. The new graphics and improved GameFlow really make you feel like you’re playing for the NFL. I especially liked the coach talking to me while I was playing. It made the game more of a reality and immersed me in the game play.

    Another plus for the game is that instead of taking an hour to play one game it takes less than 30 minutes. This is a great new feature- before I would simply end the game and not finish.

    Great blog post and great game!

  • I have only one question, which is the elephant in the room: can you create your own playbook in Franchise Mode and design your own plays to add to it?

    • I briefly tried Franchise Mode, and I have read that it still needs some updating. With that said, I still think EA did an awesome job this year, and expecting a major overhaul of Franchise Mode in addition to all of the work that went into the redesign of the core gameplay (GameFlow) is a bit ridiculous.

      Core gameplay is extremely vital to a good game, and I was happy to see a focus on that aspect – seeing that it turned out well. With GameFlow and core gameplay updated for Madden ’11, perhaps EA will have more time to update Franchise Mode for next year’s release of Madden NFL.

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