Gone are the days when hockey video games were practically carved out of concrete before their release dates. NHL '96 was NHL '96. Once it hit stores, that was the game, for better or worse. If you found a glitch goal, a cheap way to score, too bad.
But the times have changed. We live in the era when the online experience of any games, let alone sports games, trumps the individual "campaign" experience. And online players have formed their own highly vocal communities. If there's a problem with a game, they let the world know about it.
Companies like EA Sports can now release beta modes of their games to get feedback before finalizing their releases. And even "finalizing" doesn't carry the same meaning anymore, as the game makers can tweak their products on the fly based on how users react and comment.
“We’re at the point now where our fans will message us via social media or whatever avenue it is and say 'Hey, listen, the scoring from the top of the slot, going top shelf or to the glove-hand side of the goalie is way too overpowering. Can you guys dial it back?' " said Sean Ramjagsingh, head producer of EA Sports' NHL series since 2009. "We can make changes hourly if we wanted to right now based on the feedback that we’re getting.”
This new era is a blessing for the most part, but it's also a curse sometimes. Gamer expectations have never been higher. They want the slickest, most fluid, most realistic gameplay standards. They want believable physics for fair human-on-human competition. They want lots of different game modes. And while the game manufacturers can make plenty of changes on the fly via downloadable bundles, known as "tuner sets," they can't make seismic shifts. Sooner or later every release of the game has to stand on its own as a finished product, as a company like EA Sports has to get working on the next season's edition.
And that worked against EA two years ago, when it dropped NHL 15, the series' first foray into eighth-generation consoles Xbox One and PlayStation 4. The leap in graphics quality meant a gorgeous game but also that the series had to eschew many of its popular game modes, most notably the EA Sports Hockey League, which let players create their own characters and join online leagues with all-human 6-on-6 play. Fans were outraged. NHL 15, according to aggregate review site Metacritic, was the worst-reviewed title in the franchise's history. Critics gave an average score of 60 out of 100 for the PS4 edition and 59 out of 100 to Xbox One. Users were savage, rating NHL 15 1.4 out of 5 on PS3 and 3.2 on Xbox One.
But NHL 15 might have simply been a necessary blow for EA to absorb. The first year in every console generation requires game makers to iron out kinks. The company took the feedback to heart and rebounded with last year's NHL 16, bringing back the sorely missed online features, and game was generally well received. A key reason for the turnaround was EA Sports' Game Changers program – a group of hardcore players brought in as an expert feedback panel. It worked so well last year, especially with its input on the goalie physics, that EA expanded the Game Changers group. Included in the NHL 17 process were reps for various modes of the game, from Hockey Ultimate Team (HUT) to offline Franchise Mode to Be a Pro Mode. There was even "a guy from Europe" devoted to "hardcore gameplay and presentation," Ramjagsingh said.
Now in Year 3 of this console generation, and armed with more actual gamer input than ever, EA hopes NHL 17 will be its next "paradigm shift" hockey release. Each new console has one at some point. Ramjagsingh believes NHL 17 is the biggest year-over-year shift in his time with EA, and he's worked on nine editions of the game.
If NHL 15 was about graphics and presentation, and NHL 16 was about restoring the online experience, NHL 17 is about introducing new game modes. Front and center: the freshly labelled Franchise Mode, which expands on Be a GM Mode to make it far more immersive.
"The reasoning behind the rebrand to franchise mode is the motivation behind adding the owner element," said NHL 17 producer Clement Kwong. "How are you as a GM performing to the owner’s expectations? Being able to manage stuff like budgets, facility upgrades, ticket pricing, etc., all the way to being able to relocate your team. Those were key elements that we were looking to as the most requested aspects for Be a GM users.”
And it looks oh-so detailed. Your tenure as GM depends a lot on your relationship with your owner and how much the owner is committed to three traits: spending, importance of success and patience. You can even get fired for failing to meet expectations and signed by new teams. A more detailed look at the new game mode:
It does appear NHL 17 ups the bells and whistles for gamers. You can play the World Cup of Hockey. You can create your own arenas, right down to goal songs and the scoreboard. You can build a fantasy team of NHL superstars from the past and present in NHL Draft Champions Mode.
Ultimately, the game play itself still matters most, so EA made some noteworthy tweaks. For one, it updated the goalie engine. The goal is to have netminders make more realistic decisions. NHL 16 introduced athletic, desperation saves, but goalies sometimes chose the wrong save in the wrong situation.
“In NHL 16, it was more a reactionary model where the goalie would stretch out and seemingly make a big athletic save when it didn’t really make sense," Kwong said. "Whereas a Carey Price would make a reactionary save by getting big and shrugging his shoulders to deflect a shot. So all those things were revisited this year, meaning the goalie is in a better position to read the angle, read the scoring position and decide the best save to make.”
Full disclosure: I'm a former NHL series diehard turned casual fan, and one of my frequent frustrations has been over player positioning. As someone who makes a career out of watching and analyzing the real thing, I'm constantly aware of where players should be. I'm the guy yelling at his TV while playing the video game if I fire a pass to the slot and my wide-open computer teammate turns his back away from the net, ignoring the puck. NHL 17 reportedly corrects that problem with Vision Control.
“Vision control is essentially the facing direction of the player, and why that’s important is because it makes sure the players are facing the right direction when they receive a pass," Ramjagsingh said. "That's especially important on breakouts, especially important in the offensive zone when a player like an Alex Ovechkin is set up on the half boards waiting for a one-timer. A lot of the frustration or the perceptional lack of control comes from when you pass to a player and he may not be facing the ideal direction to do the next thing that you want the character to do. It feels unresponsive. It feels like you don’t have control. That’s why Vision Control is so important to us."
The innovation also applies to playing defense. Your player won't be so quick to pivot, which was a problem in NHL 16. Now it'll be easier to keep defenders facing up-ice with their shoulders square to attackers.
There countless other additions and enhancements from NHL 16 to NHL 17, and they all sound promising… but of course they do. The weeks leading up to a game's release – which is Sept. 13, by the way – are always the times for developers to gush. At the same time, EA has been candid about its potholes with the NHL series in the eighth-generation era, and it seems committed to giving gamers a bigger say in the design process. Games tend to peak a few years into each generation, as developers have mastered the technology and aren't yet looking forward to the next platform. If there's a year for EA to deliver its biggest "wow" game in ages, this is it.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin