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Why NHL 16 will turn last year's jeers into this year's cheers

EA Sports' upcoming video game release, NHL 16, looks like a hit in the making because the company listened to the fans more than ever while designing it.
The Hockey News

The Hockey News

If EA Sports' NHL 15 was a fine Italian sports car, gorgeous to look at but limited in versatility, think of NHL 16 as a fully-loaded luxury SUV. It still has plenty of flash, but you can do a whole lot more with it.

Summer 2014 marked EA's first foray into eighth-generation console video gaming with its NHL series. It had a great run with the seventh generation's PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, taking online hockey gaming to new levels of popularity and introducing deep, detailed individual player modes such as Be a Pro. It was time for the company to see what kind of hockey magic it could make with the PS4 and Xbox One.

Our eyes told us NHL 15, Gen 8's guinea pig release, was beautiful. It came closer to photorealism than any other hockey video game in history. It maintained the smooth play control that has always been a hallmark of EA Sports franchise. Adding Doc Emrick and Ed Olczyk as commentators freshened up the presentation, too.

But ask diehard gamers about NHL 15 and most will tell you that, as great as the game look and felt, its many missing features almost overshadowed its cosmetic appeal. The game had no online team play mode when released, leading to fan outrage before the feature was patched in. It was missing the extremely popular EA Sports Hockey League, which let users create their own characters and join online leagues with all-human 6-on-6 play.

Sean Ramjagsingh, producer of the NHL series, understood fans' frustration but knew it was a necessary evil for NHL 15 to be missing some features. Electronic Arts couldn't roll out a powerful new game engine and risk glitches if it wasn't ready for online play, and he knew the popular features like EASHL would return in later versions.

"When you look at NHL 14 or NHL 15 on the previous generation’s console, that’s seven, eight years’ worth of work compiled into one, and when you move to the new console you’ve got to start from the ground up," Ramjagsingh said. "So our focus last year was really on the gameplay and the presentation, getting that core experience right – because without great gameplay, you don’t have a great game – and then getting to the depth and breadth of the modes.

"And we understand some of the fans were upset the EA Sports Hockey League and team play online weren’t there for launch, and some of the depth and breadth weren’t there, and so for us, this year, hearing that feedback from the fans, it was really important for us to engage the fans early."

And Ramjagsingh isn't just talking the talk when he mentions engaging the fans. The whole process of developing NHL 16 focused on turning the game over to its users and drawing from their input to perfect it. EA Sports reached out to a handful of its most passionate and vocal EASHL Players and asked what they wanted to see in NHL 16. The players came up with three primary requests. One was to play as their own unique characters online again as opposed to the likes of Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby. Another was what Ramjagsingh calls "a level playing field."

"They felt their skills compared to their buddies were superior playing the game, and they wanted that to be the determining factor in wins and losses, as opposed to gameplay features."

Sounds exciting. There's nothing more frustrating than losing a game because of glitchy bounces or cheap goals, right? We all want to win or lose for hockey reasons.

Third, the gamers asked for more customization. That meant greater variety if they designed their own players and also individual trademarks that made real-life players famous, such as Phil Kessel's tape job down the shaft of his stick and Alex Ovechkin's colored laces. You'll see them all in NHL 16.

Electronic Arts also brought in a group of consumers Ramjagsingh refers to as 'The Gamechangers': avid players, many of whom were nominated by the hockey gaming community. The Gamechangers provided the development team with real-time feedback on site during NHL 16's construction. One suggestion they made was to improve the control of goaltenders. Now players will have the option of making technically efficient saves with lateral movement or stretching out to make risky but more athletic saves, a-la Jonathan Quick, to thwart what look like sure goals.

So it's safe to say NHL 16, when it drops for PS4 and Xbox One Sept. 15, will be much more the game the people wanted than NHL 15 was. And, yes, NHL 16 includes the EASHL. Ramjagsingh couldn't be happier. He said the return of that game mode had people hooting and hollering as they played the game at EA headquarters. It was music to his ears.

Each release of the game includes a theme and a new feature set. Much of this year's revolves around team play, or 'Playing Together,' as it's branded. It's no coincidence two players – Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane – grace the cover of this year's release instead of the customary one. And the Playing Together concept is closely tied to the return of all the fun co-operative online modes. It looks like the game presentation will include rousing dressing room speeches and playoff beards to boot, adding to the work-as-a-team mentality. Have a look:

You'll see a lot more authentic arena atmosphere and mascots, too, as teased in that trailer.

NHL 16 has some significant physics upgrades, too. It's designed to make the experience of playing each position unique, branding the change as 'Gameplay Balance.' Forwards should have the proper tools to attack and evade defensemen, and blueliners should be uniquely equipped to fend off scoring chances. The physics of stick lifting and pokechecking have been tightened, for instance.

The game will also get a boost from two key new features: 'Precision Skating' and 'Seamless Puck Pickups.' The former will let players make quick adjustments on the fly, shuffling their skates a few feet at a time to open up passing lanes or to break up plays defensively. Ramjagsingh is particularly amped about this tweak, because he felt that, while the EA games always captured players' top speed accurately, it was too difficult to make subtle skating transitions, which took users out of the experience and reminded them they were merely "driving a video game character." The shift to more fluid physics is evident in this new trailer:

"With our old system we’ve had in the past for many, many years, to pick the puck up – whether it’s receiving a pass or whether it’s picking up a loose puck – you had to go into a glide animation, so it caused you to break stride," Ramjagsingh said. "if you were near the boards, you’d have to pick the puck up and slam into the boards, because you had to go into that glide animation."

Not anymore. Now you can accelerate through pass receptions, allowing for quick, realistic, seamless breakouts.

So will all these new features add up to produce a landmark NHL release for EA Sports? It's too early to know, but the changes sure look and sound promising, and it's comforting to know the entire process was in hands we could trust: our own.

Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the 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



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