Friday, August 8, 2008
History of Madden Football Video Game
IGN Presents the History of Madden
How EA took on every contender to become the only game in town.
Electronic Arts' Madden series is a dynasty greater than any in professional sports. In the two decades since its inception, the Madden series has helped build and destroy console empires. It outlasted the rise and fall of SEGA's hardware in America, and contributed to both. It was key in boosting EA from a small independent developer to an international publishing giant. Simply put, the Madden series is the most powerful franchise on the continent.
The name Madden has now come to mean so much more than just a Hall of Fame coach and commentator. It's practically synonymous with video game football. Brands like this aren't simply bought and licensed; they're built and fiercely defended. As the Madden series turns 20, we take a look back at how EA took on all comers to create the highest grossing series North America has ever seen.
Strangers on a Train
Back in 1986, the football game market was hardly crowed. Tecmo Bowl was still a year away, and most of the attempts out there were still streamlined arcade experiences that made little attempt to simulate the sport realistically. Electronic Arts didn't really know how they were going to be any different, but they knew who could give them the answer.
John Madden is a legend in the sport, and there were few people out there that could lend more credibility to a gridiron sim. Unfortunately, he wasn't the most accessible individual, so the only way the Electronic Arts crew could catch him was on a train to a broadcast. EA president Trip Hawkins, programmer Robin Antonick and some of the staff pitched their vision for to the legendary broadcaster. When the discussion turned to technical issues, they came to the harsh realization that John Madden was not a man to be compromised with.
"If it isn't 11 on 11, it isn't real football," Madden declared. The team was hoping to limit the players on each side to six or seven to help speed things up on the limited Apple II hardware, but the former Raiders coach was having none of it. His ultimatum was clear: "I'm not putting my name on it if it's not real."
This was just the first of many ways in which Madden would push the crew to live up to his standards. John Madden Football had to offer the best playbooks and the most realistic simulation on the market. It also introduced individual player stats that determined how 1-on-1 matchups would play out. This was a long way from Ten-Yard Fight.
EA had their eye on the competition from the very beginning, and a game called Gridiron! by Bethesda Softworks caught their attention. It had simple graphics, but it featured 11-player teams and simulated player physics based on individual statistics. EA hired the upstart developer to help them develop their Madden title and picked up the rights to publish future versions of Gridiron!, but when EA failed to actually deliver any release of Gridiron!, Bethesda became disgruntled. They filed a lawsuit against EA to the tune of $7.3 million, ending their involvement with the Madden project.
The debacle cost EA valuable time, but they eventually released their game on Apple II computers in 1988. Some of the programmers' initial reservations might have had some truth to them. The game featured 22 on-screen players, but chugged along in slow motion as a result. The playbook was deep for the time, but the interface was complex and intimidating. The NFL license was still several years away, and there wasn't much of an attempt to fake it. With only two teams (All-Madden and All-Timers) and fictional players like Whiteshoes and Crazylegs, John Madden Football was hardly going to let players live out their dream season fantasies.
The game released to little fanfare and modest success. It was ported to other computers the following year and proved to be a profitable venture but hardly a smash hit. Rival developer Cinemaware stole some of EA's thunder when the released TV Sports Football to 16-bit computers that same year, boasting a similar feature set with better graphics, 28 teams, and TV-like presentation. Still, EA knew that their alliance with John Madden would set them apart, and now they had a new benchmark to live up to.
Their Own Worst EnemyThe following year, EA began to turn their attention to SEGA's new 16-bit powerhouse, the Genesis. This could be a chance to let their game really shine with the fluid animation and clean presentation it deserved. SEGA, too, took notice of EA and their first football sim. It was interested in developing a new first-party pigskin game with 49ers QB Joe Montana as the cover athlete, but didn't have the resources or experience to produce such a game in-house. In a very unusual move, EA was drafted to create its own competition.
To balance the two developments, EA recruited Scott Orr from Gamestar to head the production, and contracted Park Place Productions to develop. It was a risky move to outsource development of a key franchise, but it gave them two fronts from which to build the next generation of football games. What's more, their choice of partner was no coincidence. The new studio employed many veterans of Cinemaware, some of whom had worked on TV Sports Football on the Atari ST.
It's not difficult to see how the arrangement with SEGA could create a conflict of interest, and the result was about what you'd expect. John Madden Football's 16-bit debut shipped in late 1990, in time for football season, while Joe Montana Football slipped several months. The SEGA offering featured a shallow playbook and less realistic gameplay, as well as a lineup of only 16 teams. Madden somehow managed to pack 28 teams, better gameplay, and a pseudo-3D perspective that would become its hallmark. Was it sabotage, or just the result of two different teams with their own challenges?
It didn't matter in the end, because both series managed to crack the top five best-seller list for the system, and helped to raise the bar for video game football, leaving the rest of the industry scrambling to catch up. BlueSky Software took the reigns of the Joe Montana franchise, which would remain a rival for seasons to come. Meanwhile, EA got to work bringing their newly revamped Madden to as many systems as possible.
The next year, John Madden Football came to the Super Nintendo alongside a new '92 edition on SEGA's console. It was a close adaptation, but a lousy frame rate and release that was one season late left many feeling like the Genesis was the new definitive platform for sports games. SNES games would do much to close this gap, but the strength of the Madden and Joe Montana franchises on SEGA's console would haunt Nintendo as they struggled to shake the perception that they were second best on the field of glory.
The series continued to evolve slowly over the next few seasons, and the rivalry with SEGA helped to push both series ahead. When SEGA introduced "Sports Talk," EA followed suit by adding some color commentary from Madden himself. The presentation got gradually closer to television, and instant replays worked their way into the games.
In 1992, SEGA dropped its biggest bombshell yet: an official NFL license. For the first time in the franchise, real teams, uniforms, and logos were a part of the game. Madden was left behind. The addition of "classic" teams in the '93 edition didn't mean much without the actual license behind them.
EA would not allow itself to fall behind for long. The next year, it unveiled the new Madden NFL '94, complete with 28 licensed teams and classic Super Bowl teams through the '91 season. EA also decided to step up its multiplatform plan by recruiting a new studio to handle the Super Nintendo port. Visual Concepts broke apart the perception that the SNES was the second class system for football with a clean port that not only kept up with the speed of its Genesis counterpart, but added a new layer of polish with beautiful scaling effects and a pseudo-3D field.
The same teams would be drafted to do the '95 version, with the addition of a Players Association license for actual player names and likenesses, but there was something far more interesting going on. Scott Orr pulled his team together to produce a completely new Madden for the 3DO -- the first on a 32-bit console. The notoriously expensive third-party console was short-lived, and its solitary Madden title often goes forgotten, but it was a testing ground for the next generation. They loaded the title up with an unprecedented amount of video, digitized player animations, and the most robust commentary yet in a sports game. If this was a foreshadowing of the year to come, fans had a lot to look forward to.
Unfortunately, things don't always go according to plan.
The 3DO was on its way out by the time the next season rolled around, but a new generation of consoles was looming. Sony's new 32-bit PlayStation was set to release that fall, and EA wanted to be ready. They took notice of Visual Concepts' impressive Super Nintendo conversions, and put them in charge of reinventing the series for a new generation.
Gushing previews and tantalizing screenshots had all of the Madden fans ready to jump on Sony's new system. A 3D field with multiple camera angles, giant, rendered player sprites, and a slick interface that looked like it was ripped right from a Fox broadcast -- it seemed like Madden '96 would have it all. But therein lay the problem.
By most accounts, Visual Concepts' game was shaping up well, but the developer simply overshot their mark. The PlayStation might not have been the all-powerful wonder-console the team had hoped, and their list of features may have been more than they could keep up with. With Sony's own football game on the way, EA couldn't afford to make any compromises. The release slipped past September, past October, and straight on through the end of the year. When it became apparent that it wouldn't be out by the end of season, EA pulled the plug. The 16-bit versions of Madden '96 released as usual, but their headliner was a bust. EA terminated their relationship with Visual Concepts, but their time for revenge would come yet.
PlayStation owners didn't go without their football fix that season. Sony's first-party NFL GameDay shipped before the season's end, and it quickly became the most popular sports game on the market. Madden wasn't number one anymore, and in a volatile and fast-moving industry, a one year slip was all it took to put EA back at square one. If EA wanted to get back on top, it would have to fight.
The next Madden was not going to slip. EA partnered with Florida-based Tiburon Entertainment to create Madden NFL '97 from the ground up. It would push the hardware even harder than Visual Concepts' attempt, with true 3D polygonal stadiums and incredibly smooth graphics. Unfortunately, the AI left something to be desired, allowing for long passes to work time and time again. Meanwhile, GameDay offered strong competition with a greater depth of control than any EA game. The reputation of the Madden series was beginning to slip, but at least EA was back in the game.
Still, EA was scrambling to keep up. Tiburon refined their '97 edition for the following year with a major push to create the most complex AI in a football game yet. The game was indeed everything that last year's edition should have been, but Sony showed them up by going to 3D a year before the Madden NFL series (though Madden 64 shipped later that year, minus the NFL license). The rivalry was fierce and anything but civil. In 1998, Sony's Kelly Flock (the former captain of 989 Studios) chided EA when he told Next Generation, "If you want to play next year's Madden early, buy this year's GameDay." Things got even uglier when he added, "Liquid AI is the crap that ran down [EA's] leg when they saw GameDay."
But competition only made the two stronger and the '99 season was the strongest yet for both franchises. GameDay refined their previous year's effort with major AI improvements, but Madden triumphantly stepped up to reclaim their throne with a complete revamp. Not only did the series move to full 3D, but it added a franchise mode, allowing players to take on the role of general manager across up to 15 seasons. EA was back on top and they had found the long-term partner they had been looking for. They purchased Tiburon Entertainment, and cemented their position as the House of Madden. The victory came just in time, as an old friend prepared to become the new challenger.
Visual Concepts Strikes BackIn 1998, SEGA unveiled their new Dreamcast console, the first system of the next generation. Eager to reclaim the position they held with sports fans in their 16-bit glory days, they courted their former allies at Electronic Arts to develop for their console. There are plenty of wild theories about what happened during these negotiations. Some claim that EA demanded an unprecedented licensing agreement that SEGA couldn't deliver, others say EA was still feeling burned by the Saturn.
Former EA chief creative officer Bing Gordon has given the only official comments on the matter, blaming the unusual hardware and a lack of out-of-the-box online support. The claim is almost aggressively ironic in light of EA's decisions to back the notoriously esoteric PlayStation 2 hardware and a lack of online support that persisted until after the Dreamcast's demise -- to say nothing of the modem that came boxed with the Dreamcast. The realistic speculation is that EA simply wanted to continue the success they had with Sony hardware and had a stronger relationship with them.
Whatever the reason, it was clear that this was war. SEGA readied themselves by acquiring Visual Concepts, the studio behind the SNES versions of Madden '94 and '95 -- as well as the lost Madden '96 on PlayStation that ended their working relationship with EA. VC had as much to prove as SEGA did, and the result was greater than anyone could have imagined. The new technology gave it an almost unfair advantage, with top-notch graphics, fluid control, and realistic physics. It debuted to nearly universal critical praise and quickly became one of the best selling titles on the platform. Madden 2000 released with an impressive engine that ran at 30 frames-per-second, but it was clear that they had been upstaged.
EA doesn't like to be upstaged.
EA may have just been biding their time, waiting for the debut of Sony's new console to strike. After all, their latest effort was clearly going to take a bit more than 12 months to perfect. This title would set the tone for Madden games for the rest of the generation, and they weren't about to have a repeat of the Madden '96 fiasco. The 2001 edition shipped on time with a level of graphical polish that trumped even SEGA's offerings, as well as configurable AI that allowed players to tweak the computer to play how they wanted. SEGA shipped NFL 2K1 with online play, but it wasn't enough to stop the Madden machine.
The GameDay franchise virtually committed suicide that year, with a disappointing entry that coupled terrible graphics with unbalanced gameplay. Subsequent offerings made improvements, but the series never got traction again. Madden was poised to be the definitive football game on the leading platform of the new generation. With EA's help, it was just a matter of time before Sony could declare victory and SEGA put up the white flag and retired from the hardware business.
It was that announcement that cemented Madden's real competition for the coming generation. With the Dreamcast on the way out, the NFL 2K series came to the PS2 and Xbox, starting with 2K2. EA's series would likewise find itself on Xbox that year, as well as on GameCube.
The two series had a healthy rivalry and pushed each other to excel. EA debuted their online game in Madden 2003, and SEGA partnered with ESPN the following year to recreate the look and feel of a TV broadcast. The following year, the 2K series struck and aggressive blow by launching before Madden at roughly half the price. The move paid off, and the title managed to sell nearly three million copies that year. But Madden 2005 debuted the "hit stick" feature that used the right analog stick to be used for more subtle control, and that year, Madden managed to sell nearly twice as much as its rival.
Despite the competition, the 2K series never managed to cut into Madden's market share the way GameDay or even Joe Montana did. Madden dominated on every platform, and its sales seemed unstoppable, with each game in the series selling more each year. Eventually their stranglehold became so strong that the NFL offered them an exclusive license, effectively putting an end to their competition. The GameDay series was discontinued, and 2K retooled as an unlicensed "All-Pro" game. Madden had won.
It was a bittersweet victory for fans. EA had fought hard and taken on many competitors to reach the position they were at, and its only competition was already left far behind. But what good is a sport without rivals? When EA rushed their initial Xbox 360 offering to market without some key features, some fans felt like Tiburon might be cutting corners without the fear of competition.
But EA fought back twice as hard the next year, as it has before. It may be the only game in town, but Madden still has to win its fans back each and every year. Tiburon is showing no signs of slowing down with the impending release of Madden NFL 09, and EA recently renewed their agreement with the NFL. Madden is here to stay, and we wouldn't be surprised to see it last another twenty years.