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NHL 14: Online Mode Improvements Analysis Stuck
Posted on August 2, 2013 at 05:32 AM.

EA recently released a blog post that detailed the improvements to the online offerings for NHL 14. Since the EASHL and online team play are popular modes amongst the core fanbase of the franchise, it's always interesting to see how EA curates the community and tweaks the experience from year to year.

This year the team has addressed a few usability and matchmaking issues that have been bothersome over the last few years and has added the popular promotion/relegation feature from the FIFA series. Most of the changes don't affect gameplay all that much, but there is some good stuff for the off-ice experience, to be sure.

EA Sports Hockey League Online Seasons


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New this year, NHL 14 adds the best-in-class promotion and relegation system in the sports category to the EA SPORTS Hockey League modes. Win games and advance to the next division to face tougher competition, but fall short and be bumped down. Teams will be able to track their progress across multiple seasons.

The Seasons HUB is the central location to view Seasons stats and get into a Season or Playoff game. Season progression and club history is tracked on this screen.
This is a smart change for the series, as FIFA has enjoyed the benefits of a focused "seasons" feature for a couple of years. It makes the act of climbing up the league standings a bit more granular, but it's good to have that constant carrot-on-a-stick goal to help push your team to the next level. Since the EASHL never resembled the NHL standings format (nor could it), this is a natural progression to encourage users to play when they can since they'll be able to achieve a promotion during a night of play rather than over several weeks.

Having a dedicated "seasons" hub and tracking stats across multiple seasons will be a nice change as well, especially when you can find all of the relevant stats and info in one place. I still hold out hope that all of the menu navigation is faster than in previous years, but the EA server "spinny wheel" is likely to return.

Playing Through an Online Season


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Just like the real NHL, teams will get points for playing through each game. At the end of a Seasons game, the Seasons Progress Report screen shows goals needed for the club to reach the next level. A season can be up to 10 games in length; however a season can end early if a club does not have enough points to reach their next goal in the amount of games remaining.

Once the Season has been completed, the Season Progress Report screen will show the results (Division Title/Promotion/Division Held/Relegated)
As said before, this emulation of the FIFA division system will be a boon to those users who have less time to play. In this setup, you get feedback in quicker chunks, and you're able to constantly monitor how close you are to promotion or relegation. Making a "season" 10 games long is also about the right amount, as that can be accomplished in 1-3 nights by most teams, even if schedules are busy. Shorter seasons also make the progress bar for each season more succinct, as you're able to gauge your standing pretty quickly. This is also nice for NHL, too, since you're almost more competing against your own team rather than a giant pool of other teams, which can seem kind of faceless sometimes.

Divisions




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Clubs have to qualify to compete in one of 10 divisions, grouped into Playoff Cups.

The ultimate goal is to work up through the divisions, winning Playoff Cups, earning Division Titles and finally claiming the coveted League Title Trophy.
What it looks EA has done here is to funnel the 10 divisions into the old amateur, pro and elite categories, but they've also added another level -- rookie. This means that depending on which division you have been promoted up to, you'll go for that cup once the playoffs start. This is probably a maintenance move on EA's part, as users will compete against themselves in the division promotion/relegation, and then they'll compete against others in the cup/banner matches, as before. By having 10 divisions and one extra cup to go for, there's a bit more of a spread of users across the board, avoiding the logjam of teams at the top or the bottom.

Playoffs


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In NHL 14, the playoff experience will last longer and be more frequent. NHL 14 introduces weekly playoffs within EASHL. Double knockout playoffs are included, so each club can retry their playoff run once per window.
Again, this is a good measure to help make everyone who plays EASHL feel like they can achieve something. With the wildly varying amounts that certain teams play compared to others, it only makes sense to accommodate that with more divisions, banners and playoff opportunities. The ability to try a playoff run twice is also welcome, as sometimes there are connection problems or a team you face gets a lucky break or two, ending your run when you deserved better. I see nothing wrong with this change, as the mode itself has little connection to the real hockey playoff structure.

Matchmaking in EASHL Club Seasons


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The new EASHL Club Seasons includes matchmaking by division standing. Clubs with similar experience playing Seasons will find themselves with more evenly-rated matchups than before. Also, matchmaking in Playoffs will help identify an opponent within the same Playoff Cup.
This doesn't really seem like much of a change to me, as they're just making the noble promise of matching you up with people close to your skill level. Ultimately, matchmaking lives and dies by the strength of the algorithm and the pool of possible teams/players. The EASHL actually does remarkably well with how many teams that actually partake from year to year, but sometimes there just aren't enough players out there to generate "ideal" matches. If the gameplay has been suitably tweaked, then these changes are less necessary. Still, any tweaking of the algorithm is good to hear.

Club Challenges

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Based on the community’s feedback, NHL 14 will allow ranked challenges if the clubs are within two divisions of each other (number of divisions is server tunable). Clubs can still send challenges if they are not within the allowable division limits, however these will be unranked challenge games.
This sounds like a suitable compromise to me, as unranked "exhibition" challenges should be allowed for any teams, but ranked games should be played by teams within shouting distance of each other. I think they've addressed the vacuum of the previous division structure by making 10 divisions and four cups/banners, so having some stratification of the teams and who they can play is a proper way of achieving a sense of a climb up the ladder. If rival teams want to play each other, they can still use the unranked option. If they want to play ranked, one would assume they would be on equal footing to be rivals, hence only allowing teams within two divisions to challenge one another. Also, EA has said the gap in divisions for challenges is tunable, so if there's a problem, it can be tweaked quickly.

Hockey Shop


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The Hockey Shop has changed the way items are purchased for NHL 14. Rather than buying specific items, like Speed +5, you now buy a voucher that can be redeemed for any item of that given type. As you can see in the Voucher Inventory, a user can purchase vouchers for +3 Boosts, +5 Boosts, +7 Boosts, Equipment Slots, and Boost Packs.
This is an intriguing change, as users will now have vouchers to buy specific boost types rather than spending money on one specific boost. This is a nice easement of the existing system, since you'll be able to target the boost you really need rather than grinding away on some challenge you don't want to do or that takes too much time. I also hope that the boost unlock process has been made slightly more user friendly, but I'm aware that EA makes a lot of money on these things, so little is likely to change there. Interesting to see +3, +5 and +7 boosts, which indicates that the XP and point model is going to be adjusted to compensate for the influx in boost points.

Edit Attributes

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In NHL 14, attribute caps are shown for all player types. The user cannot exceed the cap by adding XP, and they cannot exceed the cap by applying a combination of XP and PULC boosts. Going over the cap will highlight the stat category in red and prompt a message about having unused boosts applied when attempting to back out and save.
This change is actually quite significant, as boosts will no longer allow you to go over a stat limit for a category. For instance, if a player's speed capped out at 87 overall, you cannot use a boost to get it up to 92, 93, etc. The limit will now be the limit, and you will be warned that you are wasting boost or XP points if you try and go over it. This puts a lot of emphasis on how EA balances the players types and their attributes. For years the community has wanted players to actually excel at specific parts of the game (grinders vs. snipers), but gameplay exploits and over-boosting has allowed players to hit, shoot and speed around, regardless of the player type picked.

This change also means that the +7 attributes mentioned previously will have less impact since you won't be able to go over a certain amount. However, it will allow for certain lesser categories to possibly be buffed more than they were before.

Improved Online Team Play (OTP) Flow


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New for NHL14, the Online Team Play user flow has been streamlined and merged with the position select screen. Once matched up into a drop-in game session, users will see that they have been taken into a Side Select screen that now also shows positions that can be chosen.

This is different from NHL 13’s two-step process (first select side, then a ‘race’ to select position). The goal of this improved flow is to minimize users quitting out from the OTP flow because they were unable to select the position that they wanted.
An awesome change that the community has wanted for years. It was always frustrating to wade into some OTP games and then see people leave when didn't get the position they wanted. This mediates some of that, as you'll be able to get an "ideal" set of users who are willing to check in at whatever position is available before the game starts. This won't prevent users from dropping out mid-game, but it should improve OTP matches in a meaningful way.

Final Thoughts

The adoption of the FIFA style of relegation and promotion is a cool idea for the EASHL, and adding extra divisions and more playoff opportunity allows every user to feel like a part of the action while allowing the cream to rise to the top.

The removal of the cap-busting for boosts in player attributes will definitely shake up some of the established "builds" of the last couple of years (hopefully for the better), and the fix for OTP matchmaking is great to see. We'll get to try all of this out real soon now, as the game is a little over a month away, but the demo should be out at the end of August.
Comments
# 1 chrisphil1724 @ Aug 2
I would still like to see OTP matchmaking based on position wanted / player skill but this is at least better then before.
 
# 2 Schmackity @ Aug 2
Problem with that is you get 90% of people looking for LW/RW positions. It'd create for slow matchmaking.
 
Wiggy
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