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NHL 14: Videogame Hockey vs. Real HockeyPosted on August 27, 2013 at 04:57 PM.
Something I've been thinking about recently, especially in relation to the feedback about the NHL 14 demo, is the realities of an actual sport as compared to what is actually "fun" when played in a videogame. Everyone has their own concept of what is real, what is fun, and what should be represented in a videogame. People often use qualifiers of how much hockey they play or watch in order to weigh-in on the particulars of the on-ice product. It seems to some users that if something happens in the actual NHL, it should be slavishly recreated in the EA hockey product.
Now, I'll be the first to say that I have issues with aspects of the NHL franchise. I agree with many that the presentation is incredibly dated and bland, and I also feel that the new modes (Live the Life, NHL 94 Anniversary) show a lack of resources and inspiration in their execution. I also have lingering problems with certain CPU tendencies as well as some other odd on-ice quirks. With that said, I feel there is still a lot of fun to be had in this franchise, and I've enjoyed the new hitting engine, the vastly superior fighting, and some of the other alterations to gameplay (poke check, puck shop, skating, goalies, etc).
I think there ends up being a disconnect between what certain users perceive as a failing in the NHL franchise -- whether it's a CPU issue, an animation routine or a gameplay quirk -- and what is necessary to create a fun product for a broad range of possible players. This was something that was briefly touched upon in some answers from the NHL dev team in the most recent Press Row Podcast. While none of the devs outright called out users on this disconnect, the idea was certainly floated.
To my mind, there is something to this, as some users feel that certain features or gameplay traits are lacking because they aren't allowing them the freedom they feel would be afforded in the real sport. Take the new hitting engine in NHL 14, for example. I've pointed out before that the new hitting is nowhere near as comical as the "big hit" button of years gone by, but it is indeed quite exaggerated and impactful. However, this system also better represents the follow-through on hits and allows for a greater amount of control fidelity when delivering the hit.
It seems that some users are annoyed by the increase in physicality, as they feel the game will become wildly out of control. This is where the reality of real hockey meets the realm of videogame hockey. The developers have to contend with the ability of a user to deliver a hit at any given moment. When playing NHL 14, I can deliver a hit when I want and how I want. The developers can't control that. Real hockey does not have nearly the volume or type of hits that you would find in an EA NHL game, but the developers have to plan for all situations (human vs CPU, CPU vs CPU, human vs human). They have to balance the sped-up clock and gameplay of a videogame and the nature of real hockey. By allowing the option for bigger hits, they are going to alienate some users who feel it should be reigned in. If they were to take them out, it alienates an important component of their user base who allow the franchise to gain some level of financial success. For all the bluster that some people have about going all the way simulation, the reality is that that wouldn't necessarily translate into a marketable or saleable game.
The new fighting engine brings up similar issues. I haven't encountered too many silly fights in the demo, but I have had Jonathan Toews fight a few times when he really shouldn't. Some users are getting quite upset by the frequency of fights and also the participants. I agree that EA should better throttle the amount of fights in a game and who takes part in the scrap, but I'm also aware that this was likely pumped up for the demo only. Also, people often get comfortable playing with the first line and laying out big hits with these players, hence some of them are going to have to answer the bell with the new fighting system. The problem becomes that EA has to allow for the possibility of someone like Jonathan Toews fighting. Are they just supposed to put something in the game code to prevent him from scrapping? A fight between him and Ryan Kesler, for instance, would be seen as much more logical, but the game has to appeal to a wide variety of audiences, so a Toews-Chara scrap is something that can happen.
None of this is to say that the new hitting or fighting are perfect systems and don't require iteration, but I think users have to realize that the sliders are there for a reason, and this gives them the latitude to tone down aspects that rub them the wrong way. Again, it's a situation where EA has to account for varying play styles and comfort levels, and the simulation needs to cater to demanding groups across the spectrum. This means that certain decisions get made to please the widest possible audience, and that ends up at odds with those who want a purely sim experience.
One longstanding request that fits this discussion perfectly is the possible implementation of stick-on-stick contact. EA has long resisted including this in the game, as they have said that it cuts down on the fun of gameplay quite dramatically. I'm certainly understanding of both sides -- the users who want the feature in and the developers who have to balance it for fun and playability. I'd definitely like to have the option to at least try for myself, but then I have to realize that the NHL dev team is small and isn't going to waste resources on something that might be used by only a fraction of its user base. This is an area where I put some trust in the development team in that they know that adding this feature might actually hurt other areas of the game that are well-liked (skating, deking, etc).
I also totally respect the complaints people have about the AI issues that continue to crop up in the NHL series. I myself have similar gripes, but recently I've realized that while people may want to see AI defenders step up on them all the time and box them out, that might end up curtailing the smooth skating and half-boards play that users have become used to. It could be balanced for sure, but if a CPU was stepping up on you with a hit on almost every play (especially if EA used some lock-on routines for the AI), it could get frustrating the other way, and users would demand more free space on the ice. This, again, is where the sliders and settings come into play and allow users to create a game style that more fits their tendencies and enjoyment level.
The business reality is that EA has to make a game that isn't entirely simulation. If they want to appeal to a broader audience (again, the sales of the franchise have slipped a tiny bit over the generation), going full simulation isn't going to do it. This is why there's been an increase in speed, aggression and goal scoring. These are areas that excite casual hockey fans and general videogame players. I realize that certain "simulation" features have to be cut or curtailed for this reason, but I also realize that certain aspects of real hockey just wouldn't make sense in the game world, no matter how much certain users may demand it. It really is a problem without a perfect solution, but I do think some players have to reconcile what happens in an actual NHL game as compared to a videogame that allows full user control.
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