Four years and one console cycle ago, EA’s NHL series was a total mess. As a product, it was getting outsold by its chief competitor, NHL 2K. As a brand, it had grown so stale and predictable that even the series’ die-hards were beginning to question their loyalty to what had become an inferior, outdated hockey franchise.
After taking off the '06 hockey season (at least on this generation of consoles) to re-evaluate its approach to the genre, innovations like the "skill stick" (NHL 07) and the EA Sports Hockey League (NHL 09) quickly transformed the NHL series from a tired has-been into one of sports gaming’s most-respected franchises.
But aside from the above-mentioned innovations, a key reason for NHL's rapid turnaround has been the outstanding post-release support from its developers.
There is a saying in business that customer support only truly begins after you have taken a person's money. And while continuing to update a product free of charge may not make a lot of sense to CEOs or investors, it has played a key role in ensuring that year after year the NHL brand represents a quality product that -- like any great sports team -- continues to improve as the year goes along.
Perhaps it is even these post-release improvements that have kept the NHL series from becoming just another disappointing mid-tier performer in the world of sports games. So for any game series out there that is looking to work its way to the top of the sports-gaming world, here is a model for how to become the next NHL.
Those keeping up with NHL 10 prior to release were treated to a number of great developer blogs from gameplay producer Sean Ramjagsingh and lead producer David Littman.
Developer interaction often begins to wane (or completely disappear) once a game is finally released, yet the NHL team’s online presence has remained steady from the preseason up to opening day and on through the upcoming Stanley Cup playoffs.
Community manager Alain "sk88z" Quinto helps run the NHL team’s In the Crease blog in addition to his duties moderating the official EA Hockey forums. Here at Operation Sports, gameplay director Jason "Redshirt" Rupert helps answer gameplay questions and tries to solve any glitches or bugs that players have encountered during the season.
Timely Roster Updates
While it has not quite reached FIFA-levels of absurdity, keeping the rosters up to date in NHL 10 is quickly becoming one of sports gaming's toughest tasks. In addition to the 30 NHL teams and their minor-league AHL affiliates, NHL 10 also features five fully licensed European leagues (such as Sweden’s Elitserien or Finland’s SM-liiga) and 21 international teams, ranging from Austria to the United States.
Tasked with updating a huge pool of teams from around the world, the NHL developers have solicited help from fans on the official rosters forum. And with 10 roster updates already released this year, it is the input by those fans that has helped keep NHL 10's rosters relatively up to date as the hockey season has skated on across the globe.
Second and Third Title Updates
With today’s game publishers looking to cut costs wherever possible, sports gamers have been lucky if their favorite franchise receives even a single title update. NHL 2K10 fans on the PS3, for instance, have not received a single patch all season, and at least partially due to low sales on the system, likely will not receive any post-release support from 2K Sports.
Thankfully, EA continues to bring title updates to the NHL series that are just as plentiful as they are purposeful.
Last season, NHL 09 was supported with three great patches, all of which provided noticeable gameplay improvements and helped reduce a number of key bugs/exploits.
This year, EA’s NHL team is off to another great start, producing two title updates that have helped humanize the robotic goaltenders and reduced players’ ability to stick handle through an entire defense.
Innovative Tuner Sets
While patches are a great way to overhaul games that have already hit store shelves, the one major flaw to the patching process is the lengthy, sometimes difficult approval process that developers must endure before their title update officially goes live.
Thankfully, EA’s NHL team found a way to circumvent Microsoft’s and Sony’s patch-approval process with the introduction of downloadable "tuner sets" in NHL 10.
Functioning much like a set of gameplay sliders, these new tuner sets give developers a way of making major gameplay adjustments without having to wait weeks (or even months) before those changes are approved by Microsoft/Sony and are available for the community to download.
With as many lines of code that go into a modern video game, sports gamers have come to accept the fact that no video game will ever be perfect right out of the box.
However, today's fans do not appreciate companies who hype up a game prior to release only to completely abandon their product once the consumer discovers that the game is full of bugs or major gameplay issues.
If game companies are starting to wonder why sales of their yearly sports franchises are dwindling, perhaps they should stop blaming piracy or the economic recession and start considering the impact that post-release support can have on customer morale.
After all, not only is post-release support a sign of good faith to fans of the product, but it also makes those fans more likely to become repeat customers when next year's $60 "update" inevitably rolls out.
Perhaps this generation's sports publishers would have more success with their yearly franchises if -- like Valve's Gabe Newell -- they began approaching their games, not as investors, but as fans.