NHL 15: What the Ignite Engine Means
Submitted on: 01/28/2014 by Glenn Wigmore
Now that we've seen a few games featuring the “Ignite” engine from EA Sports, it's a bit easier to understand where the NHL series may go with that technology and design philosophy powering its action. At the same time, the first batch of Ignite-powered games — NBA Live 14, Madden 25 and FIFA 14 — have all been rooted in the previous generation of consoles, showing glimpses of the next-gen gaming future while being firmly anchored to the past. The first “real” Ignite product will be EA UFC, and EA has put a lot of stock in how the sport of MMA — and the UFC brand, in particular — can help diversify their sports portfolio.
What can we take from the first Ignite games as well as EA UFC? Quite a lot, I think. From the design philosophy of those titles, it's possible to see what EA might have in store for the NHL brand, keeping in mind the fact that the folks in Burnaby working on NHL 15 only number in the dozens, not the hundreds that are found in other game studios.
The most obvious benefit from the Ignite engine is its potential to create a better sense of atmosphere in and around the arena. FIFA 14 showcases this tenet of the Ignite moniker, with great looking external renders of certain stadiums, setting the mood for the match and time of day. There are also better camera cuts and replays, focusing (somewhat) more on star players and key plays. The crowd also gets buffed as well, with better 3D model work, unique animations and a better sense of frenzy after a goal is scored. EA UFC is supposedly going to use some of these same ideas, with raucous crowds and realistic lighting that helps enhance the emotion of the sport.
What could NHL 15 do in this regard? Well, it certainly stands to reason that the “living worlds” philosophy and tech would, at the very least, help the stadiums and crowds look a whole lot better. I'm expecting scoreboards and power rings to really “pop” off the screen, and the lighting during pre-game situations could look incredibly good. I'd suspect the ice would also degrade in a more realistic way, and the surface would look different depending on the intensity of the game. I'd hope EA doesn't go too crazy on the lighting, as that can actually become gimmicky if overused.
I've always thought the crowds in EA hockey games have been artistically well thought out in terms of waving towels, proper camera angles and the overall look, but the tech just hasn't been there to back it up. With better 3D models, more animation diversity and improved lighting, I don't see why the crowd can't look much more distinct in each arena across the league. A lot of this comes from the sound design, too, but the visual representation of the crowd could do wonders for picking up the emotion of an important game or capturing the fever pitch of a fight.
Another element that seems like a given for NHL 15 is increased animation fidelity, akin to the changes made for FIFA 14. The ability to show animations as they were initially conceived, with no technical limitations, opens up a lot of avenues for improved presentation of the on-ice action as well as the way the game actually feels when played.
My biggest revelation when playing FIFA 14 on Xbox One was that while the game had amazing animations that looked tremendous, especially in replays, those very same animations also changed the gameplay in a subtle but important way. Whether it was a player planting his feet properly to set up a shot or slowing his momentum when he was sprinting after a ball, these improved animations not only looked good but they made the whole game feel different. Just the same, the ability for multiple players to go after headers was an improvement to gameplay, and the animations when doing so looked great.
The most immediate area where this would apply to NHL 15 would be in the skating. It would be awesome to see a skater push off with a lot more effort when starting his acceleration, and crossovers and stops would hopefully demonstrate the skilled footwork that has already been afforded to the stick work. Still, the stickhandling would also presumably benefit, with finer moves in traffic (much like FIFA 14 demonstrated with Messi's fancy moves), and maybe we'll even see stick-on-stick contact... but maybe not.
Just like EA UFC is promising, one can imagine that NHL 15 may also feature better player-on-player contact, with enhanced collision detection being something that's apparently afforded by the new engine. This means that hits and glancing shots could animate a lot more believably, with the jersey contorting and a hitter's arm and shoulder driving through an opponent. I like a lot of what EA did this year to create some serious impact on the hits, but I'd like to see the animations and collision detection follow suit with the new engine.
Player Faces and Equipment
Another aspect where the Ignite engine could help would be player faces and equipment. If the EA UFC photos are any indication, it would be nice to see most if not all of the NHLPA rendered in NHL 15, but I recognize there are limits for the NHL dev team. Possible improvements might be better eyes for the players as well as accurate skin tone and facial hair. Might we finally see playoff beards? Even if the beards don't make it, there are a lot details that the new engine should provide. I would hope that EA at least has the resources to have better “face templates” so that if they can't render each player individually, they can do a better job of building them from pre-defined pieces.
As for equipment, we're likely to see improvement in visor reflection and helmet textures. Just the same, fabrics on jerseys should pop a lot more (with FIFA 14 showing some good stuff in this regard). It would also be neat to have jerseys showing small details like sweat or blood, and helmets could even have puck marks or wear and tear.
While there will undoubtedly be a knock-on effect to the added animation fidelity and atmosphere provided by the new engine, one would hope that some processing power and resources could be devoted to improving the specific gameplay systems of NHL 15 as well as the on-ice authenticity.
Some of this ties into the living worlds concept, but I hope to see all four officials on the ice, and full benches with players and staff should be doable. These items would also affect the feel of the game, as there would be a different dynamic with the line changes and with extra bodies on the ice in terms of the officials.
The biggest ask for a lot of users has been for individual players and teams to feel unique from one another. Now, some of this can definitely be achieved through enhanced animations and player detail, but I think most are hoping that the core AI powering the teams will be re-evalauted, with an eye to making each squad play to their distinct styles (speed, physicality, special teams, etc). This isn't going to be an overnight change, but it would be nice to see EA acknowledge that as a priority.
Seeing this revamped AI applied to the penalties and rule enforcement would also be good, with a particular eye to interference penalties, natural evolution of fights, more realistic post-whistle scrums and proper traffic in front of the net. Again, a lot of these issues could potentially be solved with the improved animation fidelity and collision detection, but those are only tools — tools that the AI systems will need to be built to utilize. As we often find, human versus human play is a lot of fun in almost any situation, but human versus CPU needs some work.
There's not much info to go on for NHL 15 at this point, but it's interesting to speculate on where the Ignite engine might take this franchise. I feel this is a big moment for the NHL brand from EA, as the sales have flagged somewhat in recent years, making this next-gen entry crucial for keeping established fans and making new ones.
We'll likely see our first glimpse of the game at E3 2014, but that's not for 4 ½ months. For now, we can all look at this picture of Columbus Blue Jackets player Mark Letestu doing mocap for the new game.