In the first edition of the Madden 21 Gridiron Notes, some folks on OS were quick to point out the lack of any mention about franchise mode (CFM) improvements. It’s a valid observation to make, but it’s not a new one when it comes to sports games. If you’ve been around this place long enough, you know we talk about franchise mode shortcomings multiple times a year right now. After all, our award for the “worst trend in sports games in 2019” was single-player modes getting shafted.
However, I am of the belief that, in a general sense, hopelessness is cheap wisdom. Simply saying “what else would you expect?” or “lol of course EA did this, where have you been?” would be easy enough to tweet for some easy likes and retweets before moving on with your day. But I don’t think that helps much of anything. This isn’t me saying to accept what you’re given either, rather I just want to look at the landscape here once more and also assess Madden 21 at this point.
Also, to be clear, we don’t know everything about Madden 21 as of yet. If franchise mode were a big focus, would it have been mentioned on Tuesday? Probably, but we don’t know with 100 percent certainty as of yet if franchise mode will be totally ignored. Still, I don’t think it changes much of what I have to say below.
2020 May Be Rough For Sports Games
Sports games as a whole have a tough road to navigate this year. It’s going to be exciting with next-gen games, but there is going to be growing pains as we see every cycle changeover. Between the global pandemic, real seasons being up in the air or not happening at all, a next-gen cycle looming, and fans who are rightfully expecting more from games at the end of a console cycle, there’s going to be quite a few people unhappy with the end results.
On top of that, I do sometimes feel silly having to reiterate this, but games like Madden, NBA 2K and FIFA are beyond huge in terms of the audiences they serve. It’s an impossible task to please everyone, but it doesn’t mean it’s one that can’t be approached with care and logic.
I think folks who play these games — and more specifically, people who care about just one specific mode in a sports game — tend to want to think one group is being served over the other while talking past each other. I see it right now with FIFA, for example, where you have multiple FUT people saying “EA doesn’t listen to this community” — this community being the FUT one — and that will simultaneously get scoffs from people who think certain things are not changing with gameplay because the FUT community wants it that way.
My community, the FUT hardcore community, the FUT Twitter community and everyone who gives a single damn about this game are constantly upset and frustrated with what we get from EA, and yet they don't change. I would love to just have a chat to EA and ask why. #FUT20
— NepentheZ (@NepentheZ) June 10, 2020
To put it another way, everyone feels wronged in some respect when they’re not getting what they want from a specific mode, and one of the easiest ways to lash out is blame some other portion of the game for getting more attention.
I do not think that is a good way to look at problems with these games. Year to year certain things will get more focus than others, but that’s not new, and that does not have much to do with Ultimate Team vs. franchise mode and so on. Ten years ago, these arguments about one thing in a game getting more attention than another aspect also took place, it was just graphics vs. gameplay, or gameplay vs. franchise mode etc. The arguments are a little more caustic now because the comparisons can feel more one-to-one in terms of impact, but even now I think the general complaint is that it feels like franchise mode has been getting the shaft for multiple years in a row, which makes the rage boil over more.
The Plan For Madden 21
This brings me back to the initial gameplay trailer and Gridiron Notes. First off, I don’t want to say nothing looked interesting with Madden 21. The gameplay trailer did have a smoothness that eludes Madden much of the time, and the lack of wasted movement by players was noticeable as well. Having some more gang tackling and physics that looked a little more reactive were also nice touches. To put it another way, I have been way more unimpressed with Madden gameplay trailers than this one.
Beyond that, mentions of needing to diversify play calling to outsmart the AI sounds good. (Some folks think the AI cheats regardless and knows your plays already, and fair enough, but the point is this is something that should be improved and is being looked at this year.) Of course, if you improve single-player components but don’t make the single-player experiences richer, then what’s the point of playing the CPU? Grinding in MUT Solos?
Some people don’t like the concept of X-Factor abilities either, and the fact that we’re getting more of them makes those people roll their eyes, but I think Superstar/X-Factor abilities are a perfect aspect to discuss when making my next general point. X-Factors are a fine concept on a broad scale. They are there to make players stand out for the specific reasons they stand out in real life. They are there to be obvious to newer folks who might not know the NFL as well, while providing impacts to gameplay that more hardcore folks can use to their advantage.
The issue is more that Madden really lost its way with them post-launch (as they did with other aspects of the game). They got more absurd and more overpowered, and then the balance of them got out of whack and issues arose from there with power creep. In other words, the core concept got away from the developers because they didn’t make the moment-to-moment abilities mesh together.
Will the same thing happen with Face of the Franchise? What I mean is this mode is there to be a little more linear, a little more driven by specific actions, and so far it looks like the developers want to diversify your options at various checkpoints in the mode and keep you moving forward. However, I think what Madden has missed with this mode is the crash-and-burn aspects of it. It shows immense promise out of the gate, but then sort of falters and is forgotten because moment-to-moment enjoyment is fleeting after the linear bits.
I hope that isn’t the case here, but the point is it’s not really the QB1/Longshot/linear aspects that need to be totally ironed out, it’s the Superstar mode elements. The linear aspects might not always be perfect, but there’s a general battle plan and a certain level of skill that’s been shown by the developers in those areas. It’s the moment-to-moment enjoyment that ends up souring things when the Superstar mode more gets to take center stage again.
Road to the Show isn’t fun because of the linear story bits. Those elements can be cool, but people come back to Road to the Show because it’s fun to take hacks and climb through the minors and play many, many games while still wanting to play many, many more. Madden is still looking for that gameplay loop in its Superstar mode that keeps people coming back for more. Madden is still looking for that sort of gameplay loop in its franchise mode now, too. It’s not an easy problem to solve creating loops that keep people interested, but it’s what Madden most needs right now.
That loop takes different forms depending on the mode. With gameplay, it’s about making it challenging and unique over and over again. With franchise mode, it’s about making it fun to create new storylines and stories as you hopefully craft a championship team. With Superstar mode, it’s about climbing the ranks and finding new ways to make an impact as of one of the best of all-time.
So What About Franchise Mode?
I will say, I approve of EA being upfront at least about not mentioning franchise mode if it really is not getting any love. It’s smart public relations to not fluff up something with flashy marketing terms if you’re only going to later get called out on it all being shenanigans. It doesn’t excuse the oversight, but again, it’s better than leading folks on before pulling the rug out from under them.
This also returns me to what I wrote at the top here that hopelessness is cheap wisdom. Things do not need to be this hopeless, nor do we need to feel this hopeless. Game development is fluid and always changing, but there should be plans in place here for the long term when it comes to a yearly sports game. You’re never going to get everything you want in one year, and that’s probably even more true these days when many big-budget series get years to build their next title. Even yearly games like Call of Duty now break off into separate teams to make those yearly titles feel different from one another.
We’re not doing stuff like that much in the sports game space. Maybe we should. Maybe sports game developers need to be more up front and say “this year we’re focusing on X feature but next year we’re already working on Y feature.” That sort of talk could get you in trouble if plans change, but the point is something obviously does need to happen to fix this at some point.
My most often repeated request has been to simply open up PC modding as much as possible. If the developers make it as easy as possible to mod Madden, you’re going to get folks in the community who make franchise mode sing. There’s great things in the mod community already with the NCAA mod, updated jerseys, Sabo’s gameplay mod, and various tweaks to franchise mode.
But the biggest gains are still on the whole made to the aesthetics of the game. If things are opened up further, maybe we could see bigger gains with franchise mode. Some of the best things that have been added to games have started as community mods, and there’s no reason to believe EA couldn’t end up noticing certain things in the community and incorporating them into Madden in the future. Passion is a powerful tool in the community when it can be unfettered and unleashed.
At the end of the day, I’m not going to blame anyone who doesn’t want to buy the game or faults EA for the steps they’re taking with the lack of improvements to franchise mode. Minus the obvious trolls, the complaints do come from a place of love for both football and franchise mode. But I do think EA and the community could make this relationship work better if more modding tools were simply placed in our hands, and EA created proper expectations by making it clear what modes could expect improvements one year but not the next.
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