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Seann Graddy has been here before. As a longtime Madden developer, he was part of the team that successfully shepherded the series on to Xbox One and PlayStation 4 with minimal compromises. Now he's trying to do the same with Madden NFL 21, which must navigate the awkward challenge of providing a fully-fledged current-gen release and a next-gen upgrade in the same year.
Currently available in early access, with full release due next week on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC, Madden 21 lays the foundation for next-gen with its customary improvements to gameplay and presentation. Its biggest addition is The Yard—a new mode built around unlockable cosmetics and online co-op. They're solid improvements, but Madden 21 also faces plenty of questions. Long-term frustration over the direction of Franchise Mode recently boiled over on Twitter with the "FixMaddenFranchise" hashtag, and the gameplay balance was criticized when a competitive championship was won without a single pass.
I asked Graddy about these issues and more, while also inviting him to take a look back on what this generation has meant for Madden. Here's what he had to say.
USG: We've arrived at the end of another console generation. What does that mean for this version of Madden 21? How are you splitting your resources?
Seann Graddy: For the Madden that's going to be coming out in August for the current generation of consoles, we're focused on delivering a great overall experience. Even though it is the end of a console generation, we're not undermining what we built there. We still want to deliver a fully robust feature set. I'm sure you've been paying attention to all the blogs we've done on gameplay, Face of the Franchise, and so forth. We're really proud of the new mode we announced [Monday], the Yard. We've got a pretty robust feature set, so we're excited about that.
On the horizon is the next generation. We haven't really talked about that, and I can't talk about it today, but I do look forward to talking about it. So I think there will be two fully-featured console generations that our fans will be happy with.
Did you have to scale up the development team to develop for both current-gen and next-gen?
Yeah, as we've done every other transition that I've been at EA—I've been at EA going on 16 or 17 years—and in every case the new hardware does require a larger team size. You've got more power on the console, you can do more, so that usually requires more content, more engineering resources. So we did increase the investment in the overall Madden team size to allow us to do that.
You recently had to publicly respond to pushback over Franchise Mode. What do you think is at the core of the fan dissatisfaction with Franchise Mode? What's the single biggest change that can push Franchise Mode back to a good place?
We talk a lot internally about our total fanbase and who's playing what and how they play. We want to grow Madden. So you can probably see that some of the features we've been building has been widening the net of football fandom, with modes like Superstar KO and The Yard that we added this year. But we also don't want to ignore what our core fans want, which is Franchise Mode, Face of the Franchise, Play Now. What I got from the "FixMaddenFranchise" hashtag that was trending was that they felt like they were being ignored, and that they weren't getting enough.
I don't get to argue with the hashtag but I wouldn't say it's "FixMaddenFranchise," I would say that it's, "We want more depth, we want more improvements, we want more change every year." So we wanted to say, "Okay, we hear you," and then we started to scour the themes, because there are a million different ideas out there on how to fix Madden Franchise. So we listened to the themes, we listened to a few of the players who we feel represent the core fans at large, and we came back with the response you saw last week.
It's hard to pick any one example. It's weird to talk about Madden 22 already, but there are some systems that have bubbled to the top. Things like addressing scouting and adding a coaching carousel come to mind.
I was a little taken aback that you laid out a roadmap for Madden 22. That's not something you'd done in the past.
It is not, and it's a little risky, we tried to imply that in the letter. I had to be a little generic because you've been in this industry long enough to know that there's a lot of planning that goes into an annual sports title. But we feel good about what we said in that letter, and the response I think was pretty positive. It's a roadmap we hope we can continue to speak to over the coming months of how we will progress against it.
How closely is The Yard aligned with the strategy of Chel and Volta? Is this part of an overall push by EA Sports? What's the long game?
We talk a lot with our brothers and sisters on NHL and FIFA. We all pick their brains a lot on what they felt succeeded in Volta, what do they wish they had done with a year under their belt. It's not to say that we've aligned on this uber EA Sports vision to develop these types of modes, but I think what we commonly see is that we want to grow our individual sports and get people to engage with them in unique ways, which means we've come up with modes that have some similarities.
Probably one of the biggest differences that you saw with us and Volta is that they wanted team play. Team play is really sticky. You probably know that I was on NBA Live for a year and a half, and that game's team play was wildly popular. We were pretty adamant that we wanted to have team play at the long of this mode and so we've got that.
In terms of the long game, I can't share a lot, except that I'm excited about where this is going to go. This is foundational. This is Year 1. I expect to see The Yard evolve into something really special over the next few years. But in this first year, I think players will have a lot of fun playing both solo and with their friends.
I think it's interesting that you guys decided to charge for cosmetics in The Yard where Chel and Volta don't. What's behind that decision?
Well first of all, you can earn everything in our game through grind, through play. The whole library is available to you based on how much you want to play. We believe some people are going to want to get to it faster and not want to play the amount of time. I probably match to that category since I'm a guy in my late 40s, I've got two kids, I've got a fulltime gig. I play games where I'm happy to put in my own currency because I get value out of my time and I get to things quicker. So we're just letting people get to that premium content that some will earn and some will want to get to quicker.
More and more the presentation of Madden seems to be characterized by "fun." Is this part of an overall drive to make Madden less intimidating and more accessible?
I'm glad you noticed that. You can argue this, but we've almost climbed to the pinnacle of some broadcast elements in terms of the positioning of our cameras inside the stadium. We had an NFL Films cinematographer, Brian Murray, who really made our camera positioning, the lens that we use, the cuts, to be super authentic, and I think that served us really well. But over time it looks very similar, so this year we made a strategic decision to still have a lot of broadcast elements and not lose all those great things from the last couple years, but as you said put in a little more fun, a little more celebratory action into the games, whether that's cutting over to the sideline with selfies, or more on-field cameras. It pays off the beauty of the game and the players in the game. Good payoff in The Yard as well, and it'll pay off [on next-gen consoles]. [...] I know not everyone likes that. I know some people are very purist with their broadcast, but that's the direction we're moving in.
What's the greatest bottleneck or hurdle to keeping Madden's gameplay from being even better on the current gen consoles?
Probably the biggest thing that kept it succeeding in Madden 20 in what was honestly a wildly successful year—we had more players than ever, more than even we've had in a pre-COVID environment—so people were enjoying the game. But probably the biggest impediment to our success was the balance of the [metagame]. I know you called this out last year about the run game and what we saw as some of our competitive challenges where players were just running all game, not passing the ball; that's not the balance that we want, so that's probably the biggest one. We've done a lot of work this year to improve that. Talk to Clint Oldenburg or any of our gameplay guys and there's a lot of in-the-trenches stuff that unless you're someone reading our deep dive blogs, you may not know exactly what's happening. But the run game is a little less effective in a balanced way, so maybe it's a little more of a passing game this year.
So this year I think things that come to mind that is going to accelerate that is that the [defensive line] is back. It's a fun way to play. Maybe it's a better way to play even with the changes we've made to your ability to "lurk" at the linebacker or safety position. I think we're going to have even our skill players checking out the d-line and the mechanics and the responsiveness to your stick inputs. [...] I think honestly our gameplay is in a really good place going into Madden 21 and I look forward to seeing if our fans agree.
You'll forgive me for being blunt, but my experience with Madden 20 initially was that I was hitting a fair number of glitches, and especially fumbles were really high, and it was frustrating me a fair bit. I'm kind of curious what your response to that is.
Honestly, I don't remember fumbles being a big issue at launch.
That hit stick was so powerful, especially at the goal line.
Yeah, you're playing with skilled players who probably know how to take advantage of that, and they'd know the players who'd have the abilities. So I can see why you'd face that more than most players.
Maybe the best thing I can say to that is the same thing I said in the Franchise update from last week, which is that we're listening, we're a live service. The game that you get at launch is not the game you get 30 days later, or 60 days later, or 365 days later. We're constantly evolving the product, so if something like that crops up in our gameplay, we'll look to improve that and make it better.
It seems like there's a tensison between your hardcore players who are very invested in the metagame and playing in a very competitive way, and the vast majority of the audience who just want something that resembles football. That seems like a really difficult issue to square, and I'm curious what your perspective is on this tension.
It is a reality, and it's why we created the Arcade, Simulation, and Competitive playstyles a couple years ago. The theory is that if you play on the Simulation playstyle, you get more of what I think you're describing, if you play on Competitive you get fewer dice rolls and it's more about your stick input. It is obviously a balance since you're designing, engineering, and tuning two different ways of playing, and both of those communities are quite vocal with us. So I think we are getting to a better place, but I would just echo what you're saying, which is that it's a challenge we're conscious of, and we try to make it work through the playstyles as best we can. I'm just glad we have the playstyles. You go back to four years ago, we didn't have that, we were essentially trying to tune one game for both of those markets.
How much progress has the team made with Frostbite, and do you guys intend to stick with Frostbite going forward? I know things are changing in that regard over at EA.
We intend to stick with Frostbite for the forseeable future. I think we're starting to get it to a place where we get the benefits we envisioned when we first implemented it back in Madden 18. That includes shareable content, shareable, tech, shareable features through ourselves and FIFA and other games on Frostbite. There are things we can do more effectively with one another.
I would also point to the things we're doing with cinematics. We said this when we built Longshot in Madden 18, and even what we did with Face of the Franchise this year, we just couldn't have done on our old tech stack. We couldn't have built a story mode and cinematics in the way that we do, and we think those elements are important to one slice of our game. There's also just graphics benefits going on to [PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X], we got there faster because of the power of Frostbite and the shared tech we get from some of our partners. So we're on it for the forseeable future and I think that's going to be an advantage for us long-term.
You launched on PC a couple years ago. How's that been doing?
The numbers haven't been huge, but we have a small, lively, and active fanbase that asked us for that, and I think they're happy to see Madden back on PC. They're asking for more platform-specific design, which we get. As we go on to more platforms, one of the things that we're discussing internally is whether we can allocate more of our capacity to design more to that platform, PC being one of them. So I'm not here to make any promises on that, just suffice to say that PC gamers are happy that Madden is there, but they want a little bit more PC design in their Madden experience.
The elephant in the room is that this is the most unprecendented year in sports history that I can ever remember. It's an open question if the NFL even happens this year, I think it will, but it will look very different from the reality being presented in Madden. Have there been talks about presenting that reality in Madden, or are your preferring something more based along the lines of wish fulfillment?
More of the latter. We definitely talk about it—it's the reality of the world right now—but at the end of the day we think we're celebrating the NFL, we're celebrating the good things in life, celebrating sports. We don't think empty stadiums are a celebration of the sport; not having a full crowd out there screaming is a celebration of the sport. Our intent is to celebrate the vision of the sport that we all have and we all want and wish we were getting this year, so that's the current plan for that.
Hypothetically, if the worst happened and there was no NFL, what would that mean for Madden?
Hopefully then we're providing a huge stopgap for NFL fans out there. I think a lot of players are going to come into Madden and simulate their version of the season, play it out. We'll explore ways to try and satisfy that missing itch, honestly. Not a bunch I can share there, but we're brainstorming ideas if the worst happens. I'm like you in that I think the season is going to happen, we obviously want it to happen. But in the worst case scenario, I think Madden has a good opportunity to fill some of the gaps.
When you look back on this generation for Madden, what have been the highlights? What has pushed the series in the right direction? And what absolutely has to improve on the next round of consoles?
I'm actually quite proud of this generation. I've been on it for almost the entirety of it. I only missed one year, which was Madden 19, the year I was off on NBA Live. The highlights for me... Madden 13 was the highlight. That was my first year back on it after being off for a year, we delivered Connected Careers which later became Connected Franchise. It was the first fully-realized 32 player coaches and players in the same universe all playing together online. I don't know that any other sports title has done it in the same way we have where it's the same offline version as it is online. That was quite novel and unique at the time.
Madden 25, the 20th anniversary; delivering on our promises in Madden 15. Draft Champions was another highlight, I think, which allowed us to deliver a new way to play in Madden Ultimate Team and was quite well-received. Madden 18: We delivered Longshot and Frostbite in the same year; an engine transition and our first ever story mode in the same year. It was a year that was honestly pretty tough for the NFL, there was a lot going on, and it was pretty well-received. And Madden 20, as you've heard us say as a company, is our best-received game in the history of the franchise. More players than ever, more engagement than ever, so that certainly is the biggest highlight of this transition, and we hope to continue this for Madden 21.
On the next generation of consoles and what we're looking forward to in the year ahead: We have a massive, wide userbase that all engages with the game in their own unique way, and what I would like to see is that all those unique fanbases get something that they love and believe in every year, so we don't have a "fix Madden Franchise" movement, or some other area of the game feels like they're left behind. If we can deliver on that, I think we're winning for our fans. And I will say that we've got some exciting stuff for [next-gen consoles] that we're doing with the league, and I'll go into more of that in the future.
I think it's interesting that you called out Draft Champions and Longshot. Draft Champions is still around, but I don't think it quite materialized as the competitive mode of choice that it was pitched as, and Longshot kind of ended after a couple years and sort of morphed into Face of the Franchise. So in a way those two elements in particular haven't really stuck around.
I would argue they have. Draft Champions is still there, and it's a way to play Ultimate Team. We actually have a playerbase that really engages with that mode, and that's where they like to earn their own content and their in-game currency. What I'm referencing is that it was something new and novel at the time, and we've taken ideas and tech from it and grown other ideas from it.
That's absolutely true with Longshot. Everything you see in Face of the Franchise tech-wise is grown from what we learned in Longshot, and I'm really proud that we were able to ship a cinematic story mode—I'll loosely call it a Pixar film in terms of the length of cinematics—in a year; something they do in four or five years.
It's definitely a lot different than it was several years ago, that's for sure.
And it's going to be a lot different two years from now, I think. We're laying the foundation for a future we're excited about.