August 17, 2008 – Jeffrey Carl
Disclaimer: I’m a longtime avid Madden player, and also a longtime avid complainer about things. I have a love/hate relationship with Madden NFL – it’s one of my all-time favorite games, but it also has a long history of sucking up cash from idiots like myself by providing only annual roster updates and dubious “innovations” (quarterback vision cone, anyone?) Many of my most important criticisms deal with the user interface and feature set on the PS3; I have only played the Playstation 3 edition of Madden 09, so some of these comments may not hold true on other platforms.
- My first preseason game of Madden 09 in franchise mode locked up on the fifth play and forced a reboot. Not a great start, and yet another example of Electronic Arts (EA) quality control. Note to Sony: the last two PS3 games I have bought have both had serious crashing bugs (Madden and Grand Theft Auto IV). This is not acceptable. If I didn’t have the original 60 GB unit with backward compatibility for my PS2 game library, this thing would be on eBay right now. This is unrelated to Madden, but while I have Sony on the hook – $30 for Blu-Ray movies that look only marginally better than DVDs that cost half as much? Really?
- The Madden series has an illustrious history of being the pinnacle of popular software that doesn’t explain to its users how to actually, you know, “use” it. For years, the game has offered users playcalling choices without any explanation whatsoever of what those plays mean. (Has the game or even its “official guide” ever explained what a Mike or a Sam blitz is? Not so much.) I know the difference between a Cover 2 and a Cover 3 … but there are plenty of plays in the playbook that I’m choosing g without really understanding why. Would it kill EA to put up a web page somewhere explaining why I want to use each play in any given situation?
- The Madden series also has a history of vanishing features. Maybe nobody else did, but I liked the Madden Challenge points system and Madden Cards. It was bad enough a couple years ago when they eliminated the cheerleader cards from the deck (Note to EA: know your audience. They like cheerleaders.) But to eliminate it entirely? Did they really need to save a few megs of space on that Blu-Ray disc? I’ll tell you what: you can pitch out your lead blocker controls and give me back my Madden Challenge, and we’ll call it even. Oh, and throw back in the mini-camp drills with the bronze, silver and gold trophies too. I loved those minigames and how they “bought” me something for playing them (other than upgrading player skills, which is a dubious concept in and of itself – shouldn’t my player skill levels be tied to the actual player?)
- Every year, each new Madden game comes out, and the gaming press corps scrambles to praise it. Does anyone ever hold EA’s feet to the fire and actually ask them questions like, “do you actually do any user testing to see if they want this year’s new ‘features?'” or “where did these old things go that I liked?'” This can probably be chalked up to the laziness of the gaming press (and their publishers’ needs to keep collecting EA advertising dollars), but EA doesn’t help matters. Maybe I’m just missing it, but I don’t see see anywhere that they actually have two-way conversations with either the press or the user community about why they did what they did with the game (e.g., what features they kept or lost and why). They probably don’t because they know suckers like me will keep buying it year after year for basically a $50 (now $60) roster update.
- So let’s talk about roster updates. I understand if EA doesn’t want to post regular roster updates, but why not at least provide a schedule? And there is no shortage of football-obsessed users who would be happy to build their own weekly (or probably even daily) roster updates online … why not let users subscribe to third-party rosters like RSS feeds? If my team of choice (in this case, the Seahawks) changes the rotation on a regular basis, I’d like to have the new starting lineup as I play through the season without making all those tweaks myself. With all the cash EA is raking in from suckers like me, can’t they provide this as a download or at least let third parties do it?
- This is probably just me being old and cranky, but WTF is up with the soundtrack choices? A few years ago, it seemed like the songs playing over the between-game menus were selected by somebody with a good taste in music that would get you pumped up for the next round. In Madden 09, I’m willing to bet that the music choices are dictated by which record companies throw the most cash at EA to get their dog acts selling no records in front of a captive audience. Give me back my Andrew WK and Rooney songs, you can keep your “”Kardinal Offishall feat. Lindo P.” There’s a few decent tunes on there, but for the most part I set the music volume down low to get away from them. About the only positive thing I can say here is at least they haven’t incorporated “Daughtry” into the mix. Yet. (shudder) Oh, and they do at least offer a way in the User Interface to turn down the music volume compared to the rest of the game … but see more about the UI below.
- The “my skill” concept, probably the most trumpeted new “feature” in Madden 09, is a great idea on paper. Then again, so is Communism. In reality, it leaves a lot to be desired. When the user loads the game for the first time, they are prompted to take a Madden “test” to figure out their skill level. The problem is that this test is about timed button pressing, not actual skills in running, passing, or defending. Therefore, the difficulty level is set based on the user’s ability to push the right button quickly rather than actual game situations. On top of that, it somehow feeds into the user’s “Madden IQ,” which is determined by … uh … elves in a secret base in Antarctica. I don’t see an upfront explanation of what goes into Madden IQ, how it impacts the game, or what I can do specifically to change it. So what’s the point? I’m sure there is one, but the game and its manual don’t tell me.
- This is supposed to be a “Madden” game. In the previous installments, you actually had John Madden providing color commentary during the game. To be fair, the John Madden “commentary” was a lot of canned crap like “he really put a lot of mustard on that ball” and “BOOM!” that had nothing useful to contribute … but at least Madden was there.
In this game he appears as a ghostly figure – much like the Emperor in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ to introduce features, tell you to take quizzes and so forth, but the actual in-game announcing is done by Cris Collinsworth and some guy whose name I can’t remember. Don’t get me wrong; me likey Collinsworth; he’s very smart for a football player and he’s not afraid (at least in his actual game broadcasts) to venture some interesting and controversial opinions. (Oh, and the “backtrack” feature wherein Collinsworth explains to you why you were an idiot for throwing an interception is interesting, at least the first few times.) But – no offense to Collinsworth or whatsisname – this is a serious step down from the Madden/Pat Summerall or Madden/Al Michaels announcing teams of previous years. In my Madden game, I’d like to see some actual insightful input (I know, wishful thinking) from John Madden in exchange for whatever ludicrous checks he’s getting from EA for these things.
- So this one really grinds my gears. No, not Lindsay Lohan. (That five year old Family Guy reference shows just how hip I am.) The one place that you do actually hear from John Madden during a typical franchise mode game is when you get to see some replays of your game at Sprint Halftime. No, it’s not halftime, it’s Sprint halftime. The product placement is not particularly obtrusive – it’s just the Sprint name and “Sprint ahead” tagline – but it’s a disturbing harbinger of things to come. Normally, we consumers see advertisements in things that we don’t directly pay for, like broadcast TV or websites with free content. BuI paid for Madden 09 already – I don’t want to see any ads. And when Sprint goes bankrupt or gets bought – which it will – does EA then update the game with a new advertiser? And what part of the game is next for ads?
- Here we get to the core of my complaints: Madden NFL 2009 has the single worst User Interface (UI) of any software I have ever used. And I say this as someone who tried Gimp 1.0 running under MKLinux on a Mac with one mouse button. There are two user interface cardinal sins: not explaining to a user what they’re s supposed to do, and making the most common actions hard or requiring extra steps. Madden 09 does both with astonishing regularity.
Let’s start with the opening screen. The Brett Fahr-vuh-ruh splash screen displays once the game has gotten through all the opening crapola telling you about how “it’s in the game” (“it” in this case means “sucking”), “EA HD” is the future of wireframe model l33tn3ss, etc. The user is prompted to press “start” to begin. This may seem like a tiny issue, but think about this from a User Interface perspective: this screen accomplishes nothing except to make you press start while you stare at Brett Favre in the jersey of a team he doesn’t play for anymore. Why not just take the user to the main interface? What do you need a splash screen for? I have the box with Brett’s picture if I want to look at it, and I certainly already know what game I’m playing. Imagine if Microsoft Word showed you a splash screen advertising the fact that you were using it, and forced you to click a button before you could actually begin typing a document. Wouldn’t that get real old real fast?
In the big picture, this is a minor quibble and it only inconveniences the user by requiring a single button push; but it is symptomatic of a larger issue: the EA Madden team simply does not think about designing interfaces with the goal of getting you to what you want to do. In fact, let’s look a the very next screen to illustrate another example of the same UI sin. The user is presented with an empty room with video monitors showing … nothing (so why are they there?). User action hints are shown (as throughout the game) in a small bar at the bottom of the screen. Users are prompted to hit the start button to bring up the game menu. Okay, since you can’t t really do anything here without the menu, why not just show it? Am I missing something where this is brilliant and I just don’t get it?
So let’s look at another UI cardinal sin: not telling the user how to actually USE the interface. For example, in franchise mode the user has an option to train the players for the week’s game (this replaces the previously much more accessible mini-camp option). To begin the training, the user must select a player, select a drill and a level. Here’s the problem: the User Action hints displayed in the bottom of the screen don’t actually show the button you’re supposed to press to begin the training. I ended up in a two-minute loop of pressing all the buttons shown in order to begin, but none of them actually started the training; you need to press ts the start button to do that, and there is nowhere that you are told this, you have to figure it out by pressing buttons until something works. Almost everywhere else in the game, the “X” button makes your selection or signals your choice; why in this particular instance is it the “start” button? UI element inconsistency is a hallmark of bad software design.
Here’s another doozy (Does anyone say “doozy” anymore? Probably just me.) of a terrible UI decision. The playcalling interface in Madden 09 is radically different. It has some advantages and some disadvantages. But what it does not offer is a way to revert to the “classic” UI – a problem that is shared by Microsoft Office 2007, by the way. It’s okay to radically revamp your UI, but when you do that, you need to provide users with a transition or compatibility mode. It doesn’t really “cost” the developer anything, and it assists the user with getting the things done that they expect from the software. So why not?
Now, to be fair – there are a lot of things I do like about Madden 09. Online leagues are a great – if much overdue – feature. The game does look exceedingly pretty, even if the crowd and sidelines are still wooden, and the game sits uncomfortably close to the “uncanny valley” of human models. The depth of football knowledge that the game’s makers expose is greater than ever before, and the franchise mode is very deep (although, do I really care about screwing fans with stadium concession prices if I’m not Dan Snyder?). Of course the core game on the field itself is still incredibly fun to play. So don’t take this rant to mean that I’m not going to play through at least one full franchise mode season as the Seahawksassuming it doesn’t crash again).
But I complain about Madden the same way I complain about Apple or the Star Wars franchise: as someone who likes the product so much that I’m a slave to buying it, but has a lot of discontent with the changes made to the product lately. EA, Steve Jobs and George Lucas are of course under no obligation to listen to me – they already have my money. And I am just some crank complaining on the Internets; it’s product sales that really talk. But when you care passionately about a product, you passionately care about wanting to make it better. I just wish that any of the above would display some sign of listening.