Gone are the days when hockey video games were practically carved out of concrete before their release dates. NHL ’96 was NHL ’96. Once it hit stores, that was the game, for better or worse. If you found a glitch goal, a cheap way to score, too bad.
But the times have changed. We live in the era when the online experience of any games, let alone sports games, trumps the individual “campaign” experience. And online players have formed their own highly vocal communities. If there’s a problem with a game, they let the world know about it.
Companies like EA Sports can now release beta modes of their games to get feedback before finalizing their releases. And even “finalizing” doesn’t carry the same meaning anymore, as the game makers can tweak their products on the fly based on how users react and comment.
“We’re at the point now where our fans will message us via social media or whatever avenue it is and say ‘Hey, listen, the scoring from the top of the slot, going top shelf or to the glove-hand side of the goalie is way too overpowering. Can you guys dial it back?’ ” said Sean Ramjagsingh, head producer of EA Sports’ NHL series since 2009. “We can make changes hourly if we wanted to right now based on the feedback that we’re getting.”
This new era is a blessing for the most part, but it’s also a curse sometimes. Gamer expectations have never been higher. They want the slickest, most fluid, most realistic gameplay standards. They want believable physics for fair human-on-human competition. They want lots of different game modes. And while the game manufacturers can make plenty of changes on the fly via downloadable bundles, known as “tuner sets,” they can’t make seismic shifts. Sooner or later every release of the game has to stand on its own as a finished product, as a company like EA Sports has to get working on the next season’s edition.
And that worked against EA two years ago, when it dropped NHL 15, the series’ first foray into eighth-generation consoles Xbox One and PlayStation 4. The leap in graphics quality meant a gorgeous game but also that the series had to eschew many of its popular game modes, most notably the EA Sports Hockey League, which let players create their own characters and join online leagues with all-human 6-on-6 play. Fans were outraged. NHL 15, according to aggregate review site Metacritic, was the worst-reviewed title in the franchise’s history. Critics gave an average score of 60 out of 100 for the PS4 edition and 59 out of 100 to Xbox One. Users were savage, rating NHL 15 1.4 out of 5 on PS3 and 3.2 on Xbox One.
But NHL 15 might have simply been a necessary blow for EA to absorb. The first year in every console generation requires game makers to iron out kinks. The company took the feedback to heart and rebounded with last year’s NHL 16, bringing back the sorely missed online features, and game was generally well received. A key reason for the turnaround was EA Sports’ Game Changers program – a group of hardcore players brought in as an expert feedback panel. It worked so well last year, especially with its input on the goalie physics, that EA expanded the Game Changers group. Included in the NHL 17 process were reps for various modes of the game, from Hockey Ultimate Team (HUT) to offline Franchise Mode to Be a Pro Mode. There was even “a guy from Europe” devoted to “hardcore gameplay and presentation,” Ramjagsingh said.