With the addition of the TeamBuilder feature, Road to Glory and the first video game appearance of the ever-alluring Erin Andrews, this year's title promises to give Kyle and me plenty of opportunities to challenge our friendship.
We'll be bringing you plenty of news and reviews of NCAA Football 10 in the next couple of weeks leading up to the July 14 release -- including the following interview with the game's designer, Ben Haumiller.
Haumiller was kind enough to take time during the lead up to the game's launch to answer a few questions about the game's new features and, of course, the difficult task of having to stare at Erin Andrews all day.
Ben Haumiller: We have a lot of very passionate college football fans on the team. We all know that nothing can compare to actually attending a live college football game to really capture the essence of the sport as well as the experience that each stadium has to offer. During college football season I'm on the road almost every weekend. Every year I map out the college football season to see where I'll be each weekend. Typically I'll make it to about fifteen games a year, last season I was able to attend games in 6 different states from high profile games (Ohio State at USC) to games off of the national radar (Nevada at Idaho). My favorite thing to do when I go to a stadium I've never been to before is compare the real world stadium to what we have in-game. It's always amazing how exact our stadiums match their real life counterparts. It would be easy to attend these games just as a fan to have fun, but the team members take notes at every game we attend, taking pictures of stadium expansions, unique stadium features, and traditions that schools have that may not make it into your typical television broadcast.
SP: What's the process in assigning individual player ratings? On a macro-level, how do you approach the daunting task of assigning ratings to hundreds of players?
BH: Since we are dealing with amateur athletes, we do not have the rights to use the actual players or their likenesses in the game. The way we approach ratings is from the team level. If a team has a strength in real life we try to replicate that in the game. If a school has a great running game the expectation of gamers will be that the video game version of that team will also have a strong running game. If a Notre Dame fan was playing NCAA Football 10 and found that the Notre Dame team in the game was built for running the wishbone offense it would be confusing and feel incorrect since that's not the offense that Notre Dame runs in real life. The goal of each school is to replicate the real world themes for each school, and to do that you need to rate the players we have for each school accordingly.
SP: On a micro level, let's take a guy like ... oh, let's say "Florida QB #15" -- obviously that player has been one of the most dominant players in the game over the past few seasons. So what's the approach to assigning his ratings in the design process?
BH: Since we are attempting to create a roster that replicates the real school's style of play, the individual players must be rated in a way that matches that style. If a school has a dual threat QB, the expectation of fans will be that the QB in the game will be a dual threat QB. We just try and keep the styles of each team consistent with their real world counterparts.
SP: What was some of the most consistent feedback you guys got from online gamers last year, and how did you take that into consideration in your approach to designing NCAA Football 10?
BH: Our most popular feature in NCAA09 was the inclusion of Online Dynasty, this feature allows up to 12 gamers to participate in the same dynasty mode, where they each control a school and go through up to 60 seasons where they compete against each other in a simulation of the real college football world. They are all competing for the same conference trophies, bowl bids, national championships, 5-star QB prospects, etc. Moving this feature online has brought a lot of gamers that were not huge fans of online play into the online space as the ability to recruit against a human opponent that is also a good friend of yours is way more compelling than recruiting against a faceless CPU opponent. The success of Online Dynasty helped shape the features we added for NCAA Football 10. With TeamBuilder we were able to expand the Online Dynasty experience by allowing gamers the ability to create their own custom school and use them in their dynasties as well as customize the conferences so that each member of the dynasty can use the school they want (real or created) and put them all in the same conference so they all play each other every season. With Custom Conferences, if you and your friends want to recreate the old Big 8 you can move schools around to get those old Big 8 schools together in the same conference and see how things would play out with today's teams.
One of this season's additions is the TeamBuilder feature. How did that evolve and why should the NCAA Football faithful be excited about it?
BH: The concept of TeamBuilder is not brand new, a lot of games have had a create-a-school feature, so when we were coming up with how we wanted to do a true "next generation" create-a-school it became obvious to us that creating the schools on the web and downloading them into the game was the way to go. The advantages we have by utilizing the web (teambuilder.easports.com) are that both PS3 and Xbox 360 gamers can both download the same school, so the content only needs to be created once and everyone can use it. If the school creation was done on the console, PS3 gamers would never see what someone on Xbox 360 created and vice-versa. From a customization element, the ability to add a custom logo is much easier to do than it is on a console, and the logo is really the key to the school. It's the most identifying aspect of a school, and having the ability to add your own custom logo was crucial to the feature's success.
Finally, one other reason that doing the school creation on the web made sense was the speed at which you can edit using the mouse and keyboard. For the first time ever gamers are able to edit their rosters while creating their school. Anyone that has edited a school on the console knows this can be a tedious and frustrating process when using a controller. Through the keyboard and mouse you are able to quickly edit a players rating, edit the name and information , etc. which greatly improves the experience. We launched TeamBuilder at the start of June and we have just passed the 100,000 school created, so this has been a huge success. When the game launches on July 14th there will be well over 100k schools already available to download and use in the game. With the ability to use TeamBuilder teams in an Online Dynasty fans of the game have been creating their schools in anticipation of getting the game in their hands and starting their dynasty with their created school.
SP: How did the Season Showdown feature evolve?
BH: College football is unique in that fans of the sport are extremely passionate, and their fandom is unwavering. The connection you have to your school is typically a lot stronger than the connection you have to a pro team, so with that in mind we wanted to create a feature that really allowed gamers the chance to show off their school pride and have a fun and competitive way to prove that their school is the best in the country. We wanted to reach out to all college football fans so exploring areas that we have never touched before.
Two of the main elements of Season Showdown are web games that can be played by anyone, even those that don't own the console game. One is a college football trivia challenge, the other an online voting game. While you may not be able to get your father to pick up a controller and play NCAA Football 10, you may be able to get him hooked into playing the trivia game which will help your school's cause. We also wanted to give gamers a reason to keep playing all year long, with the format of Season Showdown we follow every week of the college football season, during the bowl season we will have a 32-school tournament to decide our Season Showdown champion, and our championship game will take place the same week as the real world national championship game. All of these factors came together in the creation of Season Showdown.
SP: What are some of the sleeper teams that you guys think could be tough on the game for those players who occasionally like to veer from their preferred school?
BH: If you are looking for a unique experience with a team that runs an offense you will only find in college, Georgia Tech is the way to go. The flexbone playbook received a huge overhaul this year, and there are a lot of plays that have been added this year that allow you to run the full flexbone style offense. Baylor is a school that a lot of people around the office have had fun using. Nevada is another fun school to use, the Pistol offense can be very effective.
SP: In my playing experience, it seems like teams that run the spread offense like Texas Tech and Mizzou (my alma mater) have an advantage. Have you gotten this feedback? If so, how have you made it more competitive in stopping these types of pass-heavy offenses?
BH: In NCAA 09 the gameplay was geared a little more towards the offense, and so schools with a heavy passing attack were able to see success fairly easily. With NCAA Football 10 we have put an additional focus on making the defense a larger presence in the game.
A lot of work went into tuning the defender's zone and man coverage abilities. With the addition of Adaptive AI, the CPU will adapt to what you are doing during the game, so if you are running up the middle a lot, you will notice the defensive tackles start to pinch and the safeties start creeping up to take away that running game, if you are having success with the pass, the AI will adapt to shut down the routes that you are beating them with, so if you are having a lot of success with underneath crossing routes, the CPU will adjust to take that route away from you. In addition to this there have been a lot other gameplay improvements to things like pursuit angles that have helped level the playing field for the defense.
SP: Talk about some of the new gameplay features that players can look forward to this season.
BH: The three largest improvements we made to NCAA Football 10 are the Gamplanning, Setup Plays, and Defensive Keys features. With Gameplanning, you are able to set how you want your team to perform in certain situations. There are six defensive situations and 5 offensive situations and you can choose to have your players act more aggressive, conservative, or balanced during the course of the game. There's a risk and a reward for every setting. A couple of examples of this are on offense, you can have your offensive line hold their blocks longer to create bigger running lanes, the risk in doing this is that you will be called for more holding penalties since the linemen are keeping their blocks longer.
On defense you can choose to have your defensive backs play aggressively and always go for an interception, and by doing so risk giving up a big play if your defender doesn't get his hand on the ball and finds himself out of position to make a play. Or you can go conservative and have your defenders focus on just swatting the pass away instead of going for the interception. You can adjust these options at any point during the game so that you can change your gameplan to fit the situation.
With Setup Plays, there are sets of plays in the playbook that are linked to each other, meaning that success with one play will "set up" the other play and increase its chance of being successful. An example of this is running a halfback dive out of the I-formation, in the playcall screen there will be a Play Action play that is linked to the halfback dive. The more successful you are at running the dive play the more the play action play will become setup. Once the play action play is 100% setup, that means that the defense is at the highest likelihood of getting faked out by the play action when you run that play.
With Defensive Keys, you are able to guess what you think the offense is doing, and if you are correct, increase the chance you have to shut their play down. You can guess that the offense is running to the right, left, middle, passing the ball, or you can spotlight a specific receiver if you know exactly who your opponent is going to throw to. If you guess that the offense is going to run to the right, at the snap of the ball you will see the defenders flood to that side of the field, if you guessed correctly the running back is going to find they have nowhere to go, if you guessed wrong however, you run the risk of giving up a big play as all of your defenders are flowing in the wrong direction. If you choose to spotlight a receiver, the defenders will make sure that this player does not get open, however, their focus on one player may leave another player open.
In addition to these improvements there were a ton of additional gameplay improvements that we made this year. There are over 1,000 new animations in the game, from over the shoulder catches, to throwing out of a sack, to the interactions between the wide receivers and the defensive backs, you will immediately notice and feel the difference in gameplay when playing NCAA Football 10.
SP: ESPN's Erin Andrews makes her first appearance in NCAA Football 10. How did you guys approach the difficult task of working her into the game presentation? If you would, take our readers through that process.
BH: Over the years Erin has become a key fixture in the college football broadcast world. Through her work on ESPN fans of college football have become accustomed to Erin's sideline commentary during games. That made it a natural fit to have Erin in the game this year as the sideline commentator giving injury updates during the game. When a player gets injured they will be "evaluated' by the training staff, once the severity of the injury is determined, Erin will inform the player about the details of the injury.
Outside of Erin's work as a sideline commentary, she plays an intricate role in the Road to Glory mode. In this mode you create a player and play through his career from a High School senior in the state playoffs, through his senior season in college. Erin's role in the mode is as the host of a new television show called "Road to Glory." The premise of the show is that Erin and her camera crew will follow the college career of one player, and they just so happened to choose you. Throughout the course of your career, every time you hit a milestone, Erin will be there with a new addition of Road to Glory. During these segments Erin and Kirk Herbstreit will comment on the progress of your career while video highlights from your games are played. It's a great integration of full motion video and game highlights in a way that has not been done in a video game before.