NFL Blitz and NHL Hitz interview

We speak with the vice president of sports development at Midway to get the lowdown on the changes being made to the company's sports games.

The NFL Blitz and NHL Hitz series are undergoing some changes. Midway has made changes and additions to both NFL Blitz Pro and NHL Hitz Pro so that they're slightly more realistic interpretations of professional football and hockey respectively. NFL Blitz Pro will feature 11-on-11 gameplay as well as a more robust running game, while NHL Hitz Pro will have five-on-five play with actual NHL rules. We had a chance to speak with Jon Dean, vice president of sports development at Midway, to find out more about these games and the reason behind the company's decision to take a different approach with its latest line of sports games. Be sure to check out the first screenshots of NFL Blitz Pro and NHL Hitz Pro.

GameSpot: So tell us a little about the decision to take Midway's sports game in a slightly different direction.

Jon Dean: Well, what we're trying to do is move Midway Sports forward in terms of our consumer. We already have all the major sports licenses for basketball, football, and baseball. When we produced Slugfest last year it became the best-selling baseball game on the PlayStation 2, which is ultimately the highest consumer accolade we can have, and the key thing I want to underline is that we tried to be different with that product. The key for us was to come up with something that had credible baseball gameplay mechanics, but more so than the clinical execution of the game. It was more about trying to get the passion of baseball and make a game out of that--more like a highlight reel of the sport.

The phrase that we've coined at Midway to describe that was "better than real," so Slugfest was really the starting point of the changes we are making to our sports lineup. We started off by talking to consumers about our product. We've been publishing sports games for many years, and what we did was ask our consumers what they wanted from our games and where they wanted our games to go next--we also asked casual and hard-core gamers. We also looked at what GameSpot and various magazines were saying about our products, and we asked retailers what the customers were looking for. We listened to all of that, and the result is something that we consider pretty revolutionary in our lineup of sports games.

An example would be Blitz, which this year we are calling Blitz Pro. It's still Blitz, but the key thing is that we've made some changes to it. All the trademark Blitz features are there, all the things people love about Blitz are there--it's easy to pick up and play, and it's fast and hard hitting. But we added the things that consumers have been looking for. That means we've added 11-on-11, first-and-ten style of gameplay, as well as a deep franchise mode, and perhaps most importantly, online play for the PlayStation 2 version, which has a deep tournament mode. Blitz has always been a great multiplayer game, and it seemed like an obvious progression for us.

GS: Are these changes directly in response to players who wanted more realism from the Blitz series?

JD: If you look at our product over the years, it's always been a question of how to progress with it. We try to keep them very much arcade in style, but when we listened to the consumers they said give us a real game of football as opposed to something that's a parody of the game. We're trying to give them a game of Blitz but a game of Blitz that's 11-on-11 and first-and-ten--they'll still be getting that extreme experience, but it will be applied more to the real rules of football. It's football, and it's Blitz--it's not a clinical execution of the game, but it's more than just a game of football.

It's the same with Hitz. It's a great product for us and always has been well received. Again, looking at the next logical progression, our consumers were looking for five-on-five to take the game even further. We're also adding NHL rules as well as online play for the PlayStation 2 version.

GS: A few months ago, the NFL expressed concern in the way that the hits were portrayed in previous NFL Blitz games. Will we see the same over-the-top-style hits in NFL Blitz Pro, or have they been toned down?

JD: The timing of what we're doing here and the timing of the stories from the NFL is coincidental. We had already been doing this research for a number of years, trying to figure out what our consumers were looking for in the game, and we spent a couple of years of putting the changes for Blitz Pro together. Obviously, we work well with the NFL, and we work with them in trying to understand and respect what they need, but those stories were more concerned with the issues that the NFL had with itself as opposed to games. This is not a simulation, and this is not something meant to compete with sim games in the marketplace. We still see ourselves being positioned at the entertainment end of the football game marketplace, and we still have big hits, and the most hits out of any other game, but we want to make it appeal to someone who is a football fan but doesn't think that the game is a parody of the sport.

GS: As far as the changes go, do they apply to every aspect of the game? For example, will players have to kick the extra points manually now?

JD: We've been very selective with how far we're taking the changes, because at the end we still want it to be the most fun experience you'll have in a football game. We're trying to do the most accurate simulation. We don't believe that is where the marketplace for the game is. Certainly, there used to be a lot of "catch-up" code in Blitz where the game would even itself out. We've taken away things like that from the game so that real player attributes count in the game, so things are a lot more realistic from that point of view. We had to balance the game, but it's still an extreme game and something that's still fast and furious.

GS: Can you talk about some of the new features in both Hitz and Blitz Pro?

JD: We've tried to come up with new things that would be specific to both sports. In the case of Blitz, it's 11-on-11, and we've got a new running game. But one of the cool new features is the downloadable weather, which means it will really rain in your room if it's raining in Chicago [laughs]. Just kidding. We've got a deal with Intellicast.com , which means that if you're connected online with your PS2 and you want to play in the stadium in Chicago or your hometown, the moment you do that the game will access Intellicast.com and find out what the actual weather is like at that location. It will then reflect that in the game and tell you what the current weather conditions are like, so if it's snowing, then there will be snow in your game. We think that's a nice little touch to add a bit of realism. There's a new franchise mode--Hitz had one before, but we're introducing it to Blitz for the first time. There's also improved AI for both games as well.

But I guess one of the key additions to both products is the online play. We're doing this for the PlayStation 2, and we think the tournament play is the most important aspect of it. This will not only allow you to play head-to-head against a buddy, but it will also allow you to play in a tournament against people around the country. There's also a "bubble-up" scheme--the idea being that people who play best online can play against each other in a tournament.

GS: So there will be online rankings as well?

JD: Absolutely--just think about all of the hall-of-fame stuff in previous Blitz games, but now it's online. There will also be downloadable rosters for NHL Hitz and NFL Blitz Pro. There's other stuff too like new fantasy elements as well as commentary. We tried to get away from commentary that is trying to be like every other game out there because most games have TV-style commentary. They also tend to sound very clinical. What we've tried to do is something that we pioneered with Slugfest, and we've varied that so it's still unique to each sport. It's almost like a fan commentary like sitting in a room full of friends listening to them talk about the game as it pans out. The intent is to call the game accurately, but also to have some trash talking that will keep you listening to the commentary.

GS: Speaking of trash talking, are there any plans to support the USB headset?

JD: We're not doing it this time around, but it is something that will be supported in the next round of products.

GS: Also, you're only planning to do PlayStation 2 online play this year. What were the reasons for not supporting Xbox Live or GameCube online play?

JD: We will be supporting Xbox Live, and we certainly like Xbox Live, but we just weren't able to get it done in time for this year. A key for us is the tournament play, and we didn't want to offer the Xbox Live users just simple head-to-head play, and since Blitz is such a great multiplayer game we wanted to have the tournament option in there as well. So that's something you'll see from us next year on Xbox Live, but in terms of the GameCube, we need to see how the GameCube online market is going to work out. We would love to be able to offer online for the GameCube, but we just need to make sure that there's a market out there for it.

GS: So does Midway hope that these changes will ultimately appeal to fans of the sim games as well as fans of the arcade-style sports games?

JD: Historically, the Midway games have appealed to fans of the sport who also happen to be gamers. We believe that the product will still appeal to them now, but with these changes we feel that it will open it up to fans of the sport that may not be gamers--people who want to have a great time and might be looking for the best and most entertaining version of hockey or football, and that's what we'll be offering to them.

We changed our sports development studio to accommodate these changes. We've been known for some of our talented teams over the years, and we've had some excellent creative output. But we've complemented the teams that we have here with some equally talented people from the sim world, people that have worked on the major sim games over the past few years. We want the credibility so that someone who is a fan of a sport isn't completely alienated from the game. We're trying to position ourselves to be an alternative to everything else that's out there in the marketplace.

GS: Thanks for your time.

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