When playing Madden NFL 06 or NCAA Football 06, it's easy to put yourself in the quarterback's shoes--evading oncoming rushers, finding the open man, and firing the ball on a rope into the open arms of the receiver. Similarly, when on defense, it's easy to identify with the middle linebacker, looking for a hole in the offensive line to bust through to lay a painful hit on the running back. With the upcoming NFL Head Coach, the development team at EA Sports is aiming to put an entirely new spin on the NFL experience--this time from the point of view of the coaches on the sidelines. We got a chance to take the game for a test run while visiting EA's Tiburon studio today and came away impressed by the chances the company is taking with this management sim.
"Management sim" isn't the term producers use when describing Head Coach. They prefer the phrase "3D sports strategy game," which, in many ways, does do a better job of explaining what Head Coach is. Unlike more traditional management sims, such as the Championship Manager soccer series (which is a massive hit overseas), Head Coach makes ample use of the Madden football engine in-game. As a result, you'll be watching a lot more football games happen on the field and parsing through massive tracts of hard data a lot less. Fewer stat checks and more gut checks, as the case may be. That doesn't mean the game is lacking depth--from our time with the game, there looks to be plenty to do in the game. It just means it's presented in a manner that will be far more familiar to Madden regulars.
Head Coach has two main single-player modes: the "coach now" mode, which takes you directly to an NFL game and lets you guide a team to victory on the field, and the far more in-depth career mode, which has you creating a coach from scratch and taking him through a 30-year career odyssey, which, if you play your cards right, will land you a place in the coaching hall of legends. To find your name mixed in with the Ditkas, Strams, and Landries of the NFL, however, you'll have a lot of work to do.
Your first goal will be choosing your alter ego's name and look; this is done through a coach creation mode that will be instantly familiar to anyone who has ever played with a create-a-character mode. You can edit your coach's look and name and even the licensed gear he'll be wearing on game day (and just like Mike Nolan, he won't be allowed to wear a suit and tie). You'll also be able to choose some general guidelines for your coaching style. Do you prefer an offensive style, or would you rather focus on the defensive side of the ball? The choices you make here will determine the kind of coach you become once you take over a team.
Once you've got your coaching avatar set up, it's time to dive right into your career. The next order of business will be to find a position with a team, and the first step is being interviewed by the team owner. Thankfully, you won't be forced to stick with the NFL bottom-feeders when it comes to choosing your team--if your favorite team is the Pittsburgh Steelers, you'll be able to land an interview with them straight away. The interview process is interesting--you answer a number of questions posed by the owner, which are designed to test your football awareness as well as your particular method for dealing with specific game-time situations. An example: "When caling a zone blitz, which player do you choose to motivate--the cornerback coming in on the blitz, the lineman dropping into coverage, or the safety covering the deep zone?" In most cases there are no wrong answers to these questions; instead they serve to further hone your coaching profile and the attributes that make up that profile. These attributes include overall motivation, strategic ability, player evaluation, and work ethic, as well as specific ability in coaching certain positions. If you're a defensive-minded coach, you can expect your ratings to be higher for linebackers and defensive backs than for running backs and receivers.
After you've completed the interview process, it's time to pick a team. You'll typically have several offers on the table from which to choose, and those offers will include a high-level overview of the team's current status--budget and available cap room, star players, and your contract and salary terms and ownership expectations.
As you might expect, owners play a pretty big role in Head Coach's gameplay. You'll be interacting with your owner on a regular basis as he lays out his detailed expectations of you and of the team as a whole. In our play time with the game, we took control of the Chicago Bears and found the owner's expectations to be fairly in line with what any Bears fan wants from the team for the 2006 season--that is, more protection for the quarterback, a more efficient passing game, and (of course) to win the division.
Being the boss in Head Coach means you'll have a lot on your plate every day, whether during the regular season, postseason, or off-season. The game's career mode starts the day after the Super Bowl ends, and you'll be thrown into the fire right away as you attempt to build a flailing team into a championship contender or keep a perennial playoff squad at the top of its game. Day-to-day activities in the off-season include fielding calls from players and agents, talking trades with other teams, preparing for the NFL Draft in April, holding practices for the team, and attending regular meetings with your coaching staff.
All off-field activities in Head Coach are calendar-based; you usually have three or four activities to attend to per calendar day. You might spend the day going over e-mails and fielding phone calls in the morning, then later you'll head to a staff meeting with your coaches, come back to your desk for a meeting with your scouting coach, and then end the day looking at your salary cap numbers and figuring out just how you're going to find the cash to pay for that upcoming first-round draft pick. As the free-agent signing period begins, you'll want to make sure you have your eye on who's available to sign to fill holes in your roster, and, of course, you'll want to make sure you're always up on the latest scouting reports in preparation for the draft. Weekly meetings with your scouting coach help things here, as do handy search filters that let you search among draft players for criteria such as position and skill level.
The NFL Draft itself gives you a seat in your own personal war room as you watch draft picks fly off the board. You can choose to run the draft in an approximation of real time (each CPU-controlled team has 30 seconds to make a pick, while you have a full five minutes), or you can choose to skip directly to your next pick. ESPN's Mel Kiper is also on hand to run down the top draft picks and provide analysis of each and every pick you make. If he doesn't like your pick, you'll know about it.
As the regular season approaches and your roster begins to settle down, you can run your players through a series of practice drills that are designed not only to help your players improve, but also to give you a better picture of their abilities. Unlike in Madden, player ratings are dynamic in NFL Head Coach, and any particular player has a range in which he can perform. The overall attribute of a volatile player such as Michael Vick, for example, might fluctuate from the low 70s on a bad day to the mid-90s on a day when everything is going his way. It's an interesting concept that takes into consideration each player's potential for greatness, as well as failure.
As you can tell, there is a lot to do in Head Coach's off-season, but that's only part of the equation. After all, preparation wins games, but you still have to play things out on the field. When coaching a game in Head Coach, you'll be watching the game as you might a regular game of Madden, with some crucial differences. One of the biggest changes is the available camera angles. We counted six available cameras in the game (though that number may change in the final build)--from traditional behind-the-QB looks, to sideline cameras (complete with your coaching avatar roaming up and down the sideline), to our personal favorite, a high-vantage-point, top-down look at the field, showing the offensive and defensive formations with perfect clarity.
Perhaps it goes without saying, but in Head Coach, you're responsible for calling the plays (which you can do with either standard controls or via voice commands using a headset) and snapping the ball. Once the play begins, the game is more or less out of your hands. Before the ball is snapped, however, you can do things like call audibles and change protection coverage, but you'll have only a small window of time to make that happen (that is, before the play clock runs down or your opponent snaps the ball). However, your responsibilities in-game go a bit deeper than simply calling the play and watching how things unfold on the grass. At any point in the game, you can choose to talk to the players on the sideline to provide either strategic advice or specific motivation (and by "motivation" we mean a good dressing down). The amount of depth here is impressive--if you choose to talk to your quarterbacks, for example, you can choose to talk to either the entire group or to one particular QB. From there you can choose specific areas of focus to discuss, such as pass height, patience in the pocket, whether to focus on the number one receiver or spread the ball around, and so on. You can even tell your QB to take your advice to heart for the next play, the next drive, or the rest of the game.
This kind of coaching depth is available for every position on the field and will ensure that you will be very busy on the sidelines. Even better, as you hold these impromptu coaching sessions, your assistant coaches will take over play calling, and the game will continue progressing. You can then choose to take back the reins at any time. Another factor weighs in to the mix here: trust. How much your players trust you will determine how willing they are to follow your orders and how positively (or negatively) they respond to your motivation.
In practice, we found that the amount of time split between calling plays and coaching players on the sideline was about 70/30--depending on the results we were getting on the field. If our team was blowing it, of course, we spent a good deal more time trying to coax good performances out of them; if we had the game well in hand, it was simply a matter of calling smart plays and winding the clock down.
Head Coach will feature only one difficulty level, pitting your strategic football mind against the artificial intelligence or against a buddy online. The game will have some interaction with the next version of Madden--you'll be able to export your current Head Coach team into Madden. Certainly it would be nice to see more synergy between the two games, but perhaps that's an issue best left for future iterations of Head Coach.
By blending the in-depth details of traditional management sims with the familiar look of the Madden game engine, EA Sports is looking to craft NFL Head Coach into a management sim that is quite a bit different from the stat- and text-intensive Championship Managers of the world. The real challenge will be in delivering a game that is approachable enough for folks who have perhaps outgrown the "twitchier" aspects of Madden, while still providing NFL fanatics with an interesting--and, more importantly, authentic--twist to their favorite sport. Head Coach is due for release in June 2006.