Over the past couple of years, EA Sports has made no bones about upping its online game. In addition to introducing online team play in last year's NHL 08 and NBA Live 08 (in the latter case via a patch), the developer is branching out even further with efforts like the EA Sports World Web site (which looks to tie together EA Sports games with social networking). You can expect that trend to increase, and the next place you'll see it happen is in the upcoming NHL 09. In May, during EA's spring press event in Vancouver, developers for the annual hockey series promised a new online feature in NHL 09, one they were keeping under wraps until just the right time. Consider now the right time, as EA has finally lifted the curtain on the EA Sports Hockey League. In this exclusive chat with NHL 09 producer David Littman, we've got the first details on the EASHL.
GameSpot: Tell us about the development of the EA Sports Hockey League in NHL 09. What was the goal with the EASHL feature, and what was the toughest challenge you ran into when developing this feature?
David Littman: When we came up with this idea, it was directly related to the fact that everybody on our team at one point or another wanted to be a professional hockey player. Some did play high-level hockey, but others, who are big hockey fans, wanted to get that experience as well. So we took our online team play experience from last year and discussed taking the next logical step--a full six-on-six [game] but with an environment where everybody is a unique player in the world.
More to the point, we want to make the people sitting at home into superstars. Instead of wearing someone else's name on the back of your jersey when playing online, it is your name on the back. Your team is trying to win the EASHL Championship and you will feel the pressure to perform for your teammates. With our performance tracker feature, you are graded on how well you play hockey, not on how well you play a video game. The leaderboards show the real names of people instead of their gamertags. This is the first step for people to become the next sports superstars. In a few years, we want there to be SportsCenter-style highlights and interviews with our gamers.
The EA Sports Hockey League is an extension of both our new six-on-six online team play and our Be a Pro mode that we created this year. With the online team play portion of our game going to six-on-six this year, we really wanted to focus on the idea that it's you that is trying to be the star. To accomplish this we took what we did with the offline Be a Pro mode, where you are trying to become an NHL legend, and decided to bring that created user online so the users can have the opportunity to be the best of the best in the EA Sports Hockey League. As I mentioned earlier, we feel it is a natural and important evolution of online team play.
Each club in the EA Sports Hockey League can have up to 50 members, but all games can have two to six players per club playing in a game. Everything a club or player does will be tracked and listed on the EA Sports Hockey League leaderboards as well as your individual performance tracker screen in your game.
The toughest challenge was the technical requirements to make the six-on-six experience a good one for the user. We want it to be a fun and immersive experience for everyone playing.
GS: How will prospective EASHL players meet and join teams online?
DL: Users will have the ability to create clubs that can have up to 50 players. A team must recruit players to their teams. This will be done through three ways: Friends is obviously the easiest way, as you can call up or message a buddy to invite them to play on your team. Another way is the ability to view the EA Sports Hockey League leaderboards and see player statistics and grades and then invite players who you feel would be a good fit for your team. You can invite anybody on the list, though some players could already be on teams. The final way is to talk to people online through our lobbies and recruit players to your team.
GS: Will you be able to create EASHL leagues? How will they work? How many teams will be able to participate in an EASHL league?
DL: The feature will have one league, the EA Sports Hockey League. All teams created are part of this league. The league runs off of the ranked ladder system where the best teams will be on top, but the ladder has been separated into divisions so you can see teams that are close to your team's skill level. You can go up and down divisions based on your team's performance. Getting into the first division is a big accomplishment for a club. In terms of points, you earn more by playing with more players in a game and by beating better opponents as opposed to beating low-ranked clubs with only two users from your club participating.
GS: Will there be a free-agency pool that already-formed teams can recruit from? Will you be able to see stats from a free agent's previous games? Will free agents age or improve their attributes as they play?
DL: The free-agent pool is anybody that is not assigned to a team. These players can play ranked online team play matches with their created Be a Pro characters to accumulate statistics and grades so you can see how good they are in the EA Sports leaderboards. Players not on teams can still improve the same way as the players on a club by playing games and performing well. They will earn online hockey cards giving them points to purchase attributes for their characters.
GS: Will there be an integrated storyline in the EASHL game mode?
DL: The story we want to tell our users is that each player in the EA Sports Hockey League is striving to be the best at what they want to do, whether that means being the best goalie in the world or the best playmaker. The leaderboards aren't about how many wins and losses you have as an individual using the teams off the disc, but it's about the character that you have brought online and how good you are as an individual player in helping your club win. You are trying to become an EA Sports Hockey League legend.
Your team is also trying to win the first-ever EASHL Cup. We will have a real cup that the winning team will get to keep and prizes for the winning team and EASHL all-stars.
GS: Will you be able to play multiple seasons?
DL: There are no seasons in the EA Sports Hockey League. It is built through a leaderboard system and will have teams move up and down the rankings similar to versus gameplay online.
GS: How will teams that dissolve midseason be handled?
DL: Since there are no seasons, teams that have stopped participating for a period of time will be removed from the club rankings and removed from the server. The players on those teams will then become free agents again.
GS: Will there be a commissioner like in NCAA Football's online dynasty?
DL: EA Sports is the commissioner of the league. This league is officially sanctioned by EA, and they will be the governing body of it.
GS: How will your created player progress over time? Will his stats improve, then gradually decrease as he ages?
DL: When you first create your player, you will choose a player or goalie type. Based on this player type each player will start with a character template, which is their attribute set when going online.
There are 10 player types, each with their own template for attributes.
Forwards: dangler, grinder, playmaker, power forward, sniper
Defensemen: defensive defenseman, offensive defenseman
Goalie: stand up, hybrid, butterfly
As in our Be a Pro mode, we will have hockey cards, which a player can earn online. These cards give you points to spend on your player's growth in three areas: offense, defense, and athleticism for players and reflexes, puck control, and athleticism for goalies.
Similar to other massively multiplayer games, there will be no aging when a player earns the cards and distributes the points to his character. As you level up you will maintain those points for the rest of your online career. If a player should choose to change his player type, then the points that he has earned will be given back to the user to redistribute among the ratings.
GS: Will you be allowed to switch positions midway through your career?
DL: When creating your Be a Pro character, you will choose what your preferred position is; this will allow club GMs to know this information, but, when going into the dressing room to play, there will be times where you can't play your preferred position because someone else chose to be that position that game. Anybody can play any position, similar to playing recreation league hockey--you sometimes have to fill in at a position that you aren't used to. Versatility will be key in becoming a legend online.
GS: How will players communicate in-game? Is it just via voice chat, or are there some other graphical cues to help you discern what's going on, such as when a teammate is calling for the puck?
DL: Players can communicate in many ways within a club. There are club blogs, which lets players know the coming and goings of players, as well as a private message board for the team.
On the ice there will be full voice chat. The user is given guidance on where to be on the ice, but the decision making with the puck is up to each user, and there will not be graphical cues for users to know which teammates are calling for the puck. We didn't want to clutter the screen with a bunch of visual cues, as a user could have four different cues for calling for a pass. After playing a few games, people start to figure out quickly that dancing through a whole team is not an easy task, so teamwork becomes key.
GS: Thanks for your time, David.
Stay tuned for more on NHL 09, including an interview with Littman on GameSpot's weekly sports gaming podcast,