Electronic Arts' hockey franchise has been steadily improving with each new installment over the years, and the upcoming NHL 2004 may be one of the most aggressive tweaks to the series yet. Developer Black Box has worked to refine the game's impressive core and then build on it with the addition of some unique features. We recently spoke with David Littman, an assistant producer on the game, to see where the franchise is headed.
GameSpot: What do you feel were the best elements of last year's NHL game?
David Littman: The best aspects of last year's game were the ability to manually deke and the overall shooter-goalie confrontation. For the first time in a hockey game, a player could manually deke the goalie and get the goalie to bite. Goalies would try desperation saves when they were down and out. This year, we have refined the manual deke and made it easier to use.
GS: Where do you think there was room for improvement? How much of an impact did this have on NHL 2004's development?
DL: Right from the start, the goal of NHL 2004 has been to get back to an authentic simulation brand of hockey that is also lots of fun to play. There were too many breakaways last year, and it felt like there was too much up-and-down play, with pinpoint passes and no time to set up plays. Some of the major improvements for 2004 are defensive AI, player awareness, and game flow. Defensemen will no longer get caught up ice. Players will be aware of loose pucks and reach to pick them up. With the new board tie-ups and a more controlled style of play, players will have time to set up plays behind the net and on the side boards. Another big improvement is the total control that the user will have this year. "Bruise control" will allow players to hit in any direction, including backward-skating hip checks. The new touch-sensitive directional passing will allow players to rim the puck around the boards and make bank passes.
GS: What modes are in this year's game?
DL: There are the exhibition, tournament, season, playoff, and dynasty modes. In addition to these are the European Elite leagues from Sweden, Finland, and Germany, and online play for the PS2 and PC.
GS: Walk us through dynasty mode.
DL: The dynasty mode in NHL 2004 will take franchise modes to a new level. Gamers become the GM of an existing NHL franchise or a created team for up to 20 seasons. Every move the GM makes earns him or her experience points. Some of these include profit margins, attendance figures, winning percentage, trades, and Stanley Cups. When 100 experience points are earned, the team owners reward the GM with more money for upgrades. All upgrades have an effect on your team. For example, upgrading your coaching staff allows players to reach their potential faster. Upgrading your team gym raises your players' strength and endurance attributes. When you play or sim a game, the upgrades will have a big effect on the outcome. All the CPU GMs will be upgrading their teams as well. The ultimate goal is to earn the highest GM score and make it into the GM Hall of Fame.
GS: How deep can you go with the dynasty mode?
DL: Well, I'll give you an example. You are a GM who wants to win right away, so you trade away some draft picks for some star players and sign some more from the free-agent pool. To free up some room, you send some of your younger players down to the minors. You now have a team filled with high-priced veteran players. There is no doubt that you start winning games right away. But, after a few games, some of those star players are a little upset that they are not on the first power play and are not getting the ice time they want, so their morale goes down and their play suffers. But, attendance is up and you make the playoffs. After the season, you are ranked as the 20th best GM in the league, because your team salary was so high that you didn't make a dime. The GMs ahead of you gain more experience and end up with more upgrades than you for the next season. To top things off, you go to the draft without your first- and second-round picks. GS: How challenging was it to create such a deep mode in addition to the main game?
DL: Our main focus was on the gameplay, but second in line was the dynasty mode. We had a hard-working group of front-end guys and gals who were committed to raising the bar for franchise modes. The main goal of this team was a deep, involving mode that was also easy to pick up and play. We wanted to make sure that the focus was on visual feedback, such as Power Play magazine headlines, a ticker complete with trade and injury updates, and a 3D GM office that you can actually upgrade.
GS: Where did you look for inspiration when developing the dynasty mode? Other sports games? Other genres?
DL: My biggest inspiration was from actually playing pro hockey for 12 years. During these years, I dealt with many GMs, signed many contracts, got traded a few times, and got sent to the minors. I wanted to play a game that had all these elements, plus some of the less obvious elements like player morale and profit margins. Another big inspiration came from RPGs. I wanted gamers to feel like they were living the game, not just playing it, and to really care how well the team played on the ice. Finally, there is also a "The Sims" element to the game, where gamers can upgrade their office and their wardrobe.
GS: Were there any memory difficulties on any of the consoles in managing the data from the mode?
DL: Our front-end crew worked really hard to include everything that was designed. In the end, we think we have accomplished everything we wanted and achieved the next level of sports gaming.
GS: Thanks for your time, David.