Spot On: Getting a grip on a game in upheaval

An NHL in turmoil means hockey developers are changing on the fly.

It's a busy time in the NHL.

Last month, the National Hockey League and the National Hockey League Players Association agreed to a collective bargaining agreement to end the year-long lockout that resulted in the cancellation of the 2004-2005 NHL season, the first such labor dispute to claim an entire season of a major pro sports league in North America. The deal included a new salary cap, a league-wide slashing of player salaries by 24 percent, and an increase in the number of players who qualify for unrestricted free agency.

The next week, the NHL announced it would be a new-look NHL taking the ice when the regular season starts October 5, unveiling a new logo and a parcel of rules changes meant to increase scoring and speed up the pace of the game. The biggest change for casual fans will no doubt be the institution of shoot-outs in order to decide games that would previously have ended in a tie. Now, everything from the size of the goalie equipment to when a team can change lines was tweaked to streamline the game.

On August 1, the league's free agency period began. With Hall of Famer-stocked clubs like Colorado and Detroit having payrolls to match and looking to get under the new salary cap, the NHL underwent a dramatic face-lift of millionaire musical chairs. The dust still hasn't settled on this period, with a number of big names currently unsigned and numerous teams still lacking a full roster of players under contract.

In the midst of all of this, 2K Games, Electronic Arts, and 989 Sports are all rapidly approaching the end of development on NHL 2K6, NHL 06, and Gretzky NHL 2006, respectively. Never an easy time in game development, the final stretch this year has been further complicated by a league undergoing unprecedented upheaval.

"I've never seen something like this where it's a race for the league to announce changes and for game developers to get them in there," said EA's producer for NHL 06, David Littman. "It was exciting because we were all waiting for what this new league was going to be and what it could become. It was exciting but it was a little bit nerve-wracking because it came down pretty close to the end."

NHL 2K6 project manager Ben Bishop and Gretzky NHL 2006 senior producer David Perkinson echoed those sentiments, but all three said they'd prepared for the inevitable turmoil with a helpful heads-up from the front office.

"We've been working closely with the NHL and also with the NHLPA and they were trying to get us info on what the rules would be," Bishop said. "Even before they made their announcement, we had a list of expected changes."

Some of the rule changes (like the omission of the two-line pass rule and shoot-outs to decide ties) were lifted from international hockey competitions, and so have been options in hockey games for years, but others (like the new trapezoid-shaped area behind the nets outside of which the goalie is not allowed to play the puck) required new graphics, artificial intelligence routines, audio commentary, penalty cutscenes, and so on.

And with the legal obligations that come with being an official license holder of the league, these developers simply had to get everything in.

"They presented us the entire package of rules changes and logo changes and schedule changes and everything else and expected us to make every single one of them…" Perkinson said. "Whether or not it was hard is sort of a moot point. We had to do it and we knew we had to do it. That's part of development. Stuff happens."

So have the rule changes intended to increase the scoring and excitement of the real game had the desired effect in the game's digital counterparts?

"It certainly has opened up the game a lot," Perkinson said of Gretzky NHL 2006. "It adds a lot, just to get the puck up the ice is so much easier now. … I think the guys are finding that they're scoring somewhat more, but it's tough to judge with testers who spend at this point probably 90 or 100 hours at the game, so they're pretty good at it anyway."

"I think we have seen [the changes working in NHL 2K6]," Bishop said. "It's a combination of a bunch of little things. We shrunk the goalie pads down a little bit and that's allowed the puck to squeeze through in certain situations. You can do longer outlet passes because you don't need to worry about the two-line pass rule. You can dump the puck in more and the goalie can't get it. Another big thing was with the nets being moved back and the blue line [moved] closer to center ice, you actually have a much larger attacking zone, more freedom to move around."

Over on NHL 06, Littman says the desired effect has been achieved, due to the gameplay changes as well as the rule changes. In addition to an added emphasis on offensive abilities and the shooter-goalie showdown of a shoot-out, the development team is trying to make goal-scoring more rewarding and less random than it was in NHL 2005. Gameplay and rule changes aside, he warns that it will be sound positional defense that wins games in NHL 06.

If players don't like the new rules adopted by the NHL, all three titles will give them the option to turn off the biggest ones, like shoot-outs and the delay of game penalty for wandering goalies. More subtle changes like the moved blue lines will not be included in the user options.

So all the new rules for how the game is played should all be incorporated into this year's titles, but it's another matter for the new rules about how the game is run.

"As far as the salary cap goes, that's such a complicated system, it was understood that there was no way we could have put something like that into franchise mode without really having to push back the ship date," Bishop said, "so that's something we're going to have to focus on for next year."

While NHL 2K6 is definitely not going to have a salary cap instituted in its franchise mode this year, all we got out of Perkinson was that specifics about Gretzky's franchise mode were not being disclosed.

Littman was similarly tight-lipped about NHL 06, saying only "we've done a few things I'm not going to mention right now." He was slightly more forthcoming when it came to the game's rosters at launch. "All I can really say right now is we're doing our best to get as many of the roster changes as we can."

With the phenomenal amount of roster turnover and unfilled teams currently in the league, the teams at 2K Games and 989 Sports passed on the idea of trying to have up-to-date rosters out of the box and went with more-stable rosters from before this whole ordeal began. All three teams are promising downloadable roster updates at launch.

Perhaps the most interesting addition to the NHL this year, the Pittsburgh Penguins' number one draft pick and 17-year-old phenom Sidney Crosby will not be in any of the current-generation hockey offerings when they hit shelves. And that's thanks to an NHLPA rule that says no player can appear in an officially licensed game until he's set foot on the ice in a regular-season NHL game. Never mind that Crosby has been anointed as the second coming of Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux; gamers will have to wait until the first roster updates after the season kicks off October 5 in order to step into his skates.

With a November release date planned for the Xbox 360 version of NHL 2K6, Bishop said there should be time to include an up-to-date roster reflecting the start of the NHL season in that game, rookies and all. And while Perkinson said the October PSP release of Gretzky NHL 06 should have rosters reflecting much of the free agency movement of the last couple of weeks, it would not include Crosby, as it would have to be significantly delayed in order to accommodate that change. The PSP version of the game does not support downloadable roster updates and does not feature a create-a-player mode.

Aside from the roster updates, another shared feature of this year's hockey offerings will be the complete and utter ignorance of the lockout. It was a shameful chapter in the league's history, a "terrible time for everyone associated with the game," in NHL commissioner Gary Bettman's own words, and these developers are in no mood to wallow in it.

"We pretty much look at it like last year didn't happen," Bishop said. "No one will have stats for last year. Tampa Bay is still the defending Cup champions, and I think that kind of stuff is mentioned in the commentary, but we don't have everybody talk about the ramifications of the lockout or anything like that. There's just kind of a gap there from last year."

"Just like the NHL, we want to move forward," Littman said. "Hockey needs to move forward. This is an exciting time for hockey, but it's also a time when anyone involved in hockey needs to look forward at what the sport could be and what it should be and the exposure it needs. And I don't think harping on the strike, the lockout, whatever anyone's calling it, is a good thing."

The NHL begins moving forward when the puck drops on the regular season with all 30 teams in action October 5. Specific release dates haven't been announced yet for NHL 2K6, NHL 06, and Gretzky NHL 2006, but you can expect all of them to arrive in September.

To discuss this news further, head on over to GameSpot Sports.

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