Cut day. Watch a show like "Hard Knocks," and it's the most nerve-racking period in a player's career. With one decision, some kid who has been dominating the gridiron at every level he has ever known finds out whether he's cashing in all his hard work with the NFL or left contemplating life outside the lines and working 9 to 5 like the rest of us. And while cut days are circled on the calendars of every player, coach and hard-core fan, it's one of those moments that gets lost in translation when it comes to NFL video games. I know when I start a franchise in "Madden," most times I simulate right through the preseason because the games really don't matter, and as long as all of my stars remain healthy I can care less about what happens before the season starts because the roster is already set.
But that all changes with "Madden NFL 12." For the first time in franchise history, the game designers have actually increased the roster size to 75 players per team. The ratings for all rookies are locked heading into preseason and every week. A few of the ratings for each rookie are revealed as you play them in preseason and decide whether it's worth it to keep a roster spot open for a hard-charging, late-round pick who might impress on special teams or cut him in favor of an aging veteran who might still have one good season left in the tank.
Keep the rookie and at the end of preseason you'll unlock all of the player's ratings, giving you a good indication of the final numbers if you've found your own potential Tom Brady-like diamond in a draft full of Spergon Wynn-type rough.
"In the past, we had issues with memory in the game and we could only allow 55 players per team," "Madden 12's" senior designer Josh Looman explained. "This limitation gave us problems with injured reserve and didn't enable us to give people roster downloads that were accurate. So we knew that it was imperative that we fixed that, and now our shipped rosters and our roster updates will be expanded.
"But the trick is, as you progress through preseason, now you're forced to make decisions on who to keep. Week 1 you only need to cut five players, but toward the last week you need to cut eight people off your roster, and when it comes down to making that final cut it's a decision that affects your team the rest of the season."
And while expanded rosters definitely change the way you play franchise, it's just one of several huge enhancements made to boost what was fast becoming an otherwise stale feature. I had the chance to sit down with Looman last week to get his thoughts on the biggest franchise game-changers in "Madden 12." Here's what the man behind the mode had to say.
1. Bidding for free agents
Think "NFL Head Coach" with this new feature, as gamers will now enter into a bidding war for players eBay-style, highlighting the players they want and hitting "A" to increase the bid. When all the bidding is over, you sign the player to a contract. "We've added some contracts we've never had before," Looman said. "You can now pick back-loaded contracts or contracts that are pretty flat across the board. This system is so much better in my opinion because the bidding goes by quick and you tend to overpay for guys you really need, just like in real life. It's not like the old days where you had to simulate through 35 days of free agency. Now you're in and out quick in a much more interactive and fun environment."
2. Know your role
From "Fumble Prone" to "Shutdown Corner," football fans can look at any player on the field and sum him up in a couple of words. Old school "Madden" included these player-role attributes, but the feature was inexplicably removed from the game in recent years. "Madden 12" adds these player roles back into the mix to help gamers determine exactly the type of team they are putting out on the field. "Whenever we had a play test with our community, player roles was the one of the most requested features they wanted to see back in the game," Looman said. "No matter what event I was at, at least one guy would pull me aside and say: 'Dude, when are you bringing player roles back.'
"The neat thing is, we not only brought them back, we made them more usable. Now you can pull up a screen and read about every player role that a guy at a certain position can earn, and it explains how they can be earned and lost and what impact they have on the game. Most of these roles do have in-game impact."
New roles include "Playoff Performer" for guys such as Brady, who will now actually play better in the playoffs than he does during the regular season.
Player roles are also now worked into team logic, in which a team with a player marked as "Quarterback of the Future" won't go into the draft and select a quarterback in the first round. It will actually try to build around its young leader. This is also where the role of "Mentor" comes into play. If you keep a veteran "Mentor" on your roster, he'll actually help make the younger players better.
3. Dynamic player performance
As an obsessive franchise gamer, one thing that always bugged me about the mode was that week to week I could make even the most erratic quarterback play consistently good just by my skills on the stick. If a guy was an 86 overall, that's what he was and that's what he played like all season no matter how inconsistent he was in real life. "This is a huge feature this year, as it actually evaluates how a player has been playing each week, taking into account their consistency ratings and their confidence, then it modifies each player's ratings slightly every week before you head into your next game," Looman explained. "Consistency is huge this year in 'Madden,' when it comes to franchise, because if you have a really inconsistent quarterback like Jay Cutler, each week you never know what you're going to get from him, and a lot of it has to do with his confidence. So you might go into a game where Cutler is an 85 overall, you might go into a game where he's a 75 overall or you could go into a game where he's a 90. This really captures the any given Sunday aspect of the NFL. It's no longer a case of every week in franchise, your players all have the same ratings and it never changes. This gives you a fluctuation of ratings with guys getting on hot streaks and cold streaks and really gives you the feeling of everybody being a little different every week. So now if your star player has a good or bad game, it's finally going to translate into next week."
4. Time for change
Ever started a franchise only to find in Year 4 that you wish you would've picked a different team? In the past, that meant deleting your current save file and starting fresh. But in "Madden 12" gamers are finally given the opportunity to change the team they are controlling. "This might not be a major feature, but we have a lot of little things, like the ability to change teams, being able to edit player ratings in franchise, being able to practice in franchise -- these are all just little things that make the mode easier to use," Looman said. "This applies to people who might start the mode with a team like the Patriots, but then they find out that it's a little too easy playing through with such a good team, so then they switch to the Lions and see what it's like to build them up without getting rid of all of the rookies who have already been drafted. We also give you the ability to control all of the teams if you want. It's totally up to you."
5. Future draft picks
One of the biggest disappointments in "Madden" every year is the draft. I love the NFL draft in real life for all of its intrigue and crazy trades. But in "Madden" it's one of the most boring moments in the game. This year, expect that to change because you can finally package future picks in a trade to get the player you're after, meaning there will be a lot more wheeling and dealing at the virtual draft. Combine that with the need to actually scout players at the combine, pro day, and individual workouts to see some of their potential (as opposed to last year, in which the game just gave you a potential rating with no effort) and you'll have a draft that's a lot more challenging and interactive than years past.
Adds Looman: "Now if I'm sitting at 17 but there's nobody that I like, I can trade down and try to build towards a bigger future next year. The addition of future draft picks allows you to play the draft the way you like. You can try and mortgage the future on that one player you know is your future star, or you can trade back and stockpile picks in order to build out your team."
6. All the small things (that aren't so small)
"Madden 12" is the biggest upgrade made to franchise mode since the feature was first introduced. But it's not just expanded rosters and dynamic player performance that gamers will notice. In fact, there are a number of little touches made to the game that really impact the overall value of the mode. Some of these include retuned simulation stats (why are there so many safeties in simulations?); 30 new draft classes including realistic player profiles such as scrambling quarterback to help identify players who fit in various team schemes; progression tuning; and even all-new team re-sign logic in which teams will cut players who aren't performing and address the position need in free agency or the draft.
"We've even added in logic to make every team feel more realistic," Looman said. "If you're watching the draft and the Raiders are on the clock and they are picking between a receiver with good hands or a burner, they'll always pick the speed guy. We've just added so much more authenticity into every little bit we could, I think people are really going to be amazed how realistic the mode has gotten, right down to the way the Raiders draft."