'Quick Hit Football': All About Strategy

When a new sports game is being developed by a company you never heard of, it's easy to shrug your shoulders and move right on back to the "Maddens" and "NBA 2Ks" of the world.

But when that new game company hires big-name designers, producers and programmers from games like "NFL 2K5," "NCAA Football," and "Madden" to work on a new PC football title, well, that completely changes everything, and any sports gamer would be doing themselves a disservice not to take notice. Especially when the game is free.

That's right, free football.

And that's exactly what you get with "Quick Hit Football," an online coaching sim that includes legends like Jimmy Johnson and Tom Landry, old-school players like Roger Craig, and even current stars like Ray Lewis and Brian Westbrook.

It's a game any Monday morning quarterback could appreciate as it's not about how fast you twitch your thumbs. "Quick Hit Football" is more about developing a team and a strategy, then taking your game plan online to match pigskin wits against some of the top football junkies on the Net.

ESPN caught up with the game's director of design, Brandon Justice (one of the architects behind classics like the "NFL 2K" series), to dig deeper into his new game.

ESPN: When people think video game football, they think "Madden." Where do you see "Quick Hit's" place in the market?

Brandon Justice: As far as the market goes, "Madden" is definitely the lead dog out there, but by that same token, I think there's a large group of core sports gamers who are looking for something else. Back in the day, when it was "2K" versus "Madden," I think both of those games did a really good job of pushing each other and trying to drive the market forward. If you look at "Madden" now, I think from both a fan's perspective and a Metacritic perspective, the market misses that competition.

For us, there's that, and then there's also that fact that console sports games have gotten extremely complicated throughout the years. Obviously, with each passing year, more layers get added, and it's to the point now where EA has to go out of their way to call out new features in their menus just to let people know what they're doing. If you're a first-time user, picking up a copy of "Madden" and playing it can be very daunting and it's difficult to compete. So for us, more than anything else, we're trying to take a different approach to what a football games means to the market. We're not trying to take "Madden" head-on. We're not trying to build another 2K football. We're trying to build something completely different for people who love the game of football and love video games but just don't feel like being up to the task of being a competitive "Madden" player. We want people to be serious about our game, but they won't need to invest the same amount of time as a competitive "Madden" player to get to that point.

"Quick Hit" wants to challenge the conventional thoughts of what video game football is. We're really looking to shake things up as our game doesn't focus on how quick you are on the sticks. Our game focuses on you as the coach, determining how you want to coach your team, what strategies you want to utilize, what type of plays you want to run, how you want to get the ball to your star players, and even who your stars will be as you spend your coaching points developing players. You have an active hand in making all this happen.

The beautiful things about our game is that it's not limited to just 32 teams. There is an unlimited number of coaches and each coach can take a completely different approach. Maybe they want two great tight ends but their wide receivers are terrible or maybe they have a great defensive line but their secondary isn't so hot — so really, every time you pop into the lobby and meet another coach on the field, it's really a lot like what real NFL coaches do as you spend the first half feeling each other out and then you spend the second half making adjustments. It's like a chess match.

ESPN: How large are the playbooks for each team?

Brandon Justice: Right now our playbook is right around 200 plays, and all of the plays both on offense and defense can be flipped. The one thing we didn't want to do out of the gate was overwhelm people with too many plays. We wanted to have an adequate balance between inside and outside runs. We've got guards pulling, traps, toss plays, sweeps, and draws. We've got a lot of deep passes, we've got a lot of quick routes, intermediates, and play action. Then on defense we have a ton of different zone defenses — Cover 2, Cover 3, Cover 4 — then we have zone blitzes, man coverage, and a variety of blitzes from all of the fronts. In the future, one of our goals is to bring in new types of plays. We're hoping to bring in these card packs where you enhance your team, so maybe we have one that lets you run the Wildcat or there's one dedicated to trick plays.

ESPN: Do playbooks differ depending on the type of team I'm building?

Brandon Justice: When we initially setup the playbooks, we made it so the plays were different depending on the type of team you had, but based on play testing, we've opened up the entire playbook now to every team. We want it to be that, no matter what type of team you're building, you still have that element of surprise. As we expand our playbook next football season, and we have 500 to 1,000 plays to choose from, we might change this back to giving you specific plays for specific types of playbooks, but for right now, we didn't want someone to be searching for a play that his buddy runs and not being able to find it. That's one of those things that could be very frustrating to a player.

ESPN: How will the real coaches and players be implemented into the game?

Brandon Justice: We have a single-player mode where you're able to play against 24 different A.I. coaches. Each one of those guys, on the hardest difficulty setting, are our legendary coaches. That includes Bill Cowher, Jimmy Johnson, Brian Billick, Tom Landry, and Dan Reeves. Each one of these guys has his own roster of players, and similar to "All-Pro Football," we've reached out to a select number of athletes to be in our game. Basically, at every single position, we're going out and finding players who add value, and basically, depending on the type of team you pick, you're going to get two of those guys, one on offense and one on defense. We have a roster generator, and roughly ten percent of those guys are legends. Guys like Too Tall Jones, Mark Duper, and Warren Moon. For your team, you're going to get two of these types of players to be your stars. But when you face the really tough teams like the Cowher team or the Reeves team, those guys have anywhere from five to ten of these stars because they are meant to be the highest level of difficulty. They even have players who were on their teams when they were coaches, so for Cowher, you're going to see guys like Greg Lloyd on his team. And since Cowher likes to run, you might also see a guy like Eric Dickerson on his team so he can better run his smash-mouth style of offense. When you play against Landry, he's out there with his Doomsday defense and he's running the Flex, so you're able to play against the same things that made them famous.

We also have five current stars — Ray Lewis, Brian Westbrook, Matt Cassel, Osi Umenyiora, and Jason Witten — and each one of these guys is featured on one of the real coach's teams. So Ray Lewis is the starting middle linebacker for Brian Billick, but these guys are not available to users. This way, it's a special occurrence when you get to play against these top stars as you're battling against the CPU.

ESPN: EA produced "NFL Head Coach" and the game pretty much flopped. What do you think differentiates "Quick Hit" from the coaching sim EA tried to produce? Is it simply a difference between a PC and a console market?

Brandon Justice: I think the problems these games have had, going all the way back to "Front Page Sports Football" and even today with "Head Coach," it's an accessibility issue. Ultimately, when you pickup these games, they rely on a high-level of football knowledge that the average football fans are just not going to have. One of the things that we've done is try to bridge that gap and avoid those pitfalls. We want you to be able to come in, and if you know a decent amount about football, if you're a casual fan, you have enough knowledge to come in and be successful with "Quick Hit." Everything we do is actually designed to help you become more and more familiar with football as you play. So as you play, you're actually learning what it means to build a solid offensive line or what the difference is between building a great defensive line as opposed to building a great secondary and how those two can work in tandem to disrupt the passing game.

What's funny is when we brought in Coach Cowher for one of the voice-over sessions, he played a game against one of our engineers, and on the last play of the game, he threw a Hail Mary and won the game. Here is a guy who was trying to talk trash with the keyboard but had to search for the keys, so he's a football guy he's not a computer guy, but he's in there jumping up and down after the win. He was able to apply his football knowledge to the game and come out with a win that he genuinely got emotional about. It's exciting for us to see, and I think people will be excited about the game we have to offer. I think we're really onto something.