The Sports Desk – EA Examines Madden Ultimate Team
The football season may be over, but Madden's Ultimate Team mode is still going strong with new solos, programs, and cards. Given that we're in the official football offseason, however, I thought now would be a good time to take a look back at how the mode fared this year. What better way to do that than talk to one of the people behind Madden Ultimate Team – producer Jake Stein.
What are some of the programs that did well this year?
It's important to outline how we define a successful program. For us, we really look at how much people are engaging with the content as well as what the community sentiment is. One that exceeded our expectations was MUT Heroes. That program is a great example of what can happen when you have time for iteration. The team spent a long time trying to develop the right theme for the program and landed on this concept of "superheroes" with "superpowers." It resulted in players being really strong in one particular rating and the art treatment for the program might still be my favorite of the year.
Another program I want to mention is with Gauntlet Unleashed. It was a great way for players to engage in Solo Challenges and get rewarded on a weekly basis. And players who engaged in that program from the beginning had a great reward waiting for them at the end. There's been a lot of positive sentiment around this program, and it's something I'm sure we'll see make a return in one form or another.
Do you think it cost too much to power players up?
Power Ups is probably the thing we hear the most feedback on this year. A lot of it is extremely valid as well. The way the content is setup does not give the players the flexibility they are used to having (between the Sets being non-repeatable and the players being Non-Auctionable/Tradable). The team has taken a long look at what it takes to improve upon the idea of powering up players. We feel like there's a path to making this successful in the future.
MUT is accessible to casual fans, hardcore solo grinders, and competitive players. Is it possible to balance MUT on the whole in order to serve these different kinds of players – as well as players who start playing at different times in the year?
This is one of the tougher challenges we face every year. What's ironic is that it can always feel like we are building the game for someone else – hardcore solo grinders could care less when we spend time developing something like Weekend League, competitive players are vocal when we have content that takes a lot of time to engage with especially if it takes playing Solo Challenges to get to the finish line, and casual fans are always trying to understand the nuances of the mode.
So what does this all mean? It means we are trying to maintain a balanced mode. Not every piece of content or feature development will be dedicated to the space that each type of player cares about the most. But just know we are doing everything we can to make sure we are serving each type of player who steps into Madden Ultimate Team.
Many fans did not like that there were so many NAT cards. Are there too many? What was the thinking behind having as many as there are?
The team decided that rewards from Solos should be NAT this year. It's something that both rewards the players and gets them engaged with new pieces of content as well as helps maintain value for players who are opening packs. Additionally, having NAT content has allowed us to offer up higher OVR rewards on a more consistent basis. With Thanksgiving you could get a 93 OVR Michael Irvin, with Snow Beasts you could choose one of four players to get to 93 OVR, with Team of the Year you could get a 94-96 OVR player for both offense and defense, and with NFL Playoffs you got to earn a Playoff Elite player from each of the 12 teams. I don't think we've been able to offer anything close to that in the past.
The other one worth calling out is MUT Master. Again, the team had some very strong feelings about only players who went on that long journey to acquire MUT Master should be the only ones who get to play with that player. We knew that would rub some players the wrong way, so we made sure to add a path that gave the players the opportunity to earn one million coins in addition to the MUT Master. And finally we added a set that let you upgrade your MUT Master and choose his chemistry which was something that was received extremely positively.
Can you talk about the decision to replace/drop some programs this year like Ghosts? Was this planned from the beginning of the season?
For your specific question about Ghosts, no it wasn't planned out at the beginning of the season. This year we took the approach of assigning a particular program to each of our content designers, and they were given the freedom to pitch whatever they wanted to the rest of the team. Designing programs in MUT is a classic Catch 22 – you'll get criticized when it's structured too similarly to the past but then you'll also take some criticism when we take some chances and it's not exactly what the players are used to.
Our two programs around Christmas personify that challenge like no other. We launched with Out of Position Players (OOP), a staple for MUT during Christmas. The initial reception from the community made it feel like there was a little bit of fatigue around that concept and wished that we did something completely different. The second half of Christmas introduced Snow Beasts, a name that is new to MUT. However, the players were exactly the same mix of current-day players and legends that would've filled the same buckets had we actually called them "Ghosts of Madden." In the end, we are going to continue finding the right balance of innovation and familiarity to MUT.
Some players have difference-making thresholds like 91 Zone Coverage defensive players. Do you mind that people have noticed the importance of these thresholds and other powerful traits? And do you mind that this has influenced the market/people's lineups in that these players are coveted?
These thresholds are definitely something that have influenced the market. As for the conversation around thresholds in general, it's something that we're continuing to discuss with the gameplay team.
How flexible were your plans for the season in terms of rolling out programs, rewards given, packs sold in the store, which players were getting cards, etc.? Did you adjust any of these variable during the season due to something unexpected happening like a player getting hot or the general flow of the mode/NFL events?
We started what I would consider a "best practice" about halfway through Madden NFL 17 and knew we would continue that into this year. At the start of every kickoff design meeting for a program, we were required to detail how this program is appealing to each type of MUT player. That exercise really helps us define the experience we want to deliver which includes rewards and packs.
As for the players part of your question, it's another really challenging part of the job. We have an idea of who might "headline" a given program, but you really can't pick a majority of the players until you're 2-3 weeks out – and believe me, even then you are going to have some last-minute changes. This challenge is the most difficult during the season when we have Team of the Week which is based off of real-world performances. The players selected in that program must 1) not have a recent release 2) meet a specific OVR range and 3) not be at a position that we just recently showcased and 4) ideally isn't somebody that we have already slotted into an upcoming program. It's definitely an inexact science.
Where there any particular player cards that were stronger/viable for longer than you anticipated?
None that I would say exceeded my expectations. I'm really proud that a lot of our "Masters" felt like Masters. Most Feared Ray Lewis and Randy Moss, Madden Blitz Night Train Lane, and Madden Harvest Barry Sanders all continue to show up in lineups that I'm playing against online.
Are there any tweaks to the auction house, reward payouts, or overall economy of the mode for next year that you're going to change due to feedback or what's happened post-release that you can talk about now?
Nothing is really being discussed with the auction house. We have floated the idea of defaulting a player's auction house value (when you go to auction it away) to the median value from the previous 24 hours. That would be a nice accessibility feature to limit the amount of scrolling players have to do for every single auction, but nothing really noteworthy beyond that.
As for reward tweaks and overall economy I'll say this – I take pride in being a group that takes feedback very seriously. You can see that with the amount of iteration we've put into Weekend League rewards this year. Every year will present a new set of challenges. We don't just take this year's game and drop into the next and optimize the things that didn't go as well as you wanted. But we can absolutely take the data and knowledge that we know and apply them to better serve the players.
Missed some of the previous Sports Desk entries? Take a look at the past installments via our Hub page by clicking on the banner below.
Have a suggestion or comment? Put it in the comments section below, send me an email, or reach me on twitter at @mattkato.
A quick rundown of some of the sports news from the week
Game Informer's Interview With UFC President Dana White About His Inclusion In UFC 3
We talked to White about his excitement about letting gamers punch him in the face.
EA Creates Info Portal For Disable Gamers
The site currently lets games know how what kind of disability features are available for Madden 18, UFC 3, and NHL 18. More games will be added over time.
New V-Rally 4 Announced
Check out a teaser trailer for the title available in September.