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Madden NFL Social focuses on the turn-based strategy aspects of football

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it's not a pay-to-win game

For the past few years, Electronic Arts has built and managed disparate Madden experiences on iOS and Facebook. The iPad game is a touch-controlled, low-fidelity version of the console title, while the Facebook game, Madden NFL Superstars, is a fantasy football-like trading card experience that resembles the console game's Madden Ultimate Team mode.

According to Greg Rinaldi, a producer at Madden developer EA Tiburon, the company took a hard look this year at both games and asked itself, "How do players interact with their iPads and iPhones? What kind of gameplay is really gonna work for that?" The studio realized that when it comes to multiplayer games, asynchronous experiences work best on mobile devices and Facebook. So Tiburon took elements of both the iOS and Facebook Madden titles and created a new free-to-play Madden game: Madden NFL Social.

Built from the ground up to be a cross-platform title, Madden NFL Social offers a hybrid football experience that caters to different kinds of players. The Facebook version is geared toward managerial types who delight in putting together a solid squad of NFL athletes, as opposed to actually playing out the games. The iPad/iPhone version is for those who want more control over the action on the field. And both types can play together.

Rinaldi showed me Madden NFL Social running on an iPad. Games take the form of offensive shootouts — you don't play defense — with one team holding the ball and driving down the field until it scores or turns the ball over. The average drive will generate 1,500 to 2,000 coins, one of two in-game currencies. You can use on-screen joysticks and buttons, or play with one hand, employing gestures like swiping to juke.

Simplified playcalling lets users pick a run, short pass, long pass or special-teams play, but more experienced players can check out the full playbook. This is where the free-to-play aspect of Madden NFL Social starts to come in. Some plays are available from the start, but you have to pay a small amount of coins for each use of the more creative options, or pay a higher coin fee to unlock them for unlimited use. When it's not your turn to play on offense, you sit by and let your defense do its thing; setting up those defenders is the Ultimate Team aspect of the Madden NFL Social equation, and Rinaldi moved to Facebook to show it to me.

"How do players interact with their iPads and iPhones? What kind of gameplay is really gonna work for that?"

Madden NFL Social on Facebook is "more of a simulation" experience, according to Rinaldi. Games play out in the Facebook app as text updates with visual aids, similar to the interface for following along with a game on a sports website like ESPN or Yahoo Sports. The Facebook version of the game is all about building out your team's individual players so they perform better in the simulated games — the better their ratings, the lower the chances of your opponent's offensive success.

To that end, you set up a team and can then upgrade it by purchasing card packs with coins or Madden Social Cash (currency you can buy with real money). Various tiers of packs are available, with differing probabilities of snagging rare cards of NFL stars. You can also pick up new players at auction, buying the cards directly from other users. On Facebook, plays proceed as calculations based on the main players in question: An up-the-middle rush, for example, may pit your middle linebacker against the other team's halfback. If you have a better middle linebacker, there's a higher chance he'll stuff the run.

Rinaldi pointed out that Madden NFL Social doesn't fall into the dreaded "pay-to-win" class of casual games, and also that players can enjoy the experience and succeed at it without ever having to spend a dime. "The only time you might feel a need to spend money is to accelerate [the process of buying card packs]," he explained. I was also impressed by the smart interface design — Madden NFL Social lists all your ongoing games as if they were matches in Words With Friends — and the seamlessness of the games. I watched Rinaldi choose to punt on Facebook and immediately switch over to the same game on iOS, where he caught and ran back the punt.

Madden NFL Social seems like a product that EA has put not just a lot of resources into — it was developed in-house at EA Tiburon — but a lot of thought as well. According to Rinaldi, Madden NFL Social was originally supposed to launch alongside Madden NFL 13 in August, but the development team wanted to tweak it more. "We really put it through a lot of iteration," he said.

Madden NFL Social appears to be an experience that's equally suited to two different types of players, and one that's designed well to fit on both iOS and Facebook. Whether it will catch on is another question, but for once, it seems like a product that wasn't merely thrown together to rake in some cash from microtransactions.

Look for Madden NFL Social on iOS and Facebook this fall.