EA Sports' NCAA Football franchise has received a lot of criticism recently, especially with last year's NCAA Football 13, for its lackluster and stale presentation. It's a problem that EA Tiburon, the studio behind the series, is well aware of.
"That's a message that we heard loud and clear," said Ben Haumiller, a producer on NCAA Football 14, in a phone interview with Polygon last month. "There were signs of age, definitely."
Haumiller then listed tired, long-in-the-tooth pieces of previous NCAA Football titles' presentation packages, and explained that Tiburon is either modifying them or stripping them out altogether. At the top of the list is a major interface redesign. The chunky, ESPN-inspired 3D elements that sat behind the main menu are gone, because they caused sluggish performance in menu navigation — a significant problem for any game, but particularly for this series, which Haumiller described as "menu-intensive." The goal this year, he said, is to "keep things fast, keep things moving."
The pregame introduction is another presentation package that has become bloated, Haumiller acknowledged, with some sequences running as long as two minutes. Most players don't even see that stuff, he pointed out: They may watch it one or two times, but after that, they're just hammering the A button to get to the game itself. NCAA Football 14 games begin with a live look-in at other matchups with ESPN broadcaster Rece Davis, followed by a music video-like montage; the entire segment will run for no more than 40-60 seconds, said Haumiller.
"Let's hit you with the high notes and get you into the game," he added, explaining Tiburon's new philosophy. "Lean is the way to go for a lot of this stuff."
In-game vignettes had also become stale — every time you took a timeout in NCAA Football 13, you saw the same exact cutscene — so Tiburon is freshening up that video bank with hundreds of new clips, and shortening sequences that remain so there aren't "long six-, seven-second mascot dancing animations anymore," said Haumiller. The studio also put together a new halftime show featuring Davis and fellow ESPN broadcaster David Pollack; Haumiller touted their "chemistry and camaraderie."
Haumiller also promised that booth commentators Kirk Herbstreit and Brad Nessler will "really keep track of what the story of a game is" this year, honing in on key players and the arc of a drive. That focus is a luxury for Tiburon, as well as a necessary byproduct of this being a college football title. Games simulating professional sports must feature commentary that mentions athletes by name and discusses them in specific ways, like by recounting the story of their performance in a previous season. "Their star talk carries the day for them," said Haumiller.
But under the terms of its NCAA licensing agreement, Tiburon is forbidden from referring to student-athletes' names. So "we have to get creative about what we can talk about" in order to keep NCAA Football's commentary lively, Haumiller explained. Instead of specific players, Nessler and Herbstreit mostly keep their banter focused on the in-game action as well as the history of the universities involved.
"Let's hit you with the high notes and get you into the game"
Authenticity is a major focus for the NCAA Football team, as it is with any company making a simulation sports title, and a studio's job only gets tougher in that respect every year.
Haumiller took us through changes in field art (teams recently began painting their Twitter handles on the turf), uniforms (Tiburon had to develop new technology to properly render base layers) and fight songs (University of Texas, Texas A&M University, Baylor University, University of Arkansas and Texas Christian University are all back in). And we found ourselves amazed at the staggering number of organizations that Tiburon and parent company Electronic Arts have to negotiate or interact with in order to get all the minor details right.
"It's a huge process for 126 schools," said Haumiller of collecting the data necessary to build uniforms. But that's the kind of detail that can make or break the play experience for a die-hard fan of a particular school.
At the end of our conversation, Haumiller reiterated the importance of presentation, particularly as a barometer for a franchise's freshness. "It's a big year for us to change perception of a game that started to feel stale," he explained. Here's hoping the studio's efforts in this space, as well as its work on the on-field action itself, pay off.