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NCAA Football 14 looks to catch up to Madden, but remain faithful to the college game

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Every year, the designers of the NCAA Football franchise at EA Tiburon set out to make a game that simulates football — just like its more popular older brother, the Madden NFL series — except they have to differentiate their game by ensuring that it plays like college football instead of pro football.

Part of that differentiation is, in a sense, forced on the NCAA Football developers. These days, publisher Electronic Arts launches Madden seven weeks after it releases NCAA Football — the college football title typically comes out in early July, while Madden launches at the end of August. While the games are developed on an annual cycle that means Madden doesn't get extra development time, per se, innovations often come to Madden first.

We don't know yet what the Madden team has in store for Madden NFL 25, but this year's entry in the NCAA Football series, NCAA Football 14, is catching up in a few key respects when it comes to gameplay.

EA Tiburon debuted the Infinity Engine, a real-time physics engine, in Madden NFL 13 last year. Officials at the studio said last spring that they made the decision to implement the Infinity Engine relatively late in the game's development cycle — too late for the developers to have it ready for integration in NCAA Football 13. The engine was a major part of why Madden 13 made a bigger leap over its predecessor than any other game in the series' recent history, but it was not without its glitches.

"It was a great first effort, but it was far from perfect," said Ben Haumiller, a producer on NCAA Football 14, in a phone interview with Polygon last month.

"The gameplay team has been working all year long, right up from where they left off last year [with Madden]," he continued, saying that the developers are aiming to deliver "a more mature version of physics" in NCAA Football and Madden this year. In fact, said Haumiller, the same version of the Infinity Engine will appear in both NCAA 14 and Madden 25.

A major part of that entails "cleaning up some of the issues" seen in Madden 13, such as the occasionally laughable difficulties that in-game players had in disentangling themselves from a pileup. Tiburon has also worked on a more frustrating issue: that of running backs dashing headlong into the backs of their own offensive linemen and falling down in the backfield. The developers are implementing a new feature called "ball carrier avoidance," a term for smarter halfback AI that will give running backs the intelligence to put their hands out to push off linemen and find holes in the line. "That stuff just happens automatically" in football, Haumiller pointed out.

Physics-based improvements also manifest in other parts of the running game in NCAA 14. Ball carrier moves like stiff arms, which Haumiller described as "an arm just shooting out of a guy" in previous games, will now follow the laws of physics thanks to Tiburon's new Force Impact system.

Stiff arms, for example, will be targeted toward specific regions of a defender's body, like the face or shoulders, and "the defender will respond in kind to that," with the ball carrier's arm "making contact and following through all the way to the ground," said Haumiller. As you see in the screenshot above, players attempting to hurdle over defenders can now get caught in mid-air, and will tumble through the air realistically.

The physics engine also gives players momentum — movement will look more realistic, since players will have to plant their feet in order to make a cut. They'll decelerate properly as they change direction, and the sprint is gone this year in favor of a speed burst that's useful for accelerating out of a cut. Ball carriers who have been tripped up can attempt to recover their balance or lunge forward for a few yards with a flick of the right stick.

ball carrier moves will now follow the laws of physics

Blocking, a perennial trouble area for football titles, is another important area of focus for Tiburon this year, according to Haumiller. The team has updated the logic for block targeting, so linemen hopefully won't prematurely drop their blocks or blow seemingly obvious defensive assignments. And since bubble screens and the spread option are major elements of the college game, the NCAA 14 developers have paid special attention to screen plays to try to ensure that linemen will maintain blocks downfield until the ball is released.

The running game isn't the only part of NCAA 14's gameplay that's being worked on. Tiburon is implementing a feature it calls "real AI," which Haumiller said comes from EA Canada's FIFA Soccer and NHL franchises. It plays out as "teaching the AI how to run the option the right way through repetition," said Haumiller, explaining that the CPU will learn to run and mix up plays "like a human does." The computer will also be much better at running the ball and defending against your running game, according to Haumiller.

The presence of the Infinity Engine alone will likely be enough to make NCAA Football 14 a marked improvement over NCAA 13, at least on the field. But the key is whether Tiburon's college-specific tweaks will result in a game that plays substantially differently from Madden, an experience that's unique to the college game.

NCAA Football 14 will launch July 9 on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. For more on how NCAA Football is designed differently from Madden, check out our full interview with Haumiller and designer Larry Richart.

Update: EA has released the first footage of NCAA Football 14. Check it out below.

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