One of the more difficult things that developers of sports games have to do is add new gameplay features every year while maintaining a balance between offense and defense. If it's easier to score goals, the goalie better be smarter, too. If a running back has some new fake-out moves, defenders will hopefully have additional tools with which to take him down.
But making simulation sports games accessible is perhaps an even tougher challenge. That's true for a number of reasons, not least of which is the inevitable grousing from hardcore fans who allege that a game is being simplified for casual players. One of the new features in Madden NFL 25 isn't getting a lot of attention, but it's important because it falls into both categories.
The first gameplay details that developer EA Tiburon released highlighted a group of improvements to the running game collectively known as "Run Free." The studio touted 30 different moves that ball carriers have this year — jukes, spins, hurdles and more — as well as the ability to chain them together in order to elude tacklers.
So if a ball carrier's arsenal is upgraded with those new tricks, what recourse do defenders have?
One of Tiburon's defensive additions in Madden 25 is a mechanic called "heat-seeker tackling." Rather than a particular new move, it's a defensive assist that's designed to get rid of some of the frustrations associated with attempting to tackle someone in the game. Almost every single football play ends with a tackle, but even though I'm a seasoned Madden veteran, I often let my AI teammates handle tackling for me.
In the heat of the moment, it can be difficult to switch to the defender who appears to be in position and then manually move him toward the ball carrier; split-second timing is required, and the combination of finger gymnastics and brainpower involved confounds many players. According to Madden 25 creative director Mike Young, heat-seeker tackling does some of the work for you.
"The heat-seeker mechanic [...] kind of helps people understand what their intent is when they're trying to make tackles, and kind of [steers] them toward the tackle," said Young in a phone interview with me last week.
If you hold down the Hit Stick, wrap tackle or defensive assist buttons, heat-seeker tackling will put the defender you're controlling on the proper angle to tackle someone. It doesn't make tackles for you, though, and defensive players with lower ratings in the awareness and agility categories will have an increased chance of being faked out by the ball carrier.
The feature is similar to the defensive assist option that Tiburon introduced a few years ago, and to the "ball hawk" defense that debuted in Madden NFL 13 last year. The ball hawk feature gave players a hand in pass coverage, allowing them to hold a button in order to attempt to make a play on the ball. According to Young, it was a controversial addition.
"It was so polarizing," said Young. "Like, the experts of the game — you know, the real competitive guys — felt like it allowed lesser players to get up to their skill level."
However, Madden has a wide audience that runs the gamut from those die-hard players all the way down to middle-aged football fans, and the largest segment of its user base falls somewhere in between. Heat-seeker, like ball hawk, is aimed at them as much as it is geared toward newbies.
"I don't want to call them casual"
"There's a whole other middle tier of people who play the game every year that love the game, and they know football, and they know Madden and they're good at Madden; they just can't compete with these top thousand guys in the world," Young explained.
"I don't want to call them 'casual,' because I think people who buy our game aren't [casual fans] — they love football, you know, they love the NFL and they're gamers," he continued. "They're not just walking off the street, first time with a video game. So I don't like calling them casuals, but they're not experts on the sticks."
For those who still scoff at such features, Tiburon will always include the option to turn them off; heat-seeker can be disabled both for offline and online games. Young explained that the studio works hard to design these kinds of tutorial mechanics so they don't automate actions, but instead, act on the player's behalf. It's a subtle but important distinction.
"I think how we approach it is, things that are almost assisting you and kind of intelligently — you know, heat-seeker kind of understands your intent of 'you're trying to tackle this guy, even though you've kind of steered him off angle' — is how to make the game more enjoyable for people, and execute on what their intent is," said Young.
Tiburon wants to "make the game more enjoyable for people, and execute on what their intent is"
In my brief hands-on time with the current-generation version of Madden 25 during a recent press event, heat-seeker worked well: I could tell I was off-course in my defensive pursuit, but using the feature put me back on track and helped me make tackles I would've otherwise missed.
The funny thing about Madden is that once you snap the ball, you can pretty much take your hands off the controller and let a play finish, and it'll mostly look like football even without your input. The key with heat-seeker is that I felt like I was still doing something, rather than just letting Tiburon's simulation play out. Sports video games are designed to make players feel like they're actively contributing to making awesome stuff happen. Heat-seeker isn't likely to be received well among hardcore Madden players, but most other players may welcome a helping hand.