clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Madden NFL ’96 - Washington Redskins player in the end zone

Filed under:

The asterisk on Madden’s annual release legacy

Back in the mid-’90s, EA bit off a bit more than it could chew

Tiburon Entertainment/Electronic Arts

Madden ’96 for PlayStation never shipped, yet it changed the history of football video games — and sports games in general — for decades in its wake.

The story starts back in 1992, when EA Canada (formerly Distinctive Software) began working on Super Nintendo versions of the NFL series. Over its first two entries — John Madden Football and John Madden Football ’93 — the studio struggled to match the quality of Blue Sky Productions’ Sega Genesis work.

EA Canada’s developers faced a coding challenge: The slower processor speed of Nintendo’s 16-bit console limited what they could do. The games hovered around 15-20 frames of animation per second, making the games feel sluggish despite looking nice in stills.

As the studio moved on to its third try, Madden NFL ’94, it seemed like the performance issues would continue.

Enter Visual Concepts, then a 6-year-old upstart known for parody fighting game ClayFighter and platformer Lester the Unlikely. The team had been working on isometric helicopter sim Desert Strike for EA, and had been getting a lot out of the SNES hardware.

As it so happened, Visual Concepts had a programmer named John Schappert, an experienced Apple IIGS coder whose skills translated well to the SNES.

“It was February-ish and I got a call,” says Schappert. “It was the [Madden] producer. He said, ‘How about I give you the source code for Madden [Super Nintendo] and see what you can do?’ ... He gave me the source code on a Thursday and the game was running about 20 frames per second. By Monday I had it running at 45 frames per second.”

EA hired Visual Concepts to make Madden ’94, while it continued funding EA Canada’s Madden ’94 as well. The publisher was hedging its bets to see which would turn out better.

“[We] got both of them to alpha and then took them to focus group testing,” says Schappert. “We did three sessions. We had 29 people try both versions of the game, and then they voted. 26 of 29 picked my version. That’s how I got into Madden.”

The final game used EA Canada’s assets and Schappert’s code.

This led to Visual Concepts taking over Madden NFL ’95 for the Super Nintendo. That went well enough that EA assigned the studio the first Madden for PlayStation, Madden NFL ’96, a deal that ended up changing the landscape of the entire genre.

“So many things happened as a result of that project,” says Michael Rubinelli, who became Madden ’96’s lead producer at Electronic Arts. “When you look at the cause and effect, the ripples of that are still felt today.”

Changing of the guard

In its early years, Visual Concepts had established a strong relationship with EA. MLBPA Baseball (SNES), NHL ’95 (SNES) and Toughman Contest all spawned from Visual Concepts/EA partnerships. With those successes, EA sought to purchase a 19 percent stake in the studio.

Before EA finalized the deal, though, three key members of Visual Concepts quit. This trio included Schappert, NHL Hockey programmer Jason Andersen and software engineer Steven Chiang. They left California and Visual Concepts, moving to Orlando to start a studio called Tiburon.

“They were just junior programmers and they weren’t getting any kind of comeuppance. They were just worker bees,” says Rubinelli.

Madden NFL ’96 for Super Nintendo cover art
Madden NFL ’96 for Super Nintendo
Electronic Arts

Conveniently for EA, Tiburon took over development of Madden ’96 on SNES, keeping its 16-bit development running smoothly. Less conveniently for EA, the split left Visual Concepts — which was now on the company’s big next-gen Madden debut — with a lack of experience.

“The irony of that situation is there were no programmers at Visual Concepts who had worked on an EA Sports game other than Jason and I,” says Schappert.

The time frame meant Madden ’96 on PlayStation began development around February/March 1995, with a planned release near Thanksgiving of the same year — a tight deadline.

During the 16-bit era, each Madden game generally required eight to nine months of development, but those were on familiar hardware, and even then, EA had some close calls.

“When we got player names into Madden ’95, we did it like literally three days before we went to Sega and set up a gold master approval,” says Rubinelli.

With the added pressures of unknown hardware and the new graphics and presentation elements, Madden ’96 on PlayStation was never going to be easy. And it turned out to be even harder than expected.

The genesis of 32-bit

With Tiburon locked into the yearly update for the aging 16-bit Genesis, Visual Concepts began to dig into the PlayStation hardware under the guidance of EA executive producer Scott Orr and Visual Concepts producer Rubinelli.

For many of its early PlayStation titles, EA ported its 3DO versions, so games like Road Rash, Shockwave Assault and Wing Commander 3 were similar across the two platforms. But though Madden appeared on 3DO, Rubinelli says porting that version wasn’t an option. “The 3DO [version] is based on Madden ’94 code and so we didn’t have trades, it didn't have a playoff system and didn’t have a bunch of stats stuff," he says. “There’s a ton of features missing. So we said, ‘We can’t just port that because when Madden ’96 on the Genesis comes out, it will blow away the PlayStation version.’”

Notes Orr from the EA perspective: “With the first PlayStation version, we were relying on a developer who had done at least one version of Madden on Super Nintendo for us. We were relying on them to be able to use certain aspects of their code base with respect to AI and so forth rather than have them port something else.”

Working on the project in the early part of 1995, Rubinelli began his days at EA in San Mateo, California, and drove 40 miles to Visual Concepts in Novato, remaining there until the early morning hours, keeping this schedule for six to seven months. “[Visual Concepts] just got an equity stake purchase by EA. They wanted to over-promise and over-deliver, [and] they couldn’t do either. They over-promised to under-deliver,” says Rubinelli.

Visual Concepts’ original plans for Madden ’96 included full TV-like production, using the added CD space to bolster Madden’s audiovisual components. Many of the video sequences starred John Madden and co-anchor Pat Summerall, performing pre- and postgame routines. According to Rubinelli, Madden remained deeply involved with the franchise, dissecting rule changes and pointing out mistakes in both offense and defense as the team went on. Madden and Summerall’s professionalism continued into the video interstitial scenes, directed and scripted by Rubinelli.

“I wrote scripts for them by watching probably 100 hours of them broadcasting. ... John took one look at the scripts that I wrote and said, ‘This is terrible. I would never say these things. Who wrote this shit?’ ... He said, ‘You give me an unlimited number of scenarios, and Pat and I will just freestyle. We’ll ad lib.’ I gave them every possible scenario and they didn’t miss a beat. It was color as only Madden can do.”

Madden NFL ’96 on PlayStation leaked build - Tampa Bay versus Washington at the line of scrimmage
An image from an early version of Madden NFL ’96 on PlayStation.
Visual Concepts/Electronic Arts via 10min Gameplay/YouTube

Yet this focus on high-end presentation also came with pressures to produce in-game visuals with the new technology, which didn’t work out as well. “We have to show unbelievable graphics, unbelievable particle effects. We have to have all of these high-res images and high-poly models,” says Rubinelli on the team’s thought process at the time.

On the upside, team members say they were impressed with the animation that came as a result of the earliest motion capture sessions for EA. Washington linebacker Ken Harvey (and others) donned tights and Velcroed plastic tracking balls to perform in front of first-generation motion capture cameras. “The amount of clean-up that had to happen per frame was a mess, but the results were these unbelievably fluid and smooth lifelike animations,” says Rubinelli.

But fitting that technology into the PlayStation, particularly at that time, is where the development bottleneck began. “The problem with the PlayStation was there wasn’t enough memory,” says Rubinelli. “It all came down to the [video RAM]. There was like 2 MB of VRAM. And the problem was that the test kit had three times the amount of VRAM [that] the final commercial unit had. You can develop on a dev kit but you’re going to have to cut out 70 percent of your information in resident memory, and that’s a lot of file swapping and juggling.”

It also didn’t help that the early PlayStation development kit paperwork was all in Japanese. “You don’t know how to do anything,” says Rubinelli, describing his team’s thoughts at the time. “It’s a real cluster, if you know what I mean.”

Years later, a playable version of Madden ’96 (in early form, according to Rubinelli) leaked onto the internet. It exhibited significant stuttering and loading between plays while the PlayStation accessed game data. Scoring a touchdown necessitated a load while a Deion Sanders-like motion-captured dance played.

“What it’s doing is swapping in and out our image files because it can’t have all those things in memory at any one point in time,” says Rubinelli.

Sony’s role

As all of this was happening, Sony was developing a PlayStation football game of its own: NFL GameDay.

“We heard about [GameDay],” says Orr. “It was no surprise.”

“We had a very cursory knowledge," says Rubinelli. “The reality is that we know that whenever a hardware company launches a new platform, first-party has to have enough software support to get people excited.”

Many of those working on Madden were more concerned with the tech support they got, though, rather than what others were doing.

“The technical support we got from Sony was not very good,” says Orr. “We found out later that Sony America actually got much better technical support for their developers than any of the third parties, including EA.”

It might seem suspicious that Sony held back critical support while simultaneously developing a Madden challenger. Orr didn’t think it was questionable, though.

“There were promises of better support, which we didn’t get until towards the end,” he says. “By that point, it was too late. It did benefit us for Madden ’97 certainly, but I don’t think it was intentional. Madden ’96 PlayStation would have helped sell the console.”

Unfortunately, with a planned late November release date looming and development struggling, Madden ’96 never had an opportunity to be a system seller. Certain members of the press didn’t think it had a chance, either.

Dead before arrival

In its October 1995 issue, Next Generation magazine ran a cover story preview on the PlayStation version of Madden ’96, giving the production a four-page spread and noting, “The question remains as to what could have been made if resources applied to making the game an immersive TV experience had been applied to gameplay.”

The article’s subhead asked, “Is this what we wanted in a football game?”

With the deadline looming, the time came to make a decision. Rubinelli felt the game had a chance, albeit a small one, if EA was willing to wait until long after the original projected Thanksgiving release date.

Next Generation magazine - cover of October 1995 issue showing #96 of the San Francisco 49ers
Next Generation magazine, October 1995
Imagine Media

“My recommendation was, the best case scenario, you de-feature it heavily, you put out something that’s respectable, and maybe, maybe you have a 30 percent chance of getting something out in April or May [of 1996]. And that was my recommendation as the producer of the product,” says Rubinelli.

It wasn’t to be. Orr says he made the final call to cancel Madden ’96. He figured that would allow the team to get a head start on the next year’s game.

“It was clear to not only to the production team, but it was also clear to other senior managers in the broader studio that it was not going to get done,” Orr says. “It was clear that it was going to miss Christmas, and if you're going to miss Christmas with football, there’s no point.”

Rubinelli and Orr differ on the timing of the cancellation. Orr recalled the decision being made sometime in August/September of 1995, just prior to the Next Generation cover story going to print. Rubinelli left EA in January 1996, and remembers development continuing as he departed.

In trying to lock down a cancellation date for this feature, we found the subsequent mention of Madden ’96 after the Next Generation cover story was in January 1996 — and that was an advertisement for the PC version. No mention of the PlayStation edition appeared between those dates, ad or otherwise.

GameFan magazine ran a preview in its own January 1996 issue, noting it was “very incomplete.” In March, Electronic Gaming Monthly ran a letter from a reader inquiring about Madden ’96 and responded, saying the game (along with NHL ’96 for PlayStation) was now canceled.

The aftermath

While Visual Concepts’ Madden ’96 was still in development, EA had already hired Tiburon to work on a college football game for the PlayStation and Sega Saturn, beginning in the fall of 1995.

“What we had running on-screen for college football looked great and they decided to turn our college football game into Madden,” says Schappert. “We had a lot of the logic done and spent the next few months making Madden NFL, and the rest is history. We worked on [Madden] from that point forward,” says Schappert.

In 1998, EA purchased Tiburon, and the studio has gone on to oversee the Madden franchise ever since. Visual Concepts produced a final game for EA, NHL ’97 for PlayStation and Saturn, before the two companies severed ties.

EA didn’t waste all of Visual Concepts’ work, though. High Score Productions, which worked on a PC version of Madden ’96 called Madden Limited Edition, used many of Visual Concepts’ graphical assets. The PC version — “made for a different consumer,” according to Orr — focused more on the strategic side of pro football compared to the console games. Pieces of Madden ’96 remained in Madden ’97 on PlayStation, as well, notably the Madden/Summerall video clips.

Sony’s own NFL GameDay series ran for 10 years until the 2005 edition, generally as an underdog competitor. “As it turned out, Madden ’97 crushed GameDay and crushed everything else,” says Orr, recalling sales figures for the first PlayStation Madden title.

As time went on, the market for other football games began to contract, succumbing to the Madden/GameDay (and later, Madden/2K) market share battle. Anomalies of the 16-bit era like Capcom’s MVP Football, Konami’s NFL Football and player-licensed outings stamped with Sterling Sharpe, Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith didn’t last. Even cult favorite Tecmo Super Bowl disappeared as the generation went forward.

Madden NFL 18 - Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints versus the Los Angeles Rams
Dropping back to pass in this year’s Madden NFL 18.
EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts

In hindsight, EA inadvertently created its biggest sports rival. As EA declined to develop for Sega’s Dreamcast over a dispute regarding royalties, Sega snagged Visual Concepts.

Together, they produced a full line of 2K-branded sports games for the Dreamcast. The partnership was led by NFL 2K (continuing on PlayStation 2, Xbox and GameCube), and created a seven-year challenger to Madden’s football throne. Although NFL 2K died after EA signed an exclusivity deal with the NFL in 2004, Visual Concepts still produces NBA 2K, to which EA’s frequently canceled NBA Live series hasn’t posed a significant challenge in years.

As for Madden ’96, Orr doesn’t place the blame on any one thing or person. “The issue with the PlayStation version was a whole combination of errors. ... In hindsight, we should have done more technical design upfront, identified any potential problems including lack of proper tools and technical documentation, and then made a decision early on. ... Rubinelli did a great job of trying to juggle all this stuff. When you’re juggling six or eight balls, I don’t care how good you are, one or two of them may hit the ground.”

Rubinelli says, “It wasn’t for lack of effort. It wasn’t for lack of intelligence. We just couldn’t get there on the product vision that we wanted to build.”

“It was the first hiccup that we had with the franchise in terms of delivery,” says Orr. “I think it bruised a lot of egos. It certainly caused a lot of consternation in terms of EA’s brand.

“We more than made up for it the following year where Madden ’97 was the number one selling product on the PlayStation of all games, not just sports.”

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Patch Notes

A weekly roundup of the best things from Polygon