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Ideas For The Future of NHL Video Games

Overview

With the reveal of the NHL 18 features due out at the NHL Awards in Las Vegas later tonight, it seemed as good of a time as ever to think about ways to make EA’s annual hockey release better. There are many complaints about the servers and  I will not be harping on that as mainly an offline player, it does not really pertain to me.

To me the biggest problem with the NHL series really has to do with the lack of customization and the overbearing amount of restrictions imposed by the EA Sports on their core modes, or just flat out neglect to some modes such as Be a Pro which I discuss below.

EA’s NHL series in some minds also suffers from a lack of a online franchise mode since EA took out GM Connected on Gen 4 consoles starting with NHL 15. In addition EA has also taken out the Winter Classic mode since moving onto Gen 4 consoles. The reason for both of these removals was blamed on a lack of use from the consumers.

I am not here to beat on EA, my main goal with the article in reality is to offer ideas on how to improve the franchise moving forward. I have ideas for Franchise mode particularly but I do offer ideas for other modes as well including Be a Pro, and maybe a quip or two for online features.

Offline Modes

Be a Pro

Be a Pro mode has been forgotten about since Live the Life mode was unveiled in NHL 14, EA had a great thing they could have built on but with the launch of NHL 15 being as big of a mess as it was, it seemed to be the forgotten about mode.

Be a Pro on PS4 and Xbox One has been pretty bare bones and with the release of NHL 18 it does not appear to be getting any love this year.  Rumor has it is that when the series goes to the Frostbite engine assuming that happens for NHL 19 it will most likely end up being another story mode like you have in 2k’s NBA series and what is coming to Madden.

I am fine with this, at least it is something for this mode as opposed to what has been offered thus far.

Though I would like to be able to have the ability to piss off team mates, management, and family like “Live the Life” mode that had one year to thrive before it was pulled because of development issues of NHL 15.

We will see how it plays out, but I would love to see the two combined somehow to make a story experience kind of like what SCEA did with MLB the Show ’17 but with the bars like they had in Live the Life mode.

Personally career modes isn’t my thing but MLB the Show has me coming around to them. I wish they were more like MLB the Show and not these per-scripted stories.

Franchise

Here is the mode I think I can add some ideas for, in fact I know I can.

I love GM style modes, the deeper the better for me. Franchise mode in NHL 17 was pretty decent, it still lacked some of the basic stuff, but hey that gives me a right a piece like this to begin with, right?

According to an early leak of information, NHL 18 is going to have expansion that allows the conferences to be the same size in a 32 team league when all said and done. With that said, if EA does this well this will make NHL feel different just based on its merits, that doesn’t even include the addition of the Vegas Golden Knights. Franchise mode will feel different just based on the addition of the Knights, add in expansion and Franchise mode could be interesting based on that alone.

However, what good is that if that is all that is added? Think about it. Sure expansion could be a lot of fun, and it should add depth, however, at what point does that ware off and it’s just the same game mode?

Here is how I would address that.

First of all, I would add in a trade deadline. Ever notice how the trade deadline has felt meaningless to Franchise mode since the transition to Gen 4? Like something was missing? There has not been a proper trade deadline in EA NHL since the transition from PS3/Xbox 360 to PS4/Xbox One. If you recall the main thing that used to differentiate the trade deadline was the cell phones, while it was a bit annoying at times, it was also kind of cool. Especially compared to what we have now.

I am not saying go back to the phones, but make March 1st mean something outside of another day on the calendar. If you don’t look for it, you can skip past it by mistake, it needs to feel special somehow and maybe one day they can bring back the BlackBerry phones and do something like that again. Or make a special mini game of another type.

While we are on the topic of roster building, there is another section of the game that needs help and that is scouting. Let’s consider what you get with the scouting reports, you get I believe six sections which ratings for shooting, skating, etc. and these numbers are rarely accurate at all, and even the most scouted player with a EXACT TOP 6 forward status is usually dropped down to a MED TOP 9 forward status after they are drafted at best. Scouting on NHL 17 is kind of pointless. It makes you wish there was a way to auto scout.

Speaking of scouts, what ever happened to the ability to upgrade them and your training staff? Is it not bad enough that EA took away the GM Tracker? But you can’t even upgrade scouting and your trainer anymore? That is rough.

Personally I would advocate for the opportunity to hire/fire staff including head coaches, assistant coaches, scouts and so on. Make it so that you can choose who fills those roles and their style of play or management of injuries or whatever variable might be appropriate. Of course it needs to be done with a limited budget so you can’t hire all A rated staff. That just isn’t fun.

Anyway lets get back to scouting and player development since that is in the game and it needs some work.

For scouting I suggest more accuracy for fully scouted players in the attributes page, and the EXACT TOP 6 potential should actually be EXACT TOP 6 potential, or TOP 9 or Elite, and so on. They should be pretty much spot on. I’m not saying they players should all pan out as such but the same should go the other way with players being better than they are projected to be. So in a sense, players who will be busts, and players who will surprise you with how they’ll develop.

Also for scouting I would like to see strengths and weaknesses for a player, like what they have in NBA games where they can list up to 3 strengths and 3 weaknesses, and it would have a comparable player at the top say for example Charlie McAvoy of the Boston Bruins was constantly compared to Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings.

An example of this would look something like this for a center in an upcoming draft:

Comparable Player: Patrice Bergeron

Strengths:

  • Excels at face-offs
  • Good in the defensive end
  • Exceptional Passer

Weaknesses:

  • Below average shot
  • Lacks self discipline
  • Weak for a guy his size

As you can see it can tell you some good information. I just made one up real quick but if you wanted to horse around with ideas on your own it could be pretty funny I am sure.

I just touched on player development a minute ago, however that was not my intended piece on the matter. In fact you have zero control on how players develop, how they train in the off-season or during the season. Think about it for a minute, have you ever had to stop and say “Oh wait, I have to set training exercises for my players”? No, because it doesn’t exist in the game.

For example lets use a fringe player for the Boston Bruins named Tyler Randall, as it is he is a player who I would call a grinder style player, he can hit and fight pretty well, and he has the ability to put a puck or two in the net. However in NHL 17 if I wanted him to learn to play better defense to make him a potential candidate for penalty killing, I have no way to do so on that game.

So what I would suggest to the development team is that they implement a screen where you can assign players off-season workouts, in the Tyler Randall case I would assign him to learn the defensive end of the game. This in turn should help his defensive awareness, stick checking and shot blocking rating. I am not saying that it should bring in major ratings boosts to the player, but an upgrade of a range of 1 to 5 points per off-season in those rating categories would be pretty solid if it is limited to 5 off-season sessions per player.

Maybe someone else can think of a better idea, but that is just a rough idea for mine, I think as a player of the game that the mode can be deeper. And I haven’t even really touched the fact that there is no such thing as trying to negotiate a contract during the season with an impending free agent.

Why would this matter? Let me set up a scenario for you, lets say you want to know what a player wants to make on his next contract before the next off-season so you know how much cap space you will need to sign him, on EA’s NHL game you can’t make him any offers to see what he’s looking for which in turn forces you to have to plan one way or another. You in a sense have to guess how much he will be asking for an trying to figure out how you are going to fit the player under the salary cap.

This is even tougher if it’s a player coming off of his entry level contract and he’s a star player, you will probably have to make a sizable offer to the player. The good news in all of this is the fact that if you know the player is coming up you can kind of plan for it the prior off-season with the moves you make in free agency, for example instead of offering a long four-year deal you may want to offer just a high priced one-year deal for the same player, particularly if he is an older player as it is.

One thing that would absolutely effect Franchise mode is if EA took the bold step of putting in No Trade and No Movement clauses which I will refer to as NTC and NMC for the rest of the article to save a few minutes. The thing that NTC and NMC would do for the game is make trading for high draft choices using older players because the players on NTC and NMC clauses have them for a reason, they want to stay in the city they play for and if not they want to play for a contender if they are traded. So your team will not be getting a ton of draft picks for the player you traded, or if you do they are most likely not going to be lottery picks.

Adding all or some of these ideas would add a great deal of depth to the mode, and if they bring back GM Tracker on top of it all and they would have a really deep mode without any cut scenes or overbearing amounts of interruptions to the mode itself, the mode is slow enough with the menus and numerous amounts of injuries.

Online Ideas:

I put this as a general topic because I do not have many ideas for online play or modes outside of a couple and I am sure they have been echoed before but it needs to be in here too because this is a list of how to improve the games modes and game play. To me the biggest issue has always been match making and having a good 5-10 minute wait to get into a game. It becomes annoying, especially when you are just playing a “quick” drop in game in EASHL.

One feature I touched on briefly in the beginning and want to get into again is GM Connected, as I said in the beginning it was stripped out of the game because it wasn’t getting used. As much as EA tried to pass blame off to the players for the game modes ultimate demise it was a mode that had potential to be great but EA did not follow through with it like it needed to. The idea for the mode was ambitious and EA I think underestimated how ambitious it truly was and I think the idea and the execution was too far off. The menus were slow, the auto drafting was a deterrent to some and it took forever to simulate games.

EA had a great idea for GM Connected, but it needs to be more simplified, instead of having up to 750 players in a single league or whatever it was, EA needs to bring it back on a smaller scale I think and that means one GM per team. The whole online co-op idea was way too ambitious for such a small team of developers and for a game that unfortunately has a history of lousy servers.

Speaking of servers, if EA can ever figure out how to get the servers for NHL to be stable it will have itself a winning platform I think. Assuming the game play itself doesn’t get worse.

Game Play

Speaking of game play I think it’s a good time to get to that most important aspect of the game itself, the actual playing of the game. To me the game play is pretty decent, not perfect but for the most part as an offline player with sliders the game plays pretty well.

But there is one element of game play that has routinely been a burden on fans of the series. Goalies. The goalies have for years been pretty bad in EA’s NHL game, some of the decisions are questionable, and just basic fundamentals are sometimes lacking. The biggest issues are sometimes the positioning and my main gripe no matter what sliders I use is rebound control, if there is a rebound there is hardly any chance for the goalie to make the second save that may be required. The same goes for a blocked shot against the CPU, if they get to that rebound it almost always ends up in the back of the net no matter what the circumstances are. It is kind of sad really that you get disciplined for playing defense on this game from time to time.

Speaking of defense, I think the CPU defense (this is important for online players as well) is too loose, they don’t pressure as much as they probably should which ultimately leads to more scoring, or at least better scoring chances.

So in a nutshell that was my long way of saying that game play is sometimes ruined by suspect defense and goalies that sometimes make you scratch your head with the decisions the AI makes with angles and so on.

I think overall the game, which certain sliders plays pretty well, but the difficulty online will never be what it can be offline because EA seems to want to appeal to both the hardcore fan base, and the casual fan base all in one, which ultimately makes the game too easy online.

Conclusion

I will end with this, while EA has a pretty solid game, it can be better. I hope even if you disagree with part of this piece that it can ultimately be a good conversational piece to get a real discussion going moving forward and hopefully it can be used by EA itself to hopefully move the series in the direction it needs to go.

I love the series and have been playing it pretty much exclusively since NHL 07 even when EA had competition against 2k with their NHL 2k series. As a hockey fan I want the game to be as deep and as good as it can be to represent the real NHL while still being fun for both new and old players of the series.

Please feel free to share and open up a discussion in the comments or invite me to a community and I will be more than happy to engage with the readers as much as I can.