It's in the game

Thursday, 29.08.2013 / 11:57 AM canadiens.com

MONTREAL – There’s never been an easier way to suit up and get into real game action.

To showcase some of the features of the latest incarnation of EA’s iconic game, NHL 14, producer Sean “Rammer” Ramjagsingh invited canadiens.com to swing by the office and take a test drive before the official launch on September 10. After 20 minutes of discussing the game’s new bells and whistles, Ramjagsingh instead decided to show us how much cooler NHL 14 was than any version EA has put out to date with a friendly head-to-head battle. While the gaming guru schooled us in the throwback NHL 94 version EA included in the game, the home team took the title in the present-day version – although we’re pretty sure Rammer let us win. Either way, we know exactly how we’ll be passing the time between now and the season-opening puck drop.

First things first: in the two-minute trailer for the Enforcer Engine, you show two Habs players getting pummeled. Let’s get this out in the open: are you a Bruins fan?

SEAN RAMJAGSINGH: (laughs) I’m from Vancouver so I’m definitely not a Bruins fan. I’m more a fan of players as opposed to teams.

If I own NHL 13, why should I buy NHL 14?

SR: We focus on big hits, real fights and unbelievable speed and skill. For us, what makes an authentic hockey game is the perfect balance of speed, skill and aggression. What we’ve been able to do this year is take all the technology from within EA Sports and bring that over to [the] NHL [brand]. One new big thing for us is the brand new fighting engine in the game, called the Enforcer Engine, leveraging technology from Fight Night, which is one of the best fighting engines we have in the company. It’s about being able to tell the story of why fights happen and why it’s a part of the sport. Why, when you go after a superstar, a tough guy will come in and take the fight for him and why teams have those players on their rosters. It’s also about the code of hockey. If you shoot the puck after the whistle or run the goalie, the tough guy will come after you and fight you.

We also want all of our users to be able to have success with skill moves – everyone can pull off a dangle with [Pavel] Datsyuk. Now you can see a guy coming for a big hit, press a single button and have a chance of getting around that hit. We have very easy, accessible controls this year.

Did you consult with many NHL enforcers while you were developing the game? And did you learn any tricks of the trade in the process?

SR: Over the years, we’ve talked with Darcy Hordichuk, who used to play in Vancouver, [former Bulldogs enforcer] Zack Stortini, and most recently George Parros came out and met us at E3, a big video game convention. He spent some time playing it and gave us some feedback. A lot of the details in here about the strategy of fighting and how he protects himself were incorporated into the final version.

So when people play the game, they’re getting Parros-approved trade secrets?

SR: They’re getting some of George’s tricks in the game. What he talked about specifically was when he fights a smaller guy or just a guy he feels he can dominate physically, he’ll grab him and try to rag doll him around to get him off balance before he throws his punches. When he fights a bigger, stronger guy, it’s more about protecting himself and picking his spots; tucking his chin so the other guy hits his shoulder or helmet and not his face.

Do you ever get players complaining about their ratings in the game? Do guys ever try to sweet talk you into upping their hands or strength stats?

SR: We work a lot with players and it’s safe to say that every player we’ve talked to would like to be a little bit faster, a little bit stronger on their skates and score a little more often. It’s pretty consistent. We were with all the first round draft picks at the rookie showcase a few days ago and the first thing all the kids did was go check their rating out in the game – and they’re always lobbying for a little bump here or there.

How does the dynamic rating system work?

SR: We’ll do a roster update after opening day so we can get all the rookies in there in their proper uniforms and we’ll get the lines correct based on how the coaches put them out, but this year we’re doing dynamic ratings throughout the year. We have a professional scout who does scouting for TSN and other media outlets and he helps us out throughout the year. We also have guys in Europe that do the European leagues for us.

If a player like Brendan Gallagher goes on a hot streak and scores a bunch of goals in a two-week span, we’ll raise his rating for the next few weeks until the next update comes out. If he has a bad couple of weeks, we can actually drop his rating. We factor in pretty much every stat imaginable. Guys who block shots on the ice will block shots in the game; some guys who don’t block shots in real life will get up on one foot and get out of the way.

Do players not get mad to see their in-game persona flamingo-ing instead of going down to block shots?

SR: (laughs) They know whether they block shots or not. And all they have to do to change it is block a few shots on the ice!

How does the new “Live the Life” mode compare to the “Be a Pro” mode in previous versions?

SR: We’ve had the “Be a Pro” mode in the past where it’s you trying to become a superstar in the NHL, but what we did this year was incorporate some of the off-ice elements as well. We talked to some of the young players about the pre-draft questions they were asked at the combine by GMs. Depending on how you answer those questions, teams might say you are or aren’t a good fit. That can move you up or down in the draft.

We incorporated post-game interviews where you have opportunities to either throw your teammates under the bus or navigate those questions better. We also have some interesting off-ice scenarios in there, like “You played your first game and your family is in town. You go for dinner after the game and people recognize you and ask for autographs. Do you say “No, I’m busy with my family?” Do you sign the autograph and have one autograph turn into 100?

That impacts your game-play experience because we have a fan appreciation meter to show how much fans love you, a management appreciation meter to see if you’re on the GM’s good side – doing community events gets you high management rating. If you want to be the cocky superstar guy, fans might like you but management might not like you, but they put up with you because you’re scoring goals. As soon as you stop scoring, you could find yourself heading out of town.

What’s the secret to answering the questions if a user just wants to have a nice, 10-year career in the league with no real hiccups along the way?

SR: You want to be your typical hockey player. Hockey players are fantastic to work with. Just be pretty grounded in all your responses.

It’s interesting because when I started playing the mode, the first thing I wanted to do was be that idiot guy who picks all the wrong answers just to see what happens. You want to see the story lines play out. Then I went back and chose to try it with Vancouver to progress my career for real as part of the Canucks. Right away, they start asking me about Cory Schneider and my teammates and automatically, for whatever reason, you don’t want to be that guy who throws his teammates under the bus. Your mindset around the decision-making completely changes.

Speaking of authenticity, in the “Live the Life” mode, did you make sure to make the media extra tough in Montreal? Do players have to answer 15 questions as a Hab before they can move on to the next section?

SR: (laughs) It’s not weighted differently based on the market, where in Florida you might get one question from the media versus 12 here. That’s a great idea, though – maybe we’ll add that in next year.

The Habs added some grit and toughness this summer in George Parros and Douglas Murray – have you ranked teams on overall toughness? How would the Canadiens fare after this offseason?

SR: We go player by player, so just the fact that you acquired tougher players means your team on the whole will be tougher because of it. Montreal is actually a great example of a team that has some toughness, but also some quicker, smaller guys. You get the interaction of why you have the tough guys there, to give those smaller guys more time and space. Montreal is a good prototype of the balance we were looking for with the game this year.

You focus a lot on authenticity of the experience, including the in-arena atmosphere. How many NHL rinks have you visited? How does the Bell Centre compare?

SR: The only time I’ve been to the Bell Centre was for the All-Star Game [in 2009]. It wasn’t a Boston-Montreal game, but the atmosphere at the Bell Centre was incredible. The Bell Centre is right up there as one of the top one or two arenas to watch hockey. I think I’ve been to about 12 or 13 myself, but the rest are on the list.

Can you give us any hints about what Easter Eggs we might find in this version?

SR: Not a whole lot of that happens any more in games. Because games are such big business now, the legalities and possible law suits around Easter Eggs like using marks that are trademarked are things we try to stay away from.

Why the focus on the throwback NHL 94 version you included in this game?

SR: It’s the 20th Anniversary. NHL 94 was such an iconic game for our franchise. It was the first time the NHLPA and NHL license came together. It was the first time you could play as Jeremy Roenick in a Chicago Blackhawks jersey. Fans felt like it was the first time we really represented what it was like to really play hockey and be on skates. Everyone we talked to who’s played that game has a story about it, taking it back to their parents’ basement or a buddy they used to play with, house rules, all that stuff.

In 2006, we put NHL 94 in there as a straight copy and people played it for a few minutes, but the memories associated with it were better than actually playing it. For NHL 14, we included some of the elements – the blue ice, the music, the celebration – which the Kamloops Blazers actually did for an entire season. We took some of the greatest elements of 94 and some of the features of 14 and fused them together.

Shauna Denis is a writer for canadiens.com.

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