The Madden series is a gaming institution, and one that, like its EA Sport sibling FIFA (or EA FC as it’s now going to be known) is an imposing figure on the landscape. Madden 24 is shaping up to be a bumper year for the franchise, and part of that is how it draws on the knowledge and know-how of programmers, animators, artists… and on the game’s community.
Two sides of that community have a more-than-tangible hand in this year’s release, with Issac ‘Spade’ Etheridge, a former Madden streamer, and Kenneth ‘Bo’ Boatright of the Superbowl-winning Seattle Seahawks, helping to shape the future of Madden. We sat down with them this past week to talk over what makes this year’s edition so special.
TSA: So, what was the focus coming in this year? When you sat down and first started putting things together, what were you aiming for?
Isaac ‘Spade’ Etherbridge: User control. I think a big focus was giving as much control to players as possible. Just taking feedback too. We’ve got a very vocal player group and our players have pretty much been asking for more control over what’s happening in the game, less dice roll, fewer scenarios where they feel like they don’t have control of the outcome. That was definitely the focus from the outset.
TSA: You both come in from outside of game development, how’s that helped you?
Kenneth ‘Bo’ Boatright: It definitely gives you a different perspective, like, being on the outside, you have this sensation of “we should just get this in the game, this should be easy to get in the game.” Once you get in the house, you actually realise how much work has to be done! How much things need tuning in general, how much is in the process, and you realise how the process really works. It takes time to get things to a level that is good quality, it takes time to get bugs, it takes time to make a game.
Spade: I think it is, not necessarily just because we have a non-traditional path to game development, I think it is just something about fresh eyes. There’s so many times you can be working on something that you’re so invested in, so intertwined in it, but it’s like putting a puzzle together. I’m looking for this piece, and somebody can just walk up and be like, “It’s right there” and you’ll be like, “How did I not see that?”
Early on I felt like I was asking dumb questions and in some cases, the answer to why we couldn’t do something would just be “Oh, because this, this and this”, and [other times] they’d be like, “I mean, we could,” and so we were like we should do that. So, I think just bringing fresh eyes to the team was really valuable.
TSA: You’re representing both the NFL and the community, is there any pressure there?
Bo: I wouldn’t call it a pressure, it’s more of a privilege?
To be able to have these experiences growing up playing the game and being a big fan, and for me personally, playing the sport for a long time at a high level, and then getting to get into this game and say, “Hey, that doesn’t look like the NFL. That looks like what football looks like,” and have an effect on it? It’s been a privilege to me.
Spade: I’m gonna echo that. I was in the Game Changer program, so I really benefited from being able to have conversations with devs and just share my opinions. I didn’t get the experience that Bo had, I didn’t come in and instantly be like, “Whoa, it’s way harder than I thought!” because I had already had those conversations. And I had the devs just saying like, “Hey, man, we’ve been working on this for three years,” and I’m like, “That’s crazy! Just hit the button, just do it!” But I kinda had that insight.
But I definitely think it’s a privilege, because like I said, I played this game. I don’t play Madden simply because I work on it. When I get off work that’s what I want to play. So, when I play with my friends and my friends are like, “Come on man, this has got to be in” and I’m like, “We know, we know, we know”. I feel so valuable to be able to say as a person that plays this game, three to five days a week, the things that I don’t understand, the things that break my immersion, the things that are not fun, I have the ability to go in the office and say, “This is a priority, we need to work on this”. So, I just see it as a privilege.
TSA: Thinking about the word fun, you’ve brought the minigames back in. What was that like having something that was so personal to you?
Spade: It was great! So just a little bit of history. Last cycle, I started to work on skills trainer, which is something that we already had in the game, and I had all these questions. I was like, “I want to build like a wide receiver DB game”, and they were like, “This tool really just doesn’t support that”. So I said, “I’m still gonna try to make it” and I actually tried to make one in skills trainer, and it wasn’t great, but they were working on minigame tools. This is something they’ve been working on for a couple of years. So when the tool got implemented this year, there’s another designer on the team that was cranking them out, and I was like, “Help me get in there and learn this,” because I’ve got these ideas in my head and I want to put them out.
And – humble brag – first one I made, I sent to Bo and I said “Play this and tell me what you think,” and he was like, “You gotta give me a build!” and I was like, “No, I don’t want you to get tired of it before the game comes out!” I just wanted the feedback that it was good, and he enjoyed it, so I made another and I made another. I think at this point, I’ve got five or six minigames in that I’ve made and, yeah, it was great. I really wanted to do some of this stuff last year, we just didn’t have the tools to support him.
TSA: In terms of bringing the Sapien skeleton models and things, how much do you think that’s changed everything?
Bo: Oh, it’s dramatic. Because in reality, the Sapien is really gonna change how everything looks, how we interact with all of our animation, it’s just going to change the game. It’s going to make it look so organic, the way the players get down in their stances, the way the players’ bodies are shaped, it’s gonna give your brain visual feedback that’s so smooth. It’s gonna give you a nice quality feel that’s so nice.
Spade: I agree. I got the thing, like with your kids, where you see kids every day, and someone else seems that many kids getting so big and you’re like, “Yeah, I guess? You know, I see him every day.” When we were preparing for this event, we started grabbing AB videos from [Madden 23]. And 23 is beautiful and then we were captured and I was like, “Man, 24 makes 23 players look not so good…”
In a weird way, I don’t know if it would have been as impactful to me simply because I just consider myself the untrained eye – I see football players on the on the field and just playing football – but when I got a chance to compare it to last year’s title, I was like, “Man, this is really the jump forward.”
Bo: Strangely, it almost felt like a switch in generations. It’s that much of a change, and it was just beautiful.
TSA: And you don’t see it until you see it side by side, and it’s nuts because you see that their ankles and their backs do look weird!
Spade: We saw it wrong [in the games] for so long that it didn’t look wrong to us anymore, which is what I just said about fresh eyes. It’s like, when T is saying, ‘Look at how his feet are bent,” I’m like “Yeah, it’s just a video game!” But it doesn’t have to be this way. It can be good!
TSA: How important do you think it is now bringing PC into the fold alongside the top-flight console versions?
Spade: I think it’s very important. I like parity, especially considering, not only are we bringing PC to gen five, we brought PC to gen five in the same year that we’re introducing cross-play. I think it’s perfect. I like parity. I know we’ve got a lot of console fanboys and then the console war, but it’s about where your friends are. So if we can connect people across platforms, I think it’s great.
Bo: I think that’s exactly it. I’m just gonna say, I’m a PC player, he’s a console player…
Spade: And now we can play, so that’s perfect. Now we don’t have to talk trash about him not having [a next gen console!]
TSA: Fluidity seems really important this year for momentum and catching. How’s that affected the gameplay?
Bo: When you got a guy like Tyreke […] with his speed, he’s going to get out in front of a lot of defenders. It’s just natural and happens in the game on a Sunday all the time. What we had in last year’s game, he gets out in front, you throw that ball, and he’s got to slow down so much that the slower DB is gonna catch up to him. Now when he makes that play, I’m on the defensive side and I’ll put my controller down. I know, he’s going to get a touchdown. So it just feels more realistic. […]
Spade: I see that impact on offence, but I think for me and the way I play, it’s more impactful on defence. There’s so many times I’m playing our game, and I throw a pass and I go, “That guy shouldn’t have been able to get there.” To me I shouldn’t be able to fit that pass in there, but what’s happening in an older game, he’s finding a spot but he’s moving at a speed he should not be able to make.[…]
So it’s just respecting momentum and respecting the speed of the players. If this guy’s a slow player, we’re not going to allow this guy to move at a speed that he shouldn’t be able to move at to make a play. It’s one of those things that I think some of our players are played a game and it might not be that thing that you instantly feel, but I think our core players that play our game a lot, we’ve all had those moments, we just like, you shouldn’t have got to that. So, I think it’s gonna be very impactful.
TSA: Every year, the community talks about Franchise mode. Do you think that the changes that are coming in this year are going to placate them? Do you think there’s enough? Or do you think there’s still a long roadmap for Franchise going forward?
Spade: I think it’s never enough, but I think that’s okay. I think it’s okay for that group to have extremely high standards and to want the best, and I think it’s okay for us to constantly live on that treadmill of trying to get there. I’m 100% okay with it. I also play a lot of franchise – this past year, I had a nine-user franchise and, you know, we tried to spread it out between AFC and NFC, so we played quite a bit of user games, quite a bit of computer games, and although I enjoyed it, I even wanted for more. So, I’m really happy when I see some of these requests coming in. I’m like, “Yes, we need this!”
Have we done enough? That’s only for our players to determine, but there’s always going to be more to do and I like that. I think we should always continue to chase perfection.
TSA: I’ve loved the honesty through this morning as I ask questions and you’re upfront about what is and isn’t possible for the game this year. Having that communication is super important, and the fact you’re reading Reddit…
Spade: And sometimes it hurts! Sometimes you see things and it stings and sometimes it’s needed, you know, and it’s fair. In most cases, it’s fair. You know, sometimes you get really passionate gamers that say some mean things that go a bit far, but anybody holding us to a standard of quality? That’s fair. That’s fair seven days a week, and I can deal with it.
Bo: Especially with us being the sole owners of football games. It’s only to be expected that fans are gonna be vocal. [Madden’s] the only source they can get it from, so you’ve got to be the best source. We have to hold ourselves to that standard, take any feedback that we can, and do the best we can.
TSA: Are you guys playing as your favourite teams this year? Or do you pick the best team?
Spade: We always play as our favorite. So Bo’s a Steelers fan and I’m a Dolphins fan, and every time I win he says, “I’m playing with the Steelers!” and I say “Nobody told you to play as the Steelers”. [Laughing] I’m just so excited that the Dolphins have really loaded the team up, it’s such a fun time to be a Dolphins fan. We’ve got a lot of exciting players on the team. I really liked playing as them.
We actually recently played against each other in a build review. So, we do build reviews once a week where we bring all the designers in a room, put two people on the controllers and everyone else just calls out issues in their area of ownership. And we played against each other in that game, and one of the comments that stuck out to me was the guy said “Spade got these dolphins looking pretty fun, I might start playing as the Dolphins.’
Bo: Yeah, I play as my favourite team, through thick and thin, it’s going to be a Steelers fan. It’s fair when I feel like the matchup is bad. Yeah, it is what it is.
Spade: Because that’s his get-out-of-jail-free card!
Bo: It’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card – this is how dramatic it is. I’m such a Steelers fan, so when I went to the NFL I got a call from the Steelers to come to the team. I had to turn it down. And it hurt my heart.
Spade: You didn’t have to.
Bo: I had to. I had no choice because if I hadn’t eventually I’d have indirectly had to turn down a Super Bowl ring. So I had to, but the Steelers still have my heart, ya know? I’m from Chicago. I’m supposed to be a Bears fan! I don’t even know how I became a Steelers fan but it stuck in my blood and I can’t turn my back on them.
Spade: I’m from Atlanta and I’m a Dolphins fan! And I grew up watching Dan Marino. To me, I keep telling people the NFL was different in that time, so it was a three yards and a cloud of dust league and to see a guy, second year in the league throw for 5000, in that era, it was unheard of. To me, he did to football what Steph Curry did to basketball, and being a kid it just made me a Dan Marino fan, which made me a Dolphins fan and I have suffered ever since!
It was an absolute pleasure to talk to Spade and Bo. You’ll be able to see the fruits of their labour, and the rest of the EA Tiburon development team, when Madden 24 releases on August 18th across PS5, Xbox Series X|S and PC, and on PS4 and Xbox One.