Madden NFL has been undeniably stuck in a rut this generation. Since the release of the Xbox Series X/S and PS5, EA’s long-running NFL sim has consistently hovered around 65 on Metacritic. The complaints have been the same: unpolished, drab presentation, and modes that have failed to keep pace with the competition.
Many fans trace Madden’s decline back to Madden 13, which formed the basic template for the current version of the series. Others go back even further. Wherever it started, it’s hard to ignore the sense of malaise that has taken root in reviews, social media, and elsewhere. EA has protested in previous years that it’s just a vocal minority, and that the series is actually doing quite well with the average player who isn’t extremely online. This year they’re embracing it.
“As a game developer, especially on a yearly sports title, it’s not as much having thick skin as much as [needing] to have a great filter, because there’s a reason that these players are going to say whatever they’re going to say about the game, and you’ve got to figure out why,” senior producer Clint Oldenburg tells IGN. “And even if there’s a hundred words in there that don’t tell you why, there might be one or two that will tell you why, and that’s what you got to focus on so that you make sure you’re delivering the experience at its core, what those players are asking for.”
‘A little too animation-based’
Oldenburg and fellow producer Mike Mahar say they’ve gone through reviews and social media posts “line by line,” grouping together bugs and other issues and trying to sort legitimate criticism from the usual noise around annual sports games. What EA Tiburon has come up with in response to all of this criticism is to basically go back to basics. It’s not an exciting approach on the face of it, but strip away all of the usual marketing hype words like the confusingly capitalized “FieldSENSE” and you’ll find what seems like a pretty fundamental — and much-needed — rebalancing of the action on the field.
In other words, EA may finally be moving away from what has made Madden “Madden” for so long and toward something that more closely resembles actual football. At its core is a desire to move away from gameplay that’s a “little too animation-based” — that sense that you’re constantly gaming Madden’s mechanics every time you pick a play or make a throw.
“Our players have told us very strongly, their words, not ours, Madden has gotten a little bit too animation-based, meaning that they feel like they lose control at critical moments and are watching quick-time events, for lack of a better word,” Oldenburg says.
In Madden NFL parlance, that means getting away from the so-called money plays and formations that dominate YouTube every season with a system that’s “emergent, organic, and natural.” Defense has received the bulk of the improvements, with a greater focus on gang tackles, pass coverage, and quarterback containment.
“I think, from a high level, just the changes we did in deep zone and pass rush this year helps combat the problem of money plays, specifically those deep crossing routes that I already talked about. We added zone drift logic that gives our deep zoners the awareness to not continue drifting up the field if they don’t have a vertical threat so they can leverage that deep crossing route,” Oldenburg says, referring to a pattern that has been devastatingly effective for several years now due to Madden’s various defensive AI quirks.
Oldenburg also talks about fixing formations like Gun Bunch, which have been overpowered for years due to how easily they can be adjusted to open up large parts of the field, as well as the frequently overpowered QB rollouts used to extend plays.
“We think we’ve clocked that one pretty good this year,” Oldenburg says.
The feedback from the beta so far bears out the impact of these changes. If Madden 22 was akin to backyard football in how easy it was to roll out of the pocket and fling the ball to a wide open receiver breaking to the corner or the flats, then Madden 23 should prove to be a rude awakening for many players.
“I think it would be, probably, hubris of us to think that some expert level gamer in our community isn’t going to find a glitch in the matrix, so to speak, but we definitely went play-for-play, feedback-for-feedback, with all the stuff we’ve heard up to this point to try to address it,” Mahar says.
One way or another, it’s evident that most of the focus for Madden 23 is on rebalancing the gameplay this year. It’s much-needed — if the moment-to-moment gameplay isn’t fun, then it doesn’t matter how much work is put into Franchise Mode or Madden Ultimate Team.
The real test is whether EA Tiburon can put out a polished game. Madden NFL has been heavily criticized in recent years for its strange bugs and glitches, which are endlessly lampooned on social media. To that end, Oldenburg says that polish is a “top priority” in Madden 23, “especially from a gameplay perspective.”
EA Tiburon is hoping to catch bugs using something called “vision hooks,” which utilizes a mixture of bots and other technology to quickly reproduce troublesome problems. The Madden team is also allocating additional resources to fix bugs during production.
“We are very confident that our game for Madden 23 is going to be the most polished version of Madden that we’ve had in a long time,” Oldenburg says. “What I’m not going to say is it’s going to be perfect, but I am going to say that the team is still striving to reach perfection, as hard as that may be to reach. That is what our goal is. Polish is our top priority, and we know that we cannot reach our goals if our players believe that our game is a buggy experience.”
Question marks still remain
Elsewhere, Madden remains a question mark. Face of the Franchise — Madden’s tutorialized story mode — is dropping elements like its college football mode while arcade modes like The Yard are receiving only superficial upgrades, with resources instead going toward overhauling free agency in Franchise Mode.
PC players, meanwhile, continue to receive short shrift. Asked why the PC version isn’t keeping pace with the console releases, an EA spokesperson said, “We have a passionate group of players who enjoy Madden NFL on PC. It’s important to our team that the PC version of Madden becomes comparable to the current generation versions, and we’re working towards that in the future.”
When Madden 23 arrives later this month, it will be EA’s latest attempt to firmly establish the franchise on the current generation of consoles — and bring some shine back to its faded legacy as well. Fans will be able to see for themselves whether it’s successful when Madden 23 launches into early access on August 16.
Kat Bailey is a Senior News Editor at IGN as well as co-host of Nintendo Voice Chat. Have a tip? Send her a DM at @the_katbot.