The very first edition of EA Sports’ “Madden NFL” video game franchise came out in 1988. Back then it was called “John Madden Football.” I was 12 years old, and my parents wouldn’t let me have a video game console; they thought it would rot my brain. So I didn’t start doodling with the game until college, and then I pretty much never stopped. I can say with 100 percent certainty that I have seen more Madden games start to finish than I have actual NFL games. After all, when an NFL game is over, you can’t just push a button and start another one.
I’ve bought every new version of Madden each year since probably 1996, a brand loyalty I haven’t shown to any other corporations besides the St. Louis Cardinals, the University of Illinois and Cuervo 1800 tequila. The thing is, though: I don’t think I’ve actually played it in about eight years.
The video game industry is like any other: It must evolve and grow to survive. The issue with the Madden franchise, the challenge its developers face every year, is how to keep the game relevant and updated without losing what players love about the game. (Among hard-core gamers, Madden has long been considered a silly franchise for video game tourists, the equivalent of going to France and eating at McDonald’s.) The game has become more realistic in recent years, more life-like -- my wife often can’t determine, when Madden is on in our apartment, whether I’m watching a real game or not -- more involved and, mostly, more complicated. I was raised in a video game world in which you had three, four, five, maybe six buttons to push. Today’s Madden is so difficult for me that I can’t even figure out if I’m holding the control upside down or not. (Seriously, look at the controls, as listed in the “Madden Manual.” That looks like something out of NASA, or maybe one of the ships in “Prometheus.”)
Yes, I know: old guy being old. I’m fully aware. The game itself has passed me by. But I still buy the game every year.
The appeal of Madden, to me, has always resided more in its realism, its simulation abilities, than actually playing the game itself. I’m from a “Strat-O-Matic,” “WhatIfSports,” “SimLeague” nerd world; I trust myself a lot more in the realm of roster construction than in the realm of play. (As Neal Pollack memorably put it in Slate a few years ago: “ … the interface between consumer and sports has changed. When sports-loving kids stare wistfully into the distance now, they're not daydreaming about being like Mike or coming to the plate in the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded. No, they're dreaming about pulling off a deadline trade or finding a ‘sleeper’ in the low rounds of the draft.”)
I want to make a team and watch it play; I want to be the architect, not the guy with the jackhammer. I don’t trust myself playing these games -- that introduces too much of the human element. Humans just get in the way.
So I don’t play them. Every August, when the game comes out, I pick my Arizona Cardinals in franchise mode, sign their draft picks, set their depth chart and then begin watching their season, CPU vs. CPU style. I don’t play as the Cardinals. I want to see what happens, in a theoretical universe, before the real world gets in the way. I want to, in the purest sense, simulate. I do the same thing with those other Cardinals in “MLB The Show,” the Illini in “NCAA Football 13,” and the United States in “FIFA World Cup.” It helps me learn opposing players, team tendencies, ideal depth charts and, yeah, how a certain season will play out, schedule-wise, before it actually happens, without my clumsy thumbs getting in the way.
This is an incredibly dorky way to immerse one’s self in a video game, I grant you, but that’s how I do it. A friend of mine calls it “watching your video game play itself.” Perhaps it’s not the most productive way for a grown man to spend his free time, but hey, we all stay young in whichever way we can. (And it was a relief recently to discover I’m not the only dork who does this.)
But this is not how video games are mostly played, and this is not how video games make their money. So I probably shouldn’t have been surprised to discover, after I opened my copy of “Madden 13,” that this CPU vs. CPU functionality had been eliminated. The new Madden has something called “Connected Careers” mode, which allows you either to create your own character -- my go-to is a 7-foot-3, 450-pound kicker with an afro named Will Leitch -- or create your own coach, and then lead their careers. This is a fun idea, basically role-playing combined with football. But I can no longer simulate the regular season. This game is officially no longer for me.
I asked Josh Looman, creative developer of the new Connected Careers function for “Madden 2013,” why they made the decision to cut that mode, which has been standard issue on sports video games since the very beginning.
“We didn’t make a concerted effort to remove this functionality; it’s just a byproduct of the new mode and playing the game from the perspective of one character,” he said, probably making fun of me when I wasn’t looking. “With the emphasis now being focused on improving your character, building a legacy and making it to the Hall of Fame, it seemed disconnected to also allow you to control teams that had nothing to do with your character. It wasn’t eliminated in the sense that we went into designing Connected Careers with the intention to cut a feature.”
In other words: Most people actually want to play these games, nerd.
This still seems like a shame. There’s something nice about a theoretical universe -- it is, after all, why ESPN is always running Madden simulation features before big games. (Well, and because they have a financial deal with Madden. That probably has something to do with it, too.)
Now, it appears that the CPU vs. CPU feature will only be cut from this particular game. Owen Good, a sports video game writer for Kotaku, assured me: “I don't think all sports simulation games will follow that lead unless they unify their single player (Superstar) and team (Franchise) modes the way Madden did. I'm convinced it was a technical decision and one probably based on telemetry.” This made me feel better, even though I have no idea what “telemetry” means.
It’s inevitable that as video games keep evolving, they will soon become unplayable to those that initially loved them. Eventually we get caught up in the real world of bills and mortgages and jobs, and we can’t just push reset and play another game. Everything evolves and leaves someone behind.
I don’t recognize my old video game anymore. But this says more about me than it does about Madden.
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Sometimes I wish my keyboard had a Turbo button. Thoughts, concerns, grousing, future column ideas? Remember, this column is meant as a valve, a release, for when you’re yelling at your television during games, or, after reading a particular column, you’re pounding your fists into your computer. Obviously, I’ll need your help to do that. Anything you want me to write about, let me know, through email, or Twitter. I am at your beck and call.