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Talking Virtual Football with Ben Haumiller of EA Sports

I had the opportunity to speak with Ben Haumiller of EA Sports about NCAA Football 14 and its many upgrades. How exactly do these games get developed? Can we expect big changes in future installments of the game?

Ever wonder what goes on behind the scenes of an EA Sports video game? I definitely have, especially after reviewing the latest version of NCAA Football 14. I spoke with NCAA Football 14 producer Ben Haumiller to see what exactly goes into the process of making these games.

What is your role at EA Sports?

"I do work on the creative side, kind of helping shape what we're going to do. I used to be a designer, helping with the actual feature design, but in the last couple years I've been more in helping shape the vision of what we're going to do. I do a lot of work with licensing players for Ultimate Team, working with schools for uniform updates, and stadium updates. That sort of thing. In general, just making sure that everything that we need to do for the game is being done."

Did you work with actual code? You said you worked with design, but does that include coding?

"No, I have no knowledge of working with code–I'm fare less technical than that.

How long have you been with EA Sports?

"I've actually been with EA for 13 years now. I started out in QA as a tester, then worked my way up into design and producing."

Do you play the games yourself? You probably play as Florida State, seeing as you're an FSU grad and fan.

"I play nonstop. That's the game that got me to work here. I was a huge, huge NCAA fan, so that's the game I love the most. I don't really play with FSU that much. I like to have different experiences and try it out with different teams. I'm in a dynasty with Texas Tech right now, I've done a dynasty with Michigan. I think I had one last year where I went six seasons with Akron just to see what that would be like. It's also about playing everything in the industry just to know what everyone is doing. I'm just as excited for the new Grand Theft Auto game as anyone else. Just play everything that everyone else is just so you can stay current."

Tell us a bit about the revolution of the game. Where does NCAA 14 fall in terms of the progression of this series?

"We took a huge leap forward in how the game plays, looks feels, everything. So, gameplay-wise, with the Infinity Engine, you have physics applied to the game for the first time, and that's huge for how the game plays.

"There are some changes to the option game, making the option game a lot of fun, you know, running the Oregon up-tempo offense. And not only you being able to run that effectively, but making the CPU really effective at running that as well. They can give you a challenge with the option for the first time in a long time. They can put together a good ground game on you.

"There are dynasty changes, too. You know, making recruiting more streamlined and faster to get through, all while still keeping the depth there. It makes it better for people who don't want to go as in-depth in recruiting as what the previous version was.

"There's also Ultimate Team coming in for the first time, and having access to all of these players that we signed to the NFLPA, and going out and getting other former players, too. We signed Tim Biakabutuka as a former Michigan guy that we added in and wanted to have involved. Desmod Howard is involved. Ty Law, Dhani Jones–all of these players that we wanted to go after that were college-grade, and also some guys that maybe are just campus heroes who didn't have as much of an impact in the NFL. We wanted to have a range of players to make your Ultimate Team with. Overall, just adding features and making the game feel fresh and new to the point where people think they have to pick up this year's game"

How long does it take to revamp a game? Which parts of the design take the most time? Walk us through that.

"It is a true year-round process. We just launched on July 9th and we're already talking about what we're going to add to the next game. But, because of where we're at with video games, we are still doing post-launch updates. We're still doing title updates, uniform updates, fixing server issues and everything else. Even though the game is on the shelf, it doesn't mean we're done.

"Then we look at what next year's game is going to be. We haven't gotten to the phase of the year where we announce new features of the game, but everyone knows that playoffs are coming next season. How are we going to adapt to that? How are we going to create that payoff system and work with our contacts, guys like Bill Hancock, to find out exact details that haven't been announced yet, or as they're being announced and being right there with it. Right now, we know there's four teams. We know somewhat of the structure of when those games will be played, but we still don't know the selection yet. They have't decided a lot of the intricate details yet. They'll put in stipulations, like if LSU is the number four team in a year where the Sugar Bowl has a 1-v-4 matchup, they're going to move LSU to the other game–the Rose Bowl game. Making sure that we have things like that accounted for in the game is an ongoing process. Working with conference realignments, and just making sure the game is as structurally as accurate as possible.

"Looking at this year, for example, the Power Recruiting and fundamentally changing recruiting in the game. You know, we looked at the old phone call system we had and realized that it became repetitive and stale. It was something where fans said I want to recruit, I'm just tired of doing it this way. So you take that and wonder how we can keep visits and scouting and everything else, but make it a more streamlined process. We just cut out the middle man and just let you decide how many points you want to apply to that prospect, and have the points carry over from week to week. Do more of a higher-level, I'm the head coach, I'm going to dictate how much time I want spent on each prospect, all without doing the nitty, gritty work of figuring out what the prospect likes. But, you can also dig in and get the full experience, if that's what you want to do. That's sort of the process we go through to get a whole new experience."

Which change were you most exited about? I know there's the Infinity Engine, the recruiting has been changed, but which one excited you the most?

"If you're talking a video game, you can't go long into the game without talking about the gameplay. That's the most important part of a video game. So, for me, it's the Infinity Engine and getting physics in the game. It was something where, initially, Madden shipped with the engine and was able to debut it. We had a shot at being the ones to lead with it and have the Infinity Engine it, but it wasn't ready in time for us to launch. There was about a six-week time difference between when we shut off and when Madden had to shut off, and that difference made all the difference in the world in terms of that feature being in a rough state, versus being in a final state. We kind of talked about it as a five-star prospect who came in but wasn't quite ready to play, so he had to take a redshirt season. It came in this year and took the redshirt off, and we're excited to have physics applied to game play. It makes all the difference in the world for how the game looks and feels. If you stiff-arm a guy and hit him in the shoulder, how does that affect him differently than hitting him in the face mask? Or how physics can just determine how a play should end, rather than how the game used to operate, which were kind of pre-determined animations, where you only had so many animations in your package."

We covered this a bit, but college football has moved more and more toward the spread-option. Even Michigan ran it under Rich Rodriguez for three years. How much pressure was there on EA Sports to move with the game of college football?

"I think that's something that we had definitely felt from our fans, and also internally, that we weren't doing that part of the game right. We had the plays there to run, but it took a lot of work to get them the right way. Part of it was the logic of the AI to leave a defender unblocked and have the play still have a chance of success. You had to build in the ability to leave the end unblocked, but not just always crash down. He has to keep out wide sometimes, so you have the option of what you were going to do. Then adding in changes to the blocking scheme to make sure you have the time to make that read. They'll cal out who the option guy is so you can see your keys and know who you're reading off of. Plays like the midline option, for example, you need to know before the play if you're reading the tackle or the end. VEry savvy fans might know that, but a casual fan might not. The play would get blown up and the fan thinks this game is broken and they'll never run that play again.

"There are 30 different options added this year. We changed the pitch man and his position, as it related to the quarterback. He would run behind you sometimes and end up causing a fumble, which is a frustrating experience. Getting rid of those things and making sure the option was fun to run had to be part of the game."

You know more than anyone that college football fans are diehards, and that they're very critical of these video games. How do you retrieve that criticism and use it to rebuild the game?

"It's never been easier to get your voice heard through things like Twitter and things like message boards that are dedicated to video games. Fans can tell us what they like and don't like about the game. They're very passionate about every detail that could be right or wrong. We love having that feedback and direct communication. At the same time, there are some things that might be out of our control. Maybe we can't get the rights to a fight song because the holder won't give them to us, so we get to hear the brunt of it from the fans. It could be that we just did something wrong, or just made a mistake, and we have to take it at that as well. That's a fun part, because our true fans are year-round NCAA Football players and enthusiasts, and they're never for a lack of what they think of the game. It's nice that we always have that constant line of communication."

How real do you think this series can get? How real do you think games in general can become? The new Xbox, Playstation and WiiU are all supercomputers connected to our TVs, so how real can the games become?

"I think that's something that we're all excited to find out ourselves. We're digging into the new pieces of hardware and what they can do. Right now, we're in a two-bedroom house and we've been buying furniture for this house for eight years now. The house is full. Now, we're moving into this four-bedroom house, but we still have everything that we've acquired along the way. What are we going to do with all of this new space? That's what we're excited about, the visual fidelity and seeing how much more realistic things can look. The processing power; how much faster can things be run? How much faster can decisions be made by AI? How much faster can simulations through weeks of dynasty be done? Those are all things that we're learning as we go. You see some things that are just jaw-dropping at times. I remember, back in my first year, it was the first year of the PS2. You'd look over and couldn't believe how real that looked. Now, going back, you look at it and think it's kind of cartoonish. It's funny, but that jump from PS1 to PS2 looked amazing, and now it looks so not real. So it's the same now as it was with the PS2: how much more can we do with this?"

Specifically with this series, where do you think it goes?

"The game is constantly evolving. We're coming up on college football playoffs, which is something that hasn't ever been done. I think that, from a game perspective, there's no secret in that one. Gameplay-wise, it's how much smarter you can make the players. When we announced the new engine, we talked about how it would make the artificial intelligence feel more like another real player. You can dictate an AI, but you can't ever dictate a human player. I think there are a lot of different things that will make the game feel deeper and realer than ever. That's our challenge."