An interview with NCAA Football 10 designer Ben Haumiller

Last week I had the opportunity to chat with NCAA Football 10 designer Ben Haumiller. What follows is a condensed and edited version of our discussion.

Cornfed Gamer – You only have one year between releases of NCAA, how do you balance the time between adding new features and improving the core, on the field experience?

Ben Haumiller – That’s a fun part about it, is that we do have such a tight time line every year that there really is no down time. We don’t ship for six days and I’m already working fully on next year’s title.

You’re constantly thinking about what you’re going to be doing next and always working within the budget you have for that year with what you can get in.

A lot of that comes from talking to the community members and seeing what the fans of our game really want to see added. So we put a lot of stock into what they want to see.

CFG – I imagine some ideas you have to cut, or wait and it takes two years to implement?

BH – That’s always the toughest part is seeing something that you really want to see in the game not make it in just because you don’t have the time to do it. A lot of times you try to work it in gradually, where it might be a two-year feature to get the full scope of what you want to see. You get elements of it one year, and go for it full bore the next year.

But there are some things that wind up getting cut that just breaks your heart. You get so attached to some of these features but it comes down to a balance of what’s good for the whole of the game, not just those singular parts. So something might get cut that you’re attached to, but it’s for the better of the whole game.

CFG – Give me an example of a feature that you were a big fan of that got cut in the past, or even in this year’s release?

BH – One example would be dynasty mode priority score updates, like you see on ESPN. Where, during the course of the game you’re getting updates on other games that are happening around the nation to make you feel like you’re in a full environment. Like you’re actually there in the middle of a Saturday afternoon.

But for technical reasons it has always been difficult to get those in the right way, especially when also trying to include scores from online games of other friends and online dynasty.

That’s one thing we would like to have. It would be nice point and we’re working to try and get it but we haven’t quite got there yet. Other things pop up that lower that on the priority list of what we’re doing.

CFG – How you guys decide to allocate rankings and skill points to the different schools and players?

BH – Team ratings, that’s all done by a committee of us on the NCAA team. We all get together and have a roundtable discussion to come up with our top 25 rankings for each year.

In the past couple years we’ve had roughly 18 of the top 25 schools within one spot of where they wound up in the real life preseason rankings. We do our list back in February, before a lot of the spring practice happens. We’re taking a lot of stabs in the dark at what we think schools are going to look like and how the top 25 is going to shape up based on what we know at that time.

As for the rosters, that’s something we really try to do based on the team and what you’re expecting when you’re playing as that team. If you’re playing as USC, for example, and they have a team that’s built around running the wishbone, that’s not going to make much sense. When you’re playing as USC you’re expecting to have a team that’s built with a pro-style offense. If you’re looking to play as Alabama, you’re looking to have a stud receiver to throw to at all times.

That’s how we build our roster. We don’t have the real players in the game,  so we can’t actually create the teams based on the real life players. But we’re building them based on the themes for those teams.

Another example from the Big XII is Texas Tech. If they’re not throwing on every down and they don’t have the players to be able to run that offense then it’s going to seem a little strange to you when you’re playing the game. So we’re trying to keep them as true to their real-life identity as possible even though we don’t actually have the real players in the game.

CFG – There’s so much focus on downloadable content and digital distribution nowadays, have you guys ever thought about releasing a core game every three or four years and providing downloadable roster and schedule updates every year?

BH – There are discussions always happening on what’s the best model and how we want to get the product out. We’ve discussed a lot of different options and that one is something that has been mentioned as well.

Those decisions are made well above my position. I’ve just got to work with whatever decision we go with. But yeah, you’ll see a lot of change into digital distribution and getting content out that way. We’re not planning on doing it next year or the year after, but who knows what happens in the future.

CFG – How do you decide what new features from past games get to stick around in the next iteration and what kind of things get left behind and why?

BH – When we moved to the next generation, that first year it was really about getting a game up and running. We weren’t sure what full game experience we would have. We were trying to grab everything we could from the older version and get it in, but it became a point of, OK, we could take all these features, but there are certain things we wanted to really redefine how they work and really do them the right way. Not just port over what we had before and keep going.

With dynasty sanctions, for example, where you get players that get into trouble and you can choose to discipline them, or not, and you might end up running into the heat of the NCAA. That was something where we had a system that works well on the PS2 version, and it was a fine system, but we really want to, at some point, go back and readdress how that works and really upgrade the system and make it a much better and more fun experience.

So the decision was made for some of the features, to leave them out right now with the plan of going back and make them larger and better. So you’re seeing things come back along the way.

CFG – You guys do both Madden and NCAA Football, and a lot of the gameplay is similar. How is the focus of NCAA different from that of Madden, or what different considerations do you take as a team when focusing on the college sport compared to the professional sport?

We have two separate teams that work on each title. The guys that work on NCAA with me, we’re all very huge college football fanatics. I mean, I try to make it to at least 10 to 15 college football games a year all across the country just to see different places I’ve never been before and check out some great games along the way. I haven’t had a chance to make it out to the Sea of Red yet but it is definitely on my list.

We feel our games are best when they are as different from each other as possible. There are things that are very similar, and a lot of our gameplay stuff is shared. Our gameplay team does work on both titles because when it comes down to it, a halfback dive is a halfback dive. There’s really not much difference with the way its run in the pros versus in college.

But where we get really specific is in our playbooks. The Wildcat is now becoming a phenomom in the NFL right now, but we’ve had it in NCAA since Arkansas was running it a few years ago.

CFG – How often do you get Lee Corso and the gang together to record new audio for NCAA?

BH – We bring them in every year to record new content. We try to throw away the lines that are considered to repetitive, or have been there for a few years, and try to freshen them up. One thing we did this year with Brad Nessler is you were able to go online and actually enter in the phonetic spelling of your last name. So he read a bunch of, thousands of, user submitted last names, so when they went in and actually edit rosters or create players and put their own last name in, they’ll actually hear Brad Nessler say it for the first time.

We have a lot of scripted commentary we try to have them read for certain situations, but a lot of fun is when we have them come in and just watch the game being played and react and talk about what they’re seeing. We get a lot of great content and a lot of great commentary just from letting them do that, for letting them be themselves. I mean they call games for a living, so letting them just do the commentary based on the action they are seeing while watching the game being played, you get a lot of really cool, key things they would say. When you’re trying to write for them you’re trying to channel their voice, and it’s a little tough to do at times. Just let them naturally do it on their own and they come up with some great stuff.

CFG – There are certain features to the game that are unlocked by purchasing the features using Microsoft points. Why are these essentially downloadable content instead of part of the core game, and does it create a competitive disadvantage for those playing online dynasty?

BH – A lot of these are what are considered accelerators. The five star prospect thing, that is something that’s intended for the guy that wants to play the feature and wants to experience it, but maybe doesn’t have the time to play every high school game. They want to jump right in and start playing in college. So we give them the option to bypass that section.

Or in dynasty for example, you want to have the toughest place to play but you don’t have the time to invest to get your team to the top, we’re giving you a way to accelerate your experience to get you to that point.

Everything we have as far as the accelerators this year are things you can find and do on your own, but this gives you a chance to jump in there a little earlier.

It’s something that in the long run really doesn’t unbalance the game so much, since, everything is already there for everybody. But we do see how some people may say, ‘well we don’t want that in our dynasty, we want everybody to do it on their own.’ So that’s one thing that will actually be in the patch that we’re coming out with–I don’t know the exact day yet, but it will be as close to launch as we possibly can–will be the option to have that turned off for online dynasty so people can have their dynasty without the concern that somebody may have some downloadable content.

CFG – What’s the winner of the Season Showdown tournament gets. If Nebraska wins, do we get to see a Husker on the cover next year?

BH – Hahahaha. So we’re working through everything we can to try to figure out if we’ll wind up having a great grand prize for it. It really comes down to, the intent behind it was really all along the pride of your school and showing off that your school is the best. We don’t know yet exactly what that’s going to mean in the long run, but for now it definitely Is a mode that’s geared toward showing off your school pride.

CFG – There’s no NCAA for the Nintendo Wii this year. Why?

BH – We decided to take a step back for a year and really take a look at what we can be doing with the Wii console and make a college football game on the Wii that really just blows people away. So it’s something we’re looking at doing in the future. No commitment yet on when we’ll be doing it again. But its something we are looking at jumping back into and really utilizing what the Wii can do to make a unique college football experience.

CFG – Personally I’ve always preferred dynasty mode. Do you have any ideas we can look forward to with dynasty mode in the next few years?

BH – I’ve got pages and pages of notebooks filled of things that we want to do with dynasty. A lot of it does come into increasing the coaching aspect and adding more of an athletic director mentality to what you can do.

One thing that’s really nice is we’re not going to run out of ideas anytime. It’s just a matter of getting all those things prioritized and implemented into the game. With online dynasty being added last year that opens a whole new realm. It’s a lot more fun to recruit against your buddy for a five-star quarterback than it is to recruit against the computer. We definitely see that as the way to go.

Everything is moving into the online space, so we really want to be there with that and increase how you’re able to interact with the game, where you’re able to play and how you’re able to do the different aspects of the game. Whether it be at your console, whether it be at your computer, whether it be on your mobile phone. Wherever you go, being able to always be connected to whatever happens in your dynasty and being able to participate is definitely the future as far as gaming goes.

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