'We're Totally F--ked': Inside The Making of 'Madden NFL 06'

"You see this final product as a gamer and it's a turd. But we slaved. That was the hardest I had ever worked in my whole life. "

With competition from NFL 2K killed off thanks to an exclusivity deal with the NFL, EA Sports’ Madden series was ready to enter a new HD era on a new next-gen console - the Xbox 360. Longtime Madden development studio Tiburon began work on Madden NFL 06 with plenty of big ideas meant to push the series forward on the new console. Instead, the studio produced one of the lowest rated entries in franchise history.

“I don't know if the vision was anything other than this is going to be the biggest Madden ever,” says Associate Producer Ian Cummings.

“You had this tremendous graphical power that you never had before. People got excited about it,” says Jeremy Strauser, part of the senior production team.

But, according to Producer Rod Moye, “When we released the game, I was like welp, we did the best we could given the circumstances we were under at that time.”

Unfortunately, in the transition from PlayStation 2 to Xbox 360, Madden 06’s development struggled to keep up with the changes. A tidal wave of new employees obliterated the studio’s culture. Tiburon rewrote Madden’s code from scratch. With more hardware power, Tiburon sought overambitious scope. Dev kits began to overheat from the strain leading to a “graveyard” of dead hardware. Members slept at their desk to reach E3 deadlines. Executives released trailers unintended for the public, causing Penny Arcade to coin the term “bullshot.”

All of this led to a well-rendered if critically hampered edition of the series by the time of Madden 06’s release in November of 2005.

Pre-development of Madden 06 began in mid-2004. EA received early Xbox 360 dev kits from Microsoft in the form of Power Mac G5s, allowing engineers to dig into the new hardware, but still didn’t provide all of the system’s features, including Xbox 360 Dashboard features and shader options. “It allowed testing of some of the new capabilities like multiple cores, but was missing a lot of the killer new graphics functionality,” writes Lead Software Engineer Jason Lee-Steere over a private Facebook chat with me.

Madden 06 joined at least six other EA games planned for the Xbox 360 launch in November, 2005. Producer Rod Moye remembers excitement in the studio as development began. “There was great optimism headed into that because with PlayStation 2, we really dominated on that console. So our optimism was extremely high, but it didn't end up that way unfortunately.”

The PlayStation 2 and Xbox 360 versions of Madden 06 marked the 16th annual year for the series and the ninth under Tiburon. Year-to-year, the general process of developing Madden went smoothly according to Strauser. “Once you know what you're doing with the hardware, it really is a smooth process. Not any easier, not any less challenging, people don't work any less hard, but in general, you kinda know what you're doing.”

Madden 06 Xbox 360 didn’t fit Tiburon’s annualized process. For the move to a new generation, Tiburon expanded their workforce. Not only would the studio handle yearly sports games including NASCAR, NCAA Football, Tiger Woods PGA Tour, and Madden, a new project in Superman Returns, based on Bryan Singer’s movie, also started development. When Walt Disney Feature Animation (responsible for Mulan, Brother Bear, and others) closed nearby in Bay Lake, Florida, Tiburon hired a number of those laid off artists for their team. Some went to Superman, and others went to Madden.

Madden would take on a new look under those new hires. While Madden’s typical focus was to replicate the television broadcast, the addition of cinematic-minded art directors meant a change in approach. “EA was trying to go a little bit Hollywood. Remember [EA’s] Lord of the Rings and stuff like that? They looked cinematic. … We brought in a director who worked on I think Lilo & Stitch, and his graphical style was that. We're going to make these guys look like gladiators,” explains Moye.

Bulking up shoulders, adding beefy musculature, and persistent droplets of sweat (even as the game started) gave Madden 06 the quality of NFL Films, adding drama over TV broadcast realism. ”I remember doing motion capture sessions of facial animation. This was like brand new technology that had never been used on anything. This was like Polar Express, that movie had just come out. … We're trying to do that for coaches and players and stuff for people with helmets over their heads. The scope was out of control,” says Cummings.

Still without final hardware specs, Tiburon began creating high-resolution assets, based on thousands of reference photos a small Tiburon crew took across the league’s stadiums. “Everyone just sort of thought that yeah, this hardware is so much better so it will run everything. It pretty quickly blew up in our face,” says Cummings.

“We were designing crazy shit,” adds Strauser.

"Oh, we're screwed. We're way over. No way."

Fire extinguishers in the upper deck were being rendered in full 3D. Doorways used 3D doorknobs. In the Eagles stadium, a team member rendered a power relay box with the door open, all of the internal switches also utilizing polygons. Lead software engineer Michael Gourlay remembers the game using 9MB on just the texture of the football (for comparison, an entire stadium model in Madden 06 took up 100MB). “There's this recurring theme of people being told make it cinematic and then building these moonshot things but then running up against the fact this was a brand new console,” says Gourlay.

“We had 3D grass, all these fans, all the volumetric lighting, all these great rendering effects, all this stuff. It's like oh, now we need to get some players running on it. Once that starts rolling in, it's like oh, we're screwed. We're way over. No way,” says Cummings.

The Xbox 360 didn’t offer dedicated Video RAM, rather sharing 512MB of RAM with the CPU. Soon, those 9MB footballs needed to go if Madden 06 would actually simulate humans playing football in these over-designed stadiums.

Some benefit came in the form of real world accuracy. “We would get the NFL guys in, the camera crew and they would tell us where they would place the cameras. That was the first time we ever had that stuff right. This is exactly where the camera would be in this stadium,” says Moye.

A new animation system, named ANT, required an animation overhaul. This meant considering every throw angle, when the ball released from the QB’s hand, and other complications of on-field play. “Imagine starting from scratch, every single animation goes in and we had brand new animation technology that was barely developed up in Canada - total nightmare. You'd work on something for a week, it would crash and lose the whole project,” says Cummings.

Cummings further explains the animation process and working with ANT. “I get all of these animations from the animation team. I had like 70 or 80 total pass animations, deep, short, screen, falling off back foot, left, right. … I work for like two straight days, not going home, not sleeping. … I got in the next day and the programmers were like hey, the animation speed and release stuff isn't hooked up. It didn't work. I spent the whole night actually tuning it thinking that it was changing and it just shows you how sleep deprived and horrible I was. ... I worked for six or seven hours on these pass animations and none of that work was actually happening. It was all just in my head.”

Without porting anything from the PlayStation 2 and Xbox, commentary started from scratch, but instead of Pat Summerall or another known commentator, Madden 06 used an actor to mimic local radio. Tiburon’s concept was for each team to have their own hometown announcer, but this was not practical within the time frame. And, with the idea of following an NFL Films-like package, the radio announcer made sense to some on the team. “When [NFL Films] would show highlight packages, they used the local radio call over this film footage they had. … Local radio call was much more into it than the TV announcers,” says Strauser.

All of the user interface materials were switched to a Flash-based system. “The intent was good. [user interface] people were using Flash to create UI on the web. We thought it would be a good idea to make our own flash-like engine inside of all [EA] video games. … That might not sound like that big of a deal, but if you think about all of the decorations like playcalls, all of that stuff was done procedurally in this UI. Because of the performance, it would make the frame rate drop. That was a sin,” says Gourlay.

With the change in focus and style, nothing from Madden’s previous generation was to be ported. Significantly, Madden’s code base changed from C to C++. That decision, however necessary to progress Madden forward, meant all of Madden 06’s code was reset at the beginning of development.

To handle all of this change and workload, the typical Madden team size grew. Those interviewed disagreed on the usual team size prior to Madden 06, putting the number between 30 and 60 people. Madden 06 jumped to over 100. “The old Madden would have been a million lines of code. The new one, I don't know for sure, but it would have to be multiple millions lines of code. To try and rewrite all that you have no choice but to involve a 100-ish people,” says Gourlay.

“Tiburon, in my opinion, has struggled to recover still. "

Tiburon was ill-prepared for that influx of talent according to Cummings: “Tiburon, in my opinion, has struggled to recover still. We were a company of 70 people when I started, maybe up to 100. ... Superman comes on and the gen 3 transition and we grew to 650 people. Every single week there were 20-30 people new people joining. The culture got buried immediately.”

“You can imagine what culture change happens when you have 600 people. You don't know how to manage people,” begins Moye. “We were just small and scrappy and everybody was a badass and you could rely on everybody to do the greatest work. When you have 500 people there, it changes. You don't know what person 400 is doing.”

With the large team came a dearth of development kits, made worse as those kits began malfunctioning. “We had a little graveyard of dev kits in a cube that didn't work, not unlike any other piece of new hardware that we used to see from third parties. I think they were pushing the limits of the hardware with what they were trying to do so it broke. It would fry,” says Strauser.

Madden 06 Xbox 360 made its debut to the public at E3 2005, in mid-May. Although scheduled for release in November, the first glimpse came in the form of a pre-rendered video starring cover athlete Philadelphia Eagles QB Donovan McNabb. Helmet reflections, facial animation, and other special effects added glitz. Fans questioned the authenticity of the trailer and whether Madden on Xbox 360 would look as presented. In reality, that trailer wasn’t meant for the public.

“That was a visual target that one of our art directors put together internally. It got some of the executive team excited about what it could be that they felt like they needed to show something at E3 for marketing reasons. ...I guess in today's day in age, it would have the ‘Not actual gameplay’ tag on the bottom,” says Strauser.

“That sizzle video was meant to show all of us artists and programmers and artists what we were trying to shoot for. Then some genius decided to release that to the public,” says Gourlay.

Behind closed doors, the developers showed a small kicking demo and a visual display with then Seattle Seahawk Shaun Alexander. “We get this kicking demo working and I shit you not, the Friday before E3, we get a call from an exec up at EA and they go this demo isn't going to work and E3 is on Tuesday,” remembers Moye. “We sent everyone home except for a skeleton group of us. From that Friday until Tuesday, I did not go home. People are sleeping under desks, on couches, just getting any sort of sleep that you could. Basically, we just had to write a script for it and what we ended up with was a bunch of pre-canned animations. We had Shaun Alexander running through the stadium and showing facial animations. That was the demo.”

"Oh my god, we're totally fucked."

“E3 was the first ‘Oh my god, we're totally fucked.’ Everyone's expectation is that we'll have a fully running game and it'll be a brand new Madden and it will look just like that trailer did. We were stuck with one character standing in the middle of the stadium. That's all we could get,” says Cummings. He continues, “It was just a total wreck. The last two weeks of E3, I was sleeping at the office, watching the sun come up everyday. Then we ended up cutting all that work.”

Not long after E3, in a Burger King tie-in, a video of a pre-release edition of Madden made it onto the internet. “This was well before we worked out all of the rendering issues,” says Gourlay. Comparisons to the pre-rendered video were immortalized in a Penny Arcade comic, coining the term “bullshot.”

”The comparison was sizzle video to pre-release footage, going from one extreme to the other. The actual game that shipped looked better than the shot that Penny Arcade people put in their cartoon,” says Gourlay.

With a launch date of November 2005 looming for Madden 06, on the silver anniversary of another failed Madden (the PlayStation’s Madden ‘96), disaster loomed, but Tiburon never discussed cancellation. “Canceling [NBA] Live and stuff like that? Fuck that. We never uttered those words at all. We were very driven to success. Even though things were bad, we had a bunch of fighters in that studio,” says Moye.

“As you get three months away from ship, you realize there's no fucking way anything is going to happen” says Cummings. “I remember like a week or two before launch just breaking down. Like, we're not going to make it. I was telling all of the executive leadership, I just randomly saw them in the hall, and said we can't do it. They talked me off the ledge and said you'll be fine. It'll get out. You'll finish it.”

On November 16th 2005, alongside the Xbox 360 itself, Madden 06 made its intended launch target. Critics, lamenting the lack of modes, limited replay, and other missing Madden intangibles, scored Madden 06 a 74 on Metacritic, down from the 91 of Madden 05 and an 88 for the PlayStation 2 edition of 06. The user score for the Xbox 360 version specifically whittled to a mere 50. The only console edition rated lower in the past 18 years is Madden NFL Football for the 3DS (that was a 49).

“You see this final product as a gamer and it's a turd. But we slaved. That was the hardest I had ever worked in my whole life. To have to come up with that result was what was so crushing about it,” says Ian Cummings.

“We probably set the expectation way too high and then fell a little bit short on what we delivered. But I was very proud. It was a very hard project. You hear about NFL coaches burning out. I felt burned out after that year. We burned through some people that year,” says Strauser.

“There was so much untapped potential that year. It was very frustrating,” says Gourlay.

“Ultimately we shipped it on time. For launching a game on new hardware and launching a game with a new engine, a very ambitious project, in itself should be celebrated that it made it out the door… We ended up spending a lot more time and a lot more effort than we originally intended. It was a lot harder, and probably not as good as we'd hoped,” says Strauser.

Not all was lost. The base C++ code remains in the current generation Maddens and the animation system ANT became part of game engine Frostbite that is now used across all of EA's games.

Madden 07 found itself up against the launch of the PlayStation 3, but released an edition nearly equal to the Xbox 360, beginning an upward trend in the critical response toward Madden titles. The lessons learned and technical changes from Madden 06 paid off long term, beginning a base for an entire generation of digital football.

“Despite the lumps that it has taken, it built an incredibly solid foundation for that run of Madden games and was probably leveraged into this generation of Madden games,” says Strauser.

To some though, it wasn’t worth it. “That was the game," Moye says of Madden 06, "where I said man, there are bigger things in life than games."