I’ve long been a fan of video game hockey. Nintendo’s game Ice Hockey was only ever taken out of the NES when I had to blow on the bottom of the cartridge to troubleshoot it if it didn’t load properly. I even loved the lo-fi Wayne Gretzky’s Hockey from Bethesda Softworks, because it was hockey and growing up in Edmonton during the 1980s’ hockey was possibly the most important thing ever. While there were obvious technical limitations with those early hockey games, the important thing was that they were hockey or at least something sort of like hockey.
Modern hockey games are so much truer to the sport than those early titles for the 8-bit NES. However as true to life as the games have gotten one thing I never felt was quite right in any of the hockey games I played, EA SPORTS titles included, was the skating. I grew up watching players like Paul Coffey bursting across the blueline for the Edmonton Oilers. I was at the Pacific Coliseum to watch Pavel Bure play for the Vancouver Canucks, thrilling crowds with the explosive breakaways that he remains famous for. For all the other authentic touches that we’ve been able to put into the EA SPORTS NHL franchise skating just never quite felt as realistic as everything else.
Ben Ross the Gameplay and Presentation Producer for NHL 13 agrees. Comparing NHL 12 to the upcoming NHL 13 he explained, “It’s a whole new skating system. Nothing is left over from last year, it’s all new. We’re calling it True Performance Skating and it’s a complete from the ground up reimagining.”
I was excited to get to speak to Ross who has worked on several iterations of the EA SPORTS NHL franchise. As we talked Ross picked up an Xbox controller and loaded the latest Alpha build of NHL 13 on his test kit. Selecting the practice mode he chose the Canucks, his favorite team, and began to guide a virtual Henrik Sedin around the ice.
When I asked him questions he would flick the thumb sticks and demonstrate his point, causing Sedin to rush forward or turn giving off ice spray when he cut tightly. Sedin skated behind the net, turning in a way that was impossible in NHL 12 as I asked Ross to describe what the difference between the skating in last year’s game is to what NHL 13 will offer.
Given that NHL has always gotten high ratings by game critics I ask why the development team put so much work into overhauling the skating this year. He answered, “When you’re playing NHL 12 it felt a little bit clunky when you were skating around. We were sort of joking around that the skating in 12 looked like what I look like out on the rink, but not what a pro looks like out on the ice. This year I think we captured how smooth and how agile these players really are and I feel like that’s what the big difference is between 12 and 13. Everyone on the development team is a hockey fan, so we’ve been getting a lot of feedback on the new system as they’ve compared it to the real NHL reference we have.”
A lot of people have liked the gameplay but we felt that we’d hit the celling with what the current skating could do and so we wanted to start again”
The NHL team didn’t just sit down with a bucket of chicken wings and last year’s Stanley Cup final on VHS to redraft the skating, hours of study went into even the most minor changes. Ross explained the process to me, “We did a full motion capture shoot over a few days and captured a ton of footage. The end result is over a thousand new animations. We then used our internal animation toolset to mimic the real world reference. We look at how skating interacts with gameplay at the NHL level.”
Ross points out that one of the big advantages to the new skating system is the unprecedented level of control that NHL 13 will give the player. He explained, “Comparing 12 to 13 I would say that the predictability is a lot higher for the user in the game this year, especially with the puck. You know what’s going to happen when you’re playing, you’re in full control and can react accordingly. What was our Vision Control button now is just back skate, all the time. Now with the puck, you no longer have to play with it awhile to figure out what you’re going to get from Vision Control which were basically pre-defined rules about where we assumed you’d want to face. In a lot of ways that helped the user last year, but now we’re giving total control to the player so their skater’s actions are completely up to the user.”
“We’ve increased the creative options available to the player. With the Skill Stick you can move your stick left to right, toe drag, perform loose puck dekes, and that control over the hockey stick was all completely up to the user. Skating was to a certain extent up to the user, they could go where they wanted to go, but they didn’t have control in terms of where they were facing. Now they can flip backwards whenever they want, they can go all the way behind the net, they can skate full circles around the dots. I can be skating backwards and when I let go of the button I can pivot and keep moving. It allows players the creativity and full range of motion that guys like Datsyuk and Giroux use in the NHL.”
“You’re able to use it to do lots of different pivots and things and that really opens up the creativity of the game.”
“That’s the stuff people are going to notice right away, but there’s more. Since all the skating has been redone there’s over 1,000 new animations in the game everything related to skating is new and has been rebuilt. Visually the new engine looks much closer to the way it looked at the actual mo-cap (motion capture) shoot.
Speed versus Control
“Speed really matters now. That doesn’t mean that the game has changed to a completely north to south (end to end) game. There’s still going to be east to west (side to side) play. You’re still going to be needing to pick your spots and be making passes up the ice but no longer will players be kind of dipsy doodling around in unrealistic ways trying to get the defense to bite for those reasons. It’s more realistic in that if you can catch a defender actually pivoting and trying to transition you’ll be more successful there. So when I see a hole I can hustle and push the puck ahead. That’s actually a change as well. With our ‘push puck’ last year we were releasing the puck only, so it was out of your control. There were some benefits there but when we looked at the pro players we saw that they don’t push the puck so far that it’s out of their grasp. They’re in control of that puck, it’s on the tip of their stick but they’re only pushing it a little bit ahead. So that was a change with just the sense of hustling with the puck. It also makes you a little less agile, you can’t turn as easily out of that and the higher speed you’re going that’s where the physics come into play and the momentum comes into play and becomes more of a factor. So if I really fly up the wing and try to cut in, my controller will actually vibrate and I can feel that I’ve got that edge and I can’t just turn on a dime. There’s even the potential, if I go past that edge, of falling. Last year you could fall if you were doing a lot of quick tight turns, but this year it’s more based on the physicality of what you’re actually doing, how fast you’re actually going and how fast you’re trying to cut because we found last year that people were confused about why they were falling. Now you’re given that warning that you’re cutting tight, and you have to make the decision of whether you’re willing to risk that or not.”
There’s only one Erik Karlsson
True Performance Skating creates better player differentiation. Playing with a NHL star like Claude Giroux now feels different than playing with a fourth line grinder. Ross explained, “We do have the ability to change the widths and lengths of player’s skating strides so there’s going to be a bigger difference between players in NHL 13 than there was in 12. With the speed being such a factor we didn’t want every player to be able to blow by their opponents, so while we’ve always had ratings in the game for acceleration, speed and agility, which all play into skating they will have a much bigger effect with the new skating system. We didn’t change the core concepts of what was working in the game, but now we can utilize them to a much greater level. You’ll see greater player differentiation because there’s a greater range in those ratings. Last year, because of the limitations in our old skating engine, you could basically skate backwards as fast as you could skate forwards. So once you had a player sized up, they’d never be able to beat you on the outside whereas skaters in NHL 13 at full speed will be much faster going forwards than backwards, as well as being more agile and mobile. They can beat you wide. That means that the defensive player has to use their own toolset, to read and react, and push the offensive player wide, so they don’t allow the forward a clear path to the net.”
As he talks he continues to demonstrate his points, gesturing to the screen as Sedin does what Ross is describing. Having grown up loving hockey games it’s an exciting chance to get the inside scoop from someone who has been making them the past few years. I ask about shooting, if the revamped skating system will affect it. Ross nods and sends his Sedin twin off to begin shooting at the goalie as he explains it to me.
“If I’m in full stride and shoot I have a higher chance of missing the net than if I come in more of a controlled state, gliding. So we’re trying to make gliding matter a lot more, since in the real world a player has much more control when he is gliding. Of course, attributes will come into play here as well. Sydney Crosby can come in and shoot off his front foot at full speed, while Ovechkin can come down at full speed and rifle a shot exactly where he wants it, but less skilled players who aren’t in that top ten elite level of the league will have to be more conscious about making those kinds of shot decisions. In the past, we heard that a lot of players were always hitting the net, that the goalie was saving it or it was hitting the post so you’ll see a lot more of a range where you’re actually missing the net on a bad shot and by increasing that range the same as we did for skating it gives us a lot more room to differentiate the players.”
With everything looking so complete I ask what’s left to do before launch, which is still months away. Ross answered, “Gameplay is what we’ll be tuning until the very end, that balance of offense versus defense.
The new system makes for a faster, more authentic representation of today’s National Hockey League. In previous years the term “figure skating” has been thrown around by fans of the NHL series to describe the sometimes unrealistic agility of players in the game. The new skating engine gives players as much control over skating as the Skill Stick did over the hockey stick in NHL 07.
I love hockey video games because I love hockey. With True Performance Skating in NHL 13 virtual hockey is one stride closer to the real thing, and that makes me love it all the more.