This is one of the most important weeks of the year in
videogaming. Next Monday night, thousands of men across the country will wait
for midnight to arrive so that they could purchase the newest edition of
Electronic Arts' Madden NFL football game before anyone else.
In its 20 years of existence, Madden has caused millions of
men to ignore their spouses for weeks at a stretch, been the subject of massive
drunken bets and consumed countless millions of hours of effort. It's the most
popular videogame in the United States by far.
There are websites devoted to mastering the selection of
plays, facilitating bets for cash between strangers and online forums where
players exchange their thoughts and tips. One could easily spend $500 or more
for online Madden schools.
And, in years past, I've been an avid consumer of the Madden
game. I've built playbooks, practiced the art of the short screen and taken the
sport's worst franchises to Super Bowl glory.
I've lived through the good times (Madden 2005) and the bad
(the unusable and ill-fated passing cone scheme of Madden 2006). I've stuck
with the franchise, shelling out $50 or $60 bucks every August like clockwork.
I've even been in the motley crew of devotees who waited
patiently in front of Gamestop in order to purchase the game at midnight and
then stayed awake until dawn playing it over and over again.
But not this year. For the first time in a decade, I'm
taking a break from Madden.
For years and years, the arrival of a new Madden game has
been accompanied by a massive wave of hyperbole promising some new drastic
innovation in gameplay. And the gaming press, year after year, goes along with
the hype campaign and touts this year's game as being the best ever.
And, up until this year, I bought into it, realizing one sad
fact: I've been buying the same videogame, over and over, since 2003. If, in
fact, you were to place Madden NFL 2003 side-by-side with Madden NFL 11, the
biggest difference would be in the graphics. The core gameplay is pretty much
The in-game advertising is gaudier and more omnipresent than
ever. Paying $60 to hear an announcer remind me every few minutes that
"tonight's game is brought to you by Snickers" is not necessarily my idea of
In a lot of ways, the series has regressed in the past few
years. It's harder to play a friend online; the menus have become clunkier and
more difficult to navigate' and the franchise mode, where the devoted spend
hundreds of hours building the perfect team, has been plagued by game-killing
After playing this year's demo of Madden, it feels almost
exactly like last year's. Both have the same animations, the same canned
commentary and the same feel. There's no innovation, aside from a streamlined
playcalling process that most veteran players will turn off immediately.
And John Madden himself has long been gone from providing
commentary on the game; his only contribution to it is lending his name and
collecting the royalties. The new batch of commentators serves to annoy the
player more than anything else.
The failure of the Madden series is emblematic of the
problems and pressures facing the entire gaming industry, which is in somewhat
of a slump, having failed to find the kind of massively deep and successful
games of the mid-1990s. It's interesting, but aggravating, that having better
hardware in the Xbox360 and the PlayStation 3 hasn't necessarily translated
into having better games.
It's not just with Madden; other game developers have failed
again and again in matching the fun level that the PS2 and the original Xbox
generated. The success of the Wii comes from adopting the same tactics (and
pretty much the same hardware) of the games that were popular five and six
Combine all of that with a slumping economy, the fact that
many software development businesses have gone bankrupt or been gobbled up by
bigger fish and the result is the stagnant and drearily predictable video game
So I understand why game retailers are excited about the new
football game — it's one of the few games that generate pre-release
excitement and buzz — but there's ample reason to pass on this year's
model of Madden.