<
>

'NCAA Football 11': First Look

EA Sports

Numbers on helmets might seem inconsequential to some gamers, but if you're an Alabama fan, the fact the video game recreation of your school doesn't accurately represent the uniform details you cheer so hard for on a weekly basis has been driving you message board mad … as in, leaving threats of "I'll never play the game again," on any sports gaming board you could find in hopes someone at EA will finally hear your cries.

Cry no more.

"Alabama fans, we hear you," says "NCAA Football 11" producer Ben Haumiller. "This game's for you."

That's right, not only will "NCAA Football 11" finally feature Alabama's famed look that includes numbers on helmets, but now when gamers create their own schools using the wildly popular "Team Builder" (over 500,000 teams were created last year), they can put numbers on the sides of their helmets then watch as they actually appear in-game.

But that's not all the "NCAA Football 11" creative crew has in store for this year's game.

ESPN caught up with producers Haumiller and Russ Kiniry to get the dirt on some of the improvements being made to "NCAA Football 11" that they will be blogging about for EA Sports beginning next week. And while a slew of much bigger features will be announced in the near future, anyone who plays the game passionately will find some additions to the game in this list that have been sorely needed for years.

"This is all stuff the fans and the community have been asking for," Kiniry says. "It's fun to finally be able to say, 'You wanted this? Got it.'"

1. The men in stripes

The best thing a referee can do is stay out of the spotlight. EA might have taken that a bit far with "NCAA Football," though, as the officials weren't even on the field as you played. But with "NCAA Football 11," not only will the refs be on the field during every play, they'll even use some advanced avoidance logic to stay out of your way.

"You notice that they're not there," Haumiller says of the previous "NCAA" games, "but now to see them on the field just makes everything seem much more authentic. Now you see them before the snap, during the play, setting the ball and that sort of thing. You see them actually interact as they would during a real game.

"And while they do have collision detection, what's key is that they have avoidance. It's not like the old PS2 days where you'd use the ref as an extra blocker for you. Remember how you could set it up a certain way where the defender would float into the ref and just fall over? That's not happening anymore." Also not happening, South Carolina quarterbacks getting dropped by a polygonal official who suddenly has a flashback to his old playing days. "We're fortunate not to have our refs tackle as good as our middle linebackers," jokes Haumiller. "No forearm shivers from the refs in our game." South Carolina fans still aren't laughing.

2. Gang tackles

In "Madden," they refer to the gang-tackling technology as Pro Tak. Does that mean they need to rename the technology Amateur Tak for the college game?

"It's not as simple as just bringing the technology over from 'Madden'" says Kiniry as he talks about bringing the up-to-nine-man gang-tackling system over from the pro game. "It has been tweaked and tuned to improve on the system. Like last year, when you played 'Madden' and one of the big tackles happened, play would almost stop, like it would pause for a second. We wanted to make it more smooth and make sure we had the right guys involved in every tackle and make sure we had the right frequency. It's bringing over the system from 'Madden' while at the same time making it better."

Adds Haumiller: "New technology will always have some kinks to work out, but we have those addressed now and really smoothed it out."

3. Auto save

Ever play a game and forget to save, only to turn the system back on later in the day and wonder what happened to the bowl you had just won or the stats you had worked so hard to accumulate? EA finally has it covered for those of us (me!) who forget to save our progress at the most inopportune times.

"Auto save is now there for all parts of the game," Haumiller says. "Whether you're saving settings or rosters, whether you just finished a game in Road to Glory or whether you're competing in an offline Dynasty, it's all saved. Say you were playing in a Dynasty last year and you won five trophies and while you saved your Dynasty, you didn't save your profile, you lost those trophies forever. That sucked. That was no good. Now your trophy case will be filled with whatever you won and you no longer need to worry about whether or not you remembered to save. It's all taken care of for you. We saw how great this worked in games like 'FIFA' and 'NHL' and it was just natural for us to do it, too.

"It's just one of those things that slips your mind sometimes. You're hustling to get out of the house and you don't think about saving. We had the quick save feature, and that was nice, but it was still something you had to physically do. Now it's all just automatically taken care of for you."

And for those who don't like auto save for whatever reason, there will be an option to turn it off.

4. Auto load rosters

If you like to switch between modes often, this next one is for you. "This was just a glaring omission in years past," Haumiller admits. "When you finished a Dynasty game and backed out to the main menu, we would dump out the roster you were just using in your Dynasty file and reload the roster that came on the disc. That's fine if that's the roster you always use, but if you're someone who always edits your roster or if you just downloaded a roster, that new roster is the one you pretty much want to use when you head into a new Dynasty or if you go into Play Now or start a Road to Glory. So you would go through high school in Road to Glory and finish those four games, and you've already invested so much time into creating this character, but then you get to college and realize that you don't have the roster file that you thought you did.

"This is one of those features that you really won't notice now that it's there, but you always missed when it wasn't. Now as soon as you download a new roster online, you can check it out right away. You no longer have to go through the whole process of loading that new roster into memory. Now that's done for you automatically. When you download a new roster file, it will automatically be loaded as the current roster file. It's just a way to help clean up the experience and making it an easier process so you don't need to jump through a bunch of hoops to get where you want to go."

5. Formation subs

If there's one thing that has been driving me nuts about "NCAA Football" lately, it's the omission of formation subs. I just couldn't figure out why it wasn't possible to substitute on a per-formation basis anymore. PlayStation 3 technology is better than PlayStation 2, right? The producers finally heard my pleas.

"Formation subs are back … that's the best way to put it," Kiniry says. "It's exciting for us as well because I love running two-back systems, and there's nothing better than to be able to set up different formations with different backs. So now, just like how it worked on PS2, you'll be able to go in and for each formation, you'll be able to choose who you want in there. Cool thing is, you can do it while in-game in the pause menu, but for me, the biggest part is that it's a front-end option in Dynasty, as well. So now, you can set up your Dynasty and Online Dynasty in the beginning of the year, and barring injuries, you can let it ride out, and those are your formation subs for the rest of the year.

"Now you can set up who you want as your hands team for an onside kick or who you want as the up back when you're running a fake punt … stuff like that. And even in a bigger case, if you plan to run with an option quarterback, now you can set up your flexbone and wishbone formation and not have to worry about subs when you're calling your plays. Now you have your formations subs already in there and you're ready to go."

Adds Haumiller: "This is by far the biggest request we've received from the community. They've asked for it and we were finally able to deliver this year. We're excited to let fans know that this is the type of approach we're taking with 'NCAA Football 11.' This year is really all about giving the fans what they want."

6. New equipment

When creating players, you can never have too much equipment. Whether it's visors or facemasks or helmets, EA is providing even more for gamers to tinker with in terms of the overall look of players this year.

"We have a handful of new facemasks and helmets, like the Revolution Speed helmet," Kiniry says. "We also added some injury gear like a knee brace, ankle brace, elbow guard and an elbow brace. So now your offensive lineman will have one or two knee braces, and this just really helps bring more authenticity to the look of the game. For us, it's about keeping up with what's new on the field and making sure we have all of this equipment in the game.

"There are also some new sleeves in the game as well, like three-quarter sleeve, half sleeve, and then you can do right and left sleeve separately. And then the biggest two for the new equipment are towels and hand warmers. So now you can set up your QB with the hand warmer and a towel … everybody loves towels. There's just a certain look to a player that you want to have, and hopefully now you can do it. You want to make sure your players are looking right."

7. Single bowl season

If you played Online Dynasty last year, and had to wait for days while the long process of bowl games played out, you'll be happy to know that the issue has been addressed with what EA Sports is calling the single bowl season.

"Previously, all of the bowl games were played over the course of three different weeks," Kiniry says. "So if someone was playing in Week 1, but you weren't playing until Week 3, you had to sit and wait for him to finish before you could move on. So now, basically what we did is combine all of the bowls together so that everybody can play their bowl games just like it was any other week in Dynasty. It just really speeds up the process and makes it way easier to get through.

"What we noticed last year is it was taking forever to get through bowl season for most online dynasties out there. Bowl season was taking three, four, five days to get through, while the average week was only taking a couple of days at most. We don't want you to have all that dead time waiting for everybody to finish."

8. Dynamic conference logos

One of the strange graphical glitches in last year's game was when you switched a school like Stanford out of the Pac-10 and into a conference like the WAC. Sure, they might have switched conferences in the menu, but when you actually played a game and looked at the Stanford field, it still said Pac-10 on it.

"Like you said, during Dynasty and with custom conferences where you can switch teams around put a team like Miami in the SEC or whatever, the field art last year still had the old conference logos on it," explains Kiniry. "So what we did now is have it where the field art updates anytime a team changes conferences. This gives you a more authentic, real appearance, especially since we adjust the conference logos to make them look like the team really moved. What would the SEC logo look like on a Miami field? A lot of times they colorize the conference logos to match the colors of the school that just changed."

Adds Haumiller: "So instead of getting a bland, generic WAC logo, if you move Alabama to the WAC for whatever reason, the logo will take on that crimson and white look as far as the outlines and the colors for that WAC logo. It will look as if Alabama really went to the WAC in terms of what that conference logo will look like on the field."

9. Numbers on helmets

Touched on this in the intro, but Alabama fans, EA is listening.

"This is just one of those things where we finally figured out how to get over that technological hurdle of displaying dynamic numbers for all the players on the field for Alabama or for a Team Builder school that wants to utilize this feature," Kiniry says. "During the actual gameplay, we just couldn't display the numbers before, but now you'll actually see them. It will finally look and feel like you would expect when you play as Alabama."

"This is an iconic look and I'm glad we were finally able to get it in the game," adds Haumiller. "If you are an Alabama fan, you looked at our game last year with the solid-colored helmets and it just killed you. We wanted to do a little make good with Alabama fans on this one, and it's just one of the things that fits with our theme this year, and that's creating the game that the community and the fans have been asking for.

"It's very exciting, the stuff we're doing with the game. I personally haven't been more excited with a feature set than what we're doing with "NCAA Football 11.' What we just told you about, these are just some of the small things that we've added, some of the building blocks. We have a lot more to announce in the coming months, but this is a really exciting year for us. This is the game the fans have been waiting for. "