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We’re just a few days away from big launch of EA Sports’ NHL 17, and to get the lowdown on all the exciting new features coming in this year’s edition, I had the opportunity to sit down with the game’s producer, Sean “Rammer” Ramjagsingh. New game modes, deeper customization, gameplay refinements, and the importance of fan feedback were just some of the topics we covered. So, without further ado, here’s the interview!

Paul Hunter: I was in the NHL 17 beta last month, play it, loved it, wished it didn’t end. What was the general feedback you got from the fans?

Sean Ramjagsingh: It was really positive feedback overall. There wasn’t one single piece of feedback that we urgently had to act on, there was lots of little feedback on the gameplay, tuning, and balancing around the specific classes (in EA Sports Hockey League). I would say those are all minor adjustments. The biggest piece of feedback we got was on the customization, people were really impressed with it and started to speculate on what other customization options we could add in the future. Fans were talking a lot about outdoor rinks and fantasy rinks, things like that.

NHL_17_PS4_coverPH: I’ve noticed over the last year that your team has really been reaching out to the community, the beta was just one aspect of that, but also on the NHL website, the community forum, the fan-chosen cover athlete. How have you taken all these suggestions and feedback to help shape the latest NHL game?

SR: I’m happy you’ve noticed that. We’ve had a concerted effort these past few years to really work closely with the fans, especially with NHL 16 and bringing back EA Sports Hockey League. We get so much feedback from so many channels, including social media, which is great because it’s important that we listen to our fans. Part of my job is to take all this feedback and figure out which ones we need to act on. Our main consideration is “how many people are being impacted by whatever the issue is?” When we instituted the GameChangers program last year with NHL 16 that was a way for us to be better tied to our fans, and to better understand what our fans are asking for. When we see feedback on our forums or social channels we engage our GameChangers, which are a group of 12 fans nominated by the fans to represent them during the development process and work directly with our producers, to really interpret the feedback and discuss solutions. GameChangers and the fans are an integral part of the process for NHL 17, and this year I think we have an experience to satisfy all players, no matter what your favourite modes might be or your past exposure to the NHL franchise.

PH: There’s obviously a huge fan base that comes back year after year, but what about new gamers to the franchise, or perhaps those that played during the early days, what are you doing to help ease them into the experience?

SR: It’s important for us to allow as many hockey fans as possible to experience what NHL 17 has to offer, and onboarding has been a big focus for us starting last year and continuing into this year. Allowing people who haven’t played an NHL game, or a sports game in a year, or two year, or maybe even going back to the Sega Genesis days. We don’t want new players to be intimidated by the depth of the modes, or the intricacies of the controls. One way we’re addressing this is by including the NHL 94 control scheme where you can literally play the game with two buttons. The second thing we focused on is what we’re calling our Visual On-Ice Trainer. What this does is really hold your hand and walk you through the experience, starting with basics like passing the puck, then we’ll teach you how to shoot, then how to switch players. Once you have these parts down you can begin to get competitive, and the system will recognize this, then it will start training you on more complex skills like how to stick lift or poke check. This continues all the way through to our most advanced moves like stride dekes, loose puck dekes, and all the different controls for face offs. It’s a great tool for newcomers to the franchise to come in and not feel intimidated. The last thing we did is with the difficulty, this year the default is called “Semi-Pro”. Last year we had “Rookie” difficulty where people would score 10 or 15 goals, and “Pro” where they’re unable to score at all. We put in Semi-Pro as a bridge between, it’s a little more arcadey, it’s faster paced, it’s harder hitting; it’s just a fun, fast, high scoring experience that eases players into the NHL 17 experience.

10440682_11PH: When I was playing the beta I noticed the large number of customization options available for your player, team, and arena. How far are you taking the customizations this year?

SR: We’re really proud of the depth of customization in the game this year. We’re going very deep and spending a lot of effort to really flesh out the customizations and leverage them throughout multiple modes. In “Be a Pro” mode you can customize your character with more hair textures, more faces for you to choose from. In EA Sports Hockey League you can build out what your team will look like, pick your logo, colour your logo, pick your uniform template, and much more. With the Arena customization you can graduate from a small community rink, to a larger-sized rink, to a CHL rink, to an NHL rink, and in there customize everything from centre ice lines, to the seat colours, to the jumbotron, to special effects, the LED lights, your entrance music, and so much more.

PH: You mentioned Be a Pro, which is one of my favourite modes, what are you doing this year to capture memorable moments like your first hockey game, first goal, and so on?

SR: This year we really wanted to focus on those moments in your hockey career. Things like stepping onto the ice for your first professional game, scoring your first goal in the NHL, flipping the puck to the trainer to have him put tape on it to mark down the date, scoring your first hat trick—all these moments will be supported by audio, commentary, and overlays, to frame those key moments in your hockey career. The second thing we’re doing is focusing on the Coach Feedback system, specifically adding more fidelity. So for example, while you’re on the ice he’ll show you the right time and buttons to execute the moves he’s asking for. Then when you get back to the bench you’ll get even more feedback.

10440682_5PH: There are a few new modes coming this year, and one I’m personally excited to know more about is Draft Champions. Could you explain how it will work?

SR: FIFA and Madden both put in Draft Champions last year, and the way it’s going to work for NHL is pretty much like Madden. You’re going to start by selecting a “theme”, and the theme will determine the pool of players that become available in the draft. As an example, you can pick a World Cup theme and only have players available from the World Cup of Hockey. You’re going to start off with a full roster of average-rated players, and over the course of 12 rounds, you’re going to be able to upgrade 12 players on your existing roster. That’s where the World Cup of Hockey players will be serviced to you, and you chose from the four players who are brought up. Because you’re only upgrading 12 players on your team, it’s really about managing your strengths and your weaknesses. Do you want a more offensive team, a more defensive team, or have a balanced team across your first two lines but know that your third and fourth lines are a bit weaker and have to manage that. With your team you’ll play a series of four games and the further you get in those four games the more rewards you’re going to earn in Hockey Ultimate Team (HUT). Draft Champions in a lot of ways is an introduction to HUT, getting you used to seeing players on a card-type interface with their ratings, and letting you redeem rewards to start your HUT career.

PH: Be a GM is back but it’s got a new name (Franchise Mode). Renaming the mode seems to be implying there will be significant changes this time around, what can fans expect?

SR: We’ve made some really great changes to our GM mode. In the past, the mode has been about making trades, and wheeling and dealing to give your team the best chance at winning as many Stanley Cups as possible. The reason why we’re rebranded to Franchise Mode this year is it’s not just about the on-ice team but the off-ice performance as well. We’ve introduced the concept of owners, and each one will have its own unique personality and expectations of you, depending whether you have a rebuilding team, like the Canucks or the Leafs, or if you’re a Cup contender. All owners like to make a profit; an NHL franchise is a business after all, even if we like to think it’s not. Owners are going to give you a budget, you can decide how to spend it. Do you spend it on players’ salaries, marketing and promotional nights, like a bobblehead or free t-shirt night, to get fans back into the arena. You’re setting everything from ticket prices, to concession prices, to merchandise prices in your stores, to parking prices. Leveraging your budget you’ll need to decide what to upgrade as well, such as your facilities, your store, your parking lot, your concession stands—it’s up to you improve the overall fan experience so they spend more. There are lots of different levers you can pull, and see how they are resonating relative to other teams in the league. If things don’t work out and you can’t generate a profit, you can propose relocating to your owner, and if he says yes, you can choose from a list of cities to move to, negotiate with the city on the terms of the deal. Once you’ve relocated, you can use the customization options we discussed earlier to refresh and rebuild the brand. Pick your primary and secondary colours, pick your logo, pick the cut of your uniform, and also completely build out your arena. So lots and lots of depth in Franchise Mode, as you can see.

10440682_9PH: You mentioned HUT earlier, and during the beta I had a short window to experiment with the new Synergy feature. Could you elaborate more on Synergy, specifically what is it, how it affects gameplay, and how it differs from Chemistry used in past NHL games?

SR: Yeah so we’ve taken out the Chemistry system and replaced it with the Synergy system. Chemistry was a little complex, and if you didn’t focus specifically on chemistry it could negatively impact on the overall performance of your team. We wanted a system that wasn’t as penalizing, a little easier to understand, and also had greater benefit if you focused on it. With Synergy, what we’ll do is say, get three or more players on your team with a “Dirty Dangler” trait (the ability to deke really well), and as you’re building your team if get three or more players with that trait, all those players will get a boost of +2 or +3 to their deking rating. That’s an example of player synergies, but we also have team synergies as well. If you exceed a threshold for player synergies, then all of your players on the team will receive that boost, whether that’s +1, +2, or +3 points. It’s really just a different way to build your team, and it leads to more interesting decisions. For example, if you have two Dirty Danglers and you need three, you may opt for a lesser-rated player that has that trait in order to get the stat boost.

PH: When I was playing EA Sports Hockey League in the beta, one thing that stood out for me is the vastly improved A.I. for your teammates. What changes did you make this year to make the A.I. perform better overall?

SR: We’re done a lot this year with the A.I., like the ability to tie up defenders, our new net battles mechanic and the ability to minimize cross crease goals, defencemen when they’re skating back on the rush do a better job of keeping their shoulders forward and not spun around or being caught in a pivot. From a mechanic perspective we’ve tightened up our poke checking, our stick lifting, and our hitting. Positionally with the A.I. as well, when you’re set-up in the defensive zone you’ll notice some A.I. not being as aggressive, but the players who are naturally more aggressive, you’ll see them taking a lot more chances.

10440682_6PH: From playing the beta, it seems like there’s either improved puck physics, or perhaps it’s the gameplay improvements you just mentioned that make the on-ice action seem smoother and more finessed this year. Have there been any tweaks to the puck this year?

SR: A good observation. We haven’t touched the puck physics specifically, but because the puck is facing real-world physics, all the other changes that we’ve made to the gameplay itself, including the goalie’s new save ability to block versus only making trajectory saves, makes the puck react differently. We didn’t anticipate seeing all the different types of goals going in we saw, or the different types of rebounds coming off, but it’s all a by-product the emergent behaviour you get when the puck behaves according to real-world physics.

PH: Speaking of goaltending, I heard this year you did more motion capturing with Eddie Lack. How has this affected the animations of the goalie?

SR: We captured a lot of mocap with him last year, and we only put a small portion of it in. This year a lot of the mocap you see in the game is Eddie Lack’s motions. He’s a huge fan of the game and literally did the motion capture session with us between two game dates. The goalie position has changed so much over the last couple of years that we had to do a better job reflecting the way goalies played the position today. So many goalies, like Eddie, are 6’5”, 6’6”, 6’7”, and are just so efficient in their movements and don’t need to make as many desperation saves, but rather rely on proper positioning and fundamentals. Smaller movements, being able to fight off the puck, being tighter to the poles, things like that. It’s important that we replicate this authentically, so we had Eddie come in to help us with that.

10440682_10PH: I’m really excited to play the final game, we’re mere days away given the launch next week on Sept 13th. Before we wrap things up here, I’m curious to know if you had to pick to one thing you’re most proud of, or most excited about in NHL 17, what would that be?

SR: I’ll say two things actually. The first thing is, in my role as being lead producer we come up with a concept of the features we want to deliver very early on in the cycle, and for me, seeing the depth of the feature set come together the way that it did has really been amazing. If I had to pick one thing that surprised me this year, it’s the customizations the team has been able to implement, and the way we’re able to integrate it across multiple modes, like Franchise Mode, Be a Pro, and EA Sports Hockey League. When you do a feature like that it takes your entire team to touch different modes to make it all come alive, so the customization features really stands out. But like I said, seeing the entire package come together the way it has was really incredible.

PH: Thanks for your time, Sean, and looking forward to playing more NHL 17.

For even more info on the game, I invite you to check out Best Buy’s dedicated NHL 17 page!