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EA’s NHL 15 to take advantage of beefed-up gaming consoles

Candidates for the front cover of EA's NHL 15, which promises to be a major improvement over previous incarnations of the hockey franchise.

Electronic Arts

Hockey is finally going next-gen this fall, with Electronic Arts Inc. on Monday officially announcing NHL 15 for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4.

Each annual iteration of the franchise brings incremental improvements, but this year the developers at Burnaby, B.C.-based EA Canada are promising some big changes thanks to the beefier horsepower of the new consoles.

Redesigned collision and puck physics lead the way, while crowds will now be composed of 9,000 different individual animations – the most ever in a video game, according to EA. NHL 15 will also see the debut of a partnership with NBC Sports, including a new broadcasting team consisting of Mike (Doc) Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and TSN's Ray Ferraro.

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Lead producer Sean Ramjagsingh discussed the development process behind the game, which is set for release this fall.

"Improved collision physics" sound impressive, but what will they mean to the average Joe?

When you're playing the game on day one, you're going to see things that you may not ever again see happen for the duration that you play the game. And when you play the game 10 months in, you might see stuff that you've never seen before, just because of the physics and that exact situation not ever happening again.

We want to create these situations where anything can happen, the game-play is unpredictable and unscripted. It replicates what would really happen in real life.

So if you play for a long time, you won't see repetition?

You don't get repetition. With limited animation, I have an animation for hitting you straight on and I have one for hitting you at a 45-degree angle, but if you're somewhere in between, I need to make a choice between animations. With physics, you can change the degree of the impact by one degree and you're going to get a different reaction every single time depending on all the variables. It really adds unlimited variety.

And the same principles apply to the puck?

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That's right, the real puck physics is an extension of that. We overhauled our puck physics from the ground up. It's all about that emergent behaviour where anything can happen, that believability that keeps the player immersed. The thing about video games is that they're getting to that point where they're so immersive and so realistic, so users now start to pick up the areas where the game takes you out of that experience. For us, one of those things in the past has been the puck physics, so this year we have a guy from the Hadron Collider – one of our engineers just joined us 10 months ago and worked on it – he redesigned our puck physics from the ground up. The results we're seeing are absolutely unbelievable.

Just like the player physics, they allow for unpredictable behaviour. Now, when the puck is shot and hits the goalie, if it hits on the pads or chest protector or glove, you get a different reaction depending on speed and variables. We're still in the development process but we're already seeing things that we've never seen happen before. We're seeing goalies try new desperation saves because the puck hits them and starts trickling across the goal line and they need to react to that.

It's pretty amazing that he went from trying to discover the secrets of the universe to making hockey games.

It's a very different field [laughs]. To be honest, he's just a guy who likes solving problems. He said, "Give me the toughest problem you have."

Can he figure out how to get more Canadian teams into the playoffs?

He's working on that, it's a long-term project [laughs].

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What's the logic behind each players having three layers?

Just like the puck physics, we wanted to strip our player models down and rebuild them from the ground up. We started by properly modelling the body of the player to better replicate a high-performance athlete, and then the next layer we put the actual equipment on top of the player, and then the jersey. For the first time ever, we have dynamic cloth technology that really adds another layer of realism. Now we have the cloth draped over – taking technology from the sewing industry, believe it or not – so now you think about the puck being shot, hitting the goalie's jersey, then the equipment underneath the jersey after the jersey moved, and then reacting appropriately.

That's the next generation of hockey for us. Now you're going to have a puck that will hit a goalie under the arm and then squeak through between the cloth and the equipment that we have modelled there. Before, the equipment and the body were all just one entity. By separating out the layers, now we get this behaviour where the puck reacts with the cloth and the body and/or the equipment underneath it.

And you've quadrupled the number of animated fans?

Yes. In the world of sports games it's pretty much unprecedented. Bringing that world to life was really important to us, we wanted to get lots of variation in our crowd and get a proper representation of what a crowd looks like, not seeing any repetition in there and having a unique animation on all of the crowd models.

Now, they look different and behave different, so when you score a goal one person's going to hold up a signing saying "I love you" or multiple people holding up signs that spell out your name. We're going to have that person who's taking a selfie and not paying attention to the action, superfans for both the home and the away team. We even have the ability now where 95 per cent of the crowd is watching the ice and the other five per cent is paying attention to the superfan.

How about fights breaking out in the crowd?

Not yet.

How about mayors getting kicked out for unruly behaviour?

It wouldn't look right if we had the stairs between sections bare so we're going to have vendors and security going up and down the aisles, so in the future if we ever get the fighting in the stands, we'll have security there to take care of it.

What about the NBC integration? Is that going to be a bit lost on Canadian gamers?

Our fans have been asking for a presentation overhaul for years now, so bringing in the quality of NBC's network is going to be exciting, from the flyovers to the addition of Doc and Eddie. The great thing is that here in Canada we get the NBC feed, we get the rivalry games and we get the game of the week on Sundays, so people are familiar with seeing the NBC broadcast up here. We also have Ray Ferraro joining our broadcast team, so fans who watch him, he's one of the most respected broadcasters in Canada. When we want to bring him in to add content, he's just a phone call away.

And all of these extra features are being powered by extra juice the next-generation consoles deliver?

When people ask me, "Why the new consoles," it's always because it's more power. More computations, more math behind the scenes, higher resolution on our players, on the cloth, the cloth flowing with dynamic movement. All of that stuff is math and code running under the hood.

Will there be a scaled-down version for the older consoles?

We will be coming out on the Xbox 360 and PS3, but for now we're just focusing on the feature set for the new consoles.

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