In mid-March, right around the time when practically the entire country shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, the members of EA Sports’ “Madden” team were told by management to grab whatever they needed from the office so they could start working remotely.
And as funny as it might seem now, “Madden” producer Clint Oldenburg remembers debating whether he really needed to take all his office equipment home.
“[I remember thinking] I’m likely going to move it back into my office in a couple weeks,” Oldenburg told Yahoo Sports with a laugh.
Nevertheless, Oldenburg scooped up his computer, his monitors and all his consoles from his office, and he’s glad he did. Had you told him that eight months later, he and his “Madden” teammates would have found a way to develop a game remotely for two console generations amid a pandemic, he would have been stunned.
“Even company-wise, we weren’t anticipating [being out of the office] more than two or three months,” he said.
Building a video game for a franchise that has generated billions of dollars of revenue for the NFL and EA Sports is never an easy undertaking, even in a normal year. There are deadlines and unyielding pressure to deliver a high quality product to a passionate, demanding fan base.
This year, the “Madden” team not only had to produce “Madden 21” for Sony’s PlayStation 4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One, it also had to prepare versions of the game for the next generation of consoles. Known as “Gen 5,” it includes the Xbox Series X and the PlayStation 5, which were released last week.
“I’ve been through two console transitions now and there’s never been a year like this,” said Oldenburg, a former NFL offensive lineman who has been at EA Sports for eight years.
“Put the pandemic aside. We started working on our Gen 5 feature stuff while we were still in post-launch support of ‘Madden 20.’ So at any point during the year, I felt like we were working on three or four different games because we were supporting ‘Madden 20,’ we were in pre-production for ‘Madden 21’ and then at the same time, were in pre-production for ‘Madden 21’ Gen 5.”
Yet with that last version set to be released Dec. 4, Oldenburg is happy to report that the transition to the Gen 5 consoles was “far and away” the smoothest they’ve had, even though the pandemic proved to be a major inconvenience.
“Man, it’s been crazy,” Oldenburg said, “and the thing that I would start with is, there’s a lot of people in the world that are dealing with the same circumstances we are, so we’re by no means rare or have had it harder than anyone else and we understand that.”
How to build a game like ‘Madden 21’ remotely
To put out a game like “Madden,” EA Sports needs a team of hundreds of people, all on the same page, all on the same vision. That’s a lot easier in an office environment, where there’s a lot of face-to-face collaboration.
Following the shift to remote working, where everybody has their own schedules and home lives, it can be difficult to get everyone coordinated.
The “Madden” team managed to get accustomed to this new world, For one, it used Slack — like, a lot, as Oldenburg estimates he has 200 channels and even more direct message threads going on.
Along the way, the team learned how to be more efficient with time. Case in point: The number of Zoom meetings, Oldenburg said, is way down since team members all got accustomed to working from home.
“At first, I think we’re all so uncomfortable with this remote work setup that we relied on Zoom meetings too much, and ended up finding out that we were being less productive because we were spending so much time in Zoom meetings talking about things,” Oldenburg said.
On the plus side, being at home makes it easier to turn off all the applications where people can get ahold of you and focus on what you need to accomplish.
“So it’s a little bit of give and take,” he said.
The real MVP of the past several months, Oldenburg said, has been the company’s IT team, which has facilitated everything the “Madden” development group needed to get the games out the door on time.
In the office, you typically have to have a test kit to play the game and work on it. This year, the “Madden” group’s online team put that build onto the development team’s retail consoles, allowing them to download the updated builds of the game on a weekly basis from home. This means Oldenburg can play and test the game while building it locally from his PC, all from a secure VPN connection.
And boy, does Oldenburg spend lots of time in front of that PC.
A day in the life of designing a game for PS5, Xbox Series X
When the “Madden” team left the studio in March, the game was already in alpha phase — the period when the game is polished and made shippable — for about a month.
The pace of that phase is fast, and there are no shortage of daily programming issues, many of which Oldenburg has to help resolve. While he typically reports to his home office between 9 or 10 a.m. and stays in there until 7:30 p.m., he has also learned that it’s good to shower first.
“Because it makes you feel a little bit normal,” he said with a laugh.
Especially since there’s always work to do. The team found time to recently add a patch to the current gen franchise mode, once fans demanded a deeper franchise experience prior to the August release of the game for the previous consoles.
“The ‘Fix Madden Franchise’ movement was a big movement right around launch, and we promised our players that we were going to support franchise post-launch,” Oldenburg said. “There was just no way that we couldn’t follow through on that promise.”
When asked if franchise mode will be a priority, Oldenburg reaffirmed that it would.
For the present, especially in Next Gen, the focus has been on making the game look and feel more realistic.
Oldenburg’s hope is that the infusion of the NFL’s Next Gen Stats will accomplish that goal, as producers reviewed the data the league collects from chips implanted in players’ shoulder pads to help the game mirror the players’ speed and movement patterns.
“For ‘Madden’ specifically, we believe that gameplay is the most important part of the game,” Oldenburg said. “So no matter what, we’re always going to look to innovate there, first because that’s what impacts the vast majority of players the most — the gameplay experience — and that’s what people really remember about any game.”
What the future holds for ‘Madden’ team
Oldenburg will always remember this time, too. He and the rest of the EA Sports team are headed into the ninth month of their current setup, and they still have no idea when they’ll be allowed back into the office.
He couldn’t be prouder of the entire team for keeping the train moving under difficult circumstances. So much so, Oldenburg said, that if the group ever had to produce another video game remotely again, it probably could — even though he’d prefer not to.
“I don’t think that we’d want to, at least entirely,” Oldenburg said. “I think at the end of the day, you’re still going to get a better, more cohesive game with everyone, at least most of the team, being in a central location.
“With that being said, what it has unlocked for us — and probably many other companies around the world — is that it’s now shown us that if there are employees who really need to work from home, there’s no reason why they can’t. So it’s going to create a lot more flexibility for our team to really decide if they want to work from home or not, and if they feel like they want to do that or need to do that, there’s absolutely no reason why they shouldn’t be able to.”
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